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Thermal Technology Guide

Choosing the right thermal label printer for your needs can be quite confusing with so many options, it’s difficult to make sure you get the printer to suit your needs. This is where AM Labels will help; we will give you our in-depth knowledge and professional advice to insure you get the label printer for your business needs.

Direct Thermal / Thermal Transfer Technology

The first step is to identify what you are printing for, as if you are only going to be printing address labels or labels for perishable goods that are only going to be used for a short space of time then a direct thermal printer would be ideal. This is due to the fact that Direct thermal technology uses heat sensitive paper by transferring heat through the print head of a direct thermal printer burning an image (text, images and barcodes) directly onto a label. This means that the print will fade in sunlight or heat and can be easily marked when scuffed.

The other option is Thermal Transfer which uses heat to transfer an image (text, images and barcodes) using an ink ribbon onto a label. Heat from the print head melts the ink on the ribbon which is deposited onto the label surface to create the image. This type of printing allows for use of paper and synthetic label materials, which depending on the type can give resistance to heat, water, oil and chemicals.

Print Width

Label printers have a fixed size printhead, generally 2”, 4”, 6” or 8”. The standard size is normally 4 inches, which we would generally recommend unless you need a compact footprint or need to print wider labels.

Resolution (DPI)

Resolution describes the print quality of the printer, defined in dots per inch (dpi). 200dpi is the standard resolution for a label printers printhead, this is ideal for printing just crisp barcodes and text. If you would require to print small graphics or 2D barcodes then we would recommend a 300dpi printhead. A 600dpi printhead is available for certain printers, and is used to achieve fine resolutions for tiny barcodes.

Flat Head or Near Edge technology

Flat Head Technology – all desktop printers, medium volume printers and most industrial printers use flat head technology. The heating elements are set back from the leading edge of the print head. Some printers struggle with print quality at the higher speeds, unless more expensive media is used. Flat head printers are however very reliable and usually need less on going maintenance.

Near Edge Technology – some industrial printers use this technology. The heating elements are close to the leading edge of the print head and the label and ribbon separate more quickly after printing. This aids the ability of the print head to rapidly heat and cool and can provide improved print quality at higher print speeds.

Media Sensors

Media sensors are used to detect the size of media you are using, either by detecting a gap between the labels or a black mark on the backing paper. Black marks are used where it is not possible for the printer to detect a gap (e.g. card tag labels or transparent labels). 

Most printers will have both gap and black mark (reflective) media sensors.

A moveable sensor may be necessary if you are printing labels more than one across (make sure that the gap detector does not coincide with a vertical gap) and may be necessary if you are printing circular labels (make sure that the gap detector is lined up with the top of the circle.

Moveable label sensors are found on all medium volume and industrial printers and some desktop printers, including TEC, Citizen and TallyGenicom and as an option on Datamax desktop printers. 

Interface Options

Interfaces are used to connect your computer to the printer. Most thermal printers have Parallel and USB interfaces as standard.

  • 802.11 WLAN
  • Bluetooth
  • Ethernet
  • IBM 468x (RS485)
  • Parallel
  • RS232 Serial
  • USB
  • USB Host

Printer Options

a) Cutters

Cutters are available on most types of printer, including desktops. One application for a cutter is in reducing the number of sizes of blank labels you need to carry (the label automatically cuts to the label length set by the label design software).

Cutters can also be used with card and synthetic tag material. One application is where tag labels have to be individually cut before being automatically stitched onto bags of animal feed.

Most cutters are of the guillotine type, where the printer has to be momentarily stopped to make the cut. Some printers (e.g. TEC) have the option for a rotary cutter, where the label is cut “on the fly”, without the need to stop the printer. This can provide a faster throughput.

b) Built-in Label Rewind

Built-in label rewinders allow labels to be rewound onto a hub within the printer after printing. The alternative is a separate, stand alone rewinder, which usually works out more expensive. Internal rewind options are usually available on industrial printers, but not desktop and medium volume printers (exceptions are the Honeywell mid-range printers, which do have internal rewind options).

c) Peel & Present

Peel & present options are designed to speed up label application by automatically separating most of the label from the backing paper. When the printer detects that the label has been taken, the next one is printed.

Peel and present options are available on most printers. On desktop and mid-range printers, without an internal rewind facility, the backing paper is ejected from the front of the printer and will need to be removed at regular intervals. For printers with an internal rewind facility, the backing paper is wound onto a hub within the printer, making for a neater solution.


For related products such as desktop printers, industrial printers, high performance printers, direct thermal labels, thermal ribbonsprint headszebra branded labels or thermal transfer labels visit our online shop.

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