Why the difference between A4 and Letter actually matters

It’s all too common for printers to stop working.

One cause for this can undoubtedly be attributed to the humble paper format. Before we get into why the difference between A4 paper size vs letter really matters, here’s the difference for those that don’t already know.

A4 Paper Size vs Letter What’s the Difference?

A4 paper size vs Letter
The difference is minimal, but important: A4 is a little taller, while Letter is a little wider.

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 above, these two paper sizes actually have different dimensions.

There is a good reason why most countries have accepted the ISO 216 series of paper sizes (the official grouping which includes A4) 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.

And Then There’s Letter…

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.

A4 vs Letter Matters. For Printers

Printers have some pretty oddball behavioural traits, and things get really silly when we need our printers to communicate across both standards.

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 format set to A4 paper size, 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.

Letter vs A4 paper size
Printing an A4 document to printers set to Letter doesn’t usually end well

Unfortunately, your 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 the 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 committed to developing ways to improve how printers talk to people and how we can make printers smarter about how they are set up.

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