Buying a New PC for your Sign Business

PC keyboard closeup.

As any digital graphics professional knows, you can’t run a modern sign business without a computer. Vinyl cutters and digital printers are considered peripherals: devices that attach to PCs to translate pixels into ink and vinyl. But the PC world is much larger than the sign industry, and it has different priorities. As those priorities change, buying a PC for your sign business becomes a little more challenging. Traditional hardware requirements focus on RAM and processing speed. With the advent of new tablets and laptops there are new traps to avoid. The most recent come in the form of Surface Pro ports and Chromebooks.

Microsoft Surface Pro: USB-C issue

FIG 1: USB-A is being replaced by USB-C on many tablets and laptops

The newest Microsoft Surface Pro tablets no longer come with standard USB-A ports. They come only with USB-C. USB-C ports and cables were originally designed for connecting Android powered smartphones. USB-C is ideal for these small hand-held devices because they charge devices more quickly. And – unlike the USB-A ports and wires we’ve all fussed with for decades – USB-C ports are flippable. That means you can plug them in easily without having to worry about whether the connector is upside down relative to the port.

Unfortunately, your vinyl cutter is not a small hand-held device. These connections don’t support the data flow that a vinyl cutter needs. Testing with a Microsoft Windows 11 pc with a USB-C port revealed incompatible errors when connected with MUSE and Graphtec vinyl cutters using a standard USB cable. Testing with USB-C to USB-A adapters has determined that this is not a workable solution either.

Testing by Graphtec America is ongoing. Our contacts at Graphtec report that the USB-C ports used in Macbooks are fully compatible with Graphtec vinyl cutters. So designers working with Adobe Illustrator and Graphtec’s Cutting Master plug-in have a working USB-C interface. Unfortunately, Flexi and LXI aren’t mac compatible, so that’s of limited comfort for most sign makers. Graphtec’s evaluation of the USB-C issue with Windows 10 and 11 is ongoing.

Buying a new PC for Large Format Printing

The Surface Pro issue doesn’t only affect vinyl cutters. Since these new PC/tablet hybrids only provide USB-C ports, they are also incompatible with MUTOH and PrismJET large-format printers. All of these devices require a dedicated Network interface card (NIC) to support the standard ethernet-only printer interface. So purchasing a Surface Pro or similarly configured tablet is a non-starter for digital printing as well.

PC with NIC and ethernet crossover cable. Required for large format printing
FIG 2: A Network Interface Card and ethernet crossover cable are required for large format printing

If you’re shopping for a new PC to drive your print business with a MUTOH or PrismJET printer, make sure you spec it with at least one NIC: two if you plan to use one for internet access. If you’re running a print and cut workflow with a third generation Q Series, you might want to opt for a three- card setup with one NIC for the cutter, one for the printer, and one for the web. Although you can connect the printer by ethernet and the cutter by USB, running the Q Series via an ethernet cable gives you greater latitude for where you place the cutter. This is because ethernet crossover cables have much better data retention over long distances. The maximum recommended length for a USB cable is still about 15 feet. You’ll also enjoy faster data transfer to your cutter (1000 MBPS vs 480).

What about WiFi?

At this time, if you’re stuck with a Surface PRO or some other USB-C only PC, the only way to run your sign-making peripherals is to connect wirelessy. This works fine for wifi-enabled vinyl cutters and printers. These include the MUSE M Series and Artisan vinyl cutters, and most Epson, Sawgrass, Sublime, and UniNet IColor desktop printers. Unfortunately, this is not an option for Vinyl Express, Roland and Graphtec vinyl cutters. And, as noted above, MUTOH and PrismJET printers aren’t wifi enabled.

MUSE M Series and Artisan vinyl cutters can be used with USB-C laptops via Wifi.
FIG 3: MUSE M series cutters can connect via Wifi to USB-C tablets and laptops.

ChromeOS Issue

Chromebook laptops, powered by Google’s ChromeOS operating system don’t have the USB-C issue, but they are also non-starters. The disconnect here is a little further ‘upstream.’ ChromeOS is intended for consumers and is designed to support activities like browsing the internet, sending email, shopping, streaming video, and gaming. Chrome is not intended for commercial and industrial applications. The ChromeOS doesn’t support Flexi, LXI, CorelDRAW, or Adobe CC software, so it’s a nonstarter for serious sign and graphics professionals.

Buying a new PC: What to Look For

All of these trends in tablets and tablet/laptop hybrids are being driven by consumer demand, not industrial needs. If you’re buying a new PC for your sign & graphics business, make sure you read the specs chart closely. If you’re starting from scratch and buying a new system including a new MUSE vinyl cutter or desktop printer, a USB-C enabled Surface PRO or similar device will be okay if you’re content to limit yourself to wifi.

Updated Hardware Requirements

Because of these changes, you’ll start seeing updated hardware or system requirements on our website for software and hardware. The updated set of hardware requirements for LXI 19 and Flexi 22 software now looks like this.

  • Operating System: Windows 10 or 11
  • RAM: 16 – 32GB
  • CPU: 3GHz, Intel i5 or i7 equivalent
  • Screen Resolution: 1920×1080 resolution, 24-bit color
  • Working Disc Space: SSD with 256GB or more. HHD with 500GB working space or more.
  • Internet Connectivity: Broadband internet access (Internet connection required for cloud window features and license activation)
  • Hardware Connectivity: USB-A and/or available Network Interface card (NIC)

If you already own a Graphtec, Roland, Q Series, or older Vinyl Express cutter and find yourself in need of a new PC, read the fine print. You’ll need one with a standard USB-A port. If you’re using a large format printer, you’ll need a computer with Network cards. And if someone gives you a Chromebook, give it back. Or keep it for gaming and steaming. Then go buy a good old-fashioned Windows PC for your sign and graphics business.