These printers match the best office machines with resolutions up to 2880 x 1440 dpi (dots per inch). While basic models paint the image with four or five inks, others can print with up to a dozen different colors and emulate Pantone standard colors.
Most use a combination of long-lasting pigment-based and vibrant dye-based inks. There are also wide-format printers that rely on latex inks (for outdoor use) or dye-sublimation technology (for photo-quality output).
One big difference with more pedestrian printers is that wide-format models can print on several stocks, including plain or bond paper, clear film for backlit advertising, and polypropylene and vinyl stock for outdoor installations. You can print huge photos on matte or glossy photo stock, or even print on fabrics with many of these printers.
The distinction that scientific and engineering wide-format plotters produce monochrome prints while graphics-oriented models use color is quickly disappearing. This is a result of lower prices for general-purpose wide printers and the increasing use of color in technical drawings, such as for highlighting areas of concern or including 3D renderings.
Most of these printers use PostScript and other popular printer languages, including an Office or Adobe plugin so you can upsize any document or image created at your desk for large-format printing. Some have apps for giving permission and accounting for the printer's use so it can be charged to budgets or departments.
Some manufacturers require you to pay extra for software that enables some of these extra features if you want them. For instance, it's not unusual for automated workflow to be an optional extra.
Wide-format printers are the heavyweights of the printer world, reaching up to 1,000 pounds, although some are meant to sit on a desk. Many include a stand and a tray to catch the prints. Then there are the workhorse printers that can easily measure 7 x 5 feet, which are built around a huge cabinet and often set up in their own room.
Most of the newer models have a touchscreen for interaction with the printer. Some flagship models include a powerful processor such as an Intel Core i7, as much as 64GB of RAM, and large hard drives or flash storage for images.
With small and midsize businesses in mind, we looked for printers with sleek designs that aren't overly cumbersome. A few printers on our list are difficult to move, but their other elite features earned them a spot in our reviews.
Finding the right large-format printer design for your business requires a thorough understanding of your needs. Some of these printers require multiple people to set up, and moving them is a near impossibility. If you have a team of 5-10 people that expects to use the wide-format printer only a handful of times per week, look for a smaller and more affordable option. Some of the smaller wide-format printers still produce quality prints. If you can find an affordable option with good print quality, there's no reason to buy one of the massive printers. On the other hand, some businesses can't work without the larger models. If that's the case for you, it might be worth dedicating an entire room or area of your business to housing the printer.
Speed is of the essence with wide-format printing. There's nothing worse than waiting for print jobs, and nothing better than finishing print jobs quickly (and correctly) and the printer moving on to its next task. The more you use a wide printer, the cheaper and more valuable to the company it can become. It can also be costly if the prints are inaccurate. Wasting ink on large prints can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Performance ratings consider both print speed and accuracy.
Wide-format printers not only supersize prints but create beautifully detailed output for a variety of purposes, from event graphics to those oversized checks for lottery winners. On the downside, the more detail the print requires, the slower the printing. High-end photo paper or canvas, which require more ink, slow things down even further.
While the current speed demons can pump out roughly 5,000 square feet per hour in draft mode (for checking, proofing or marking up a print), most slow down to under 500 square feet per hour for final prints. That's still fast enough to pump out dozens of D-sized (24 x 36-inch) prints an hour.
Some printers connect to mobile phones or tablets. This can make the printing process more efficient. Many of the best wide-format printers offer Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to work with mobile phones, tablets and other technological devices. Consider the connectivity of mobile devices when making your purchasing decision.
All wide-format printers can work with plain, heavy bond, and photographic paper and automatically adjust how much ink is used to prevent bleed-through and missed spots. Many go a step further with the ability to print on less common stock, like film for backlit advertising or vinyl for an outdoor banner or poster. Some devices can even print on textiles for an old-master look or to simulate what a new textile would look like.
Like an office printer with several paper trays, to support this variety of media, the larger printers can hold up to four separate rolls of paper, ready to switch on demand. Most entry-level wide printers have a single roll, though.
Most inks either are water- or solvent-based, with the former generally being more expensive and subject to degradation if left outside. Solvent-based inks cost less, are waterproof and resist fading, so they're the better choice for outdoor applications. Eco-solvent printers are a good option for businesses looking to create outdoor banners or signs.
The ink's color comes from either a dye or a pigment, but this constitutes only a small portion of the formula. Dye inks are made from organic compounds and are generally bright, but often transparent in thin layers and degrade in bright sunlight. For instance, over time, an orange portion of a banner might end up looking yellowish. Pigment inks are made from opaque minerals that provide better coverage. They look duller but tend to last longer.
A third class of ink includes a curing agent to solidify the liquid ink before it leaves the printer. After the ink is laid onto the paper, intense ultraviolet lights are aimed at the ink, curing it in less than a second. It is dry to the touch and good for outdoor use.
Getting a wide-format printer is only the start of the costs. As with every printer, the costs of ink, paper and waste containers add up when you use it every day. Depending on how you use the printer and how often, you might need to replace the printheads.
The good news is that these wide-body printers use ink tanks as large as 700 milliliters, so they're cheaper on a per-ounce basis than desktop printers, and the paper rolls actually work out to be fairly inexpensive on a square-foot basis. Regardless of which printer you choose, it'll be cheaper to print this specialty material in-house than have it done by a local print shop. For instance, a 24 x 36-inch print on plain paper might cost about $2 to print in-house – one-tenth of what a print shop might charge.
Some printers save ink better than others, which reduces the future cost of ink cartridges. This is an important consideration in seeking the best printer for your business, as ink can cost hundreds of dollars per cartridge.
Another factor worth considering is how you dispose of materials, especially ink. Ink waste is often considered hazardous, which means its disposal can be tricky. The EPA lists a few options for disposal methods, including using a registered hazardous waste transporter to send the waste to an approved disposal area. This process may include sending certifications and notifications with the material. This can be time-consuming and difficult, and it's worth taking a look at the ink you're using before making a purchasing or leasing decision.