Choosing the right barcode printer for your needs can be a bit overwhelming. There are a few questions you must ask yourself before buying a printer. The first is what are you printing? Most people use a thermal barcode printer to print labels or tags. The paper that runs through these printers isn't standard laser paper. Depending on what printer you buy, it may require a certain type of paper. Smaller, desktop printers are great for running small batches of labels or tags. These printers are typically direct thermal only; meaning they use a heat sensitive paper. Direct thermal labels are fine for shipping labels or something that isn't going to be around for a long period of time. Direct thermal paper changes color with exposure to heat or sunlight. Choosing a printer with a thermal transfer option will give you more range in the materials that you can print on. Thermal transfer paper is a coated paper label or tag stock that bonds well with a thermal transfer ribbon. The advantage of thermal transfer is longer life to the image on the label. Direct thermal labels are typically more expensive, but you have to factor in purchasing a ribbon with a thermal transfer label. Thermal transfer printers will give you more versatility. For instance; you may need to print shipping labels and also print a synthetic rack label for your warehouse. There are more thermal transfer label material options on the market, so if you think you'll be printing more than just shipping labels, then thermal tranfer might be a better option. Most of the larger printers can switch between direct thermal and thermal transfer with just a setting on the front panel of the printer. Using thermal tranfer labels will require that you change a ribbon after every 2 to 3 rolls of labels. In a manufacturing setting like a seafood distributor, they don't want the downtime of changing out a ribbon. A direct thermal shipping label can get printed rather fast and is only on the product the time of transit. A health care facility printing patient file labels may want to go with a thermal transfer barcode printer because the label will be around for the life of the patient.
If you are just printing a handful of shipping labels every month because a retailer requires you to, consider purchasing some sheet fed laser labels for your laser printer. Seagull Scientific makes a great label design software package called Bartender that allows users to create labels on the fly and incorporate barcodes and text on one label. Bartender will work with your laser printer and most thermal printers, should you decide to upgrade down the road.
If you are needing to print thousands of labels at a time, tying up your laser printer really doesn't make sense. Toner is expensive and it's not fun printing several sheets of labels at a time. A thermal printer will give you the speed and functionality you need. I would go with a printer that has a 4" print width and the capacity to hold an 8 inch roll diameter of labels. Your options are more diverse for different size labels than smaller, compact rolls. A printer will run between $800 and $1500. Plan on additonal money if you need faster speed, additional memory, higher resolution (DPI) or a wider print width. These printers can accomodate a variety of different label stocks from papers to polyesters. Print rack labels, asset labels and shipping labels on the same printer.
Rule of thumb is that if you are printing just text and a barcode on the label, a printer with a 203 DPI resolution is just fine. If you want a nice looking logo, have it preprinted on the labels and use the thermal printer to print just the variable information on the label. This will give you a professional look to your labels without breaking the bank.
Brad Hole is President of Eversio Technologies; a Seattle based distributor of barcode equipment, labels and software. http://www.eversio.com