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What is “Print To File” Used For?

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I am puzzled by a little item called “Print to file”. I am loathe to experiment with it (from another painful experience!!). Nevertheless, I would like to know what it is, what it does, what it’s for, and if or when I should actually use it . Does it have any practical benefit, or is it simply a technical appendage?

I vote for appendage.

The super-short version is that it’s somewhat of a relic. If you see it, which is rare these days, then unless you know you have a specific need for it, just ignore it.

It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever have a specific need.

But because you’re curious…

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Print to file

Here’s an example of the option we’re talking about:

Print to file option in a print dialog
Print to file option in a print dialog.

This option may appear in different locations on different print dialogs, or it may not appear at all. You’ll note that’s a Windows 7 style dialog; “Print to file” doesn’t appear on any of my Windows 10 installations. That’s a bit of a clue as to its current usefulness.

Printing at a high level

Printing is really a kind of conversion process.

When printing a webpage, the software involved “translates”, in a sense, the webpage that you see from its original HTML encoding into instructions  specific to your printer1.

Each printer family, or sometimes even printer models, understand different sets of instructions. When an application prints, it communicates with the Windows printing interface, which in turn communicates with the driver for the printer you select, to translate the instructions into whatever language the printer understands.

The result is sent to the printer, which presumably prints what you wanted.

Printing to a file

When you select the “Print to file” option, the data in the last step (normally sent to the printer) is written to a file on your hard disk instead2. Typically, the output is saved as a “.prn” file.

One idea is that if printing in your application is a time-consuming or inconvenient process, you can click Print once and save the output of that print process using Print to file. Any time you need an additional printout, you simply copy it to the printer.

Copying a “.prn” file to the printer can be as simple as dragging and dropping the file onto the printer icon in Windows Explorer, or entering a copy command like “COPY FILENAME.PRN PRN” in a Windows Command Prompt.

Printing directly from the original isn’t typically that difficult these days, so there’s little need for printing to a file anymore.

And, in fact, there are a few reasons why you might not want to try it.

Problems with Print to file

Most printer drivers today just don’t support it; the option isn’t even present. Even if the checkbox is visible and checked, the printer driver may still not support it, resulting in errors at print time. Sometimes the errors persist across different printings, even those not using print-to-file.

More importantly, however, as you can see from the description of how it works, a file created using Print to file is not portable. It works only with the specific printer selected at the time it was created.

You cannot take a “.prn” file created by Print to file and expect it to work on any printer. At best, it’ll only work on printers that are compatible with yours — possibly only the same make and model.

What you probably really want

Print to PDF is a better solution, and its ubiquity is likely responsible for the demise of Print to file.

Print to PDF creates a PDF file, which stands for “Portable Document Format”. PDF files are not in any printer-specific format at all, but are optimized for display as if they had been printed.

PDF files are portable, not just from printer to printer, but from device to device. A PDF will display — and print — the same3 everywhere, on every platform.

Windows 10 and other modern operating systems now include Print to PDF by default.

Video Narration

Footnotes

1: Or printer-mimicking device like Print to PDF.

2: Actually, the instructions are generally written to a file anyway — this is the role of the print spooler, which marshals multiple applications all trying to print at the same time. While there may be differences in the details, “Print to file” can also be thought of as “Don’t send the spool file to the printer, and don’t delete it.”

3: In theory. I’m sure there are edge cases where the formatting may be incorrectly created or displayed, depending on the software creating the PDF or the software displaying it. The goal of PDF, however, is to be the same everywhere.

23 comments on “What is “Print To File” Used For?”

  1. OMG! Thanks so much for the person who asked this question and thanks Leo, for choosing this question to answer. I have tried to find an answer to this and never came up w/ anything I could understand. Everytime I see it…I think what the heck does that mean? And it bug me that I never knew, but now I do. Thanks again!

    Reply
  2. >COPY FILENAME.PRN PRN

    Does not work. You also need /B flag. I still could never even get that to work right, either.

    Nowadays, as you say, just stick to printing to PDF and XPS and ignore the “print to file” option.

    Reply
  3. I’m not sure, but… perhaps “Print to file” is also useful when a given app is not available? For instance, you print a CorelDRAW “.cdr” file to file and take it on a USB thumb drive to another computer where CorelDRAW is not present, so you can – given all other stuff allow you to – print the .cdr file there?

    Reply
  4. I’m interested in this “Print to PDF” option. I don’t remember seeing that. Where is it available?

    Also, what is “XPS”?

    Check out CutePDF Writer at http://go.ask-leo.com/cutepdf – it’s a printer driver that you install that then allows you to “print” to PDF. XPS is Microsoft’s attempt at similar functionality, I believe, but it’s not nearly as widely compatible as PDF.

    Leo
    24-May-2011

    Reply
  5. I highly recommend “CutePDF”, a free print to PDF file program which has worked very well for me. It installs itself as another printer which can be used with any program to create a .pdf file instead of printed output.

    Reply
  6. Print to file or save to file is used quiet often to create a post script file, especially when using graphics applications that can then be opened or converted by using acrobat distiller to create a .pdf file. This type of file can contain all of the notes and information used to create the original file and is helpful when sending the file to another printer or service bureau. The original printer selected must use the post script language.

    Reply
  7. I use print to file when I run out of ink and my printer won’t work; I can print the file later. Also when I order online and want to keep a copy of the receipt, just print to file and when the order comes in okay, just delete the file. It’s maybe not the most useful little tool out there, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a relic since I do
    still use it on a regular basis.

    I’d strongly recommend print-to-PDF instead. That will work today and next year when your original printer is no longer available and your print-to-file file no longer works with your new printer. 🙂

    Leo
    24-May-2011

    Reply
  8. The “Print” facilities to a PDF File such as CutePDF above, are extremely useful for creating files recording transactions such as Flight Ticket Receipts, Boarding Passes etc.

    I do a fair amount of business flying (been “retired 12 years!); and this is an easy way of keeping track of costs, times etc, for submitting Expenses Claims at a later date.

    Reply
  9. Print to File is also used within accounting software to enable printing of reports to files of several types, usually text or spreadsheet files. In this case it has no printer codes and can be opened and reviewed or re-printed later. Most people now just print to pdf files for this purpose.

    Reply
  10. About 15 years ago I used Print-to-File frequently when setting up printers to print on preprinted forms. Looking at actual code sent to the printer – and a copy of the printers communication protocol – facilitated finding exactly what needed to be tweaked to get a correct output.

    Now, I generally print both form and content at the same time onto blank paper.

    Reply
  11. I like CutePDF, but prefer doPDF. Maybe just because it’s the first one I used, and I trust it. Just another option. I run it on 64 bit.

    Reply
  12. I love these articles about the obsolete stuff. It is hard to believe that I have been playing with computers so long now that I get nostalgic about things like the memory of my old Panasonic dot matrix printer sounding like a grinding wheel sharpening an axe.

    Reply
  13. Oh no! The dinosaur DNA in me has finally appeared. Back in the good old bad old days, I worked on some of the early CAD systems that had very limited printing ability to more common printers (we typically used more specialised plotters such a couple of monolithic XEROX plan printers). Also, doing file transfers to many clients was impracticable as the files were too big to fit on one disk and inevitably, one of the spanned floppies would fail at the client’s. So, we used to create print files using the drivers available on the CAD software that matched available printers at our clients. That would fit on one floppy that could be stuck in the shirt pocket and hand delivered.
    When .pdf software became available it was inevitable we’d go down that path and the internet was coming down the turnpike too.
    These days engineering offices just email or ftp the files to the client and IF they want a hard copy, their CAD software has drivers for every printer under the sun.

    Reply
  14. Just one comment on the error message that you included. Every time I see a similar message, “An unknown error has occurred….”, it makes me wonder if there are any “A known error has occurred…” messages? If it was known, it couldn’t exactly be classified as an error, could it?

    Reply
  15. When one of Leo’s article is worthy of adding to my ‘tech info’ folder I just ‘print to file’ without the need to kill another tree by making an unnecessary hardcopy. John. 🙂

    I’ll reiterate that a “print to PDF” solution is more portable for this situation. The resulting files are significantly more likely to work as you change computers, printers and whatever else over time.

    Leo
    28-May-2011

    Reply
  16. Leo,
    I teach a monthly Windows class for members of our senior computer club. (I’m 71). Some of your hints are beyond the capabilities of our members, however, many would be perfect to pass along. I want to know if I can have permission to pass the hints to class members, giving you credit for the hint when I do.
    Thanks in advance.
    Norman Miller

    Depends on what you mean by “hint” :-). You can certainly share your knowledge, share links to my articles and the like. About the only thing that would technically be a violation of my copyright is if you were to print my full articles and distribute them independant of my web site.

    Leo
    28-May-2011

    Reply
  17. Printing to pdf (I use CutePDF) is also useful for:
    1. Storing a web page, rather than having another folder created with all its files. (though it seems there are other ways of dealing with this)
    2. Printing only one page of what might otherwise be more pages than one wants to.

    Reply
  18. Great answer. I always wondered what that was. But you’ve now piqued my curiosity about another item when you write, “Finally, a use for the “Microsoft XPS Document Writer”.” As I only have one printer connected, why do I see the “Document writer” listed as choice of printers? What is it and how do I use it?

    As I understand it, XPS is Microsoft’s attempt to come up with a PDF competitor. In otherwords it’s the same idea as print to PDF, but it prints to the less compatible XPS format.

    Leo
    02-Jun-2011

    Reply
  19. I think you’re a bit hard on print to file, Leo. I used it when i was printing many copies of a large document (like a book), for two main reasons.
    1 – it takes PagePlus a relatively long time to perform the print
    2 – setting all the print parameters (page range, even/odd, print quality, borderless, dup[lex, #copies) is easy to mess up
    3 – (the THREE main reasons…) if I had the document open I sometimes made unintentional edits in the 2 days it took to print

    Also – copy to PRN only works (for me) if my printer is connected to a parallel port, and dragging a PRN file to a printer icon also does not work for me. I just tried it again.

    The only way I’ve found that works is to share the printer and use a DOS box to copy the PRN file to the share name of the printer. I’ve never tried to drag a PRN file to a shared printer.

    Reply
  20. A .prn file should be much smaller than a .PDF file. It can be used to circunvent driver shortcomings. The file contains the actual commands the printer supports and can be executed on an operating system which does not support the attached printer. For example, some recent printers do not have Windows 98 or Windows 2000 drivers. The printers can be “installed” in machines running those operating systems but using a “lesser” driver. For example, most LaserJet can be installed as “LaserJet III”. But then features of the later models will not be available. If a document is prepared in a machine with the correct driver for the printer then eMailed as .Prn to the machine that uses the “lesser” driver, it will print just as it would print in the source machine.

    Reply
  21. wasn`t able to go all the way but this was helpuf coz anytime I have a proble, printing would go to run net stop spooler and everything is erased and go back to start.Thanks

    Reply

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