Thermal printer vs laser printer: What's the difference?

Between a thermal and laser printer, which should you choose to print shipping labels? While upfront costs are often similar, typically thermal printers are a better long-term deal.

There are quite a few differences between a thermal printer and a laser printer. Let’s start with the way they operate:

What is a thermal printer?

  • Thermal printers are simple—they use special thermal paper that changes color when heat is applied. As it’s fed through the printer, a thermal print head heats the paper precisely to create the desired letters, numbers, barcodes and other images as desired.

  • What is a laser printer?

  • Laser printers are a bit more complex, but are more familiar, as many general-use home and office desktop printers use this technology. They use static electricity to charge the printer drum, then pass a laser over the drum to remove the charge from the portion that will be printed. Then toner is applied to the drum and sticks only where the laser passed over, and the drum is rolled over paper that is charged with static electricity so that the toner transfers onto the paper. Finally, the paper/toner combo is heated in a fuser to melt the toner onto the paper permanently.

When you’re printing shipping labels, simpler is usually better, so thermal printers are likely best for most needs, though both methods can be used successfully.

What are the costs associated with thermal and laser printers?

When you’re considering shipping label printers, it’s a good idea to look beyond the purchase price at all the other costs you’re likely to incur over the lifetime of the printer.

Differences in upfront costs

While printers can vary wildly in cost based on features, brand names, and other variables, typically you won’t find significant differences between thermal and laser printers in upfront cost.

Differences in lifetime costs

Laser printers are more complicated—and that means more wear and tear as well as more supplies. You’ll need to replace toner cartridges from time to time, and while you won’t need special paper, laser printers really weren’t built for adhesive-backed sheets. That means the adhesive bleeds out into the guts of your printer over time, so you’ll have to hire a pro to clean it out now and then or risk constant jams and other productivity killers.

Thermal printers, on the other hand, are about as simple as it gets—and that means fewer worries over the long run. You will need to get special thermal label paper, but it costs about the same as label paper for other printers, and often less. Better still, the simplicity of thermal printers means that they last longer, with less maintenance, than laser printers. This can add up to hundreds of dollars over the lifetime of the printer and usually tips the scales toward thermal printing for shipping labels for most businesses.

Which is the fastest printer for bulk label printing?

Thermal printing is almost always faster than laser printing. The process is much simpler for thermal printing, and while print times can vary widely between models, you should still see 5-6x faster speeds with thermal printers.

Also, laser printers require a short warm-up time before they can start. The more runs you need to perform, the more this will affect your time per label. That is, if you’re just running one big job per day, this wont really be much of an issue, but it can still add up.

How long does each kind of printer last?

It’s hard to say definitively, because every model is different and every user is different. Still, if you’re looking for something that will last, thermal printers are the safest bet. Printer lifespan depends on two primary factors:

  • Maintenance: While laser printers require more frequent—and more expensive—maintenance, thermal printers need regular cleaning done as well. Keeping up with these tasks will improve the longevity of your printer.

  • Workload: This may seem like common sense, but it’s still worth mentioning: the more you print, the more wear and tear your printer incurs. Since thermal printers usually run much faster than laser printers, you’d think that they’d run down faster, too. But laser printers have many more parts that can fail, and they’re more often ill-equipped to handle adhesive stickers, so you are almost certain to see problems cropping up quickly.

Do thermal printers wear out?

Yes, eventually. All moving parts eventually give out, but you are more likely to see problems with the thermal print head than with the motor that runs your labels over it. Proper maintenance can help preserve the print head for many years. This means using the right labels, keeping the machine and its environment clean and temperature-controlled, and following the maintenance procedures recommended by your manufacturer. If you do everything right, you should get many years of service from your thermal printer.

How long do laser cartridges last?

That depends on how many labels you’re printing. Expect several thousand sheets of stickers per cartridge, so if you’re just printing a dozen per day, one cartridge could last a couple of years. But as you scale up, you may find that you need to replace cartridges every few months.

Can a laser printer print on thermal paper?

Technically yes—but you’ll end up with all-black pages because the fuser will activate the thermal paper at the final stage. It may be good for practical jokes, but not much else.

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