5 Things to Consider Before You Buy a Label Printing System

There comes a time in almost every small business where it becomes necessary to purchase a label printing system. Label printing needs range from simple shipping or identification labels, to more complex jobs such as product manufacturing labels. As with every other major purchase you’ll make for your business, it’s important to brush up on the basics before you run out to buy.

Retro labels in old cans

Our friends at Positive ID Labels share the following considerations to make before making a purchase.

1. What are you printing?

It’s important to consider everything you plan to print in the coming months and years. You will also need to consider the lifespan of the labels you print and the environment they will be subjected to.

If you’re only printing standard shipping labels and/or bar codes, it probably won’t be practical to spend multiple hundreds of dollars for an expensive thermal label printer (more on this later).

On the other hand, if you’ll be printing lots of product labels or run a laboratory, hospital clinic, etc., and need to label multiple items daily, a simple direct thermal unit will be subject to lower print quality than a sheet feed laser printer.

2. Direct Thermal or Thermal?

Once you’re confident in what you’ll be using your label printing system for, it’s time to take a look at the two different options you’ll have in terms of design, and the versatility and quality each can offer:

Direct thermal design

Direct thermal label printers are made for simple shipping labels, bar codes, and other simple labels such as labeling contents of a drawer, short-term use spray bottles, etc. They’re cheap and simple to buy and maintain, yet aren’t ideal for complex label designs or any type of label that requires the finished print to last for an extended time, such as product or laboratory labels.

After the initial purchase of the printer and software, all that’s required to keep a direct thermal label printer running is replacement label rolls. On the other hand, they’re not ideal for mass printing, even if you’re just printing bar codes, as they produce more heat which leads to faster machine wear.


  • Cheap to buy and maintain.
  • Set and forget system that can be stored in a cupboard and pulled out as needed.
  • Perfect for small scale shipping or manufacturing labels.


  • Finished labels are only black and white and not ideal for complex designs.
  • Labels wear out quickly — generally starting to fade within 1 — 3 months.
  • Labels cannot withstand heat, sunlight, friction, or humidity. They will not be waterproof.

Roll of printed labels

Thermal design

Thermal label makers can print any label you need them too. You’ll find they cost significantly more money to purchase initially, and also have a higher lifetime cost as you need to replace both the label paper rolls and the wax or resin ribbons that transfer text and images. However, there is a caveat to this need.

Even when printing black and white only, they produce very little heat and can produce hundreds of finished labels that last for a year or longer. Another advantage is that most thermal label printers can also do thermal direct. This means that even if you mostly print bar codes and/or shipping labels, having a thermal printer on hand gives you the versatility to print more specialized labels as needed.


  • Much more versatile — allows for direct thermal and thermal label printing.
  • Higher quality finished product that lasts for a year or longer without fading.
  • Thermal label printers can also print on polyester, polypropylene, and other select materials that vary from brand to brand.


  • Higher lifetime costs on label rolls and ribbons.
  • DPI is also a concern as high DPI thermal printers can be cost-prohibitive for a small business.
  • Can be harder to work with due to dealing with ribbons, and printing speed varies considerably depending on price point.

3. DPI

DPI is a consideration regardless of the type of label printer you choose. DPI varies, usually depending on price. As mentioned, direct thermal is best suited for simple short-term use labels such as shipping, or others. A 200-ish DPI label printer will work fine for this purpose.

However, if your bar codes are particularly dense or you include QR codes, you’ll want to opt for a 300 — 600 DPI printer. DPI is obviously a huge deal if you’ve decided on a thermal design, as you don’t want logos and other images coming out poorly. Consider the cost of a shipment lost in transit due to scanability or other read issues.

4. Software Compatibility

If you’re printing simple shipping labels, a handheld unit may work just fine. If you’re mass printing labels from your computer, you’ll need to make sure the printer you choose either:

  1. Comes with reputable software that does what you need it to.
  2. Works flawlessly with your company’s preferred OS software.

Test tube labeling

5. Print Volume Requirements

If you’ve determined you need a printer that can handle high volume printing on a daily or even occasional basis, it won’t “pay” to cheap out on the least expensive unit you can find. If you require a machine that can do a quick print run with high DPI results, check the specs before buying to determine how many labels the machine can output in a given time. Quality and speed always come at a price, but 5 or 10 minutes saved every time you use it can add up quick over months and years.

Cheap label printers will fail quicker, and aren’t likely to offer much in the way of technical or warranty support. On the other hand, non-complicated black and white shipping labels can be printed en-mass with a simple handheld label printer designed exclusively for this purpose. Such units also cost tens of dollars, rather than hundreds for a small-scale label printer.

Follow the 5 tips listed above and you’ll find it impossible not to end up with a label printing system that will quickly pay for itself with the time and money it saves. Consider your needs carefully, then decide on a unit that can deliver the quality, reliability, and support you deserve — at a price that doesn’t crush your budget.

If you need any more help in setting the correct printing settings or want a reliable label printing company to sort everything out for you; don’t hesitate to call Positive ID labels on +44 (0)1332 864895 or visit their website at www.pid-labelling.co.uk.