Types of Thermal Printers: Explained

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Thermal printer manufacturers provide a diverse selection of models that cater to specific printing needs.

However, these thermal printers are not properly categorised, making it challenging for customers to identify the right model. So, to help you learn and understand the types of thermal printers, we’ve compiled this handy guide.

In this guide, we have classified thermal printers according to the following criteria.

  • Print Speed
  • Print Quality
  • Type of Print Technologies
  • Printer Size
  • Usage
  • Price

Printing Speed

Print speed is the rate at which the thermal print head moves during a print job. It is measured in inches per second or millimeters per second. The faster the thermal printhead moves, the faster the printer can complete a print job.

To learn how thermal printers operate, please refer to our guide on how does a thermal printer work.

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Super Slow (up to 4.5 in. or 115 mm per second)

Mobile printers and receipt printers fall into the super slow printing speed category.

Mobile printers and receipt printers are designed for low-volume, on-the-go printing applications where portability is more important than print speed. They are battery-operated. Mobile printers and receipt printers have a small footprint and usually weigh less than 1.5 kg (3.31 lb). 

Slow (up to 6 in. or 152 mm per second)

6 inches or 152 mm per second printing speed is common for a label printer and desktop printer that prints at a resolution of 300 dpi. This category also includes some industrial printers that print at a resolution of 600 dpi.

Label printers are designed for printing labels, tags, and barcodes. They come in various widths, usually between two and four inches.

Desktop printers are small printers that do not occupy much desk space. They are designed for offices and retail stores where space is limited. Desktop printers are ideal for low to medium-volume printing applications.

Medium (up to 8 in. or 203 mm per second)

The most common printing speed seen in thermal printers is 8 inches or 203 mm per second. This printing speed is standard for thermal transfer and direct thermal printers.

The medium print speed category includes the majority of industrial printers. Some label printers and desktop printers that print at a resolution of 203 dpi also fall into this category.

Industrial printers are designed for high-volume printing applications. They are capable of printing on a wide range of print media.

Industrial printers are generally made using metal and have a rugged design. They have a large footprint and weigh more than 10 kg (22.05 lb).

Fast (up to 12 in. or 305 mm per second)

Fast printing speed is seen in high industrial range printers designed for high-volume, time-sensitive printing applications.

Most industrial printers operate at 12 inches or 305 mm per second printing speed when printing at a resolution of 203 dpi.

Ultra Fast (up to 18 in. or 457 mm per second)

Ultra-fast printing speed is the rarest printing speed category. This category is only seen in print engines or enterprise industrial printers.

Print engines and enterprise industrial printers are workhorses designed for high-volume and quick printing applications. They are usually found in manufacturing and logistics environments. 

Datamax A-CLASS MKII is a reliable solution if you’re searching for a print engine. 

Printing Quality

Printing quality refers to the clarity and sharpness of the printed image. It is measured in terms of dots per inch (DPI). The DPI measures the number of small, individual dots that make up one printed image. The higher the DPI, the better the print quality.

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Basic Print Quality (up to 203 DPI)

203 DPI is the lowest print quality available in thermal printers. It is widely accepted as an industry standard for printing applications. The print speed for 203 DPI is the fastest.

203 DPI print quality is adequate for most printing applications that do not require fine details or small font types. 203 DPI resolution produces excellent results for printing shipping labels, plain-text product labels, and huge barcodes.

203 DPI is the default print resolution for most thermal transfer printers and direct thermal printers. 

The Zebra ZT411 and Zebra ZT231 are some of the best thermal printers for 203 DPI print quality. 

Semi Professional Print Quality (up to 300 DPI)

300 DPI print quality is considered an industry standard for high-resolution printing applications. It is an upgrade from 203 DPI and ideal for printing that requires fine details and small font types.

300 DPI is midway between low-quality and high-quality images. It is a happy compromise of print speed for better print quality. 300 DPI print resolution is ideal for printing labels with intricate designs, barcodes, and ID cards.

300 DPI is usually found in high-end desktop printers, industrial printers, and print engines.

If you’re looking for a printer with 300 DPI print quality, take a look at Honeywell PD45/45S, Honeywell PM45, and TSC MH241.

Professional Print Quality (up to 600 DPI)

600 DPI is the highest print quality available in thermal printers. It delivers exceptional print clarity and sharpness. 600 DPI resolution is ideal for applications requiring fine details, such as labels and ID cards with photos and barcodes.

600 DPI is a significant upgrade from 300 DPI and is only seen in high-end industrial printers and print engines. The print speed for 600 DPI is the slowest.

Printers with 600 DPI resolution are more expensive than other thermal printers.

Honeywell’s PX940 and the TSC TX600 Desktop Printer is a good choice for 600 dpi printing. 

Type of Printing Method Used

Thermal printers are of two types: Direct thermal printers and Thermal transfer printers. These printers are named based on the printing technology they employ.

Direct thermal printer prints by applying heat directly on heat-sensitive media (direct thermal labels). The heat activates the dye or carbon-based ink present in the thermal label, which results in printing.

On the other hand, a thermal transfer printer uses heat to transfer ink from a thermal transfer ribbon onto a print media. The thermal transfer ribbon is composed of wax, resin, or a combination of both.

For an in-depth comparison of both printing technologies, please refer to our guide on direct thermal vs thermal transfer printing

Printer Footprint

“Printer footprint” refers to the size of a printer. It determines how much space the printer will occupy on a desk, countertop, or shelf.


Printers in the compact category have a length, width, and height of less than or equal to 200 mm (7.87 inches).

Examples of compact printers include card printers, wristband printers, desktop printers, mobile printers, and receipt printers.

Industrial Standard

The industrial standard category includes printers with a length, width, and height between 200 mm (7.87 inches) and 600 mm (23.62 inches).

Label printers, metal tag printers, RFID printers, barcode inspection printers, and kiosk printers are examples of industrial standard category printers.


Printers with a length, width, or height greater than 600 mm (23.62 inches) are considered bulky printers.

The bulky printer category includes print engines and enterprise industrial printers.

Based on Usage

Thermal printers are further categorised based on their application.

Card and Badge Printers

Card and badge printers are designed to print ID cards, patient and visitor identification cards, membership cards, loyalty cards, gift cards, and badges. These printers are extremely compact and lightweight.

Card and badge printers have various features, such as the ability to print on both sides of a card, lamination, encoding (magnetic stripe or RFID), and more.

Wristband Printers

Wristband printers print patient identification wristbands, event wristbands, and water or amusement park wristbands. They are primarily used in the healthcare, hospitality, and recreation industries.

Like card and badge printers, wristband printers are also compact and lightweight. They do not have many features and are simple devices.

Receipt Printers

Receipt printers are used to print sales receipts, credit card slips, electronic point-of-sale (POS) receipts, and other transaction documents. They are used mainly in retail environments such as supermarkets, restaurants, and gas stations.

Receipt printers use direct thermal printing technology. They come in various sizes and shapes, with the most common being compact and lightweight.

Metal Asset Printing and Tagging Printers

Metal asset printing and tagging printers enable printing and encoding on thick metal tags. They are used to print barcodes, labels, and tags for assets such as tools, equipment, and parts. Metal asset printing and tagging printers are commonly found in the manufacturing, automotive, aerospace, and electronics industries.

Metal asset printing and tagging printers have a rugged design and can withstand harsh environments. They have a large footprint and are very heavy.

Kiosk Printers

Kiosk printers print documents such as boarding passes, event tickets, and receipts in self-service kiosks. They are used in high-traffic public areas such as airports, railway stations, and malls.

Kiosk printers come in various shapes and designs, with compact tabletop ones being the most popular. They have a straightforward layout and few features. Kiosk printers employ direct thermal printing technology.

RFID Printers

RFID printers are designed to print and encode RAIN RFID labels, tags, and cards. They are used in industries like retail, logistics, and manufacturing & warehousing where tracking and managing inventory is important.

RFID printers are available in the form of desktop, industrial, and mobile printers.

Check out Zebra ZT411 RFID Printer if you’re looking for an RFID printer.

Barcode Inspection Printers

Barcode inspection printers are used to print and verify barcodes simultaneously.

Barcode inspection printers have a unique data verification technology that can detect defects such as print quality, missing or incorrect characters, and incorrect symbology. If the barcode fails inspection, the printer strikes it out and automatically prints a replacement label.

Barcode inspection printers are heavy-duty industrial printers. They are generally much heavier and have a larger footprint. Barcode inspection printers are widely used in the healthcare, pharmaceutical, automotive, and food & beverage industries.

The Honeywell PX940 is an example of a barcode inspection printer.


The price of a thermal printer depends on various factors such as printer type, build quality, print quality, print speed, and connectivity options and ports.

Print quality and speed are the two significant factors that affect the price of a thermal printer. The higher the print quality and printing speed, the more expensive the printer will be.

Entry-Level Thermal Printers (under NZ$1,000)

Entry-level thermal printers are the most affordable type of thermal printer. They are designed for light-duty on-demand printing applications such as identification labels, inventory labels, shipping labels, receipts, and barcodes.

Most entry-level thermal printers have a print quality of 203 DPI. Users will rarely find an entry-level thermal printer with a print quality of 300 DPI.

Entry-level thermal printers offer a print speed ranging from super slow (up to 4.5 in. or 115 mm per second) to medium (up to 8 in. or 203 mm per second).

Entry-level thermal printers are usually small and built using high-quality plastic or ABS material. They are suitable for offices, retail shops, and small businesses. Most desktop printers, mobile printers, and receipt printers are types of entry-level thermal printers.

Mid-Range Thermal Printers (NZ$1,000 - NZ$10,000)

Mid-range thermal printers are more expensive than entry-level ones but are still affordable for most businesses. They are built for mid to high-printing volume applications.

Mid-range thermal printers can produce a variety of resolutions, with some ranging up high to 600 DPI. The most common print resolution in mid-range thermal printers is 203 DPI, 300 DPI, and sometimes 403 DPI.

Mid-range printers have print speeds ranging from slow (up to 6 in. or 152 mm per second) to fast (up to 12 in. or 305 mm per second).

Mid-range printers have a large footprint and are heavy. They are built using high-quality materials such as metal, stainless steel, and aluminium, contributing to their durability. Mid-range printers often come with an LCD screen, various ports, and wireless connectivity options.

Mid-range thermal printers are suitable for warehouses, distribution centres, and manufacturing plants. Industrial printers fall under this category.

High-End Thermal Printers (NZ$10,000 and above)

High-end thermal printers are the most expensive type of thermal printer. They provide the highest print quality and printing speed. They are designed for mission-critical, high-volume applications that require an uninterrupted operation.

High-end thermal printers offer print resolutions of 300 DPI, 403 DPI, and 600 DPI. Some printers in this category can even print at resolutions higher than 600 DPI.

High-end thermal printers have print rates ranging between very fast (up to 12 in. or 305 mm per second) to ultra-fast (up to 18 in. or 457 mm per second).

Printers in this category occupy ample space and are very heavy. They have a rugged design and are built using the highest-quality materials, such as stainless steel, aluminium, and cast-metal alloys.

Moreover, they have all internal metal components, making them durable and long-lasting. Most high-end thermal printers come with a touchscreen display, various ports, and wireless connectivity options.

High-end thermal printers are mainly used to print labels in the following industries.

  • Automotive
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Manufacturing and warehousing
  • Food and beverage
  • Health and beauty

The high-end printer category includes print engines and enterprise industrial printers.

The Bottom Line

Thermal printers from manufacturers like Zebra, Honeywell, TSC, and Datamax are a staple in many industries thanks to their high-quality printing, durability, and low cost of ownership. 

The type of thermal printer you need will depend on the printing requirement of your business application. Our thermal printer buyer’s guide will assist you in making the right purchase decision.

We hope this article helped you understand the different types of thermal printers available in the market. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us via the live chat widget below. We’ll be happy to help you select the right thermal printer for your needs.

Happy printing!

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