Why the Difference between A4 and Letter Actually Matters

Three things never work: Voice chat, printers and projectors.

We all had a bit of a chuckle when we saw rule #3 on Anil’s 10 Rules of Internet post last week. We are oh-so familiar with this problem, and it brings us right back to why ezeep started. Why, in an era where you can seemingly do magic with technology, do these basic bits of hardware often fail us?

It’s laughable, but when you really start getting to know printers and their oddball behavioural traits, you find all sorts of reasons (excuses?) why they frequently don’t work. And one of these can undoubtedly be lain at the door of paper formats.

Eh? What’s this, you might be thinking…paper is pretty standardized, surely this shouldn’t be much of a problem?

If only it were that simple. In reality, those of you from North America will be familiar with an entirely different set of paper formats to the rest of the world. While you go about your day, happily printing away on Letter paper, almost everyone else will be printing the same material on A4. As you can see in the picture up the top, these two paper sizes actually have different dimensions.

There is rhyme to the reason most countries have accepted the ISO 216 series of paper sizes (A4 et al.) as a standard. Apparently first discovered by physics professor Georg Lichtenberg in 1786, the height-to-width ratio of these pages happens to have a rather nifty mathematical property. If you put two pages of one size together to create a new sheet of paper, they will have the same aspect ratio.


It just so happens that this is super handy when you want to scale a document up or down, for example by printing two-on-one page or fitting an A4 document to an A3 page. Because each sheet has the same aspect ratio, each item on the page retains its relative shape…So your images don’t suddenly appear stretched or squiffy and it’s easy to scale a document to fit the page. Pro tip:  If you’re scaling an A-size page up to the next paper size, enlarge it by 141% to have it fit perfectly.

As it turns out, U.S. paper sizes weren’t designed with a unifying design principle in mind. You can’t perfectly fit two Letter pages onto one Ledger page, for example. The U.S. paper size system makes it much more awkward for an end user to be flexible about how they want something printed.

But the difficulties don’t stop there. Where it gets really silly is when we need our printers to communicate cross-culturally. If someone in New York emails a document to Berlin or vice versa, it’s unlikely to print out correctly.

It’s not only an ongoing source of confusion when you’re pinging files round the globe, it can also cause you difficulties with your printer setup. At ezeep, we recently ran into this problem at a coworking space that’s located in the same neighborhood as us, in Berlin. Coworkers were printing out files with the paper format set to A4, but the recently installed new printer was set to print Letter by default (this often happens with U.S. manufactured printers). The printer, thinking it had Letter paper in its trays, was shrinking each file to fit this page size. Since we are in Europe, the printer actually had A4 paper in its trays. So everybody’s documents were printed with an extra large border on one side.


If that messes with your head, you’re not alone. The problem is that the printer is only semi-intelligent. It *thinks* it knows what paper it has in its trays and tries to reduce problems for the user by automatically fitting the document to the page. But, as it turns out, the printer isn’t quite smart enough — its knowledge of what paper it has is based on a (manually manipulated) setting on the printer, not on any kind of sensor. And this printer counts as one of the *smarter* ones — other printers will just refuse to print documents that aren’t set to the expected paper format, without of course showing any simple message to explain why.

For people printing, this is super frustrating — printouts don’t look like they should and there’s no obvious way of knowing why. And if you were the one who set up the printer you’d be forgiven for not thinking about manually setting the paper formats. There isn’t even a standard way to do this — sometimes it must be set on the driver, other times on the printer itself. And even if you do set it up right, installing a driver update can easily end up wiping out your carefully selected settings.

At ezeep, we know that this is exactly the kind of printer voodoo that drives people nuts. That’s why we’re actively working on ways to improve the way printers talk to people (couldn’t there be a notification to show that the printer is set to Letter with a visual indication of what this means?) and exploring how we can make printers smarter about how they are set up (wouldn’t it be better if the printer just knew that it has A4 not Letter loaded in the tray?).

But, in the meantime, if your printouts come out looking a bit ‘wrong’, why not check the paper size settings on your printer?

PS: If you got this far and have your suspicions about why we’re spending so much time looking into paper sizes — yep, you’re right — support for printing different paper sizes is coming to an ezeep-connected printer near you very soon. Stay tuned for more updates on that soon!