What is a Thermal Printer?

Mary McMahon

A thermal printer is a printer which uses heated elements to print. There are several different types of thermal printer available. One form which people may be familiar with is the thermal printer often used at credit card terminals to print out receipts. These printers are relatively efficient and quiet, and they come in a number of sizes and styles for different printing needs. Stores and catalogs which stock printing supplies usually carry thermal printers, with several available options along with accessories such as thermal paper.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

A direct thermal printer applies heat to heat-sensitive paper with the use of a print head made from numerous small pins. The pins are heated in a selective pattern which either activates heat-sensitive chemicals in the paper or actually burns the paper to create a design. With direct thermal printers, single color printing in black is the most common option, although sometimes a second color is also available.

Thermal transfer printers apply heat to a waxed ribbon which is sandwiched between the print head and the material being printed on. The heat melts the wax, which transfers and cools immediately into a smudge-free printed product. Thermal transfer printers are often used for things like marking plastic tags with barcodes. This type of printing yields a more durable final product, which is less likely to smudge or fade and can also be done at very high speed.

Portable thermal printers are available for people who want a lightweight printer that can be used in the field. These printers can be used by people like researchers who want to print out readings from devices, retailers attending craft fairs and similar events, and nurses using mobile carts with equipment, like ultrasound machines, which generate printouts for review, among many other things. Larger thermal printers may be designed for use in offices and businesses.

When selecting a thermal printer, people may want to think about limitations such as paper size, printing technique, and the size of the printer itself. With equipment designed to work with thermal printers, it is also important to make sure that the printer will be compatible with the device. In some cases, equipment providers will supply their own thermal printers, and it may be difficult to find a different printer which will work with the device as the manufacturer may have proprietary software which makes it challenging to write a printer driver to work with a different printer.

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Discussion Comments


@Soulfox -- true, but how many people working mobile need to generate a document that's permanent? For people who just want to create a document that can be shared and used as part of a larger project, a small thermal printer may be ideal. Some people just want to create a document that is temporary in nature, after all.

For those wanting to create something that's more permanent, there are some very lightweight inkjet printers available that are good for mobile use.


Here's something else to keep in mind -- thermal printers aren't meant to record anything permanently. That letter you printed out on your laser or ink jet printer a year ago probably looks as good as the day you created it, but documents produced by a thermal printer fade quite rapidly.

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