Business users and companies, small and large, use industry-strength high-performance printers to print their labels, tags, and receipts. Vertical industries like health care and the petrochemical industry have specific media requirements for longevity and resistance against agressive fluids and environments. Closer to home, an office user, a photographer or designer, may need labels with a decent lifespan for document and asset routing and tracking. There are a number of manufacturers of desktop printers that can manage these needs, but one of the market leaders surely is Zebra. Zebra has a whole range of label printers with or without the ability to also print RFID labels. We were given the opportunity to review their top-of-the-line desktop label printer, the GX430t, a very capable printer.
ZBI provides a means to integrate the printer in foreign environments, or handle non-ZPL data, create standalone applications or connect and manage peripherals. The GX430t also has native Unicode functionality to support global character printing of variable data.
The Zebra GX430t accepts both direct thermal — which is the label printing type we all know from Dymo LabelWriters — and thermal transfer media. Thermal transfer media use a wax or resin ribbon to transfer the barcode, text and graphics to the paper or synthetic media. Thermal transfer media are more resistant to all sorts of agressive influences, such as acid fluids, sweat, blood, heat, moisture, etc. This type of label can also result in a crispier look when printed. When barcodes are printed with thermal transfer media, these may be easier to scan.
I tested the GX430t with both types of media. In the thermal transfer type, there are two different sub-types of media: paper-based and synthetic. I tested both types (Z-Select 2000T and Z-Ultimate 3000T). Furthermore, I used the GX430t as a peripheral to a Mac Mini running Mac OS X 10.6.4 as well as Windows XP SP3 and Windows 7 in the VMware Fusion environment.
The Zebra GX430t that I tested was the basic model. This model comes with about a dozen built-in fonts, including a large number of barcode types, three interfaces — parallel, serial, and USB — of which only USB works on the Mac. In the box are an empty ribbon core (necessary to wind used ribbon), a power cord, a DVD with software and drivers, a Quick Start guide, a USB cable, a print head cleaning pen, and a label with configuration data on it.
Optionally, this printer can be equipped with a cutter, label peeler, Ethernet, 802.11b/g wireless and Bluetooth (which include an LCD option that can be programmed to suit a user’s own application or operating requirements), and a reflective sensor that moves across the full-width of the media pathway and functions as a multiple position transmissive sensor. The printer has 8MB of built-in memory that can be expanded to 64MB which includes a Real Time Clock option. However, none of these options can be built-in afterwards; you must properly configure the printer before buying it. Optionally, the GX430t can also be expanded with its own keyboard unit, as well as functioning as a printer to a weigh scale, scanner, etc. It can integrate with systems such as SAP through optional software. In short, this printer may be called a ‘desktop printer’, but it has many of the features of its bigger siblings.
This explains why Zebra’s GX430t is used in a very large range of vertical industries, including health care, government, legal offices, manufacturing, publishing, printing, logistics, etc. I tested the GX430t with three applications in mind:
- Document routing, tracking, and archiving
- Photo print tagging and archiving using very thin synthetic labels
- Asset tracking (computer equipment, peripherals, etc)
- Backup media tagging for use in automatic media changers based on barcode identification.
The GX430t has an On/Off switch. Every time you turn on the printer it will run a self-test and output one blank label. The media and media types can be changed while the printer is switched on, but after closing the lid, the printer will be in Pause mode. that media’s feed operation and power-on and head close can be altered should no movement be required. This can be changed in the label design software, in the driver or by using a direct command code. When changing thermal transfer media with a partly used ribbon, you must take some care removing the ribbon so you can use it again.
In this review I will discuss the printer itself. I have written separate reviews on the software — both Windows and Mac OS X — and the media (what you use them for, and what you can expect in terms of quality).
The GX430t test unit Zebra sent me came with an older version of ZebraDesigner. This software only installs on Windows XP, not on Windows 7, nor on Mac OS X. From the Zebra web site, I could download the latest version, which runs on Windows XP as well as on Windows 7. On Mac OS X, I tested the unit using Belight Software’s Labels & Envelopes in combination with the Peninsula Group’s Mac OS X driver.
Under all circumstances and regardless of the driver or operating system being used, the Zebra GX430t performed equally well. I started testing with direct thermal labels. All tested media came directly from Zebra and so are all Zebra branded.
All tested media could also be used at the highest print speed settings. This in fact was the first hurdle I had to take: in the beginning I found it hard to find out which speed and ‘darkness’ setting (darkness really refers to the temperature of the printing head) were the best for every type of media I had. Zebra used to publish a great overview of speed/darkness combinations for all of its media but it no longer does because, as one the company’s technical engineers explained to me, there are too many media to account for, and too many factors playing a role. Zebra’s supplies price lists do provide information, however.
With over 1000 labels on each roll, trial and error to find out isn’t too costly. In the end, using the Zebra Setup Utilities Darkness/Speed wizard, I found that only two types of media required a higher darkness setting and a slower speed. Not surprisingly, the Direct Thermal media would print superbly when the printer was configured as it had left the factory.
I tested print quality, the ease with which my ROV scanner could scan barcodes, printer speed when printing one label and also multiple copies of the same layout, the speed when printing everything on the label as a graphic, and the ease of changing media and media types.
Print quality on both direct thermal and thermal transfer was astonishingly crisp. Especially on the synthetic thermal transfer label type the output was stunning. The ROV scanner had absolutely no difficulties with scanning any of the barcodes I threw at it, not even when I decreased barcode size by 25% from its default setting (which resulted in very closely grouped bars).
I expected the Zebra GX430t to perform more or less like the Dymo 450 Twin Turbo. When the Dymo is put in “barcode and graphics” printing mode, it slows down to about half its maximum output speed. That’s still quite fast, but slower than the text-only setting. This doesn’t happen when printing barcodes or graphics with the GX430t — much to my surprise, the printer speed you set in the software is the speed at which the printer will output your label.
If that speed is too fast for the media used the label will look bad. However, almost all media available from Zebra can be printed at speeds much higher than the GX430t is capable of (some of Zebra’s heavy-duty printers can print at 355mm/sec!), so all my tests resulted in perfect output. The reason for this is that Zebra uses a print speed expressed in printed lines per inch (or mm/sec), while Dymo expresses speed in labels per second with each label covered with approx. 35% of content.
Therefore, Dymo’s real performance figures are almost invariably the slower ones, except perhaps for pure address labels. Zebra’s GX430t, however, prints at 102mm/sec except when the media or environmental factors do not allow for this speed setting to work well. In fact, I even found that slowing down the print speed could result in worse results with some of the test media. Even the first label — which always prints somewhat slower than the next one — came out very fast.
As the GX430t has an internal memory, the printer can print multiple copies with only the first label design/content actually sent to the printer. Even with the standard 8MB this resulted in the full throughput performance the GX430t is capable of; incredibly fast.
Changing media proved to be easy too, although changing ribbons is something you must get used to at first. The media simply loads by pulling two large plastic ‘levers’ apart and positioning the label roll in-between the roll holders. Changing a ribbon is more of a challenge but if you’ve done it a couple of times, there’s nothing to it.
The first thing one needs to remember is that these ribbons carry no ink, so you won’t get dirty hands from grabbing the black surface (although I think it’s best not to for print quality reasons). The most disagreeable part of changing ribbons while they’re not completely consumed yet is getting rid of the used ribbon.
However, most real-world users will rarely change media types.
In conclusion, I would like to come back to why I tested the Zebra GX430t in the first place. Needless to say, the Zebra GX430t is one of the best label printers for asset tagging and backup media tagging. I also prefer it to Dymo for document tracking and routing for three reasons:
- its sheer performance
- its print quality
- because it supports thermal transfer media, which guarantee a lifespan of several years.
In contrast, direct thermal labels like the ones you use with a Dymo LabelWriter tend to become yellow and even brown after a few months. Used with Z-Ultimate 3000T bright white synthetic labels, there simply is no match for the GX430t when it comes to photo tagging and archiving.
The GX430t costs between 450.00 and 800.00 Euros, depending on the options. It pays off to search for resellers’ prices as these may vary quite considerably.