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If you’ll be running a a shop that sells physical products, getting them into the customer’s hands is the entire cornerstone of your business. Sourcing product, marketing, and customer support are all important but making a sale and delivering the goods is where the rubber hits the road.
While we mainly focus on our digital products, we still ship 5 to 10 packages a day and, in the past, have sent out as many as 4,000 packages in a year! While that may be lower than what you’re doing, we probably have something in common, both of us want to invest in the best shipping label printer we can find because we know it will improve our bottom line.
When our store first started to pick up momentum and we were shipping a significant number of packages, Kirstie and I would spend hours everyday shipping. In fact, it quickly got to the point where we couldn’t source new products because we were just barely keeping up. We knew that simplifying our shipping process would be instrumental in improving not only our shipping time but our entire business model.
When it came to finding a label printer, we were pretty clueless at first. I knew that I didn’t want to buy ink forever (meaning I needed the best thermal label printer) but beyond that, we were shooting in the dark. However, that was years ago and we’ve become acquainted with nearly a dozen printers since then. While my search for the best shipping label printer turned up lots of options, only 5 of them are real competitors for the top spot and no small business should need anything outside one of these five:
8 Characteristics of the Best Thermal Label Printer:
Ease of Installation
When it comes to finding the best shipping label printer, ease of installation and use are of paramount importance. You might think it’s not a big deal to get it set up once but, with one thing and another, we’ve ended up setting up our printers several times apiece. We’ve upgraded our shipping computer, there has been a strange glitch or connectivity issue, or another odd problem has cropped up. So anything that is “plug and play” gets extra points.
The best thermal label printer will connect just like a regular printer. Meaning you plug it in, it installs itself, and you start printing. However, several printers require you to have an install CD or to download drivers/software from a website. While I don’t mind a bit of set-up work to get a better printer, ease of use is typically a sign of quality in my book.
Most small businesses have a dedicated shipping computer (if you don’t, get one) but many eBay or Etsy sellers who work only their phones want to be able to print from them too. I looked for printers that had as wide of connectivity range as possible, meaning Windows, Mac, Bluetooth, WiFi, etc.
Label Type & Sizes
Changing labels isn’t a huge deal in a thermal printer. However, it’s a big enough pain that when we wanted a thermal label printer for Amazon FBA we actually bought a separate printer instead of constantly swapping the labels in our shipping printer. Whether you do or don’t swap labels often, it is nice to have the ability to print a wide variety of things of a wide variety of sizes. Having the option to print more sizes means you can also print product labels, name tags, etc.
Durability (proven track record)
Like many commercial or office products, thermal label printers can stay on the market for a decade or more with little to no change. After all, if it works, don’t change it. Shipping labels haven’t changed in forever after all.
There are some new printers popping up on the market (mostly rebranded imports) so we’ve done our best to vet those we haven’t had direct experience with and ask around to get an idea about how they will perform for the long term. The best shipping label printers should last for 10 years or so without any serious maintenance so, anything less than that, gives us cause to drop it from our search.
For the average small business, eBay seller, or home shipping, printing speed really doesn’t matter. Everyone raves about the ROLLO being the fastest printer available and, while it’s fast, label printing speed is not a limiting factor in our business.
The other truth that nobody talks about is that there is a balance between speed and quality. Thermal labels react to heat (which makes the “printed” part black) and they can only react so fast. The fastest printers will never the highest quality. However, the speed of all printers can be adjusted in settings if you’re dissatisfied with the speed/quality balance you’re getting.
The time when printing speed does come into play is if you are labeling products, adding SKUs, or putting labels on items for Amazon FBA. Printing speed didn’t play a huge role in choosing our top pick but, if you need to prints hundreds or thousands of labels at a time, we included the information so you can more easily choose the best thermal label printer for your individual situation.
Available Support and Customer Service
In all honesty, I’ve never called customer service about a printer. I’m just not that kind of guy. I use Google to solve all my problems and, if I can’t figure out how to use a printer with information online, I’ll probably just chuck it in the garbage.
However, because I recognize that some people don’t hate contact with their fellow humans, I included in my reckoning what seems to be the general consensus about the customer service available for each printer.
Also included in this area was the balance of information available for setting up, using, and troubleshooting each thermal printer. Printers that have been around for a while (or are extremely popular) have a wealth of information available for them online that will answer just about every question you might have.
In my opinion, the price of a shipping label printer is not a huge deciding factor for most businesses. Their purchase is tax-deductible, they last forever, and they actually save money in the long run.
However, when I bought my first label printer to help scale my eBay business funds were incredibly tight. While I know many small business owners are in that boat, my first choice didn’t necessarily go for “cheapest” but for “best value for the money.”
It used to be that you needed a printer specifically for whatever platform you were using. If you used the post office, you’d look for the best USPS label printer, if you used Stamps.com you’d find a printer compatible with their platform, etc. This issue has largely faded away and pretty much any modern printer will work with any platform that you use so this was a huge factor in our decision.
The Best Thermal Printer for Shipping Labels
If you’ve read our article ROLLO: The Best Label Printer? you’ll know that this is the printer that we use in our warehouse (and by warehouse I mean basement shipping stations). It is my favorite printer on the market and, in my opinion, the best shipping label printer for almost every small business. While I do have a single minor gripe about it, let’s talk about the reasons that it rocks first:
- You can use any labels. When Kirstie and I bought our first printer (like a normal Walmart printer) we were pleasantly surprised that it was only $30. We were subsequently unpleasantly surprised to find out that ink refills for it were also $30. Much like printer companies that scam you into buying their ink, some thermal printer companies say that you must use their brand of expensive proprietary labels or you’ll void the warranty. (Dymo for example) ROLLO, on the other hand, says that their printer is compatible with any thermal label and that you should save yourself hundreds of dollars and just buy the generic ones!
- Your ROLLO printer will set-up just like a regular printer. Plug it into a USB port and it will install itself. And if you do need help? They offer both easy-to-follow videos and U.S. based customer support.
- The ROLLO is compatible with both Windows and Macs. I wish it had Bluetooth printing but, at this price point, I can’t complain.
- It will print on pretty much any thermal label you can find. It will prints at any width between 1.57″ and 4.1″ with no restriction at all for height.
My one gripe with this printer is that the labels are not contained in the machine. While it’s great that you can use either rolls or fan-fold labels, I don’t like the fact that I have to set them behind the printer in their own personal carriage. Maybe it’s just personal preference but I’d rather have everything as one unit. The positives outweigh this one blight however so I don’t have plans to switch printers anytime soon.
So there you have it! The ROLLO is the best shipping label printer for me and likely for you and your business. Get one and upgrade your shipping!
The Best Thermal Label Printer for Small Businesses
If this printer looks familiar, it’s because it’s a direct (but modern) copy of one of the most widely used label printers of all time: the Zebra LP2844. The LP2844 was the first printer we used in our business and held down my shipping station for about 6 years before we moved on. The reason it’s not included in this list is that it’s no longer made and can be a bit ornery to keep printing. The Arkscan on the other hand is a totally different story when it comes to ease of use.
Now, if you are looking for a fancy printer, look elsewhere. The Arkscan is a workhorse of a printer which means it is meant to be set-up (easily), stuck on a shelf, and used daily for the next 10 years. It has no bells or whistles and I would recommend it mainly for a business that needs a printer to ship 4×6 thermal labels day in and day out.
While this printer is a bit slower than the ROLLO, it does store its printer rolls inside which makes me happy. That, coupled with the price point, makes it easy for this printer to take second place here. If I owned a warehouse with a dozen shipping stations (as opposed to a basement with only two) this is the printer I would use. It is very low maintenance, does the job, and is cheap to replace.
Best Wireless Thermal Shipping Label Printer
This printer is a bit of a UFO compared to the first two. Why? Because you can print from your phone! (or a tablet, or from a desktop, laptop, etc.) As one of the few thermal printers out there with WiFi printing capabilities, this is a no brainer if you need to work from your phone or tablet.
As you would expect from a space-ship level printer, it works well with the majority of carriers and platforms. It does have a bit of a steeper learning curve than other printers and several people seem to return it before really figuring out how to use it. If you put in the effort, this can be an awesome printer for any home-based shipper.
The bummers: This machine can be difficult to set-up (especially on mac) and requires Brother brand labels (expensive). However, there is lots of info available online to help you get going and the labels will still save you a ton of money over using ink! So if the WiFi connectivity and all-around print quality appeal to you then pick this one up today!
The Best Commercial Thermal Shipping Label Printer
While it’s not inspiring looking, I had to include this printer on the list because it is the best selling commercial label printer in the world. Maybe the reason that it’s so unremarkable is simply that it does one job and it does it very well.
This is a set-it-and-forget-it type of printer that is the most dependable options available. When I was in high school I worked at a warehouse with four shipping stations and each one had a Zebra GK420d. We did absolutely no maintenance to them (not even cleaning) and never had a single issue for the years I worked there. And we were sending out more than 200 packages a day.
So if you need something that will quietly do its job for the next decade or more, get this printer. It’s more expensive than the other printers on this list but it’s also the one most suited to true commercial use (as opposed to home use). Is it the best shipping label printer? Maybe. If it fits the bill, then yes! Get it!
The Dymo: Almost the best shipping label printer.
If you’ve asked any home-based sellers what thermal printer is best, you’ve probably heard of the Dymo a dozen times. However, all those people were probably not telling you that it is the best shipping label printer. In fact, most people feel quite the opposite. But the truth about this printer is: it’s fine. We actually used the little brother of this printer when we did Amazon FBA for a few years and recommend it highly (it doesn’t print 4×6 though).
The LabelWriter 4XL doesn’t print super fast, Dymo says you can’t use generic labels (you can), and it isn’t super heavy duty but it will do the job for most home-based sellers. With that being said, it doesn’t come without its foibles. However, because of its prevalence, there is a huge amount of information and support to be had when it comes to setting up and using this printer.
So if it’s important to you to be using the same printer as many other home-based business owners, pick up a Dymo. It’s not the best shipping label printer or even the best thermal label printer but it will do the job.
So if we didn’t quite answer your question about which thermal printer is actually the best perhaps it’s because there isn’t a hard and fast answer! The best thermal label printer is whichever one fulfills the needs of your business the best. For us, it was the ROLLO, for you it might be something else! However, I firmly believe that, while everyone may have slightly different demands of their printer, thermal label printers, in general, are a must-have for anyone serious about making money shipping products. So order one already! Just don’t forget the labels!