Printer Buying Guide

Buying a label printer can be an investment. Prices can range from modest to expensive, and each printer type has different factors to consider, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve chosen the right one for your requirements. However, choosing to print in-house with your own equipment allows for more customization and can be an all-around, cost-effective solution for you or your business. 

There are some important questions you’ll want to answer first in order to find the best printer to work with. 

We’ve compiled a printer buying guide to give you better insight and help you determine which label printer type is the best overall choice to assist with your labeling needs.

Printer Questions to Answer

Probably the most important question to answer before looking into buying a label printer is: what are you using the labels for?

The application of your labels matters the most as it helps narrow down the best printer technology type to assist with your printing needs. This is because certain printer technologies are better suited for different applications. Some printers are better equipped to handle barcode labels while others print higher quality color labels that are applied to customer-facing products.

Other questions that concern which printer type is best for you includes:

  • What will your daily print volume be like?
  • What kinds of material will your labels need to be?
  • How long do your labels need to last? A few months or longer?

All of these questions help factor into the requirements you need your printer to accomplish. Answering them will help narrow down which label printer is the best choice for you. There are 3 primary printer technologies to choose from: thermal, inkjet, and laser.

A Zebra ZT610 industrial printer is capable of high volume prints at fast speeds
Thermal Printing
If you require labels for barcoding, shipping, tracking, or identification, a thermal printer might be the right choice for you.
Primera Printer LX-2000
Inkjet Printing
If you require GHS compliance or color labels for customer-facing products, an inkjet printer might be the right choice for you.
A desktop laser printer prints out laser labels onto a sheet
Laser Printing
If you require larger-sized labels in different materials, coatings, and finishes, a laser printer might be the right choice for you.

Thermal Printing

If you need to print barcode labels for shipping, tracking, and identification, a thermal printer might be what you need.

Thermal printing is a widespread method of printing because is easy, fast, and efficient. When compared to other printer technologies, it is the cheapest option. Thermal printers produce high-quality images and text with clean definitions, and are popularly used for printing shipping labels and barcodes. They are able to produce large volumes of labels in a short amount of time. 

There are two different varieties of thermal printers: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Each printing technology has different requirements and strengths, so it is important to know the variations between the two. 

Check out our information on direct thermal and thermal transfer printers below.

Direct Thermal 

Direct thermal (DT) technology is simple to operate. Because it utilizes paper with ink already embedded in the material, it does not require the use of a thermal ribbon in order to print. Heat from the print head reacts to chemicals in the paper, causing it to change color and leaving behind texts or images. Direct thermal printing is only available in black and white. 

Since it does not require the use of ink, toner, or ribbon, direct thermal printers are easier to load. There are less supplies and maintenance costs associated with direct thermal printing, and it can be used in mobile, desktop, and industrial printers. Direct thermal printing generally uses paper labels, but labels made with synthetic materials, like direct thermal polypropylene labels, are also available. 

Due to the heat-sensitive materials it uses, direct thermal labels are used for short-term applications, lasting around 6-8 months. This makes them ideal for indoor, temporary use. These labels also have a tendency to scratch easily and will fade faster if overexposed to direct sunlight or high temperatures.

Thermal Transfer 

Thermal transfer (TT) technology utilizes heat-sensitive carbon ribbon to print. As the ribbon passes over the heated print head, it melts the ribbon onto the material below, creating a darker text for more clear images.  

Thermal transfer is able to print on both paper and synthetic materials, like polypropylene and polyester. Matching the proper thermal ribbon material with the proper synthetic substrate material will give a better print quality and make labels more effective. This also makes thermal transfer a more durable option than direct thermal. Color ribbons can also be used for a more versatile print look but you can only print in that monotone color of ribbon.

Due to its durability, thermal transfer labels are used for long-term applications, lasting for upwards to 2 years. This makes them ideal for outdoor usage as they are capable of withstanding exposure to direct sunlight, extreme temperature changes, water, chemicals, and oil.

Thermal transfer technology is typically used with large, industrial printers but can also be used in some desktop printers. Depending on the printer model, it is important to know how the thermal ribbon is wound around the ribbon core, with the ink facing either inward or outward, in order to print properly.

Direct Thermal & Thermal Transfer Applications 

Applications Direct Thermal Thermal Transfer
Barcode labels X X
Shipping labels X X
Weatherproof labels X X
Tags X X
Receipts X
Case/pallet labels X X

Direct thermal and thermal transfer technologies have 3 printer types: industrialdesktop, and mobile. Each printer is a different size, which allows them to handle different label sizes, materials, and ribbon, if applicable. It also factors into how many labels they print, printer speed, and the types of applications they are used for.

Let’s take a look at different types of thermal printers you can purchase.

Industrial Printers

Industrial printers are built to hold up well in demanding environments. They are capable of both direct thermal and thermal transfer printing at very high volumes, usually several thousand to over 10,000 a day. This makes them beneficial to warehouse, manufacturing, and factory settings where high-quantity print applications are essential.

One option we recommend is the Zebra ZT610.

The ZT610 accommodates both 3″ core direct thermal and 3″ core thermal transfer rolls as well as fanfold labels. Labels can be printed using both paper and synthetic substrates, like polypropylene and polyester, if you are printing with a thermal ribbon.

Barcoding

Pallet Identification

Shipping & Receiving

Inventory Management

Desktop Printers

Desktop printers are a cost-effective choice for those who require low to moderate print volumes around several hundred labels per day or less, and are compact enough to fit on a desk or tabletop area. They are durable and require little to no maintenance for proper upkeep.

One option we recommend is the Zebra ZD620.

The ZD620 printer model is able to utilize both direct thermal and thermal transfer roll and fanfold labels. It can thrive in many industries, like retail and warehouse logistics, or be used in home and office environments, which make it a versatile printer choice. It allows users to customize their print features with several connectivity options.

Another option we recommend is the Rollo printer

The Rollo direct thermal printer uses roll and fanfold direct thermal labels and is extremely popular for people shipping from the comfort of their home. It offers compatibility with most shipping platforms, online marketplaces, and mail couriers for small and moderate-sized businesses.

Barcoding

Pallet Identification

Shipping & Receiving

Inventory Management

Mobile Printers

Mobile printers offer increased workplace productivity and performance by printing on the go. Using wireless connectivity, they are ideal for large work area environments, like warehouses and factories, or retail establishments where they can be attached to belts or shoulder straps for use on the sales floor. They utilize labels on a .75″ core, the smallest size available for mobile printers.

One option we recommend is the Zebra ZQ630.

The ZQ630 mobile printer is professed as a better, upgraded version of its predecessor, the Zebra QLN420, which is now a discontinued line. It’s upgraded with RFID technology to print encoded labels and tags for fast inventory tracking, management, and supply chain use.

A Zebra QLN420 mobile printer uses direct thermal labels for on the go solutions

Barcoding

Retail

Shipping & Receiving

Inventory Management

Inkjet Printing

If you are looking to print custom color labels for customer-facing products or require durable GHS compliant labels for dangerous goods, an inkjet printer might be what you need.

Inkjet printers work by propelling minuscule droplets of ink onto a substrate that then dries rapidly to form an image. They are a great investment for businesses looking to produce labels with high-quality images and text enhanced with color. However, inkjet printers are much more expensive when compared to thermal printers.

A versatile piece of equipment to have, inkjet printers can be used in a multitude of environments for dozens of different applications. They are able to print on paper and synthetic material types with different coatings and finishes to enhance the overall appearance of the label. 

Inkjet printers are capable of printing labels at fast speeds while maintaining high levels of resolution. They use ink in liquid form, either dye-based or pigment-based, in typical CMYK colors, which supports over 16 million colors across the spectrum. However, like the Primera LX910, there are some specific inkjet printer models that are able to use both kinds of ink interchangeably. Ink cartridges can be replaced individually on an as needed basis, reducing cost and waste, but they can be expensive, especially if they are being replaced frequently due to high printer usage. 

Let’s take a look at different types of inkjet printers you can purchase.

Dye-Based Inkjet Printer

Dye-based inkjet printers produce vibrant, eye-catching colors that offer flexible customizations to graphics, photos, logos, and variable text. Colors fade faster, especially when exposed to sunlight, so labels printed with dye ink are a more optimal choice for indoor and short-term applications. Dye-based inkjet printers are suitable for high-volume print usage, typically several thousand labels a day.

One option we recommend is the Canon LX-D5500.

The Canon LX-D5500 is capable of printing labels up to 4” wide with high-quality, high-resolution, and vibrant colors.  These colorful labels are best suited for consumer-facing products like foods and beverages, candles, cosmetics, and more. The LX-D5500 only prints ink where necessary regardless of size and shape, reducing waste and increasing print speed. 

Pigment-Based Inkjet Printer

When combined with synthetic materials, pigment-based inkjet printers are capable of producing extremely durable labels for harsh environments. Applications for outdoor and long-term use as well as exposure to elements like water, moisture, chemicals, and UV light are ideal. They are suitable for high-volume print usage, typically several thousand labels a day.

One option we recommend is the Primera LX-2000

The Primera LX-2000 printer has certification for printing GHS labels, which are required to pass rigorous testing to test their durability. It also includes special features to alert users when ink is low and to calculate the actual number of prints remaining based upon ink usage.

Primera Printer LX-2000

Inkjet Applications 

Applications Dye Ink Pigment Ink 
Food and beverage containers X
Cleaning supplies X
Cosmetics X
Candles X
GHS compliant X
Drums and barrels X
Pallets X
Batteries X

Laser Printing

If you are looking to print labels larger than standard-size and in a wide assortment of materials, finishes, and coatings, a laser printer might be what you need. 

Laser technology uses toner in order to print and is a viable option when the spending budget is not as constrained. This is due to the high price of toner cartridges and their frequency of being replaced. 

Laser printers are commonly found in homes and offices for everyday use and print sheets of labels instead of rolls. Laser sheet label materials can be paper or synthetic with finishes and coatings making them ideal for applications that require durability.

A desktop laser printer prints out laser labels onto a sheet

Laser printers are able to accommodate the widest print width when compared to other technologies for larger-sized labels. They can also handle printing multiple, smaller labels on one sheet. However, they operate at slower speeds when compared to other printers. 

Printing with laser technology can be cost-prohibitive, especially when printing only one or a few labels at a time. The remaining labels on the used sheet must be properly aligned with content before being used to print again. Misalignments can waste labels, increasing waste and cost on supplies.

Laser Printing Applications

Applications Yes Unnecessary
GHS compliant labels X
Drums and containers X
Shipping labels X
Barcode labels X
Address labels X
Product labels X

Conclusion

Whether you choose a thermal, inkjet, or laser printer, you’ll want to make sure you have the right fit for your label applications. Hopefully this guide has given you a better understanding of the label printer technologies available so you can determine and buy the best printer for your label needs. 

In need of labels for your printer? Shop smithcorona.com for a variety of label sizes and materials or call us at 1-800-875-7000 to place your order.