Performance & Versatility
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Wide Format Printers Review
Why Use a Wide Format Printer?
The top performers in our review are the Gold Award winning Epson SureColor P20000, the Silver Award winning Epson SureColor T5270 and the Bronze Award winning HP Designjet Z5400. Here’s more on choosing a wide-format printer to meet your business’s needs, along with details on how we arrived at our rankings of the 10 best machines.
Many printing projects require much more than your typical 8.5 x 11-inch sheet of paper. Whether you’re an architect who needs to print out plans and renderings or an artist who wants to print and sell posters, outsourcing such large projects can be costly, and you may not receive a finished product at the quality you expect. Depending on how much you’re willing to spend, a wide-format printer can be a useful tool for your at-home design business or an unflinching workhorse in your professional print shop.
Large-format printing uses rolls of material instead of individual sheets, which means you can size your prints according to your needs. They’re precise enough to use for tasks previously relegated to plotter printers like drawing up schematics or floorplans. You can print on a variety of media, including plain bond paper, backlit film, adhesives and even fabric. A good wide-format printer gets the job done quickly – some can print drafts at speeds over 5,000 square feet per hour. Different inks let you tailor your purchase to meet your needs, whether it’s output that stays bright and vibrant over time, stands up to outdoor weathering or simply has a long shelf life.
Wide-format printers have one big drawback: the cost. These aren’t for simple around-the-house tasks, and their price tags prove it, ranging from $5,000 for a machine a lone designer might use to over $80,000 for a shop-ready printer with all the add-ons and accoutrements.
Wide-Format Printers: What We Evaluated, What We Found
Overall performance is one of the most important considerations when choosing this type of specialty machine. However, you also want to make sure the device has the features you need for your projects. Below are the criteria we evaluated when looking for the best large-format printers.
Wide-format printers can create huge posters and appliques in minutes, but speed isn’t everything. The best printers have high-resolution print heads that can funnel millions of precise droplets of ink onto every inch of paper. Unsurprisingly, higher-speed printers generally have lower resolutions, so if you want real quality, you have to wait a little longer to get it.
Look for a machine that prints at least 1,200 dots per inch (dpi) to a side. It’s common for printers to have uneven length and width dpi values – essentially, to print more tightly in one direction than another. The higher the numbers, the better, and it’s a figure that really can make a difference to overall print quality.
These printers can hold anywhere from one to four rolls of paper or other media, which can vary widely in length and thickness, so be sure to consider how thick the materials you’re printing on are. You may want to choose a printer that holds more than one roll if you produce a lot of prints on a consistent basis. Some printers even let you switch out one roll while the other is in use, opening up the possibility of nonstop print jobs.
Simple printers can save you money, but you might need a more feature-packed model to get the job done. A hard drive lets you store jobs to reprint later and can also make processing go faster. Borderless printing lets you print edge-to-edge posters or appliques without expensive in-line cutters to trim the edges. Fortunately, most wide-format printers come with cutting tools that trim at the end of each job, so your finished product should have crisp and clean edges.
Every printer can easily manage bond, which is high-quality plain paper. Less common are the parts and inks necessary to print on other material types. Being able to print on fabric, for example, is rather rare. Most wide-format machines can print on backlit film, which you often see in storefront displays where imagery is illuminated from behind by LED or fluorescent lamps. Consider the projects you’ll be using the printer for and the media you’ll printing on before settling on a machine.
Compatible Ink Types
As with basic home printers, every manufacturer designs its wide-format printers to use specific types of ink and sells those inks through its store. Printers rarely accept more than one type of ink, so it’s worth knowing what the different kinds are used for.
Pigment-based inks have long shelf lives and strong color. They don’t fade as quickly as dye inks, and they’re also more water-resistant.
Dye-based inks are bright and can print on virtually any medium, but they’re water-based, washable and smear more easily than pigment inks. They also fade under ultraviolet light, so they’re not for outdoor use.
If your prints will hang outdoors, solvent ink is probably best; it’s extraordinarily resistant to weathering and lasts a very long time, but it can be hazardous in the workplace. Some printers use eco-solvents, which are a bit less toxic but may not adhere as well.
For the brightest, most vivid colors, consider a printer that uses UV ink. Prints that use UV ink can be wrapped around other surfaces without cracking, though the printer must be equipped with lamps that properly dry and cure the ink.
Wide-format printers are not your typical printing devices. These unique machines are large and often weigh hundreds of pounds – even the lightest device we reviewed weighs almost 180 pounds. Be sure to look at each printer’s dimensions to ensure you have space for such a massive piece of office equipment.
Help & Support
If you have questions about your printer or encounter problems, help should be readily available. Email, telephone and live chat are popular options for reaching a customer representative. Manufacturers also often have online manuals and knowledgebase articles so you can find answers on your own.
Whatever the other service options are, always consider investing in a long-term warranty. Many printers come with a standard one-year warranty, but some offer longer options, which is an excellent benefit you should take advantage of if you can.
Wide-Format Printers: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The best printers aren’t necessarily the fastest, but they manage to balance decent speed with superb resolution, a robust feature set and a variety of media options. If you’re looking for something specific, consider the following:
The Fastest Color Printer: Xerox Wide Format IJP 2000
For bright color printing as fast as it comes, the Xerox IJP 2000 is at the top of the industry. Its dye-based inks are bright and vibrant, and though they won’t do for outdoor or weather-resistant jobs, they’ll work on just about any medium you can fit in the printer, be it film, polypropylene or classic glossy stock. This is a workhorse if ever there was one, and though the cost is high, its sheer speed and versatility make it perfect for budding print shops.
Affordable Quality: HP Designjet Z5400
Balancing high-resolution, pigment-based printing with a modicum of affordability isn’t always easy, but the HP Designjet Z5400 manages to walk that line. It has borderless printing, a multi-roll capacity, support for rolls up to 44 inches wide, Mac compatibility and Energy Star certification – all for well under $5,000. The downside is that you have to give up speed – the Designjet can only print 570 square feet per hour, or about 1.5 feet every 10 seconds. It’s not a print shop centerpiece, but if you want quality and versatility in a tight package, this HP delivers.
Unparalleled Excellence: Roland Versa UV LEC 540
No wide-format printer in our review is slower, more expensive or more capable than Roland’s Versa UV LEC 540. The technology underpinning this printer-cutter is exquisite, and you can contour cut around curved images; emboss, crease and varnish paper; and print on anything from thick cardboard cartons to thin membrane panels, all with high-quality, ultra-durable UV ink. Yes, it’s extraordinarily expensive. Yes, it’s glacially slow. It doesn’t have that balance of performance and accessibility we looked for in our top picks, which is why it appears so far down our lineup. But don’t be fooled: If your print house needs the very best, this is it.