Resolution: dpi / ppi, Relative to Print Quality and Detail

When quality and detailed prints are important, so is resolution

Proper resolution greatly affects detail and overall quality. Photo provided by Getty Images

While the information in the following March 2008 article about printer resolution is still mostly accurate, printer technology has evolved enough over the past eight years to warrant an all-new article, as opposed to a rewrite of this one. 

------------- older material below -------------

Before we look at resolution, I’ll let you in on a secret: For the vast majority of us who use a printer to print e-mails at home or a nice copy of a photo for Grandma, the resolution is not something you need to worry about.

Even basic printers have a high enough resolution that your documents will look professional, while photo printers are going to give you great-looking prints. So don’t stress the specs too much.

Dots Per Inch

Let’s look at the basics. Printers print by putting ink or toner onto the paper. Inkjets have nozzles that spray tiny drops of ink, while laser printers melt dots of toner against the paper. The more dots you can squeeze into a square inch, the sharper the resulting image will be. So, the most common printer spec is dots per inch, or dpi. A common spec is 1,200 dpi, though some inkjets have a higher vertical resolution (they can put more dots top to bottom than left to right), so you might also see something like 720x360 dpi.

Optimized DPI

Printers can put dots of different sizes, intensities, and even shapes, onto the page, which can change the way the finished product looks. Many printers use “optimized dpi,” meaning their printheads optimize the placement of ink drops to improve the quality of prints.

If you see a printer that has a 9,600 dpi, it’s layering dots by passing the same part of page multiple times and putting several dots of different colors in one place. The final result will look rich, but this technique uses a lot of ink and time.

Print at the Resolution You Need

More is not necessarily better.

For the majority of daily users, you’d be wasting ink to print everything in the highest possible resolution. When I print out shopping lists, I set my printer to “draft” quality so the document comes out fast. It doesn’t look perfect, but who cares? As long as I can read it when I’m in the supermarket, it’s good enough.

What’s Good Enough?

For a letter or business document (even one with graphics), 300 dpi is going to look fine. If it’s a handout for the board of directors, 600 dpi will look great. For the average photographer, 1,200 dpi is excellent (only pros would need to print something at twice that). All of those specs are well within the means of every decent printer out there. And once you get above 1,200 dpi, it’s going to be nearly impossible to see any difference in whatever you’ve printed.

Ink Makes a Difference

Resolution is more than just dpi, however. The kind of ink used can trump the dpi numbers. Laser printers will make text look sharp because they use toner which doesn’t bleed into the paper like ink does, so if your main purpose in buying a printer is for printing black-and-white documents, a monochrome laser printer will give a page of text that looks crisper than a high-resolution inkjet printer.

Use the Right Paper

Papers are made to optimize the differences between printers and so help create great images no matter what dpi your printer is capable of. Plain copy paper will work well for laser printers because nothing is getting absorbed. But inkjet inks are water-based and so they get absorbed into paper fiber. That’s why there are specific papers made for inkjet printers (and why printing a photo on plain paper is going to give you a limp, wet picture). If you’re just printing an e-mail, use cheap copy paper; but if you’re developing a brochure or flyer, it's worth investing in the right paper.