Article by Mike Monocello, editor-in-chief
Testing by Paul Aldridge, sales manager, Paragon Print Systems
A common printer in field service applications, the rugged 4-inch mobile label printer was a class of printers we were eager to test for VAR and ISV (independent software vendors) readers. For this review, we partnered with VAR Paragon Print Systems to leverage the company’s years of bar-coding expertise and facilities. To determine which printers to test, we relied on the results from January’s Best Channel Vendor survey. Using that survey data, which came from thousands of VARs and ISVs, we were able to narrow the field down to those printer manufacturers readers told us had the most reliable, feature-rich products.
On the surface, it seems as if a review of 4-inch label printers could be boring or lack any insight. After all, how much innovation and differentiation can be packed within such a small form factor? Well, quite a bit actually.
Setup & Configuration
The first thing we wanted to test was ease of setup. Specifically, we wanted to test the out-of-box-experience for someone unfamiliar with the units. Were there utilities available to set up and configure the printers for use? How easy were those utilities? Paul Aldridge, sales manager for Paragon Print Systems, found that each of the three printers tested had its own pros and cons.
All three units shipped with a Windows print driver and users’ guide on CD, as well as a printed quick-start guide for basic operation, and all three arrived with their own PC-based setup utilities. The Datamax-O’Neil RL4 printer was the only unit tested that required a serial cable to configure. Aldridge is quick to caution VARs and ISVs that most of today’s PCs don’t have a serial port, so you may need to take that into consideration. Despite the old-school serial cable, Aldridge found the Datamax-O’Neil printer to be the most user friendly when setting up the wireless connection.
“As a ‘normal’ user, I don’t think any of the units were particularly easy to set up for Wi-Fi,” says Aldridge. “When it comes to getting these printers on a wireless network, I’d recommend someone with wireless networking expertise over printing expertise.”
Another area we were eager to test was the loading of paper into the printers. For instance, how cumbersome is the experience? Is it intuitive and easy to access the media door? Aldridge found the Datamax-O’Neil RL4 easy to load.
For instance, Aldridge found the RL4 orange release lever easy to spot on the side of the unit; however, there were no imprinted instructions on the case. The guides are spring-loaded and loading a roll can be completed in as little as 10 seconds. That said, the RL4 door does not “spring open” like the Zebra and Toshiba units tested, which makes the media door slightly more difficult to open. This could be a consideration if gloves are being worn.
Every manufacturer boasts about battery life and having the juice to perform over a full shift. For this test, we wanted to do something a little different by testing the number of labels that could be printed on a single battery charge. To even the playing field as much as possible, Aldridge ensured that all three printers were using new fully charged batteries and were configured the same way (i.e. Wi-Fi was enabled). The test was performed in batch mode, printing labels continuously over the wireless connection until the battery expired. The labels-printed numbers speak for themselves, but the testing also revealed some nuances in the ways these printers operate.
The Datamax-O’Neil RL4 printed 941 4” x 6” labels before the battery expired. The selected print speed was 3 ips and darkness was set to default. Aldridge found that the Datamax-O’Neil printer slows when printing in batches to cool the print head and extend battery life.
Another area we wanted to review was the LCD display. Aldridge says that all three units have an LCD display that indicates common printer conditions such as battery life, wireless connectivity, and sleep mode.
The Datamax-O’Neil printer has a large LCD display and was the only printer with battery life depicted as a percentage value on LCD display. Additionally, the RL4 displayed a warning on the LCD when the battery was close to needing to be charged.
As we concluded the testing, we asked Aldridge to give his thoughts on the overall fit, finish, and construction of the tested units. To Aldridge, the Datamax-O’Neil RL4 felt the most rugged of the tested units. It was also the heaviest. Still, the VAR reported that the unit was comfortable when worn on the hip. Indeed, he says that the Datamax belt clip provided the most natural movement of the three and seemed the most durable.
There is also a rubber boot protecting all four sides of the unit, and its base allows the printer to stand straight up and down on its own, making it ideal for cart applications where the printer may be mobile but not worn by the operator. Finally, the unit has fan-fold slot for external media loading.
As you might expect when reviewing printers from three time-tested leading manufacturers, Aldridge didn’t find much wrong with any of the units. At least, there was nothing that would blatantly disqualify a unit from being considered for your line card. Rather, there are subtle differences that might mean a lot or a little to you and your customers. In the end, it’s up to you to determine which features and functions are must-haves and which you can live without.