Magazine Article | April 22, 2013

Product Review: Rugged 4-Inch Mobile Label Printers

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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. Using that data, we had a field of 11 potential manufacturers.

To determine our testing methodology, we had conversations with a handful of VARs, leaned on ScanSource’s resident bar-coding gurus, and sought advice from most of the 11 companies that could be included in the survey.

As our testing methodology became finalized, we then asked the manufacturers if they’d like to submit a product to be reviewed. If you read an early blog by me on this topic, you know that I was very disappointed in a handful of the companies we reached out to. Here’s how things washed out: Some companies just didn’t have a 4-inch rugged mobile label printer (understandable). Others had products but openly told me that they didn’t think they’d fare well in the review, or certain aspects of the review, because their products were outdated. So, if you’re wondering why your manufacturer of choice isn’t included in the review, rest assured it’s not that we didn’t ask. In the end, Datamax-O’Neil, Toshiba TEC, and Zebra submitted products for review.

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. Take a look at the included spec sheet comparision for a quick overview of the three printers, and then read on for a more detailed analysis.

Setup And 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. Both the Zebra QLn420 and Toshiba B-EP4DL-GH40-QM-R printers require a USB cable for setup that, while not included, was easy to dig up since it’s a cable commonly used for many consumer electronics. 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. The Zebra printer was close behind, and he found the Toshiba TEC printer the most difficult to configure for the wireless network.

“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.”

Paper Loading

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 both the Datamax-O’Neil and Zebra units easy to load.

“The yellow release lever on the side of Zebra unit is easy to spot,” he reports. “There are two silk-screen imprints on the printer case that highlight the proper roll direction and loading instructions.” He goes on to explain that the guides are spring-loaded and hold in place automatically. Loading a roll of labels could be completed in as little as 10 seconds. He also says that the Zebra unit’s media access door opens at the widest angle of the three, making it more accessible when loading media, especially when gloves are being worn.

As with the Zebra unit, Aldridge found the Datamax-O’Neil 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 similar to the Zebra, and, as with the Zebra, loading a roll can be completed in as little as 10 seconds. That said, the Datamax-O’Neil door does not “spring open” like the Zebra and Toshiba, which makes the media door slightly more difficult to open. This could be a consideration if gloves are being worn.

Finally, he described loading paper in the Toshiba TEC printer as cumbersome. “The media door-release lever is the same color as the printer case, and it is the only printer with a release door on the front of the unit,” says Aldridge. The VAR’s fear was that, while difficult, the lever could be depressed accidentally by pressing the printer against an obstruction. Once open, there is a small green lever that needs to be locked in place to hold the media roll. “The lever is flimsy and does not feel like it would be durable over the long term,” warns Aldridge. Toshiba TEC reports that the lever was intentionally built with flexibility in mind and the company has seen a low replacement rate. Due to this lever-locking system, loading a roll of labels can be completed in as little as 15 seconds.

Battery Life

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 Zebra printed 1,100 4” x 6” labels (Walmart SCC-14) before the battery expired — the most labels of all three printers. The selected print speed was 3 ips and darkness was set to default. Aldridge reports that the printer pauses periodically when printing in batches to cool the print head. In fact, the VAR says that the Zebra unit paused more frequently than the other two units in batch printing mode. That said, remember that this isn’t typical operation for this type of printer, so the pausing could be a nonissue.

Just behind the Zebra, the Toshiba TEC printed 1,076 4” x 6” labels before the battery expired. The selected print speed was 4 ips, which is not user-changeable. Per Toshiba, the unit automatically varies speed depending on the print head temperature, environment temperature, battery voltage, printing ratio, and firmware setting. This proved to be true during testing, as it was the slowest printer overall. Again, consider that we weren’t testing overall speed of a batch print job, and that might not be important to you or your clients.

Finally, the Datamax-O’Neil unit printed 941 4” x 6” labels before the battery expired. As with the Zebra unit, 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.

LCD Display

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. That said, Aldridge had his favorites. “The Zebra unit has a large LCD display and was the easiest to use and navigate of the three,” he says. “The display gives quick visual indication of the printer’s status in a number of key areas.”

The Datamax-O’Neil printer also has a large LCD display and was the only printer with battery life depicted as a percentage value on LCD display. In contrast, the Toshiba unit displayed battery life using a four-bar scale. Additionally, the Datamax-O’Neil unit displayed a warning on the LCD when the battery was close to needing to be charged. Finally, Aldridge says that the Toshiba unit has the smallest LCD display at two lines and was the most cumbersome to navigate of the three printers.

Build Quality

As we concluded the testing, we asked Aldridge to give his thoughts on the overall fit, finish, and construction of the tested units. “The Toshiba unit is the lightest unit of the three,” he says. “However, it also seems to be the least industrial or real-world durable of the three.” The Toshiba’s 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. The unit has fan-fold slot for external media loading and is the only unit tested with a side-loading battery. “It is the easiest unit to perform a battery change on,” he says, “because the battery is side-mounted and can be changed without removing the printer from the operator’s hip.” He also feels that the unit is the least ergonomic of three, as it is “short and fat” and the belt clip sits high on the printer. This means the printer sits high on the hip during wear, making it more cumbersome and less comfortable than the other two units.

The Datamax-O’Neil printer felt the most rugged of the three units to Aldridge. 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.

Then there’s the Zebra printer. Aldridge says that the printer’s case is curved to make it fit the body’s natural contour when worn on the hip. In fact, he felt it was the most comfortable to wear of the three. “The build quality is industrial, and the fit and finish is excellent,” he says. “However, unlike the Datamax-O’Neil and Toshiba TEC printers, the Zebra does not stand upright on its own, a consideration if you’re looking for a cart application.” Finally, the unit has a 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.

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