RFID Label Printer Shootout!

RFID Label Printers Compared

3 of the printers from our test

Since Winco ID is involved with helping our customers use labels and barcoding to improve their processes, we get to check out a lot of the latest products.

For example, I’ve been really lucky over the last few months to have the opportunity to work with 4 different RFID printers from 3 manufacturers; Zebra, Intermec and Datamax.

At one time we had all 4 printers in our lab at the same time so we were able to make a direct comparison of how these printers perform. One thing is for sure; all these companies make fine products. Having said that, for me there is no question as to which is the printer I’d buy. Read on – you might be surprised!

I thought I’d rate these different printers on a 0 -5 basis in a number of categories.

Overall design – a quick overview of the printer

Ease of loading media – let’s face it, some models are easier to load than others.

Menu and display – what we have to interact with every day.

Connectivity – the printers no good if I can’t communicate with it.

RFID setup & flexibility – is RFID easy to set? Will the machine work with different labels?

Let’s look at the contenders in turn:

 

 

Zebra R110Xi

Zebra R110Xi

Zebra R110Xi


 
Total Score: 15

Overall design – 3
The Xi design from Zebra seems to have been around for ever and is starting to show its age. While some of the lower priced Zebra models have been through several design iterations, the Xi has not changed for a long time.

While I can understand Zebra taking a “why fix it if it’s not broken” approach, there are some areas that really do need attention – I always have problems with those printhead spring screwy things. I like the idea of having the adjustment available, but there should be a better way by now.

Ease of loading media – 2
The Zebra is the worst of the bunch in this category. Anyone who has had to thread the ribbon on an Xi series printer will know just what I mean.

Menu and display – 3
Zebra’s flagship product should have a much better display than the little LCD one that it currently has. Just about all the printer companies now have better options than this, even in printers costing a lot less.

I also have trouble with the one-level menu that causes a heck of a lot of key presses to get anywhere. Another part of the design in need of a revamp.

Connectivity – 4
The R110 comes with the core set of connections; serial, parallel and USB. Ethernet and wireless can be added as options if needed.

RFID Setup and Flexibility – 3
The Thing Magic reader that Zebra uses does a good job and the printer works find with RFID tags that are made right to the correct spec. We did find that the printer wasn’t very forgiving of labels that were just outside of the Zebra RFID spec. Indeed some of the labels we used in our testing couldn’t be encoded at all.

Overall – 15/25
The R110Xi is a workhorse printer built on a well proven design. While I believe it has some shortcomings, if the owner makes sure to buy the RFID labels that meet the Zebra spec it will do a good job.

I’d really like to see a new Xi printer before too long. A few years ago, Zebra owned the market for industrial printers – I feel that this is no longer the case.

It’s a shame that network connectivity isn’t a standard feature – it should be on the top model in the line-up. Being able to communicate with the printer via a browser would help offset the poor display and menu.

 

Intermec PM4i

Intermec PM4i

Intermec PM4i RFID
Total Score: 16

Overall design – 4
The PM4i is one of the new Intermec models that was introduced to the market quite recently. While not as robust as the Zebra, the PM4i is certainly able to take on a lot of demanding labeling jobs. (The Intermec PX4 is the model that would usually be compared with the Zebra anyway).

The PM4i has some very nice features such as the ability to use ribbon wound in either orientation, self aligning (and very quick change) printheads.

Ease of loading media – 3
Loading the printing media onto the Intermec is easier than with the Zebra. I like the way that I can run any roll of ribbon on the machine – nice touch.

Menu and display – 3
This is probably the worst feature of the machine and one I can’t understand. For a model that is still quite new to the market, the display and associated keypad are pretty poor quality. I can only assume that this was a cost cutting measure, but making giving the operator a poor experience in this key area of interaction is not good.

Connectivity – 3
The connectivity options with the Intermec are quite disappointing. As standard the PM4i comes with Serial and USB connections. Anything else is optional.

RFID Setup and Flexibility – 3
As with the Zebra, the Intermec seems to be fine with labels that completely meet their specification, but struggles otherwise. We could get our various 4×6 labels working OK, but had no success with 4×2 even with help from the Intermec guys.

Overall – 16/25
I like the PM4i printer, but it is let down by the poor display and lack of RFID flexibility. I wouldn’t rule out buying one, but anyone doing so needs to be very careful with media selection.

As with the Zebra, it is disappointing that network connectivity isn’t provided as standard.

Datamax H-Class

Datamax H-Class

Datamax H-Class
Total Score 21

Overall design – 4
Datamax really needed a new model when the H-Class was released. Although the company had a solid installed base of legacy models, the workhorse I-Class was not hugely inspiring. The arrival of the H-Class changed things dramatically and gave Zebra some good competition at the top end of the market.

Ease of loading media – 3
The previous generation I-Class was simple to load with labels and ribbons and that has been continued with the H. The little plastic label guide is cheap and cheerful, but otherwise handing of both labels and ribbons is really good.

Menu and display – 4
The H-Class display and menu system is the best of any printer I’ve used. The only thing I’d like to see is more of a graphical interface maybe with a touch screen.

Connectivity – 5
Datamax has excelled with connectivity. As standard, all H-Class printers come with serial, parallel, USB and network connections. The only options are coax (hardly mainstream these days) and wireless. Nice job DMX!

RFID Setup and Flexibility – 4
The H-Class also scores highly for its RFID abilities. In contrast to the I-Class (probably the worst attempt at an RFID printer ever), the H-Class is a serious RFID printer.

The performance is as solid as the other brands, but DMX have allowed for the greatest flexibility in tag position. The Calibrate RFID button sends the printer off to find the tag and make all the settings. As a result we’ve never come across a label that can’t be encoded – the only exception being those designed for use with the wacky I-Class. Fortunately, there were very few of these made so this isn’t a problem.
Overall – 21/25
The H-Class is an excellent choice for an RFID printer – especially if you need to encode labels from different manufacturers.

DMX needed a new model to compete in the top end industrial printer market and they finally have one.

 


Total score 20

Datamax M-Class Mk2

Datamax M-Class Mk2

Datamax M-Class Mk2

Overall design – 4
The Mk2 version of the M-Class is the newest Datamax design and it shows. Not only has this model replaced the original M-Class it has also effectively made the I-Class obsolete. If DMX come up with high resolution version, they can stop building the I-Class tomorrow.

The new M-Class has about 90% of the goodness of the much bigger H-Class at a more competitive price.

Ease of loading media – 4
The M-Class is easily the easiest to keep supplied with labels and ribbons. It would actually score the maximum 5 points here if DMX would come up with a slightly different pivot for the printhead.

In any event, the simple design, with the ability to load the materials from the side makes it the winner in this category.

Menu and display – 4
This is the same as the small display used on the H-Class. I actually prefer the M-Class buttons too.

Connectivity – 4
The Mk2 M-Class has everything but Ethernet. Actually for our clients it has this as well, because I like to always sell with network connectivity. I would love DMX to include this in the basic spec – of course; this would make the Mk2 even more of an I-Class killer!

RFID Setup and Flexibility – 4
From our tests, the RFID works as well as the H-Class – that is very well.
Overall – 20/25
The M-Class is a great RFID printer in a small form factor at a competitive price. The Mk2 is a nice upgrade to the more expensive I-Class. Indeed, I never even attempt to sell an I-Class these days unless the client specifically asks for one.

David’s Conclusion

There is no doubt that the printer manufacturers have come a long way since RFID first appeared on the scene. Despite the fact that use of the technology has never reached the volume we once expected, there are some good printers available for the printing and encoding of RFID labels.

Which is the best? I think that depends on your application. For someone supplying the retail companies and needing a high volume printer, the choice would be between the Zebra and the Datamax H-Class. While the Zebra isn’t as flexible as the Datamax, this isn’t an issue when the machine doesn’t need to handle different manufacture’s labels.

In this part of the market, I’d prefer the H-Class because of the more modern design, better user interface and easier media loading. For someone already using Zebra equipment, there would be no need to switch, the R110 will be very familiar to your operators who are used to the Xi printers.

Having said that, most of our customers are DoD contractors who don’t need to produce huge volumes of printed and encoded labels. Of the machines I tested, I’d go with the M-Class as my first choice for these clients. A Mk2 M-Class (with network card of course) represents the best mix of design, ease of use, RFID flexibility and cost.

So what do I use?

Well, I no longer have the M-Class – that was a demo machine that went back to Datamax. My go to RFID printer is the H-Class. Overkill to a large extent, but very reliable for the jobs we do for our clients.

Do you have any RFID printers? Which brands do you prefer – maybe one I haven’t tested? Let me know if you think I’ve got it wrong!

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Comments

  1. Note: Network is standard on Zebras now (since about 12 months ago). Great review! I really agree — but, still like the Zebra because it's just so rock-solid. I like the Datamax too but we had compatibility issues w/ labels and software (inlay positions) and needed to standardize on a single printer. Regardless, you won't go wrong w/ either.

    As you also experienced, we never had much luck with the Intermec.

  2. Hey Carl, thanks for the correction regarding networking on the Zebra. Like I said, the Zebra is a real workhorse and does a really good job. I'd still like to see an updated version at some point though and I'd also like to try out one of the lower cost models.

    Most of our customers are printing low volumes of RFID labels and they don't need the bulk and expense of the Zebra or the H-Class. I'd really like to play with the little mobile RFID printer from Zebra, that might fill a niche for some of our clients.

  3. I've looked at these models quite extensivley yet you missed my favorite RFID printer. The Printronix SL5204r hi-performance and SL4M mid-range printers have exceeded any expectations for label inlay compatibility. What was very impressive was the Printronix ability to use multiple printer languages so the labels I created using ZPL worked just fine. I tested it using Intermec, Sato and Datamax and they worked too! Talk about a single printer that can do it all and bullet proof at that.

  4. Indeed, Printronix have some very nice printers that would have been good competitors in this lineup.

    Since we do very little business with Printronix, I didn’t have any Printronixs equipment to test out. In anycase, with three RFID printer brands in our portfolio, we are nicely covered for any applications that come along.

    With Zebra launching the new Xi4 line, I would expect that there will be some improvements of the current Zebra equipment as well. I believe that all the 4″ wide Xi4’s will be RFID ready from the factory.

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