Label Maker, Writer, Printer Machines: Barcode, Thermal, Adhesive

Labeling machines are used to organize the office and home: files, boxes, power cords, network cables, tools, CDs, DVDs, wine bottles, spice bottles, lunch boxes, light switches. They are also be used to print barcodes, postage and shipping labels.

They cost from $20 to over $100, depending on the type. Brands include Dymo, Brother (P-Touch), Brady, Zebra and Casio.

Types of Labeling Machines: Printers Versus Makers

Label makers are standalone label machines, while label printers are controlled from a PC:

  • Label makers print one or two lines of text on a continuous ribbon. There are designed for labeling objects. They have a small keyboard to enter text, and an LCD display. Some can also be controlled from a PC.
  • Label printers (or writers) print multiple lines of text, on labels a few inches wide. They are designed for printing postage, mailing labels, temporary ID cards. A USB cable connects them to a PC. They are like normal PC printers, but with non-standard paper sizes.

Printing Labels on a Standard PC Printer

An alternative to a dedicated label printer is a standard Letter or A4 full page printer. Letter-sized pages of adhesive labels, are available from companies such as Avery. Special PC printing software (such as Microsoft word templates) is provided to position text over each label in the page.

Advantage

  • No special hardware required. Will work with generic inkjet or laser printers (check label compatibility first).

Disadvantage

  • Not suitable for low printing volume. One sheet can contain 10 to 40 individual labels. It’s possible to print one label at a time, leaving the other labels blank, but multiple passes of the sheet through the printer will eventually ruin the remaining blank labels.

Types of Print Mechanisms and Labels

Most label machines are thermal printers. This means no separate ink cartridge is required. There are two main types of labels, paper and plastic (both have sticky, adhesive backs):

  • Paper labels are used mainly with label printers, for shipping labels. They are usually larger than plastic labels. Many types fade after a few months, especially in sunlight.
  • Plastic labels are typically used with label makers. They last longer, especially laminated labels where the printed surface is protected by a clear film of plastic. Some are water resistant and can be washed, making them suitable for water bottles. Different colors are available.

Many printers will only support one type of label. It’s important to decide on the type of label needed, before choosing a printer. The cost of replacement labels can add up, eventually costing more than the labeling machine. The availability of cheap third-party labels is an important consideration.

Label Makers

These are general-purpose labelers, used in the home and office. They are a direct replacement for those old mechanical labelers, where you turn a large dial to choose a character, then squeeze hard on the handle to create an embossed character on the adhesive plastic tape.

Most manufacturers will have a few standard types of plastic or paper tape, in different widths and colors. Tape widths range from about half to one inch. Each label maker should be able to handle more than one tape width. Some manufacturers have iron-on tapes, allowing labels to be fixed on to clothing.

Print resolution usually tops out at 180 DPI (dots per inch), so the text can be a bit blocky.

They run on batteries (up to 6 AA or AAA) for convenience and portability. For heavy use, a DC adapter is useful. Some manufacturers sell the adapter separately, which can cost as much as the label maker.

A small LCD display shows the characters that are typed in, allowing checking of the text before printing. The display can be as small as a single line of 4 to 12 characters, reaching three lines of 15 characters on larger models.

The keyboard can be either a standard QWERTY or alphabetical. With PC usage being so common, there’s no advantage to having an alphabetical keyboard anymore.

One common complaint is that the machine wastes tape by leaving a large margin (up to one inch) before and after the text. The margin can be adjusted on some machines, but not on others. A “chain” feature prints out multiple labels one after the other, without cutting the label. The individual labels are later manually cut with a pair of scissors. This reduces the margin between labels.

Useful features are:

  • Auto power off to save batteries
  • Printable graphic symbols or icons (telephone, envelope, etc.)
  • Different font sizes (normal, half width, double width)
  • Different font styles (bold, italic, underline, shadow)
  • Selectable vertical/horizontal text orientation
  • Frames or borders around text
  • Quick clearing of text buffer (one button, instead of having to delete each character)
  • Saving of settings (font size, style) after power off
  • Memory to store commonly-used text
  • Dedicated keys for numbers, no need to shift the keyboard
  • Fixed width label printing (useful to fit file tabs, some will expand or shrink the font to fit the width, which might not be what everyone wants)

A few can be connected to a PC for easier control, and more fonts. Some models don’t have a keyboard, and must have a PC to work.

Label Printers

Label printers are designed more for office than home use. They are specialized machines, designed mainly for printing shipping labels and postage. If used for more permanent applications, such as printing barcodes for inventory control, it’s good to check that the labels are permanent and don’t fade after a few months.

Resolution is typically 300 DPI (dots per inch). Printing speed is higher than a label maker, about one label per second. Replacement labels are also cheaper than the plastic ribbons used on label makers. Different label roll widths are available, ranging from about one to three inches.

They are a replacement for inkjet and laser printers that print to Letter/A4 sheets of adhesive labels. They are more convenient because individual labels are easily printed, one at a time.

Most are controlled from the PC. They don’t have a keyboard. PC control means that photos can be printed, but in blocky black-and-white (no gray scale). This is useful for temporary ID badges.

Another useful feature is integration with standard Microsoft Windows or Apple MacIntosh address books, allowing names and addresses to be copied out and printed. Integration with MS Office software (with a toolbar) allows printing from within MS Word.

Postage can be printed directly to a label, replacing a postage or franking meter. The postage is purchased from the US Postal Service (USPS), Endicia.com or Stamps.com websites. Unfortunately, refunds for misprints aren’t always available if a label printer is used (refunds are sometimes available if a standard laser printer is used).

Some manufacturers have an optional digital weight scale, also connected to the PC with a USB cable. It integrates with the postage printing software, allowing automatic calculation of postage.

A dual label printer, such as the Dymo LabelWriter Twin Turbo, has selectable left and right printers. Two different rolls of labels can be loaded at the same time, reducing the need to swap rolls.

Useful features are:

  • Microsoft Office integration (print labels directly from MS Word toolbar)
  • PC address book integration
  • Ability to print USPS Postnet barcodes from zipcodes
  • Ability to print standard barcodes
  • Ability to use more than one roll width
  • Auto detection of roll width
  • Automatic date/time stamp, to label food
  • Integration with Endicia or other postage software

The Best Label Maker and Printer

Though often grouped together, label makers and printers are two very different products.

A label maker just needs to be reliable, have presentable output, and not waste too much tape on large margins. A label printer is more complicated as integration with address books or postage software can be a deal-breaker. Whatever the requirements, it’s a good idea to search the Internet for consumer reviews of individual models.

Some of the information in this article is based on user reviews of label machines on the Amazon.com website.