Label Printers

The label printer market is not as wide as desktop printer market, due to their specific application. Nevertheless, price and functionality competition among them exists.

The widely known label printer brands are DYMO, Seiko Instruments, Brother and Zebra. Their work is based on direct thermal printing technology. It allows a user to print labels without classic supplies like toner and ink. You will spend only labels.

There are two basic methods for thermal printing: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Both methods use thermal print head to put an image on the label surface.

Direct Thermal

This is a general purpose printing technology for most industrial and office applications.
The technology uses heat-sensetive media, usually it is a paper with heat-sensetive front side and self-adhesive back side. Labels are distributed in rolls (about 150–300 labels per roll). Heated by the printing head, area of label surface becames black. Modern printers can print in half-tones.

One of the main disadvantages of this technology is short life term of labels. Label images are sensitive to heat (it is clear why), as well as ultraviolet (UV) and sun light exposure. Labels loose contrast due to them. Printed images may also fade over time. Some labels have a special coating that makes them water, chemical, UV and sun light resistant, so they can be used in the open-air.

The advantage of direct thermal printing is hight quality at lower cost than with thermal transfer method. Due to high-contrast, direct thermal labels are widely used for printing automatically scanned data like bar codes. This makes them very popular for shopping purposes, as store price labels, name tags and so on (mostly when their usage term is limited to several months).

Thermal Transfer

This is a two-ribbon technology. A thermal transfer ribbon is located between heating head and label ribbon. The printer heats areas of a thermal transfer ribbon above a certain temperature — approximately 250°F (121°C). Pigment is melted and absorbed by the label material.

Thermal transfer labels have much better quality and durability than direct thermal technology provides. They can also be chemical, ultraviolet and temperature resistant. Thermal transfer labels are better for permanent product identification for outdoor and industry applications (including medical and laboratory rooms).

Images made by thermal transfer printing have very good edges (no pixel structure), which is important for bar code scanning and automatic recognition.

Some thermal printers (including direct termal) allow to print on plastic and fabric tapes. Thermal transfer printers allow printing on wide range of materials with special characteristics, like: polyethelyne, polymide, nylon, polyester and many other.
Some types of polyester ribbons have life term up to 5–8 years.

Printer manufacturers usually produce labels for their printers.

Regular Printers vs. Label Printers

The good side:

  • The main advantage of a label printer is that it prints on individual labels. With typical desktop printers, you need to feed an entire sheet even if you want to print just one label. Of course, you can specify the start position and re-use partially used sheets — but it adds additional steps. Besides, most printer manufacturers don't recommend running a sheet of labels with one label missing through your printer (possibility of a jam or labels peeling off) — so you either wait until you have enough to fill a sheet of labels or waste some of the labels on the sheet.
  • Label printers print accurately enough and usually don't require calibration. Paper jamming is almost impossible. The thermal technology ensures that your labels have better water-proof capabilities than materials printed by using the inkjet technology.
  • You can forget about ink or toner. Just put inside a roll of label paper, and you're ready to go.
  • Small footprint and cute looks — these printers are so tiny, you can easily keep one right on your desk.
  • Finally, they are incredibly easy and fun to use. Due to small mechanical parts, label printers are quiet and consume less energy.

All this makes label printers perfect for low-volume or occasional printing — especially if you appreciate ease-of-use and can't afford wasting a minute on what should take just a couple of seconds.

The bad side:

  • You have to invest in a separate printer.
  • The label size is limited to several inches.
  • The per-label cost of thermal paper is higher than that of regular labels.
  • Switching from one label type to another is more difficult — you have to remove the entire roll of, say, address labels, and feed in a new roll to print, say, a file folder label.
  • If you need to print a lot of labels at one go — for instance, a mailing list of 100 or 1000 addresses — you'd be better off with a laser or inkjet printer and label paper.

Seiko Printers

Seiko Instruments produces Smart Label Printers. The current line-up consists of two models SLP-440 and SLP-450, superseding the older SLP-410, SLP-420 and SLP-430 printers.
SLP-440 is the most basic model, and SLP-450 is about two times faster.
The printers use Direct Thermal technology.

  SLP-440 SLP-450
Maximum Label Width 2⅛" (58 mm) 2⅛" (58 mm)
Resolution 300 dpi 300 dpi
Label Purpose Envelopes, file folders, bar codes, packages, diskettes, Zip® disks, name badges, 35mm slides, Rolodex® cards and more Same as SLP-440, but prints faster
Approximate Print Speed 2–3 sec. per label 1–2 sec. per label
Approximate Price $100 $140

See Seiko Web site for more details.

Brother Printers

Brother's QL series includes QL-500, QL-570 and QL-1050 models, compatible with Windows and Mac OS X operating systems. The printers use Direct Thermal technology.

  QL-500 QL-570 QL-1050
Maximum Label Width 2.4" 2.4" 4"
Speed (labels per minute) 50 68 69
Cutter Manual Automatic Automatic
Approximate Price $70 $100 $200

Compatible tapes:

  • Standard Address Labels
  • Shipping Labels
  • File Folder Labels
  • Multi-Purpose Labels
  • CD/DVD Film Labels
  • Large Address Labels
  • Small Address Labels
  • White Continuous Paper Rolls
  • White Continuous Film Rolls
  • Yellow Continuous Film Rolls
  • Clear Continuous Film Rolls.

Brother printers have some features not found in other printers. They are equipped with cutters — manual in QL-500, automatic in QL-550 and 1050. They are bigger than printers from other manufacturers because they have the power adaptor built in. Also, they feature easy to use drop-in label rolls of several preset sizes, which makes the label changing process fast.

See Brother Web site for more details.

DYMO Printers

The LabelWriter 400 series is similar to the more recent 310 and 330 series, but provides higher print speed. Two others are remarkable because can handle two label rolls at the same time.

  LabelWriter 400 Turbo LabelWriter Twin Turbo LabelWriter DUO
Number of rolls loaded at the same time 1 2 2
Label size Up to 2.3" (58 mm) Up to 2.3" (58 mm) Up to 2.3" (58 mm)
Resolution 300 dpi 300 dpi 300 dpi
Speed (labels per minute), standard 4-line address 55 55x2 55
Approximate Price $140 $210 $220

Label purpose:

  • Address Labels
  • Large Address Labels
  • Return Address Labels
  • Shipping Labels
  • DYMO Stamps
  • File Folder Labels
  • Media Labels
  • Name Badges and Supplies
  • Appointment/Business Cards
  • Small Labels
  • Receipt Paper
  • Holiday Labels.

Read an article about Dymo printers for more details.

Zebra Printers

Zebra Technologies provides a large range of barcode and receipt printers, widely used by businesses world-wide. Zebra printers employ a proprietary programming language — EPL or ZPL (in the newer models).

ZebraBelow are the specifications of some of the most popular models supported in macOS:

  LP-2824 LP-2844
Programming Language EPL (2824)
ZPL (2824-Z)
EPL (2844)
ZPL (2844-Z)
Maximum Label Width 2.2" (56 mm) 4.09" (104 mm)
Resolution 203 dpi 203 dpi
Speed 4" (102 mm)/sec 4" (102 mm)/sec
Approximate Price $250–300 from $350

LP series printers use Direct Thermal technology, while TLP series printers use Thermal Transfer.

See Zebra Technologies for more details.