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Print to file is an option on many print dialogs that sends printer output to a file rather than the printer. It's of very limited utility these days.
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. Unless you know that you have a specific need, you can safely ignore it.
It's highly unlikely that you'll ever have a specific need.
But because you're curious...
Here's an example of the option that we're talking about:
This option may appear in different locations on different print dialogs, but in general, it means the same thing.
Printing is really a kind of conversion process.
For example, when printing a web page, the software involved in the printing operation "translates" the web page that you see from its original HTML into instructions that are specific to the printer that you happen to have. These settings cause the printer to print what you see. Many printers are different and have different sets of instructions. Even when printers are similar (for example, many printers use the "postscript" page description language), each printer has its own features and quirks.
When an application prints, it communicates with the standard Windows printing interface, which communicates with the driver for the selected printer; this then transforms the printing instructions into whatever language it is that your printer understands.
The result is then sent to the printer which then presumably prints what you intended.
If you select the Print to file option, the data that would normally be sent to the printer is written to a file instead. Typically, the output is saved as a ".prn" file.
The 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. Then, any time that you need an additional printed copy of that document, you simply copy it to the printer.
Copying a ".prn" file to the printer is typically 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.
Given that printing directly from the original document isn't typically that difficult of a process, there's little need for printing to a file any more.
And, in fact, there are a few reasons why you might not want to.
While researching this article, I tore my hair out for a while dealing with that error - "An unknown error occurred while printing".
Not a very helpful message.
Here's what I learned:
Not all printer drivers support "Print to file" - even if the checkbox is enabled.
It's possible that once you get an error trying an unsupported Print to file, you'll continue to get that error even when you don't select Print to file thereafter.
That persistent error situation might be resolved by selecting a different printer and successfully printing to that, once.
It's good to have more than one printer in your system. Finally, a use for the "Microsoft XPS Document Writer".
If you're like me and like to experiment a little, hopefully that little discovery will save you some time if your printer not support Print to file.
As you can see from the description of how it works above, a file created using Print to file is specific to the printer that was selected at the time you printed. The file contains the set of printing instructions for that printer.
That means that you cannot take a ".prn" file created by Print to file and expect it to work on just any printer. At a minimum, it'll only work on printers that are compatible with yours - possibly only on the same make and model of printer.
A much more portable approach to printing to file that typically does more of what most people expect, is to use a print-to-PDF printer instead. PDF files are portable, readable on almost all computers, and can themselves be printed again on whatever printer you have installed.
As you can see, Print to file really has very limited utility.
But at least now, you know why you don't need it.
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