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Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer Printers: Choosing the Best Fit for Your Operation

Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer Printers: Choosing the Best Fit for Your Operation

When considering the purchase of a thermal printer for barcode label applications and overall print solutions, you will have two types of printing technology to choose from: direct thermal and thermal transfer.

Direct thermal and thermal-transfer printing solutions both use a heated print-head to print on blank labels. Thermal transfer printers can print on a wide selection of surfaces. Overall, thermal label printers are an ideal choice for printing barcodes, text and images because they are very precise and deliver consistent quality with fast speed times. They are usually capable of printing either thermal transfer or direct thermal. Now let’s take a closer look at some of differences between direct thermal and thermal transfer.

Direct Thermal Printers. In direct thermal printers, the print-head must be in direct contact with the label material which reacts with the label’s coating to generate a printout. Some of the features of this type of printer include:

  • Highly reliable/durable with few moving parts.
  • Minimal downtime for repair and maintenance.
  • Direct thermal media is sensitive to light, heat and abuse, and typically has a shorter life than thermal transfer. For example, if a label is used on a pallet and exposed to the elements, the surface will darken and make the barcode unreadable.
  • Best used for applications like shipping labels, patient and visitor identification, receipts, food and beverage items and ticket printing.
  • Thermal transfer printers that only do “direct thermal” are less costly to purchase because they do not contain hardware necessary for driving and controlling a ribbon.
  • With no ribbon and ribbon hardware components, the printer has fewer parts to wear and/or breakdown, resulting in lower service costs and less downtime over the life of the printer.

Thermal Transfer Printers.  In thermal-transfer printers, the print-head applies heat to an ink ribbon to print. The ribbon is made of wax or resin that is absorbed onto the media surface. Some of the features of this type of printer include:

  • Uses a thermal printhead to apply heat to a surface being printed.
  • Ideal choice for barcode printing because thermal technology is very precise.
  • Accepts a wider variety of media, including paper, polyester, and polypropylene materials.
  • Media and ribbon must be carefully matched to ensure print performance and durability.
  • Wide selection of media-ribbon combinations and specialty adhesives.
  • Creates extremely durable common labels, tags, tickets, wristbands, asset tags, and certification labels.
  • Barcode labels that can stand up to extreme temperatures, ultraviolet exposure, chemicals and more. For example, pharmaceutical products or hazardous materials are ideal candidates for thermal transfer printed labels.
  • Changing a thermal ribbon requires several minutes of downtime.
  • Cost is greater per printed label, but the label readability and endurance is much higher.

Types of Honeywell Thermal Printer Solutions

With over 40 years of experience developing industry-leading barcode printing solutions, you can depend on Honeywell for intelligent thermal printing solutions. From rugged and dependable fixed industrial printers to lightweight and

ergonomic mobile printers—and everything in between—you now have a trusted partner when it comes to your thermal printing needs. 

Industrial or High-Performance Printers. These printers are built for critical applications and 24x7 operations and standup to the most demanding environments, typically printing 5,000-10,000 labels per day. They are ideal for warehouses, distribution centers, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and healthcare environments. An example of a Honeywell printer in this category is the PX940 Series.



The PX940 Series takes industrial printing to a new level of accuracy and simplicity by providing customers with error-free precision printing, increasing production efficiency and reducing operational costs. Features include:

  • Defect-Free Labels, Every Time. Integrated label verification technology checks and ensures that labels print accurately every time; instantly notifies you of pass/fail status and ANSI grade.
  • Precision Printing for Small Labels. Extremely precise printing of up to +/-0.3 mm (0.012 in) virtually eliminates poor-quality, unreadable labels and barcodes.
  • Intelligent Asset Management and Monitoring. Operational Intelligence software provides predictive analytics and data on printer health to help managers oversee their entire printer fleet and proactively prevent issues, ensuring maximum uptime.
  • No PC Required. Smart printing capability allows you to configure settings on the printer without the need for a host computer.
  • Simple and Intuitive to Use and Maintain. Easy to use and maintain, with a color multilingual touchscreen interface, quick side-loading design, and a built-in printhead cleaning routine that provides optimal print quality and a longer printhead life.

Mid-Range Printers. These printers are rugged and reliable, for medium- to high-volume labeling applications of 2,000 to 7,000 labels per day. They are ideal for applications in distribution centers, warehouses, manufacturing operations, and transportation centers. They can print labels for a variety of applications like labeling, inventory, asset tracking, shipping/receiving and compliance labeling. Examples of Honeywell printers in this category include the PM43, PM43c and MP23c. The PM series are programable smart printers that offer reliable performance for uptime assurance, quick deployment and integration, and the fastest throughput in their class – no PC required. Features include:

  • Ready. Fast to deploy and easy to integrate, PM series printers fit into virtually any environment.
  • Reliable. Now on their third generation, the PM43, PM43c, and PM23c printers are members of the well-proven family of PM series mid-range industrial printers.
  • Fast. Rapid 304 mm/s (12 ips) print speed and consistent barcode printing quality with pin-point accuracy.
  • Smart. Run apps right inside the printer, control peripherals, and eliminate the need for a connected PC, using either C# for Printers or Fingerprint.
  • Connected. Flexible connectivity options, plus every PM series printer features a multilingual web interface for simple remote device management.
  • Vibrant. Can include a large, color, multilingual, tamper-proof touchscreen or intuitive icon user interface.
  • Flexible. Available with three different enclosure sizes, all with multiple door configurations, to fit your needs plus a wide range of accessories for maximum media compatibility.
  • RFID Capable. RFID-enabled configurations capable of simultaneously encoding and printing frequency-agile RFID tags.

Desktop Printers.  These printers are designed for low-volume labeling applications of 2 rolls or 1,000 labels per day.  They are ideal for offices, retail, healthcare, small and medium-sized businesses, packing and shipping, and light-duty manufacturing and warehouse environments. Examples of Honeywell printers in this category include the PC43t, PC43d and PC23d. These printers are designed to set a new standard in ease of use and flexibility. With one of the broadest feature sets in the desktop printer class, it’s no wonder the PC Series is a popular choice for light-duty, desktop labeling tasks. Features include:

  • Intuitive. Easy to install and even easier to use, with one-handed media reloading and quick-configuration via USB thumb drive.
  • Flexible. PC Series is the perfect fit for your business needs today and tomorrow. The printers can be enhanced with user-installable connectivity upgrades and accessories.
  • Smart. PC Series printers help you stay informed and productive. They’re even programmable, with the ability to directly add keyboards or scales without a PC.
  • Elegant. A streamlined but ergonomic design and vibrant color display make status indication crystal clear, and the soft-touch keypad enables effortless printer adjustment.
  • Connected. Standard USB along with optional, user-installable serial, parallel, secure Ethernet and dual wireless card with Bluetooth® and CCX-compliant 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi.
  • A Proven Family. The PC43d, PC43t and PC23d printers are part of the PC Series family of desktop printers – designed for maximum ease of use and value.
  • Healthcare Ready. The PC23d printer features disinfectant-ready housing capable of withstanding the harmful effects of frequent chemical wipedowns.
  • RFID Capable. A factory-installed RFID option enables UHF RFID (PC43 printers only).

Mobile Printers. These printers are designed for demanding printing environments/applications where accuracy and speed are key performance indicators. In this category, we will highlight mobile label and receipt printers.

Mobile label printers are used to print barcode labels, receipts or tickets. They are ideal for warehouses, distribution centers, healthcare and retail in-store environments. An example of a Honeywell printer in this category is the RL3e/RL4e Series. These rugged mobile label printers improve efficiency and productivity by allowing your team to print and apply barcode labels directly at the point of application. Features include:

  • Ready for Harsh Environments. Rugged and reliable RLe Series printers continue to print after 26 consecutive drops to concrete from 1.8 m (6 ft) – even in extreme temperature conditions.
  • Easy to Integrate. Includes popular language emulations that allow you to easily replace existing printers in the workplace. Compatible with most popular WMS packages.
  • Easy to Use. Change paper roll with one hand. Speed label application with an intuitive LCD screen and a peel-and-present mechanism.
  • Great Battery Power. The lithium-ion battery offers maximum power capacity for an eight-hour shift, even under the toughest conditions.
  • Co-Engineered Media Supplies. Ensure optimum, trouble-free performance and guarantee the highest print quality and image stability.
  • Complete Line of Accessories. Printers come with a battery and a swivel belt clip. A selection of charging accessories and other mounting accessories are also available to ease use in trucks, on forklifts and for charging single or multiple batteries.
  • Backed by a Two-Year Warranty. RLe Series mobile printers come standard with a two-year warranty, providing added reliability and lower total cost of ownership for your business.

Mobile receipt printers are ideal for direct store delivery, field service and sales, in-store mobile checkout, public safety and e-citation applications. An example of a Honeywell printer in this category is the RPe Series. RPe Series mobile printers offer the most rugged and reliable performance, are designed to withstand these harsh conditions and give you years of reliable thermal receipt and label printing. Frequent drops, vibration, and exposure to dust and water are just a few examples of the regular abuse that mobile printers endure. Features include:

  • Mobile Printing Done Faster. The RPe Series are fast mobile thermal printers for the most rugged environments. They feature the latest wireless technology for untethered use, increasing worker productivity.
  • Honeywell Goal Based Reporting. Increase uptime and proactively plan printer maintenance with built-in analytics on battery age, printhead condition and the printer’s environmental history.
  • No Downtime. The high-capacity battery can be swapped out without resetting the printer or losing connectivity. Battery age is provided as part of printer analytics.
  • Rugged and Reliable Performance. Ultra-rugged design: 2 m (6.6 ft) drop tested, tested to 1000 0.5 m (1.5 ft) tumbles, IP54 dust and moisture ingress and wide operating temperature range.
  • Unparalleled Speed. Optimized for quick, all-day mobile receipt and label printing, with fast bootup and printing at up to 5 inches per second.
  • Intuitive. The printers can support labels with and without a liner, and sense gaps between labels or black marks on the top or bottom of the media.
  • Fully Multilingual. The RPe Series printers are compatible with all popular thermal printer languages and protocols.
  • A Broad Range of Accessories. A wide variety of mounting solutions are available. Plus, the printers use the same mounting attachment as the widely used MFxT printers, allowing them to drop into current installations.

Contact Honeywell Solutions Experts today! Call 1-800-934-3163.

Barry J. Ewell
SPS BLOG EDITOR

Barry J. Ewell is a Senior Content Marketing Communications Specialist for Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions. He has been researching and writing on supply chain topics since 1991.