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Basic plotter types and features

The term “plotter” is technically outdated: the old pen-based drawing machines are largely obsolete. When buying a new wide-format printer, you’ll probably be choosing between two more modern technologies: inkjet and LED printers.

Inkjet printers are familiar as the low-cost printers included with many home computers – but don’t think that’s what you’ll be getting if you choose an inkjet plotter. They both use the same underlying technology: small nozzles apply tiny droplets of ink to create your images. But thanks to much higher-quality construction, inkjet plotters can easily produce high-quality color images at large sizes and greater speeds than standard inkjets.

LED printers use heat to fuse toner onto paper, the same process used by common laser printers and office copiers. This process is faster than LED printing, and results in very sharp monochrome images.

The decision between the two technologies will hinge on your application. Businesses interested in creating signs, advertising, and other graphic-intensive documents tend to prefer inkjet printers, while LED printers are generally the standard in engineering and architecture applications. Don’t feel compelled to go with the trends, though: if you find a good deal on a printer that can perform to your specifications, don’t be overly concerned with the technology.

One main distinction you should be aware of is between print-only machines and those that include scanning and copying as well. Some manufacturers use this as the dividing line between plotters (print-only) and wide-format printers (can include scanning), but that's not always the case.

Inkjet printers were print-only machines until fairly recently, but several manufacturers now offer inkjet plotters with scanning modules. Again, it comes down to application. A marketing or design shop probably has little use for wide-format scanning, since in most cases they are creating the original electronic files. An engineering firm, though, may have more call for scanning blueprints from outside sources to make copies.

Additional features

Here are a few extras to look for:

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