Digital Printing vs. Offset Printing – Which one is right for you?

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digital printing vs offset printing

When it comes to commercial printing, business owners have three major print technologies to choose from: offset printing, digital printing, or inkjet printing.  This dictates what type of printers to buy, so it is important to understand the differences between them. Check out this brief guide to help make your decision easier, or call us today for some expert advice.

Offset Printing

Offset printing is a relatively simple printing method. It was invented more than 100 years ago and has changed little since. Offset printing is used to produce large volumes of high-quality output with virtually no variation between images.

The process involves using oil-based inks in four colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. This is often called the “CMYK” color scale. In an offset press, each ink is applied to a separate plate to create an image. The image is then pressed against, or “offset,” to a soft roller. The roller is then used to transfer the image to the printing surface. Each image is laid on top of one another to produce a full-color image. In addition to CMYK process, offset printing also uses pre-mixed Pantone® inks for extreme color accuracy.

Digital Printing

Digital printing came on the scene in the 1990’s, and for the first time, it gave users a way to produce high-quality, customized prints right from their computers.

In some ways, a digital press works much like an office printer or copier. Images are applied to paper in layers of color via rollers, but digital presses do not use oil-based inks. Instead, they create images with a laser system that applies colored toner to a printing surface. Most digital presses use CMYK toner, and some newer presses such as the Xerox® Iridesse® offer specialty inks like clear, white, metallics, and fluorescents to give designers a wider range of colors with which to work.  Some presses even feature spot-color toners that replicate the color-matching abilities of Pantones.

Inkjet Printing

Inkjet printing has recently reemerged as one of the fastest-growing sectors of digital printing for high-volume applications.  These printers use liquid ink versus toner and produce images that rival the quality and consistency of offset output.  They also print at faster speeds than digital presses to give business owners the best of both worlds.  But these capabilities come at a price, and these printers are typically more expensive than digital presses.

Which one is right for you?

To help you decide which printer is right for you, it is important to consider the following requirements of your print applications: quality, volumeturnaround time, special needs, and cost.


The quality of offset printing has long been considered the best of the three options with inkjet coming in at a close second. Digital output trails because historically it has resulted in inconsistent color and an inferior ability to print fine lines and details.  Manufacturers have made great strides over the years though, and now there appears to be little difference in the quality of offset and digital to the untrained eye.  Furthermore, digital presses now have built-in features to maintain color integrity throughout a run as well as a wider range or color options like white, clear, metallics, and fluorescents to further bridge the quality gap.


For smaller print jobs (500 pieces or less), digital printing is the best solution. Digital printing requires little set-up time, no upfront costs, is easier to test, and has a faster turnaround compared to offset printing.

Offset printing, on the other hand, is best suited for large-volume print jobs. Set-up for offset printing is expensive and takes time, so it is only cost effective if the volume is large enough to drive down the cost-per-item.

Inkjet printers offer the same benefits as digital presses because they require little set-up, print at high speeds, and can produce personalized applications, however, the cost of the equipment is higher, so they are most suited for high-volume environments where the quality can be slightly beneath offset.

Turnaround Time

For large volume print jobs, the sheer speed of an offset press is hard to beat.  On the other hand, digital printing is typically faster for shorter runs for the following reasons:

  • No setup – Users print directly from their computers.
  • Less proofing – The first printed item serves as a proof for the whole run. You can also make changes to the printed images more quickly.
  • No drying – Most digital presses use dry ink that require no drying time.
  • Simplified workflow – Digital printers have automated tools that requires fewer steps to operate.

Once again, inkjet printers prove to fall somewhere in the middle offering high speeds with little set-up and automated pre-press processes, however, they do require dry time since they use ink.

Other Needs

Below are some other elements to consider before deciding which commercial printer is best for you.

  • Wide-format printing such as large signs or banners is generally only possible on an offset press or inkjet press.  Digital presses are limited to much smaller media sizes.
  • Variable data printing (such as adding names, addresses, etc. to personalize an application) is only possible on digital and inkjet presses.  With an Increase in the demand of direct mail, this capability is proving to be a profitable differentiator that drives high profit margins for print shop owners.


Finally, cost is one of the most significant differences between offset, digital, and inkjet printing. If you have a smaller budget, digital printing is probably the way to go because the set-up process is much less expensive and labor-intensive compared to offset printing, so you can maintain high profit margins on smaller jobs.  Offset printing Is ideal for larger runs that require the highest quality.  Inkjet printers are more expensive than digital printers Initially, but they often have a lower TCO (total cost of ownership) if the print runs are very large.

Not sure what commercial printers are right for your business? Call us today at Xcel Office Solutions in Oklahoma City. We will help you decide which printing technology is right for your needs. Call us today at (405) 748-4222 to learn more!

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