Choosing the Right Label Printer


Choosing the Right Label Printer

There are hundreds of different thermal label printers available from dozens of different manufacturers.  The aim of this article is to help you decide which thermal label printer suits you the best.

If you want to talk this through with one of the team, click the Chat button at the bottom of the screen, call us on 01359 271 111 or visit the contact us page.

Alternatively, follow our Printer Chooser – a simple questionnaire that will guide you through deciding what printer you need.  Click here.

We’ll cover:

  • Printer size – mobile, desktop or industrial
  • Print width and label size
  • Durability
  • Connectivity
  • Performance
  • Label Life – direct thermal or thermal transfer
  • RFID
  • How it will be put to use.

Printer Size – Mobile, Desktop or Industrial

Mobile Printer

Typical portable label printer
Typical portable label printer

Deciding if you need a portable label printer is pretty obvious. I guess you know that early on in your buying journey – just in case you don’t – portable printers are generally small enough to be carried over the shoulder or clipped to a belt.  They are perfect for shelf edge labelling or printing sample labels in the field – where you want to print and stick labels when you’re standing next to where the labels are used.

Generally portable printers are no good for long life labels or labels subject to high temperatures – as portable printers are mostly direct thermal printers.

Desktop Printer

ZD620 Desktop printer
Typical Desktop printer

If you’re limited in space then a desktop printer will be your preferred choice.   Less durable (because they’re made of plastic) and need refilling with labels and thermal ribbons more often than a larger industrial printer, they cost less and are perhaps a little easier to use.

Industrial Barcode Printer

Zebra ZT410 Industrial Printer
Industrial Printer

Industrial printer – generally metal cased, fast and can keep printing for longer without needing to change ribbons or labels.  They’re more expensive and take up more space.  They’re durable and will keep printing 24 hours a day 365 days a year.

Print Width and Label Size

Once you’ve decided on the size of printer you need, the next consideration is the width.

Most printers will print labels 100mm wide.  If you need (wider or narrower) then you have two options.

1 Inch wide label printer ZD420
6 inch wide ZT420 thermal label printer
6 inch wide ZT420

Buy a wide printer (like this 6 inch wide printer) or turn your labels around so you print narrow edge first (if the narrow edge is no wider than 100mm).

Wider printers cost more.  The printheads cost more when they are replaced.


Are you using your printer in a clean laboratory and only printing 100 labels a day – compared with a dusty factory where the printer is printing 10,000 labels a day 365 days a year?

If you have a clean environment with low print volumes – a desktop printer is our recommendation.

Where the number of labels printed is high then an industrial printer is a must.

In the middle ground there are plastic cased, industrial size printers that can print reliably for years.

There is a lot of grey area here – so best to contact us for our opinion.


Connection Options on a label printer

In other words – how is your printer receiving its printing orders?

Options include:

  • USB (the usual)
  • RS232 – Serial (usually found when printers need to connect to older systems or other electronics such as scales)
  • Ethernet
  • Bluetooth
  • Wifi
  • Memory cards
  • NFC (Near Field Communication)
  • Parallel
  • Applicator Interface or Applicator Port

Pretty much all printers come with a USB connection.

After that, different printers have differing options.  Some come with Ethernet as standard.  Others have bluetooth built in as standard.

If it’s using an out of the ordinary connection, such as Parallel (this used to be the standard printer interface back in the 1990s) or Applicator Interface (a way of connecting to computers or industrial electronics such as label applicators or PLCs to your printer) – your choice of hardware may be limited.

Ethernet provides a number of benefits that you might not think of.

The obvious benefit is being able to print from anywhere on your network but additionally – software is available from most printer manufacturers that will allow you to manage your printer fleet, providing you have a network connection.

Using printer management software you can receive warnings by email if your printer runs out of ink or labels. You can remotely configure the printer. You can see its current state – in other words – has someone left the printhead open or is it jammed?

This is most convenient if you have an Ethernet connection from your printer to your network.


Printers range in print speed from 4 inches per second to 14 inches per second.

Speed isn’t an issue unless you’re waiting for your labels.

Typical scenarios where you don’t want to wait for a label is with production lines where every second spent waiting costs money. Another situation might be where staff need to wait for a batch of labels to be printed.

If you’re printing labels for a high speed production line or you have people waiting for batches of labels then buy a faster printer.

Larger industrial printers are faster than smaller desktop printers.

Label Life

Labels fall into two categories:

  • Heat sensitive direct thermal labels or
  • Thermal transfer labels/tags.

Direct thermal labels typically have a shorter label life and are not good in high temperature situations i.e. direct sunshine.

The benefit of direct thermal labels is that direct thermal printers are more straightforward. They don’t need to use a thermal ribbon so the ribbon handling mechanism is removed.  That brings the printer cost down a little.

Direct thermal printer open
Direct thermal printer – no ribbon mechanism
Thermal transfer printer with ribbon mechanism
Thermal transfer printer with ribbon mechanism

However, if you want to print long life labels or scratch resistant labels then you will need a thermal transfer printer. You can’t print waterproof plastic labels or tags without a thermal ribbon.

Direct Thermal printers can only print onto specially coated paper or labels.  Thermal transfer printers can print onto a whole range of different label materials including direct thermal paper (you simply print without a thermal ribbon loaded into the printer) – so they’re more flexible.

If you have a specific short-life paper labels task for your printer, (for example address or fresh food labels) and you don’t plan to change the use of the printer – then a direct thermal printer makes sense.

Perhaps you could use our Printer Chooser – to guide you through deciding what printer you need.  Click here.

RFID Label Printers

RFID Label printer
RFID Label Printer

If you need to print Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) labels then there are label printers that will print the label and write data to your RFID tags.

This is something only a handful of label printers can do so you need to choose a specific printer that prints onto RFID labels.

Zebra Technologies have a range of RFID label printers.  Within the range you’ll find a portable printer, industrial printers to print 4 or 6 inch wide labels, high speed printers capable of printing at 14 inches per second and a desktop printer, for small spaces.

RFID printing is a specialist area of expertise and Zebra have a lot of resources in this area.  If you want to learn more about RFID contact us here for help.

Updated 10 May 2019


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