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 Toshiba EP4 printer 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. Despite the USB interface, 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 any of our tested 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? He described loading paper in the Toshiba TEC EP4 as cumbersome, with a roll taking about 15 seconds to load. “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. We reached out to Toshiba TEC Product Manager Theresa Lee who was able to give us new insight regarding the lever.
“The EP2/EP4 were introduced in 2009 and since then we shipped a large number to various large retail, manufacturing and Transportation/Logistic customers,” she says. “Tracking the order rate of the media lever as a spare part since introduction showed little ordering. This is a good indication about the reliability of the media lever based on our actual spare part ordering data.
“Our Technical Support Center reports that the most frequent concerns that come up are not problems with the “media lever” but more on connectivity via Bluetooth or wireless. Most users forgot to change the IP address or they acquire new handheld terminals and they don’t recall how to set up. Technical Support says that they have not received any media lever reliability calls.
“Actually, the media lever was designed with the ability to bend or flex which gives it the ‘flimsy’ feel. The EP printers were designed for a user to pull the lever forward to unlock so you can move the media holders (black wheels on right and left) to expand or collapse to set the right position for your new roll of media. Once you find that right width you lock the position by pushing the lever to the back. From that point on it is assumed that the user will use the same type of labels so he just needs to drop in a new roll with a single hand and you probably don’t need to lock or unlock the lever repeatedly. If you noticed both the green media lever and even the right and left black media holders flex and are not rigid so to allow hand rooms to insert a full roll or take out an emptied roll. Because both the green lever and the media holders can flex it probably gives the user the first impression of flimsiness.”
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 Toshiba TEC EP4 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.
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 VAR reports that the Toshiba EP4 has the smallest LCD display at two lines and was the most cumbersome to navigate of the three printers.
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 EP4 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.
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.
† 1 year return to depot (all parts & labor). Toshiba also offer extended service outside the one year such as extended depot or on-site services.