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What are 'Dye Sublimation Thermal Printers'?

By thelizman in Technology
Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 06:39:36 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

Dye sublimation printers (also known as "dye diffusion thermal transfer printers") are known for their high quality photographic output. As the technology continues to be improved, dye sublimation printers are bringing cost-effective high quality digital printing to mainstream consumers. Consumers can purchase a desktop dye sublimation printer for under $900. This article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of dye-sub printers and compares them to inkjet printers.

How Do Dye Sublimation Printers Work?

Dye sublimation printing starts with a dye bearing film. This will either be a single four layered film or four separate films. Though the primary colors for dyes are cyan, magenta, and yellow, the films will typically appear blue, red, and green. Also, the fourth film contains a grey dye that is used to improve tonal balance by muting other colors.

During the printing process, the films are placed on the paper and heated up by the print head. This will cause the dyes to leave the film and enter into the paper where it cools and re-solidifies. This is the "sublimation" part. Sublimation is when a solid changes directly to a gas, and than back to a solid again. Because the dyes go from solid, to gas, and back to solid, there is much less of a mess compared to liquid inks.

What Makes A Dye-Sub Printer So Good?

There are two factors that contribute to the quality of dye-sub printers. The first is continuous tone, and the other is un-dithered color.

Because the color sublimes on the paper instead of being laid down as little dots, the edges of each pixel are blurred. This gives the impression of blending for a more natural appearance. Dots from an inkjet leave large white gaps in between pixels, giving the impression of grain.

The color produced by a dye-sub is the result of the mixing of dyes to get the actual color. This is in contrast to inkjet printing methods which use a tight group of colored dots. When seen by the human eye from a distance, inkjet pixels appear to be a single color (a process known as "dithering"). Under magnification, the dots are clearly different colors, and when seen close up with the naked eye the picture appears grainy. Because dye-sub printers blend the dyes during the sublimation process, only one color needs to be printed (instead of up to four). Therefore, a dye-sub can place more dots in a given area then other processes. This is why they are referred to as continuous tone. It takes a 1200 dpi inkjet printer to get the resolution a 300 dpi dye-sub printer is capable of.

Since longevity is a desired trait of photographs, it's comforting to know that because the dyes sublimate into the paper instead of just being painted onto its surface, dye-sub prints tend to resist fading and are often colorfast. Using special dyes and papers allow dye-sub prints to last even longer, sometimes as long as a few hundred years.

Why Doesn't Everyone Use Dye-sub Printers?

For one thing, dye-sub printers are typically far more expensive then comparable inkjet printers. You can buy a photo-quality printer for half of what a comparable dye-sub printer costs at the consumer level. On the professional level, the difference in print quality is far less, but dye-sub printers can still be as much as a thousand dollars more expensive.

Dye-sub printers also only do one thing well: photo-quality full page images. They are neither practical nor are they as fast as inkjet printers when it comes to document printing. A dye-sub printer takes about a minute to produce a print regardless of whether it's a full color photo or a page of typed text. This is because the dye-sub still has to print each pixel thermally. An inkjet printer will only print the areas that need to be printed (this is known as 'addressability'), so it can produce a full page of typed text in seconds. On the other hand, to produce a photographic quality print an inkjet printer can take up to 10 minutes. Typically, an inkjet printer can start printing immediately, while a dye-sub printer will have to warm up for a few minutes.

When it comes to printing on different kinds of media, a dye-sub is limited to papers and films. An inkjet printer can print to just about anything you can run through it, including cotton canvas, envelopes, cardstock, and foam backed presentation board.

Inkjet printers are more versatile, and since most people print both photographs and documents, they accept the trade-offs. Until recently, when low-cost digital cameras and powerful computers became available to the general public, the only people who truly needed dye-sub printing were photography studios, print houses, and art departments.

Should I Buy A Dye-sub Printer?

As a consumer, you must realize the trade-offs between the two printers. If this is to be your sole printer, you should buy an inkjet. There are still high quality inkjet printers capable of producing very good photo-quality prints while still allowing you to print greeting cards and reports. However, if you already own an inkjet printer, but are dissatisfied with the quality of prints, you can consider a dye-sub. The price continues to drop and remain competitive with high end inkjet printers. A dye-sub will never be able to replace an inkjet printer, but they can coexist as part of your personal digital lifestyle.


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What Kind of Printers Do You Work With Mostly?
o Inkjet (or bubble jet) 34%
o Silver Halide 2%
o Dye Sublimation 2%
o Wide Format Inkjet 2%
o Laser 38%
o Electrostatic (Copiers, Document Printers, etc) 0%
o Sapphire 19%

Votes: 73
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Also by thelizman

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What are 'Dye Sublimation Thermal Printers'? | 65 comments (34 topical, 31 editorial, 0 hidden)
-1 (3.00 / 6) (#8)
by tranx on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 02:10:14 PM EST

No mention of possible applications in attacking rogue countries or preventing terrorist strikes.

"World War III is a guerrilla information war, with no division between military and civilian participation." -- Marshall McLuhan

I Expect The Reader To Figure It Out (4.33 / 6) (#11)
by thelizman on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 02:12:46 PM EST

Silver halide printers are used quite a bit in recon photography. They are very highly detailed. How else can we figure out where the starving children and women are - without silver halide printers, we'd actually be bombing armies!

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
[ Parent ]
A silver halide printer (5.00 / 3) (#16)
by tranx on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 02:38:35 PM EST

should be on every USian desktop then. I eagerly wait for a bill proposal at the Congress, the compulsory MLP referring that in the queue, the consequent rants and whining and a steady flow of turmeric's delirium in the queue.

+1 section, previously kidding

"World War III is a guerrilla information war, with no division between military and civilian participation." -- Marshall McLuhan
[ Parent ]

utterly useless (2.66 / 3) (#21)
by dr k on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 03:21:42 PM EST

"because the dyes sublimate into the paper instead of just being painted onto its surface"

Which means absolutely nothing except, perhaps, as a marketing gimmick. This is infomercial science. It's like an ionic toothbrush, or an amp that goes to 11.

Destroy all trusted users!

No, it does make a difference. (5.00 / 1) (#22)
by porkchop_d_clown on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 03:41:30 PM EST

The resulting print out should last a lot longer than an ink jet print out and the colors shouldn't shift as much.

Greetings, new user. Please replace this text with a witty or insightful saying before using this software.

[ Parent ]

No way! (3.00 / 4) (#28)
by dr k on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 04:15:08 PM EST

Infomercial host: But I'll bet it is really expensive, right?

Destroy all trusted users!
[ Parent ]

LoL. (5.00 / 2) (#52)
by porkchop_d_clown on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 09:59:59 AM EST

I haven't used a dye-sub printer in 10 years, so I don't know what they're like anymore - but the one we had back in the day was a royal pain; It really did "sublimate" it use a solid wax based ink and if you turned the printer off without a proper shutdown procedure, a service technician had to come out and clean all the hard wax out of the print head before you could use it again.

Greetings, new user. Please replace this text with a witty or insightful saying before using this software.

[ Parent ]

Well things might have changed since (none / 0) (#64)
by Anonymous Hiro on Wed Oct 16, 2002 at 01:46:40 PM EST

What does the following mean- does the head still get clogged or not? Maybe it's designed to handle it by clogging and requiring a technician to clean it.

From: "Loggins, Ron G" <ron.g.loggins@opbu.xerox.com>
To: "'Bugtraq@securityfocus.com'" <Bugtraq@securityfocus.com>
Cc: "'Greg Shipley'" <gshipley@neohapsis.com>
Subject: Tektronix (Xerox) PhaserLink 850 Webserver Vulnerability (NEW)
Date: Wed, 23 May 2001 09:18:47 -0700

The original bugtraq was posted Dec. '99. The Phaser 850 launched in Feb.
2000. The product development cycle for a product like this is roughly 2
years and the code is usually complete many weeks before launch to allow
manufacturing ramp-up. So any expectation that the Phaser 850 would
incorporate the input from Dec. '99, is not realistic. That input, however,
has been incorporated into future products.

To address a couple of the specific concerns:
An emergency shut-down will not cause a catastrophic failure due to ink
"coagulation". In a solid ink printer, the ink is solid at room temperature
and liquid only while heated in the printhead [This eliminates the colorant
(ink/toner) messes common in other technologies]. Any loss of power will
cause the heated ink in the head to cool to solid form. An emergency
shut-down is no different than a power failure which the printer is designed
to handle.

As stated above, the Phaser 850 code was complete before the original bugtaq
report. The URLs for the expert pages were changed for internal reasons.
These changes were not made to obscure the URLs.

The Xerox Office Printing team is committed to meeting the needs of our
customers. I believe that you will see this evidenced in the products you
evaluate in the future. We welcome any and all feedback to make our products
more successful in their market.

Ron Loggins
Customer Support
Xerox Office Printing Business
(503) 682-7388

[ Parent ]

And it's also incorrect (5.00 / 1) (#48)
by fluffy grue on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 11:27:10 PM EST

       adj : made pure [syn: {purified}, {refined}]
       n : the product of vaporization of a solid
       v 1: direct energy or urges into useful activities
       2: make more subtle or refined [syn: {rarefy}, {subtilize}]
       3: remove impurities from, increase the concentration of, and
          separate through the process of distiilation; "purify the
          water" [syn: {purify}, {make pure}, {distill}]
       4: change or cause to change directly from a solid into a vapor
          without first melting; "sublime iodine"; "some salts
          sublime when heated" [syn: {sublime}]
       5: vaporize and then condense right back again [syn: {sublime}]

See the noun meaning, and verb meanings 4 and 5.  I have no idea how any of the other meanings apply to what you said, either.
"Is a sentence fragment" is a sentence fragment.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

And what part of my description was wrong? (5.00 / 1) (#55)
by porkchop_d_clown on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 11:57:53 AM EST

Greetings, new user. Please replace this text with a witty or insightful saying before using this software.

[ Parent ]

Never mind (5.00 / 1) (#56)
by fluffy grue on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 12:28:48 PM EST

I was taking the quote out of context and forgot that you accurately described the sublimation process at the beginning of the article. My apologies.
"Is a sentence fragment" is a sentence fragment.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

consumers (4.00 / 4) (#26)
by senjiro on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 04:11:52 PM EST

I may be atypical, but:

Consumers can purchase a desktop dye sublimation printer for under $900.

Really? Only $900?? Come ON! People don't buy $900, $800 or even $500 printers for their home. I did a quick check on buy.com and not only can you have a $900 printer, but you can pay $110 for 200 sheets of paper for it!

I +1 the article because it's interesting and I learned something, but be realistic: these things are for businesses. If I want dye-sublimation printing, well, that is why Kinko's and their ilk exist. Maybe when prices come down to around $2-300 it will be a consumer product.

it is by will alone that i set my mind in motion
How About $300? (4.66 / 3) (#33)
by thelizman on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 04:26:07 PM EST

Upon checking just now, you can have a 4x5 dye sub for $300. The $900 model does 8x10, and it's down to $700. The thing is, there is "consumer", and there is "entry level" and "prosumer" inside of that. There are people who feel justified in spending $3,000 for a Macintosh computer that is only as good as a $1,400 Pentium IV based PC, because Macintosh's are quality shit. While you and I might prefer to buy a $400 DV Camera, I know people who go all out and spend $2,000 on DV cameras that have the same features, but might wear a sony badge, or have interchaneable lenses.

Personally, if money were no object, there'd be a G42 running jaguar and a 21" cinema width monitor on my desktop instead of a Pentium III 800 running RH 7.3/Win98 and a 17" monitor.

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
[ Parent ]
Yeah, consumers don't spend money on this (4.50 / 2) (#39)
by rodgerd on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 06:13:33 PM EST

...which is why Canon and Nikon can't sell NZ$2500 high-end consumer digital cameras, and why people pay NZ$1000 for a top-end graphics card.

People buy all sorts of shit they don't really "need".

[ Parent ]
hmm.. (5.00 / 1) (#62)
by Work on Sun Sep 22, 2002 at 01:31:17 PM EST

explain that to my dad who wants a $700 epson printer for printing out photos (no, he's not a professional or even an amateur photographer..but he does like taking pictures of stuff). If you're into taking pictures, saves alot on not having to take it to a developer.

I'd say he fits the consumer market these devices are aimed at. There are plenty of people out there like that.

[ Parent ]

subs vs. color laser (4.50 / 2) (#34)
by MotorMachineMercenary on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 05:19:51 PM EST

A pro digital photo processing lab claimed to me that their color lasers produce better quality than subs. And that those lasers produce better prints than internegatives (or any other process for that matter) from slides. I find this hard to believe and haven't seen any examples, yet.

Does anyone have any experience with printing photographs (drum-scanned Velvia slides in my case) on professional quality lasers vs. subs? I'm mostly worried about saturation with the laser and detail on subs. I'd like to hear an educated opinion.

"In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."
-- Winston Churchill

Well, we had an old HP... (4.50 / 2) (#43)
by Xeriar on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 06:52:24 PM EST

One of the earlier color laser printers a few years ago (that we spent some three thousand for). The range of colors was too limited to make a respectable print of a photograph. I think there were about eight different shades of red that could be made, for example.

It was terrible. I don't know much about advances in color laser printing but it better have come damn far in the past four years before I would consider buying one.

We've seen a lot in the past four years though, and I haven't played with a color printer since, so it is certainly a possibility...

When I'm feeling blue, I start breathing again.
[ Parent ]

Sure about that timeframe? (5.00 / 1) (#47)
by fluffy grue on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 11:23:02 PM EST

I had the opportunity to play around with color laser printers back in 1995, which worked by having basically four separate monochrome laser printers in a row (each using C, M, Y and K ink, respectively), and each color channel had the same shading quality as the monochrome laser printers of the day (300dpi dithered, so the number of discrete shades depended on over what area you considered to be 'one unit,' though technically even photographs are like that at some level).
"Is a sentence fragment" is a sentence fragment.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

I'd be willing to print a sample for you (5.00 / 1) (#46)
by georgeha on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 08:18:20 PM EST

from a high end production laser printer, if you want to send me the file. I can even try to trak down the gamut they can handle.

I can't help you with a sublimation printer, though.

[ Parent ]

HP Color Laserjet 8500 (5.00 / 1) (#54)
by aakin on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 10:43:05 AM EST

We have one of those at work. It produces beautiful photographs, even on plain paper.

[ Parent ]
Xerox.. (5.00 / 1) (#59)
by molo on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 01:40:42 PM EST

Two years ago I interned at one of Xerox's research facilities.  One of the perks of the job was being able to print anything we wanted on various machines.  All were color laser, some cost more than $50,000 USD.  The quality varied, but all were much much better than the dye-sub printer's I've seen.

I have some of these printouts framed on my wall, and you would never guess that they weren't photographic prints.


Whenever you walk by a computer and see someone using pico, be kind. Pause for a second and remind yourself that: "There, but for the grace of God, go I." -- Harley Hahn
[ Parent ]

Maybe they have a Lightjet? (5.00 / 1) (#60)
by skipio on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 09:14:40 PM EST

A Lightjet (and few other similar products) is a very expensive digital printer which uses red, green and blue lasers to expose normal photographic paper which is then developed using conventional methods.
If this is the case, your lab is quite correct in stating that this method yields superior results to [most] other printing methods.

West Coast Imaging is one of the best Lightjet labs in the USA and they have some more information about the process.

[ Parent ]

Ink jet (5.00 / 1) (#61)
by billt on Sat Sep 21, 2002 at 01:48:29 AM EST

We used to generate digital color proofs on a Scitex IRIS. Our model is probably about 6-8 years old and still makes excellent prints. To be able to see the dither pattern requires a 8-10x loupe as it is very tight.

Now we use an Epson 9000 Wide format, which is a CMYKCM printer. It has two extra inks, Light Cyan and light Magenta that provide a little wider gamut than the all-too-small CMYK gamut. This thing prints even better than the IRIS at 1440x720 dpi.

The problem with ink jets is that most of them are water based inks, so they'll run if they get wet (the IRIS was really bad, mainly because of the highly coated paper that didn't absorb the ink).

The problem with any CMYK(CM) printer is always going to be the gamut... it is notoriously small and thereby horribly suited for making photographic prints. Since the stuff we drum scan almost always ends up on a cymk press, the gamut is almost irrelavent. Our main problem is maintaining accurate color between the monitor, proofing device, and the press.

[ Parent ]
subs vs colour laser (none / 0) (#65)
by slopepoke on Sat Oct 26, 2002 at 08:45:28 PM EST

Its been about 8 yrs since I've been involed so take this with a grain of alcohol. At that time there were two different laser approaches vectored (a series of straight lines) and scanned (sweeps like the beam that makes a televison picture). With vectored it would overexpose where the vectors met. Scan was faster but at that time was tough to keep elements mechanically aligned. With tech moving as it does these may no longer be concerns.
Had I known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of my 401k.
[ Parent ]
Cost of paper/ink (4.50 / 2) (#42)
by Gord ca on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 06:51:13 PM EST

One major factor not mentioned is the cost of the paper and ink. From the sounds of it, regular paper wouldn't do a good job (where it does fine in ink jets); and it sounds like the ink would be wackily expensive. Mind you, photo paper & ink for ink jets also costs a good bit. I tried looking up sub ink, got one site with ~$300 for CMYK, but that doesn't tell me how long they would last.

If I'm attacking your idea, it's probably because I like it
yeah, but (5.00 / 1) (#44)
by Lenny on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 07:57:18 PM EST

not that xerox has tektronix, they're bound to suck...

"Hate the USA? Boycott everything American. Particularly its websites..."
Continuous Tone (5.00 / 1) (#45)
by paraphenyl on Thu Sep 19, 2002 at 07:58:23 PM EST

Actually, dye-sub printers are referred to as 'continuous tone' because each individual dot can be of varying intensity (expressed as an 8-bit number usually, giving 255 distinct dye levels, 0 being none). Traditional laser and ink jet printers are binary in that they either put a dot on the paper or they don't, hence dithering to produce mixed colors and shading.

Are we elite yet?
(Global capitalism causes poverty)
what about inkjets? (5.00 / 1) (#50)
by han on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 07:03:32 AM EST

Why are there no continuous-tone inkjet printers? From a layman's perspective it would not seem to be that hard, in principle, to make liquid dots of different sizes, and perhaps even to mix them before they hit the paper. Is this just a basic limitation of current inkjet printer technology, or are there expensive continuous-tone inkjet printers I haven't heard about?

[ Parent ]
Well (5.00 / 1) (#51)
by paraphenyl on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 07:37:09 AM EST

I think it has to do with the liquid medium. It would be extremely difficult to make a dot of varying thickness (as dye-sub printers do) with liquid ink because as you apply more ink to a given spot it *spreads* as a liquid rather than accumulating in one location as a solid.

However, I don't see why inkjet printers can't mix colors (simply going over the same area several times with different colors)--they very well might. The problem is that with three colors of ink and no tone variation (see above) you only have six total color combinations to work with, making dithering a necessity.

Are we elite yet?
(Global capitalism causes poverty)
[ Parent ]

Newer inkjets do (5.00 / 1) (#58)
by fluffy grue on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 12:33:41 PM EST

My Epson Stylus 740 (which was pretty cheap) uses a multiple-pass method like that when it's in high-quality mode. Its print quality is amazing, too. Really slow though. :) In low-quality mode it just dithers.
"Is a sentence fragment" is a sentence fragment.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

We used to use... (5.00 / 1) (#49)
by RainyRat on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 04:47:55 AM EST

...wax-sublimation printers at work. Same deal as dye-sub, but the ink came in the form of CMY and K lumps of wax. And I hated them with a passion - they took about an hour to warm up from cold, about 5 minutes to spit a page out, and if they broke (as they frequently did), you had to turn them off and wait about 45 minutes for the ink to set again, otherwise it'd slosh all over the innards of the printer when you moved it. Come to think of it, the name was inaccurate as well - if the ink's melting, then it's not subliming, is it? Pretty much the only cool thing about them was that you could use the lumps of wax as crayons. Our wax-subs are all gone now, though, and I'm much happier.

Eagles may soar, but rats seldom get sucked into jet engines.
1 minute / document !? (5.00 / 1) (#53)
by tjw on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 10:34:04 AM EST

A dye-sub printer takes about a minute to produce a print regardless of whether it's a full color photo or a page of typed text.

I was under the impression that most of these "Dye Sub" (a.k.a Thermal Wax) printers were actually laser printers with the color wax printing as an add-on for color. I seem to recall noticing that the Tektronix (now Xerox) printers have both toner cartridges as well as color cartidges, but maybe i just dreamed that.

Regardless, all the new Xerox Thermal Wax Printers seem to do 16-20 pages per minute regardless of if the page is color or black.

Thermal wax != dye-sub (5.00 / 2) (#57)
by fluffy grue on Fri Sep 20, 2002 at 12:31:38 PM EST

They're a bit different. Thermal wax uses big crayon-like blocks of CMYK wax in a way similar to toner or inkjet ink, while dye-sub has a thin film of the wax on a ribbon or sheet. They're pretty similar to the old-fashioned thermal transfer printers which you could get in the C64 days.

FWIW, dye-sub printers are not allowed for printing out classified documents, because they leave a negative on the dye source.
"Is a sentence fragment" is a sentence fragment.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

You are a stupid whore! (1.00 / 2) (#63)
by Meowharishi on Wed Oct 09, 2002 at 05:38:08 PM EST


[ Parent ]
What are 'Dye Sublimation Thermal Printers'? | 65 comments (34 topical, 31 editorial, 0 hidden)
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