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Understanding the Factors that Determine Print Quality

Ted McLeod

When comparing printers, most people see a lot of numbers and acronyms, but find it hard to know how those terms affect their print quality. If your job involves printing documents or occasional emails, you are probably not too interested in the difference. But if your work requires high levels of detail, then you need to understand what different resolution figures mean.

Dots Per Inch (DPI)

Printers are amazing pieces of technology that many of us take for granted. At a basic level, printers shoot tiny dots of either toner or ink onto paper or other surface. Inkjet printers have nozzles that spray little droplets of ink, and laser printers burn small dots of toner onto the paper. They can do this thousands of times a second and with incredible precision.

Of course, not all printers have the same levels of pinpoint accuracy and the greater the number of drops or dots that you can fit into one square inch, the better the output will be. A printer with 600 DPI can place 600 horizontal dots and 600 vertical dots per square inch of paper. There are inkjet printers that have a greater capability in one direction, so it’s possible to see something like 600 by 1200 as a DPI for a printer. In other words, if the resolution is higher, the image on the paper will look sharper. Some printers are capable of “optimized DPI” which means that the printheads can optimize ink drop placement.

If you’re designing something that is going to be held in someone’s hand, such as a brochure or flyer, then the optimum DPI is 300DPI. If the design will be displayed at a distance (as is the case with posters and billboards), you can get away with less detail. For example, a poster needs a minimum resolution of about 150DPI, if viewed from 6 feet away. However, a print should never be made at less than 150DPI, or the quality will be too poor for almost any use.

Other Considerations

It is important to note that more is not always better. For most pages that people need to print, choosing the maximum resolution for every print will simply waste toner. For typical documents that you might bring to a meeting, 300 or maybe 600 DPI will be enough. If you want to show off bold, bright images or photographs to an important client, 1200 DPI will be your best option. Professional-level photographers may need resolutions as high as 2880 by 1440 DPI or even more.

When it comes to printing, resolution is important, as a low-resolution image looks fuzzy, indistinct and unprofessional. But DPI is not the only component of resolution. The type of ink you choose to use can even have a much bigger effect than the DPI. Text looks much sharper on a laser printer because toner doesn’t bleed like regular ink does. If you are just printing black-and-white documents, then you should choose a laser monochrome printer to get much crisper text than an inkjet ever could, even with high resolution.

Digital to Print

Have you noticed that printed images on paper often look different than the image looked on your computer screen?  In part, that is because while your source image might look huge on your computer, but still come out low-resolution in print. This is because a digital image that has lots of pixels (for example 3000 x 2000) will look great, but may still have a lower DPI, meaning it will look blurry when printed at a certain size.

In addition, your screen resolution will also determine how big the picture appears when viewing it on your computer. The output size (how large it appears onscreen) will seem smaller on a high-performance computer, because it has a higher quality screen resolution. It is also important to know that computer displays show images using Red-Blue-Green (RGB) pixels, while printers operate based on a Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black (CMYK) color format. These color format differences can produce low-quality prints. If your printer supports Pantone color calibration, you may use it to improve color performance.

We understand that print resolution can seem complicated, but I hope that you see that it can be controlled. Of course, if you are working with print materials that are too large to be printed on most commercial printing presses, you may need to consider more specialized wide-format technology. The bottom line is that you may need a different technology with the handling capabilities and resolution that match what you’re printing, as well as the size, and the distance it will be displayed from the viewer. As the largest independent print dealer in the nation, we’d love to help you answer all your print-related questions. Reach out to us today for a no-cost, no-obligation assessment of your print production needs.

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