Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

Two different printing technologies are used by thermal label printers, direct thermal and thermal transfer.

Direct Thermal

A direct thermal printer uses its printhead to heat special, chemically treated, label stock. The print is created when parts of the label stock darken in response to the heat. Direct thermal printing is an inexpensive way to print labels that are for temporary use. For labels that need to last longer than 6 months, a thermal transfer printer will work better.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • does not require ink or ribbon
  • less expensive printer
  • labels yellow or fade over time
  • labels susceptible to damage by water, strong sunlight, or other harsh conditions
  • printhead may wear out faster due friction of direct contact with printed material
  • not capable of printing fine barcodes, small text, or high quality images
  • can only print black on white

Thermal Transfer

Thermal transfer printers use heat to bond a thin film of wax or resin coating onto a label. These printers can also print direct thermal labels, but the printhead may wear out faster.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • highest quality print
  • long lasting labels
  • large selection of label stocks including labels resistant to many harsh conditions (heat, sunlight, water, acids)
  • many different color ribbons and labels stocks available
  • requires ribbon
  • slightly more expensive printer

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