Which Printer – Desktop or Industrial?

Labeling and Barcodes - Winco IDOne trend we are seeing in label printing is to use small desktop printers to replace larger industrial models.

In some cases this might be because a central printing station is being replaced with a number of printers that are printing labels right at the point of use (distributed printing), in others just as an attempt to save money.

While there is no question that the industrial type printers are more robust and can be expected to handle big labeling jobs with no problems, is there really a case for using one of the small plastic clamshell printers as an alternative?

From a mechanical point of view, although the manufacturers make a big deal of the metal construction and extra weight of the industrial printers, I’m not convinced it makes much difference – unless the customer wants to drop heavy objects onto the printer to see how tough it is. As long as the drive motor to feed the labels is strong enough to handle a full label roll, surely the printer is OK, right?

Of course there is more to it than this – the industrial printers can usually handle larger diameter rolls of labels and ribbons (less downtime for roll changes) and often have a better label sensor to ensure accurate print registration. In addition they tend to have a wider range of print resolutions – I’ve yet to see a small desktop printer with 600 DPI (well, other than the CAB one!).

Of course, the key component – and most expensive to replace, unless you have a Winco service plan with printhead coverage – is the printhead. This is where it gets rather interesting.

Check out the printhead price for popular models from Zebra and Datamax:


Plastic GX43T 300 DPI -> $263.00

Entry industrial ZT230 300 DPI -> $560.00


Plastic E-4305P -> $250.00

Entry Industrial M-Class M-4308 -> $545.00

You can see that in both cases, the printhead for the industrial printer costs just over twice as much as the desktop one, for the same width and resolution.

What do you get for the extra $$?

Both companies say their industrial model printheads come with some clever electronics that enhance print quality and improve printhead life – Datamax has something called “IntelliSEAQ” and Zebra’s flavor is “E3® Element Energy Control”. The upmarket printheads also have high tech coatings over the print elements that are claimed to reduce wear and prolong life.

One thing that is interesting is that these extended lives are not reflected in the warranty. The two Zebra models, GX430T and ZT230, both have the same 6 months printhead warranty. The Datamax E-4305P and M-4308 both have a 1 year or 1 million linear inches warranty. It would appear that the two manufacturers expect the low and higher end printheads to survive for about the same length of time.

So which printer to get?

First of all, I’d say that the little desktop printers do a much better job than we often expect them to. Let’s face it, a lot of the ones that UPS have supplied to millions of shipping departments just work for years with no attention.

To be honest, this is the kind of job they remain best suited for – direct thermal shipping labels. I say this because installing the ribbon rolls on all the small desktop printers is a rather annoying task. Even so some of the desktop printers are trying to fill the space between the desktop and industrial models. Datamax has an advertising campaign about how the E-Class MkIII bridges the gap between the two types – some versions are desktop size, but can use fullsize rolls of labels and ribbons.Bridging the gap - Datamax E-Class

Zebra’s ZT220 is more of an industrial model, but is very compact and priced to compete with higher end desktop models. Intermec is also getting in on the compact printer trend with the PM43C – a real industrial printer in a very small package that is very nicely designed.

So there isn’t a single simple answer to which printer to buy. It depends on a lot of factors, some of which I discuss in our Buying a Label Printer article.

One thing is for sure, in these days when spending has to be carefully controlled, it is well worthwhile spending the time to decide on the best printing solution. Need help with it? We have a great team at Winco who can provide a lot of insight. Give me a call at 603-598-1553 x237.

Share Button