Today’s label printers vary from simple handhelds to industrial-grade models designed for wide deployment. Here’s everything you need to know to buy one, along with the best we’ve tested.
May 12, 2019 11:17AM EST
From Convenient to Mission Critical
When most people think of label makers—or label printers, labeling systems, barcode printers, or whatever each manufacturer calls its wares—those little handheld devices with small keyboards and one-line monochrome LCDs come to mind. Well, even though many of those are still available, at this point they are yesterday’s technology.
In fact, these days, there are many types and levels of label printers (in terms of price, label quality, and volume) available—from inexpensive and convenient consumer-grade models for labeling containers and other articles around home, to the mission-critical machines for printing shipping labels, warnings (Stop, Caution, Fragile, and so on), barcodes, product labels, and so much more.
Color Choices Galore
Most consumer-grade—and lower-end small-business—labelers print only one color, usually black, although some models offer paper that will produce other colors, such as yellow on black, for example. In fact, some label printers offer a wide range of monochrome-color choices, including, say, white on dark green, or yellow on pink.
The point is that the color of the paper, which is infused with only one foreground shade that is activated by the printer, is the background color. And then there are commercial label printers—which are well beyond the scope of this round-up—that print labels in all shapes and sizes in full color. There are even commercial label machines that are big enough to take up a good portion of your living room.
We primarily review consumer-grade and professional-grade small-business label printers that range in price from less than $100 to just more than $500. Believe it or not, compared with the number of commercial- and enterprise-grade labelers out there, there just aren’t that many lower-end consumer and small-business models available. The good news is that, for the most part, what is available is not only impressive but versatile, capable of printing many different types of labels at widely varying sizes.
How Label Makers Work
Perhaps all you need to label are some file folders, or you need to print mailing labels from a database. There are products that specialize in these tasks, but many of the most recent label printers support a diverse set of blank label tapes, or rolls, ranging in width and label types. Many of today’s labelers support rolls of several different widths, as well as continuous-length rolls, or those consisting of fixed-length die-cut labels that allow you to peel each print off the roll one at a time. Many label printers support not only paper labels, but also plastic, and sometimes those made of fabric or foil.
In addition, all labelers have cutters of one type or another, ranging from simple serrated-edge blades where you tear your labels from the roll manually, as you would tinfoil, to manual guillotine-like blades that you deploy with a lever, to automatic blades that cut each label as it comes out of the printer. Many also come with built-in batteries that allow to you use them on the go, cable-less, without having to plug them in, and a few others support optional attachable batteries.
Nearly all label printers in the consumer- and small-business-grade class are thermal printers. This means that the blank label material itself contains the color (there is no ink in the printer), which is released (in specific patterns) based on the thermal heat released as the paper (or whatever material) passes through the printer. Also, some label printer makers, like Brother, have recently released two-color paper, such as black and red.
Today’s labelers support more than just one width or length of rolls, increasing the diversity of label types you can create. If you plan to use your label printer for a wide range of projects—mailing labels, file folders, product barcodes, banners, and more—you should find a machine that supports several widths and other varying configurations of label rolls.
Connecting to Your Label Printer
An important factor in choosing a labeler is deciding how and where you’re going to use it. In other words, what type of connection(s) do you need? Many label printers support several connection types, while some support only one or two, with USB being the most common. Not only is it used for connecting to your computer or mobile device, but for the many labelers that come with batteries, it’s one of the more common ways to charge them.
The problem with USB is that the labeler must always be tethered to another device, making it more difficult to move around. In addition, printing devices that connect solely via USB do not connect to your network or the internet. Only the computing device connected to the printer over USB can access it.
Bluetooth, too, is supported by many label printers, as is Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Direct. Wi-Fi, of course, makes the printer part of your network, allowing all of the computers and mobile devices on the network—with the proper software installed, that is—access to the printer. Wi-Fi Direct creates a peer-to-peer network connection between a mobile device and the printer, meaning that neither the printer nor the mobile device requires a standard network connection or router.
Creating and Printing Labels
While yesteryear’s label printers required typing on tiny attached keyboards to print, most recent models take their direction from some type of computing device, either a desktop PC, a laptop, or a smartphone or tablet. Many of today’s labelers support all of these devices, which, among other things, provides a much easier and more versatile platform for creating and printing labels.
In most instances, the printer tells the software what type of label roll is loaded in the printer. In turn, the software displays predesigned templates for several different label types. You can then either fill in the blanks as-is, redesign the template, or start fresh and create your own custom labels. In many cases, in addition to using the symbols, borders, and other design options built into the software, you can also import clip art and sometimes even photos (which print in monochrome, of course) into your label layouts.
If you plan to print a large number of labels, another critical factor is the cost per label, which is also often referred to as the cost of ownership. Most label printers support a vast collection of label types, as many as 30 or more, ranging in various widths and lengths and colors and material types.
Simple 1.5-by-3.5-inch die-cut labels typically cost about 2 cents to 4 cents per label. Buying the same labels in bulk (say, 50 to 100 rolls) could knock your running costs down by 25 percent or more. Fancier plastic, cloth, and foil labels will cost you significantly more, as will larger labels.
It’s also important to remember that the cost per label can be significantly different from machine to machine, depending on what company makes the labeler, the type of labels you buy, how many rolls you buy, and where you buy them.
The list below includes the best label printers that we’ve recently tested. For a look at the top printers overall, check out our main roundup, as well as the best inkjet and laser printers you can buy right now.
Read the entire review at PCMag