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

For most commercial printing, businesses have two options: traditional offset printing or modern digital printing. To know which method is right for your project, it is important to compare the differences. Check out this brief guide to help make your decision easier, or call us today for some expert advice.

Digital Printing vs Offset Printing

Offset Printing

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.

CMYK and Color Example

An example of CMY three-color printing (black excluded).

Digital Printing

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 offer specialty inks like clear, metallic gold, and silver. Some presses even feature spot-color toners that replicate the color-matching abilities of Pantones.

Which one is right for you?

To help you decide which method is right for you, it’s important to consider the following requirements of your print job: print quality, volume, turnaround time, special needs, and cost.


In general, the quality of offset printing is considered better than digital printing, however manufacturers have made great strides in digital technology and now produce output in which there appears to be little difference to the untrained eye.

Digital printers assemble tiny dots to create an image, referred to as the DPI (dots per inch). The higher the DPI rating of an image, the crisper the image appears. Although most digital printers have the capability to produce high-resolution images, the quality is not as clear as the images an offset press produces using plates.

In addition, offset printing offers the most accurate color reproduction and consistency with the use of Pantone inks. Most digital presses can only approximate colors using CMYK toners. Yet, some new digital presses can use a “fifth color” module that allows for custom colors.


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 turnarounds 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.

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 faster and more easily on a digital press.
  • 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.


Other Needs

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

  • Large-format printing such as signs or banners is generally only possible on an offset press.
  • Variable data printing (such as adding names, addresses, etc. to a direct mailer) is only possible on digital presses.


Finally, cost is one of the most significant differences between offset and digital printing. For projects with smaller budgets, digital printing is the way to go because the set-up process is much less expensive and labor-intensive compared to offset printing. A good rule of thumb is if the run is smaller than 500 pieces, it makes more sense to use digital.

Interested in learning more about digital printing presses and how they compare to offset printing? Call us today at Xcel Office Solutions in Oklahoma City. We’ll help you decide which printing system is right for your needs. Call us today at (405) 748-4222 to learn more!

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