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This is a buying guide for the best thermal transfer printers on the market. If you intend to buy a thermal transfer printer for making product labels, shipping labels with barcodes, or receipts, you should read this post to the end. We will discuss the benefits of using thermal transfer printers and how they differ from direct thermal printers, among other things. But more importantly, you will learn how you can get the best product for your printing needs.
Labels, barcodes, and receipts are the easiest things to print, but that’s only if you get the right printer for the job. But there are plenty of brands and products to choose from, so it could be stressful trying to figure out the best of them all. That’s why we have created this buying guide and a list of the best products out there. We have sorted through tons of online reviews and ratings from verified customers to come up with the information in this post.
What is The Best Thermal Transfer Printer?
The best thermal transfer printers have two major qualities in common: speed and efficiency. Any printer that produces quality prints as efficient, because the primary goal of printing is to get durable and clear prints. But beyond this, the best thermal transfer printers also print quickly.
✅ This specific product is our choice. It is not only fast, but it also produces quality prints. You can count on it for clear and long-lasting imprints on your labels.
To narrow down your choices, the best printer for you is one that is:
- Suitable for your peculiar needs
- within your financial capacity
You can’t decipher these qualities just by looking at the printer. That is why many people get confused by the many products they come across. This post will help you tackle this problem by revealing all the tricks to picking the best thermal transfer printers. If you know what to look for, you would be able to pick the right product. But before that, let’s show you a list of top-notch thermal transfer printers that you can invest in for your business.
Top 5 Best Thermal Transfer Printers for Labels, Barcodes, Receipts
Here are our top 5 products:
Brother printers are generally known to be reliable. That’s why they most often top the list of best printers across diverse categories. If you invest in this Brother printer, you won’t regret it. For starters, the QL-820NWB printer is small and compact, so it won’t be hard finding a space for it on your desk. It’s also easy to set up and operate.
You can effortlessly find and pick the best setting for your application. Other functionalities, such as adjusting template settings and size, among other things are easy. What’s more, the print quality is high. The printer makes bold and clear-cut prints.
Special Features of Brother QL-820NWB
A great advantage is that this printer offers dual-color printing, meaning you can easily differentiate distinct labels. The device also offers both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, which makes it more versatile. The reviews on Amazon show that most customers love this product.
As with most products, it has potential flaws too. However, from our research and evaluations, it still ranks well above other products on the market. It’s worth every penny you spend to buy it, but thankfully it doesn’t cost too much.
✅ Video – Unboxing QL-820NWB and Sample App Test Print
This is another Brother product that you can count on. Like the QL-820W model, it is small and compact too. It is also equipped with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, which allows you to print labels directly from your tablet or smartphone anywhere and at any time.
It’s a decent choice for anyone looking for a lightweight high-quality printer that they can use anywhere they need it. You can buy an additional battery so that you can easily use the printer while on the move. If the battery runs out, you can replace it with the extra battery.
Special Features of Brother QL-810W
With this product, you should expect to produce labels at an amazing print speed. It can produce over 100 labels in one minute and this does not compromise print quality. This printer prints clear images with a resolution of 300 x 600.
Its print speed without a compromise on quality is one of the unmatched advantages of this printer. These and its compact size make the Brother QL-810W printer one of the best thermal transfer printers on the market.
✅ Video – Tested & Review: Brother QL-810W Ultra-Fast Label Printer
This Zebra printer is unique for its hybrid thermal transfer and direct thermal functionality. It offers a perfect printing solution for those who want a flexible label printer. The printer is also small, which makes it ideal for close workspaces.
Despite its small size, it’s a high-performance printer that produces high-quality printers at top of the world speed. Its media capacity is also top-notch. What’s more, it has a unique design that allows you to load your labels easily and monitor them during the printing process.
Special Features of Zebra TLP2824 Plus
The TLP2824 Plus printer offers the widest variety of connectivity, including USB and Ethernet interfaces. This would make it easy to integrate the printer with various applications and other existing systems. You can count on the durability of this printer because it has a dual-wall made of high-density plastic. It would outlast many impacts that would destroy other comparable printers.
✅ Video – Zebra LP2824 Plus/ TLP2824 Plus desktop Printers
This is another reliable model of Zebra thermal transfer printers. It has various features that can be of benefit to your company. It’s a short-run label printer that can handle basic printing applications, including texts and barcodes on medium and small-sized labels.
Over the years, Zebra GK420t has gained popularity and wide acceptance for its small size and high productivity. It fits well into offices and production rooms, as well as other locations with a tight space.
Special Features of Zebra GK420t
This printer is not industrial-grade, but it can survive extreme work environments, including shop floors and warehouses. They are sturdy and would last long if you take care of them correctly.
As regards print speed and resolution, GK420t prints 5 inches of labels with a 230 dpi resolution. It also offers various connectivity alternatives for effortless integration into your existing networked or local systems. It is cheap, easy to set up, flexible, reliable, and durable.
The ZT410 industrial printer model is one of the longtime customer favorites on the market because of its RFID option and high resolution. You can use this printer to encode UHF RFID tags, and this makes it a smart label solution. For more on the best RFID printers, click here
With the RFID option, you’ll get better efficiency and accuracy. It also has a wide touchscreen interface for easy navigation. The LCD is colorful and features a backlit screen, which offers an intuitive experience for users.
Special Features of Zebra ZT410
This printer is ideal for large volume applications, so you can count on it for industrial printing that requires several hours of operation per day. It has a wide printing capability and prints at a high speed too. It can print labels up to 6.6 inches wide, a feature that is quite rare among label printers. And while it’s an industrial printer, you can use it for printing basic labels too.
Is Thermal Transfer Better Than Direct Thermal?
Thermal transfer printers offer a better print quality. They are also generally more durable and last longer than direct thermal prints, so they are better for long-term applications. Thermal transfer labels can hold up to solvents, abrasion, and UV exposure better than their direct thermal counterparts. They also withstand moisture and harsh chemicals better.
However, if you will use the prints in a controlled environment, you should use a direct thermal printer. Direct thermals are also suitable for short-term applications. More so, they don’t use ribbons, so they are a cheap option for printing temporary labels. In the end, your printing needs will determine what thermal printer type is more suitable.
What Is The Best Thermal Printer For Shipping Labels?
If you intend to print shipping labels, direct thermal printers are your best bet. Thermal transfer printers can also make good quality shipping labels but direct thermal seems to be a better option. The sharp quality of direct thermal prints is suitable for the barcode applications on shipping labels. This quality makes the barcodes easy to scan.
However, direct thermal prints do not usually last long. So if you are printing long-term shipping labels, go for a thermal transfer printer. If you use direct thermal printing for long-term shipping labels the barcodes may fade before the item reaches its destination. Thermal transfer is also the way to go for shipping labels on products that may pass through harsh conditions.
Do Thermal Printers Wear Out?
Nothing lasts forever, so thermal printers also wear out. But if you clean your thermal printhead regularly, it should take an average of 10 years before it wears out. In that period, you would have printed millions of labels. And when the printhead eventually wears out, you can simply replace it and keep using your printer. But if you like, you can choose to get a new printer.
How Do I Clean A Thermal Printhead?
You can clean a thermal printhead with isopropyl alcohol, printer cleaning pens, cleaning cards, or special thermal ribbons with in-built cleaners. We’ll show you how to use each of these options.
You can apply isopropyl alcohol to your thermal printhead to remove dirt and debris. To do this, put some drops on a swab or lint-free cloth and clean the printhead with it. If you’re using a cloth, make sure the percent purity of the rubbing alcohol is high.
✅ Video – Thermal Printer head cleaning
This video contains a live demonstration of how to clean a thermal printhead with isopropyl alcohol. You will learn the step by step process of thermal printhead cleaning and how to do it safely.
Printer cleaning pens
If you want to do a simple touch-up, you can use printer cleaning pens. To do this, press the tip of the pen on the printhead and move it in sideway motions. After using the pen about ten times, you should discard it. If you keep using a printer cleaning pen after dirt and debris have accumulated on it, it will do your printhead no good.
✅ Video – How to use cleaning kits to clean the thermal printhead
Cleaning pens are extremely useful for cleaning thermal printheads. It easily removes dirt from printheads. But you must know how to use it safely. this video shows you all you need to know about using cleaning kits.
Cleaning cards are particularly good for cleaning the rollers. Use cleaning cards only for occasional cleaning. If you use them too often, they might cause abrasion and damage your printhead and rollers.
✅ Video – How to use thermal cleaning cards
This is a short video on how to use cleaning cards. The process is quite simple and should take less than a minute to complete. The use of cleaning cards is the simplest way to clean a dirty thermal printhead.
Thermal ribbons with in-built cleaners
You can also use special thermal ribbons with in-built cleaners for your printhead. The special ribbons help remove dirt and debris from your printhead before they build up.
You should clean your printhead each time you change paper rolls. This will do two things; it will improve the quality of your prints and help extend your printer’s lifespan. Dirt and debris can clog your printhead and reduce your print quality. They can also cause scraping and wear out the printhead. Thermal printheads are very expensive, so it costs a fortune to change them when they get damaged.
✅ Video – Thermal Head Cleaning w/Ribbon – High Volume Maintenance
The video will show you how to use a thermal cleaning ribbon to remove dust and residue from the printhead of your printer. This procedure would help fix unwanted lines and some other thermal printer issues.
Are Thermal Printers Expensive?
In terms of the upfront cost of purchase, thermal printers are more expensive. But thermal printers are cheaper to operate and maintain. Thermal printers might be more expensive to purchase, but the cost of maintenance will compensate for the extra cost of purchase.
Thermal printers use specialty materials, which add to operational costs. But they don’t use ink cartridges or toners, which are far more expensive. Instead of ink, thermal transfer printers use ribbons.
Desktop Thermal Transfer Printer
Desktop thermal transfer printers are small and compact units that are suitable for small to medium scale printing applications. As their name implies, desktop printers are typically used on office desks alongside computers. They mostly work with the USB interface, although many top-notch products also offer Bluetooth, Ethernet, and serial connectivity options. They are usually very affordable and easy to operate.
Features of Desktop Thermal Transfer Printers
Here are some of the common features of desktop thermal printers:
- Most models have a plastic clamshell case.
- Their maximum print width often ranges from 2 to 4 inches.
- The print resolution of desktop printers range from 203-600 dpi.
Where Are Desktop Thermal Printers Used?
The common places where desktop thermal printers are used include the following:
- Shipping areas
- Reception areas
- Hospital admissions desks
- Phlebotomy workstations
You can use desktop thermal printers anywhere you need to print labels and barcodes on demand. But if you prefer to have label tapes for crafting or organizing, you should get a label maker. Label makers also use thermal printing technology.
✅ Video – Increase your Productivity with the Brother QL-820NWB Label Printer
Brother QL-820NWB tops our list of the best thermal transfer printers. It is a desktop printer that can help scale up your productivity. In the video below, you’ll see a demo of how to set up and use the QL-820NWB printer for increased productivity.
Industrial Thermal Transfer Printer
Industrial thermal transfer printers have a more rugged constriction than desktop printers. They are designed to handle higher volume labeling applications. Unlike desktop printers, industrial printers often feature a metal case.
Most industrial printer models offer higher resolutions and wider widths than desktop printers. They also often feature an LCD or, in some cases, a touch screen panel. What’s more, they have larger thermal ribbon and label roll capacities, as well as faster printing speeds.
With industrial thermal printers, you can produce more barcodes and labels and at a faster speed than the smaller desktop printers. They offer a wide variety of printing options, including advanced peel, auto cutters, and RFID encoding. These features, however, vary from brand to brand and from model to model.
Thermal Transfer Printer Ribbon
Thermal transfer printers need thermal transfer ribbons to create images. Ribbons are divided into three main types: wax ribbons, wax-resin ribbons, and resin ribbons.
Wax ribbons are of the lowest quality, wax-resin ribbons are intermediate, and resin ribbons are of the best quality. Resin ribbons are also the most expensive, but they can resist scratching and smudging. They can also hold up to harsh conditions, such as exposure to chemicals, extreme temperature, and solvents.
Thermal Transfer Printer Paper
Thermal transfer printing also uses specialty paper. Unlike direct thermal papers, thermal transfer papers do not contain ink pigments. But they have a surface that can accept and retain prints from thermal ribbons.
Thermal transfer papers are most commonly printed with wax ribbons. Wax-resin ribbons are mostly used on soft synthetic media, while resin ribbons are mostly used on hard films, such as polyester. Of these three combinations, hard films printed with resin ribbons last the longest.
Thermal Transfer Printer Color
Thermal transfer printers can produce color print when you use colored ribbons. The logos, texts, and graphics on your label will appear in the ribbon color. Most thermal transfer printers do not allow color-coding for specific graphics or text blocks. Rather, the entire label is printed in the ribbon color. If the ribbon is green, the entire label will be printed in green color.
Some modern thermal transfer printers now accept more color variation. These printers use either CMY (three-colored) or CMYK (four-colored) panels to create prints. However, they cannot vary the color intensity as regular printers do. While their print quality is acceptable for most day-to-day label applications, they do not match up with the quality of inkjet and laser color printers.
Thermal Transfer Printer vs Direct Thermal
Direct thermal uses special thermochromic media, treated with heat-sensitive chemicals. These materials blacken wherever it comes in touch with hot thermal printhead pins. Thermal transfer printers also use hot thermal printed pins to create images but they don’t use heat-sensitive media. Rather, they use thermal ribbons to create durable and long-lasting prints.
Thermal transfer accepts more types of label media than direct thermal. As the media and the ribbon travel through the printer together, the hot thermal printhead pins melt ribbon onto the label. The printer cools the ribbon immediately so that it sticks permanently to the label.
✅ Video – Direct Thermal Vs. Thermal Transfer: What’s the Difference?
In this video, personnel from Online Labels, Inc. compares direct thermal and thermal transfer printers. She talks about the benefits and disadvantages of both options. She also explains their different requirements for label materials. Watch the video to understand which of the two options is more suitable for your printing needs.
Thermal Transfer Printer Applications
Thermal transfer applications cut across many industries. Below are some of the industries that use thermal transfer printing, and the different applications it is used for.
Retail businesses use thermal transfer printers for the following applications:
- Price labels
- Promotional labels
- Swing tickets
- Shelf edge labels
Manufacturing and Warehouse Applications
Thermal transfer printers have become popular among manufacturers and in warehouses for the following applications:
- Product marking
- Inventory control
- Shipping labels
- Carton or pallet labels
- Document management
The healthcare industry also makes use of thermal transfer technology for certain applications. These include the following:
- Specimen labeling and tracking
- Asset tracking
- Patient identification tags
- Visitor identification tags
Transport and Logistics
Thermal transfer printing has made transport and logistic applications easier to print. Some of the common uses of thermal transfer printers in these industries are as follows:
- Passenger tickets
- Freight tracking
- Receipt printing
- Shipping labels
- Item marking
- Inventory control
- Carton or pallet labels
- Document management
Food and Beverage Industry
Food and beverage manufacturers use thermal transfer printers to generate a vast array of labeling applications. They include:
- Product barcodes
- Product tracking
- Batch numbers
- Best-before or expiry dates
- Inventory management
Travel and Leisure
Talk about ticketing services, sports arena, event planning, and concert halls, among other applications within the spectrum of travel and leisure. You can use thermal transfer printing for the following applications:
- Theater/ Amusement park tickets
- Access control
- Wristband printing
- Flight tickets
- Receipts and coupons
- Parking-lot tickets
- Dinner-order fulfillment
- Multiple-up labeling
The introduction of thermal transfer technology in many government agencies has helped improve their processes. Some key applications of thermal transfers in government agencies are as follows:
- Records and evidence
- File management
- Traffic tickets
- Parking tickets
- Law enforcement
- Specimen labeling
- Access tags to restricted areas
✅ Video – How does a thermal transfer printer work?
In case you’re wondering how thermal transfer printers work, you should watch this video. The presentation is absolutely excellent, clear, and very practical. After watching this video, you will be convinced about getting a thermal transfer printer if indeed you need one.
6 Benefits of Thermal Transfer Printers
Thermal transfer printers have many advantages. While they also have a few disadvantages, their benefits far outweigh their disadvantages when you use them for labels, barcodes, and receipt printing. Here are some of the benefits of thermal transfer printers:
Durability and longevity
They offer more labeling options for durability and longevity. Generally, thermal transfer labels are more durable and last longer than direct thermal labels. Thermal transfer prints can withstand harsh environments.
Excellent print quality
They print barcodes, graphics, and texts with high resolution. What you get from thermal transfer printing is excellent, crisp, and clear print quality.
Long printhead lifespan
Thermal transfer printheads often have a very long lifespan. They last longer than direct thermal printheads because the thermal ribbons function as a buffer and prevent abrasion. Abrasion occurs in direct thermals as the printhead rubs against the paper surface, without a buffer.
Thermal transfer printers can print in various colors, depending on ribbon color. Available colors include black, red, yellow blue, and green, among others. Some thermal transfers can also create hologram images.
Reliable and easy to handle
Thermal transfers are easy to operate. They have fewer moving parts compared to regular printers. Papers and ribbons are also easy to load, requiring no expertise. They are also very reliable because they hardly break down.
Thermal printers generally print at record high speed. Thermal printers can print receipts and tickets in a matter of 2 seconds. This will reduce long queues at your business.
Thermal Transfer Printer Disadvantages
The few disadvantages of thermal transfer printing are as follows:
- They require dual media – ribbons and labels.
- Ribbons are single pass, meaning they can sometimes be wasteful when you are printing only on a small area of the label.
5 Thing to Consider When Buying a Thermal Transfer Printer
Without a guide, you can make unnecessary mistakes while shopping for thermal transfer printers. That’s why we have put together a list of factors to consider while looking for the best thermal transfer printer. If you carefully consider the factors below in making your choice of printer, you are sure to get one that would serve you without disappointments and regrets.
Here are the key factors to consider before you buy a thermal transfer printer:
The first thing that defines the best printer for you is that it can meet your needs satisfactorily. So, this is the first factor to consider. These are a few questions that can help you define your needs:
- What kind of labels do you intend to print? Get one that’s most suitable for your label application.
- What is the maximum label size you will be printing? This should determine the size of the printer you will buy. A 2-inch wide thermal printer cannot print an 8-inch wide label.
- How many labels will you be printing daily? For low-output printing, you can but a portable entry-level printer. Mass output, on the other hand, may require a commercial or industrial-grade printer.
The printing resolution of a printer determines how legible and clear its imprint will be. So make sure the printer has a high enough resolution to give you high-quality, legible, and crystal-clear prints.
A thermal printer with a resolution of 200 dpi should produce clear and durable barcodes and large texts. But there are higher-end printers with a resolution of 300-600 dpi. The best way to find out a printer’s print quality is to get print samples and examine them.
The connectivity capabilities of a thermal printer also matter a lot. This determines the kinds of devices you can use with your thermal printer. Most thermal transfer devices come with a standard USB connection, which works well with computers. However, not all thermal transfer printers are compatible with Mac and PC. Some printers support only one of the two, while some support both.
Some printers also support wireless connection to tablets, smartphones, computers, and other devices. Wireless connections can be Bluetooth, Ethernet, or Wi-Fi connectivity. Printers with more connectivity capabilities are versatile and more convenient to use.
Reviews, Ratings, and Recommendations
There is no better way to gauge the performance of a product than to hear from those who have used it. Before you settle for any product, make sure to check only reviews and ratings from verified customers. If you know people who have used the model or who know much about printers, you should also ask for their recommendations.
Customer Support and Warranty
Customer support is always a plus for any device or gadget. This ensures that you can get instant help from support staff if the need arises. A company that leaves you all to yourself does not deserve your patronage.
Manufacturer warranty is also vital. Firstly, it assures you of the quality of the product. Secondly, it makes your purchase more secure and less risky in case something goes wrong with the product.
What Is Thermal Transfer Paper?
Thermal transfer papers are specialty media used in thermal transfer printers. This paper type requires a ribbon for printing. As the paper and ribbon passes under the hot printhead, the heat melts the thermal ribbon and sticks its pigment to the paper. Thermal transfer paper is more durable than direct thermal paper.
Do Thermal Printers Use Ribbons?
Not all thermal printers use ribbons but thermal transfer printers do. You cannot print with a thermal transfer printer without ribbons. Thermal ribbons contain the ink pigments that create imprints on thermal transfer labels.
How Long Do Thermal Transfer Ribbons Last?
Manufacturers typically set the average shelf life of thermal transfer ribbons to one year. This means that a thermal ribbon is likely to expire after one year post-manufacture date. However, once you expose a thermal ribbon, you must use it within 24 hours. These are average figures. The exact lifespan of a ribbon depends on the type of ribbon, its brand and model, and the storage conditions.
What Is Wax Ribbon?
Wax ribbon is simply a thermal ribbon made with wax material. This ribbon type is the cheapest but it also produces the lowest print quality. Wax ribbon is good for many day-to-day general printing applications but it is softer than other ribbons types and more prone to scratches and smudging.
How Do You Use A Thermal Printer?
To use a thermal printer, set it up and feed in paper rolls and ribbons (if it’s a thermal transfer printer). When the printer is all set, install its driver on your PC or Mac. Then, print a sample page to check the print quality. After doing these, you start using the printer to produce labels, barcodes, receipts, or other printing applications.
How Long Does Thermal Printing Last?
Direct thermals can last for up to 15 years if you store them properly. But thermal transfer labels are more durable and can last for up to 25 years. The thermal printing lifespan, however, depends on many factors. Media type, ribbon type, storage conditions, and how you handle the label all contribute to the lifespan of thermal printing. In the worst cases, thermal printing may not last longer than 24 hours.
Will Laminating Receipts Preserve Them?
Cold laminates can preserve receipts but hot-melt laminates will damage them instead of preserving them. This is because thermal prints, especially thermal receipt papers, are not designed to withstand extremely high temperatures.
While cold laminates can extend the lifespan of your receipt, it will not ultimately prevent it from fading. Your receipt will eventually fade even if you apply a cold laminate to it. To further extend your receipts’ lifespan, store laminated receipts in a cool, dark place.
You must have learned a lot about thermal transfer printers already. And we hope that you now have what it takes to buy the best thermal transfer printer for your printing applications. Our buyer’s guide and top 5 products listed above should give you an idea of what you should look for when you go shopping for a thermal transfer printer. The final call is yours to make but we hope that you are well equipped to choose a printer that will meet your needs, give you no troubles, and help your organization or business thrive.