Digital halftoning has been replacing photographic halftoning since the 1970s when "electronic dot generators" were developed for the film recorder units linked to color drum scanners made by companies such as Crosfield Electronics, Hell and Linotype-Paul.
In the 1980s, halftoning became available in the new generation of imagesetter film and paper recorders that had been developed from earlier "laser typesetters". Unlike pure scanners or pure typesetters, imagesetters could generate all the elements in a page including type, photographs and other graphic objects. Early examples were the widely used Linotype Linotronic 300 and 100 introduced in 1984, which were also the first to offer PostScript RIPs in 1985.
Early laser printers from the late 1970s onward could also generate halftones but their original 300 dpi resolution limited the screen ruling to about 65 lpi. This was improved as higher resolutions of 600 dpi and above, and dithering techniques, were introduced.
All halftoning uses a high frequency/low frequency dichotomy. In photographic halftoning, the low frequency attribute is a local area of the output image designated a halftone cell. Each equal-sized cell relates to a corresponding area (size and location) of the continuous-tone input image. Within each cell, the high frequency attribute is a centered variable-sized halftone dot composed of ink or toner. The ratio of the inked area to the non-inked area of the output cell corresponds to the luminance or graylevel of the input cell. From a suitable distance, the human eye averages both the high frequency apparent gray level approximated by the ratio within the cell and the low frequency apparent changes in gray level between adjacent equally spaced cells and centered dots.
Digital halftoning uses a raster image or bitmap within which each monochrome picture element or pixel may be on or off, ink or no ink. Consequently, to emulate the photographic halftone cell, the digital halftone cell must contain groups of monochrome pixels within the same-sized cell area. The fixed location and size of these monochrome pixels compromises the high frequency/low frequency dichotomy of the photographic halftone method. Clustered multi-pixel dots cannot "grow" incrementally but in jumps of one whole pixel. In addition, the placement of that pixel is slightly off-center. To minimize this compromise, the digital halftone monochrome pixels must be quite small, numbering from 600 to 2,540, or more, pixels per inch. However, digital image processing has also enabled more sophisticated dithering algorithms to decide which pixels to turn black or white, some of which yield better results than digital halftoning. Digital halftoning based on some modern image processing tools such as nonlinear diffusion and stochastic flipping has also been proposed recently.