What is a thermal printer and do you need one?

What is a thermal printer and do you need one?

The Exciting World of Thermal Printers: A Guide

Zebra Image Source: Digital Trends

Printers have come a long way since the days of clunky dot matrix machines. Today, when we think of printers, inkjet and laser models usually come to mind. But there exists an unsung hero in the world of printing technology – the thermal printer. While not as widely known, thermal printers offer a unique way to lower costs dramatically depending on your printing needs and frequency.

What is a Thermal Printer?

Have you ever received a receipt from the grocery store or seen barcodes on product labels? Chances are, those were printed using a thermal printer. This type of printer is commonly used in businesses, such as the post office or warehouses, where monochrome prints are sufficient. However, thermal printers are also suitable for home offices as secondary printers, especially if speed is essential.

The Magic of Heat Printing

Based on the name, you might already gather that thermal printers use heat to imprint text and graphics onto paper. The real question is, how does heat create printed images?

Thermal printers are remarkably efficient, quiet, fast, and require minimal maintenance. The only moving parts are the paper and sometimes the ribbon. Alignment is unnecessary, and the printers work by applying pressure and heat directly to the paper’s surface through the printhead. This method results in prints that are more detailed and robust, making them perfect for items like barcodes and shipping labels.

Thermal printers come in two types: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Both are cost-effective solutions, but each offers unique advantages.

The Marvels of Direct Thermal

Coffee receipts faded from heat exposure Image Source: Carli Jeen / Unsplash

Direct thermal printers eliminate the need for cartridges, ink, or toner. Instead, the print head applies heat directly to thermal paper, causing it to change color. The output is usually black, but you can also find blue and red options depending on the paper’s formulation. As thermal paper is only slightly more expensive than regular paper, ongoing costs remain very low.

However, direct thermal prints are less durable. Over time, exposure to heat will cause the text or graphics to fade, potentially ruining labels or receipts. So, while direct thermal printers are cost-effective, they may not be suitable for long-term document or label durability.

The Versatility of Thermal Transfer

A shipping envelope with a printed address label Image Source: Mediamodiier / Unsplash

Thermal transfer printers offer a wide variety of ribbon colors, including the possibility of using custom colors. Although the result is still a single-color print, opt for color-coding labels for warehouse use, where visual organization is vital.

Thermal transfer printers work by melting wax or resin onto paper using heat. This method provides greater print durability, making prints resistant to heat, moisture, light, and friction. The only drawback is the need to replace the ribbons that hold the wax or resin, making thermal transfer slightly more expensive than direct thermal. However, the cost difference is minimal, usually a fraction of a cent per label, and the benefits of enhanced durability make it a worthwhile investment.

Who Should Use Thermal Printers?

Thermal printers are ideal for businesses that frequently require monochrome or single-color printing for extended periods of time. These printers use inexpensive, narrow paper straight from a roll.

If your daily operations involve printing receipts, labels, and barcodes, a thermal printer is an excellent choice. Although the upfront cost may be higher, the long-term value surpasses the initial savings provided by inexpensive inkjet printers.

When to Opt for an Inkjet Printer

Epson Image Source: Epson

Inkjet printers, known for spraying ink droplets onto paper, are great for multicolor prints. However, the ongoing cost and waste of replacing ink cartridges can be a hassle. Thankfully, there are inkjet tank systems available that use bottles instead of cartridges, reducing costs and waste.

While inkjet printers can provide high-quality photo prints and are versatile enough to handle black-and-white business documents and labels, it’s important to note that most ink is water-soluble. If you anticipate water exposure for items like barcodes or shipping labels, consider covering the print with tape or placing it inside a plastic envelope to protect it.

When a Laser Printer Shines

Brother Image Source: Brother

While most thermal printers use narrow rolls of paper, laser printers are perfect for printing documents. Laser printers are known for their speed, economy, and low maintenance costs. The fused toner in laser prints is waterproof and durable, making them ideal for labels and barcodes.

If you’re looking for a printer that combines the speed of a laser with the versatility of an inkjet, consider a color laser printer. These printers can produce high-quality photos, black-and-white, and color documents while keeping the cost per page low.

Do You Need a Thermal Printer or Something Else?

In a home setting, a thermal printer can be the perfect companion for quick and efficient printing, especially when your inkjet printer is offline waiting for a new cartridge. If the noise and vibrations of a laser printer are too disruptive, the near-silent operation of a thermal printer will be a welcome relief.

However, the single-color printing and limited paper options of thermal printers may prove too restrictive for extensive document printing. In such cases, it is best to opt for an inkjet or laser printer. It may be worth considering a thermal printer as a secondary option to complement your existing inkjet or laser printer.

If labels, barcodes, and receipts are not part of your daily routine, you’ll likely be happier with an inkjet or laser printer. For further guidance, check out our list of the best printers on the market.

Remember, the printing world offers a variety of options to suit different needs. Whether you choose a thermal printer, inkjet, or laser printer, you’ll surely find a reliable companion to meet your printing requirements.