When most people think of label makers—or label printers, labeling systems, barcode printers, or whatever each manufacturer calls its wares—those little handheld devices with small keyboards and one-line monochrome LCDs come to mind. Though many of those are still available, at this point they are largely yesterday's technology.
In fact, these days, you can find many types and levels of label printers (in terms of price, label quality, and volume). They range from inexpensive and convenient consumer-grade models for labeling containers and other articles around the home, to the mission-critical machines for printing shipping labels, warnings (Stop! Caution! Fragile!), barcodes, product labels, and so much more. Here's a rundown of how to navigate the label-printer market, along with our top tested picks.
Most consumer-grade—and lower-end small-business—labelers print only one color, usually black, although some models offer paper that will produce other colors, such as yellow on black. In fact, some label printers offer a wide range of monochrome-color choices, including, say, white on dark green, or yellow on pink.
The point is that the color of the paper is the background color, and the stock, in most cases, is infused with just one foreground shade that is "activated" by the printer in the printing process. And then there are commercial label printers—which are well beyond the scope of this round-up—that print labels in all shapes and sizes in full color. There are even commercial label machines that are big enough to take up a good portion of your living room.
We primarily review consumer-grade and professional-grade small-business label printers that range in price from less than $100 to just more than $500. Believe it or not, compared with the number of commercial- and enterprise-grade labelers out there, there just aren't that many lower-end consumer and small-business models available, and the models stay on the market a long time. (Some of our favorites, you'll see, are more than five years old.) The good news is that, for the most part, what is available is not only proven but versatile, capable of printing many different types of labels at widely varying sizes.
Perhaps all you need to tag are some file folders, or you need to print mailing labels from a database. It's easy to find products that specialize in these tasks, but many of the most recent label printers support a diverse set of blank label tapes, or rolls, ranging in width and material. Many of today's labelers can accept rolls of several different widths, as well as continuous-length rolls, or rolls of fixed-length die-cut labels that peel off the roll one at a time. Many label printers support not only paper labels, but also plastic ones, and sometimes specialized sticky stock made of fabric or foil.
In addition, all labelers have cutters of one type or another, ranging from simple serrated-edge blades where you tear your labels from the roll manually, as you would tinfoil, to manual guillotine-like blades that you deploy with a lever, to automatic blades that cut each label as it comes out of the printer. Some also come with built-in batteries that allow to you use them on the go, wire-free, and a few support optional attachable batteries.
Nearly all label printers designed for consumers and small businesses are thermal printers. This means that the blank label material itself contains the color (there is no ink in the printer), which is "printed" (in specific patterns) based on heat released from a printhead or element as the paper (or whatever material) passes through. Also, some label-printer makers, such as Brother, offer two-color paper, such as black-and-red stock.
Because today's labelers support more than just one width or length of roll, it increases the diversity of label types you can create. If you plan to use your label printer for a wide range of projects—mailing labels, file folders, product barcodes, banners, and more—you should find a machine that supports several widths and other varying configurations of label rolls.
An important factor in choosing a labeler is deciding how and where you're going to use it. In other words, what type of connection(s) do you need? Many label printers support more than one connection type, but some support only one, with USB being the most common. Not only is it used for connecting to your computer or mobile device, but for the many labelers that come with internal batteries, it's one of the more common ways to charge them.
The problem with USB is that the labeler must always be tethered to another device, making it more difficult to move around. In addition, printing devices that connect solely via USB do not connect to your network or the internet unless something else acts as a print server.
Bluetooth, too, is supported by many label printers, as is Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Direct. Wi-Fi, of course, makes the printer part of your network, allowing all of the computers and mobile devices on the network—with the proper software installed, that is—access to the printer. Wi-Fi Direct creates a peer-to-peer network connection between a mobile device and the printer, meaning that neither the printer nor the mobile device requires a standard network connection or router.
While yesteryear's label printers required typing on tiny attached keyboards to print, most recent models take their direction from some type of computing device, whether a desktop PC, a laptop, a smartphone, or a tablet. Many of today's labelers support all of these devices, which, among other things, provides a much easier and more versatile platform for creating and printing labels.
In most instances, the printer tells the software what type of label roll is loaded in the printer. In turn, the software displays predesigned templates for several different label types. You can then fill in the blanks as-is, redesign the template, or start fresh and create your own custom labels.
In many cases, in addition to using the symbols, borders, and other design options built into the software, you can also import clip art and sometimes even photos (which print in monochrome, of course) into your label layouts. Look at authoritative reviews of label printers for more details on the efficacy of their bundled software, if any.
If you plan to print a large number of labels, another critical factor is the cost per label, which is also often referred to as the cost of ownership. Most label printers support a vast collection of label types, as many as 30 or more, encompassing different widths, lengths, colors, and material types. And the pricing of this stock can range just as wildly.
Simple 1.5-by-3.5-inch die-cut labels typically cost about 2 cents to 4 cents each. Buying the same labels in bulk (say, 50 to 100 rolls at a time) could knock your running costs down by 25 percent or more. Fancier plastic, cloth, and foil labels will cost you significantly more, as will larger labels.
It's also important to remember that the cost per label, even of the same size and material, can differ quite a bit from machine to machine. It depends on what company makes the labeler, the type of labels you buy, how many rolls you buy, and where you buy them. So you'll want to check into label costs carefully before you settle on a printer. The labels can end up costing you lots more than expected in the long run. The cheapest labeler from a device point of view may well not deliver the cheapest long-term cost of operation when it comes to the consumables.
The guide below outlines the best label printers that we've tested in recent years that remain on the market available new. Bear in mind that general-use printers can also print sheets of labels, and are a very viable alternative if your label printing is only occasional. For a look at our top printer picks overall, check out our main best printer roundup, as well as the best inkjet and laser printers you can buy right now.