Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Printing

Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Printing

Label printers have become an important part of the day-to-day functioning of a vast number of businesses across multiple industries. They print on card stock, or self-adhesive labels using rolled stock feed or tear sheets, and even on films and foil substrates. Label printers are designed to print large volumes of labels, barcodes and other tags. Popular applications of label printers include printing of retail prices, packaging labels, product labels, asset tags, receipts, shipping labels, laboratory specimen marking and uses in supply chain management.

When it comes to label printers, there are broadly two categories available based on printing technology used. These are thermal transfer printers and direct thermal printers. Although traditional printers often use inkjet and laser technologies, these tend to be expensive for mass printing labels. Printers with thermal printing technology, either thermal transfer or direct thermal, are cost efficient for printing labels, and offer greater convenience, printing quality, and flexibility.

Thermal transfer printers and direct thermal printers both use the core concept of thermal printing, but there are plenty of differences between them. Based on your business requirements, one type of label printer will likely be more suitable compared to the other. Learning about the two types of label printers will help you in making an informed choice and choosing the best printer for your needs.

Also Read:How to Choose the Right Label Printer?

Thermal Transfer Printer: Advantages, Disadvantages and Applications

Thermal transfer printing involves two components, a print head that expresses heat and a thin film ribbon with a special coating on one side, typically made from resin or wax. When the print head applies heat to the ribbon, the desired pattern is printed onto the paper passing through the feed. The heat causes the coating on the ribbon to melt onto the paper, forming the printed image.


  • Excellent print quality: A thermal transfer printer offers superior printing quality with clearly defined edges and images, especially great for high definition graphics, and 1-dimension and 2-dimension barcodes.
  • Consistent printing quality: On every printed label you can rely on having the same good quality printing.
  • Versatile mediums: Thermal transfer printing can be used on a variety of mediums, including plastic, polypropylene, and polyester materials in addition to standard paper prints.
  • Long-lasting prints: Labels printed with the thermal transfer method have a long life and are a great long-term labelling solution. They are capable of withstanding extreme temperatures, harsh environments, and chemical exposure.
  • Coloured prints: With the use of colour supporting ribbons, you can easily print labels in colour using a thermal transfer printer. This is especially useful if you want to add extra dimension and impact to logos and branding.
  • Scratch resistant: As the printed designs are transferred to the paper through a heated ribbon, the final product is a scratch resistant label.


  • Additional costs: For a thermal transfer printer, you need suitable ribbons for any printing. As a result, there are additional costs for ribbons.
  • Time consuming: Although ribbons can support massive amounts of printing, they do require regular changes adding on time to the overall printing time.
  • Print head and ribbon compatibility: Once you have purchased a thermal transfer printer, it is important to use only recommended ribbons. If there is a mismatch between the print head and the ribbon, there is a risk of the print head melting the entire ribbon onto the label, instead of the desired pattern.


Labels from a thermal transfer printer are in high definition and can also be printed in colour. Due to the versatile nature of the prints, a thermal transfer printer is ideal for a variety of applications, including the following:

  • Permanent labels
  • Warehouse labels
  • Product tags
  • Filing labels
  • Asset tags
  • Circuit board labels
  • Inventory labels
  • Certification labels
  • Laboratory specimen labels
  • Chemical labels
  • Cold storage labels
  • Outdoor tags

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Direct Thermal Printer: Advantages, Disadvantages and Applications

Similar to thermal transfer printing, a direct thermal printer also uses a print head to create images on paper feeds. However, the major difference is that there is no need for any ribbon, ink, or toners. Direct thermal printers use special printing mediums that are heat sensitive and chemically treated. When the special mediums are exposed to heat through the print head, the desired pattern is formed and the label is printed.


  • Good print quality: The direct thermal printer offers good print quality for images, graphics, and labels that are sharp and easy to scan.
  • Accuracy: There is impressive accuracy in labels and tags made by a direct thermal printer. As the ink is already embedded in the paper and only heat is applied, there is no risk of ink smudging or errors.
  • Speed: A direct thermal printer offers excellent speed of printing since there is no ribbon moving back and forth. Some labels can be printed in merely seconds, and bulk printing is also effective.
  • Cost effective: A substantial benefit of direct thermal printers is that they are cost effective since there is no need for ribbons, inks or toners.
  • Time saving: Apart from the fast printing speed, there is minimal downtime with a direct thermal printer since there is no need to change any ribbon or ink.
  • Reliability: Due to the simplistic technology involved, there are fewer moving parts in a direct thermal printer. Accordingly, the chances of the printer breaking down are greatly reduced, leading to greater reliability.


  • Only black prints: The colour in a label from a direct thermal printer comes from the paper itself. As a result, printing can only take place in the colour black, and there are no options to add other colours.
  • Sensitive to environment: The printing material used by direct thermal printers is heat sensitive. Excessive light or exposure to heat can damage the printed label or result in the label fading. Scratches can also damage the printed labels.
  • Short label life: Even when kept in a suitable and safe environment, direct thermal printed labels tend to have a short lifespan. Labels are likely to fade around 9-12 months after printing, making them unsuitable for long term use.


Labels printed from a direct thermal printer have a short life span, and so are most suited for storing temporary information. Popular applications are:

  • Tickets
  • Shipping labels
  • Weight labels
  • Visitor passes
  • Meal labels
  • Coupons
  • Citations
  • Parking tickets
  • Temporary name tags
  • Patient wristbands
  • Compliance labels

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Zebra ZD420 Direct Thermal Label Printer BT/ETH/USB

Zebra ZD420 Direct Thermal Label Printer BT/USB/WIFI

ZEBRA ZD420D Direct Thermal Label Printer USB MOD/SLOT

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Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal: Factors to Consider when selecting a Label Printer

Thermal transfer printers and direct thermal printers each have extensive benefits and specific situations in which they are ideal. Here are some of the factors you should consider when deciding which thermal printer is most suited for your business:

Print Quality

What kind of printing quality are you expecting on your labels? Do they need to be in high definition, or just readable and scannable? Is colour required?

Thermal Transfer Printer: If you want high definition labels with excellent graphics then a thermal transfer printer is suitable. Coloured labels are also possible with thermal transfer technology.

Direct Thermal Printer: If you want basic good quality label printing that is readable and scannable, then opt for a direct thermal printer. Keep in mind, only black colour printing will be possible.

Label Life

A significant factor to influence your choice of printer is the expected life of printed labels. Do you want long-lasting labels that will maintain their design? Or do you want short-term labels for temporary use?

Thermal Transfer Printer: Labels from a thermal transfer printer have a long life and are ideal for products that do not require frequent updates to their labelling.

Direct Thermal Printer: If you are looking for temporary, one-time use or short-term labels that would be used in a stable environment, then a direct thermal printer is a good option.

Printing Environment

Another aspect to consider is where the printer will be placed? What would be the environment around the printer, and the surroundings around the label?

Thermal Transfer Printer: The printers themselves and the labels they print can be used in almost any surrounding. These printers are resistant to harsh environments, heat, and chemicals. They can be used indoors and outdoors, and in rugged and industrial setups, while withstanding extreme temperatures.

Direct Thermal Printer: As direct thermal printers use heat-sensitive printing mediums, the printers and labels are not suited for high temperatures and should be kept indoors only. Exposure to heat, sunlight and abrasion can damage the labels and should be avoided to preserve the printing.

Initial Costs

If you are considering purchasing a new label printer, then initial costs would of course be a concern. Check to see which printers suit your budget and also meet your requirements, giving the most benefits for your investment.

Thermal Transfer Printer: A thermal transfer printer is slightly more expensive than direct thermal printers. This is because there are added hardware components that will be manoeuvring the ribbon hardware. However, the prints will have a longer life.

Direct Thermal Printer: As there is no need for a ribbon setup, the hardware of a direct thermal printer is simpler than thermal transfer printers. Accordingly, the direct thermal printers are often more affordable, but the prints will have a shorter life.

Running Costs

Other than initial configuration costs, it is useful to consider the running costs of a label printer. The running costs will be influenced by the amount of printing that takes place.

Thermal Transfer Printer: A thermal transfer printer has relatively high running costs as in addition to the printer media you would also need to spend on ribbons as required. The time involved in ribbon changes and other adjustments results in added down time, which also influences printer output and running costs.

Direct Thermal Printer: In comparison, the direct thermal printer has low running costs since no ribbons are involved. You would need to factor in costs of the heat sensitive printing medium which would be higher than plain paper. As only the paper needs to be replaced, there is minimal downtime with a direct thermal printer.

Printer Maintenance

Maintenance is an unavoidable part of nearly every piece of technology, and is best planned ahead for. For thermal printers, the largest replacement cost is generally for the print head.

Thermal Transfer Printer: In a thermal transfer printer, the ribbon acts as a buffer between the printing media and the print head. With a buffer, the print head is better protected, especially against dust and abrasions, giving the print head a longer life. There is often a special back coating on the ribbon to protect the print head and further improve its lifespan.

Direct Thermal Printer: In a direct thermal printer, the print head is directly in contact with the printing media. As a result, any dust or debris on the label material can damage the print head. Extensive debris can damage prints while smaller foreign particles significantly reduce the life of the print head. The print heads of a direct thermal printer generally have 25-50% of the lifespan of print heads of thermal transfer printers.


For modern businesses, having a good quality label printer is of great benefit. The versatility of label printers results in vast applications in everything from inventory management, to receipts, tickets, and shipping labels. Based on your particular business needs, either a thermal transfer printer or a direct thermal printer may be more suitable.

There is a plethora of thermal transfer and direct thermal printers available, so you can choose the one most suited for your needs and budget. Thermal transfer printers are great for high-definition, colourful, and long-lasting labels. Meanwhile, direct thermal printers are excellent for fast, efficient, and affordable label printing solutions.

Reach out to POS Plaza for more help in finding the best label printer, thermal transfer or direct thermal, for your business needs.

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