The Best Label Maker
After talking label maker pros and cons with three professional organizers, conducting nearly 50 hours of research and playing with six different models of label makers, we picked the $40 Epson LW-300 because it allowed us to kick out clean labels with the least amount of fuss. It was comfortable to hold, featured easy-to-type-on QWERTY keys, and was always intuitive to use, even when typing really complicated labels involving symbols, punctuation, and multiple font styles.
The Epson LW-300 has everything you’ll need to keep a neat and tidy house or office like a QWERTY keyboard with dedicated buttons for numbers and symbols, a comprehensible interface, and easily-replaceable, split-backing tape. It lacks unnecessary features that’ll just add to organizational distraction and distress. The LW-300 just barely edged out the very-similar Brother P-Touch D200 thanks to its excellent button placement and extra features like expanded fonts and low-battery detection.
But if you need more business-oriented features like barcode printing and time-saving presets for commonly used labels, we recommend the Brother PT-H300 because of its sizeable printing options and easy-to-navigate interface.
How we picked and tested
There’s not a ton of existing editorial on label makers, so we knew from the start that we’d have to do some of our own testing. But in order to do that, we first had to determine what makes a great label maker. So we turned to the experts.
We also wanted a model that was able to print in different languages and that used laminate tape that’s equipped with painless-to-peel-away, split-backing (fiddling with the corners of tape backing is beyond tedious and frustrating). Furthermore, we required that the label makers use tape that’s widely sold in brick-and-mortar stores, since using a label maker is often done spontaneously and zipping to a big-box retailer would allow same-day use, rather than having to wait for delivery.
After talking to the pros about what makes a good label maker great, we looked at which models earned high marks from consumers on Amazon. Though we looked to Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping for their recommendations, neither publication has tested or produced buyer guides on label makers, at least that we can find. Similarly, there is a considerable dearth of trusted label-maker-buying guides online, though PC Mag has published a few individual label printer reviews. For these reasons, Amazon user ratings influenced our picking process more notably than it otherwise might.
It turns out there are only three main players in the label maker game: Brother, Dymo, and Epson. So picking testing models was a refreshingly simple affair. It was just a matter of deciding which features were necessary.
First off, we chose portable models over desktop models that connect to computers (simply because labeling is easier done when you’re in front of the objects you’re labeling). We also required that a label maker’s keypad was set up in QWERTY for obvious reasons. Further, we eliminated models that don’t work with laminated tape, as it was important to use tape with durability–one that could withstand being stuck on an item, then carried around to both outdoor and indoor locations without smearing or otherwise getting roughed up. And while there are some humdinger models best suited for business (with features like barcode options, sophisticated templates and extra-strength and industrial tape options), we ruled them out because they were simply too expensive and didn’t offer additional options useful for everyday domestic projects.
With this criteria in mind, we were left with the following models to test: The Brother P-Touch PT-H300 and PT-D200; the Dymo Label Manager, LetraTag LT-100T, and Manager 210D; and the Epson LW-400 and LW-300.
To test, we ranked models on how comfortable they were to hold and type on. Then, we weighed the most important feature—ease of use. We individually timed two adults as they typed three labels of increasing difficulty. While we realize that it’s easy enough to learn and get used to any interface after using it a few times, easier is always better—especially if you only use a label maker a few times a year. Finally, we tested the label printing speed and used the top models for nine hours.
(After nine hours, neither model indicated being close to battery depletion. The Epson’s battery indicator was still full and while the Brother did flash a “Low Battery!” warning once at about the five hour mark, it never flashed the message again and continued to work without issue.)
The LW-300 uses tape cartridges that retail for about $20 and requires 6 AAA batteries or an AC adapter (sold separately)—a nice option to have, as swapping out a grip of batteries can be a costly and and annoying chore when you want to just grab the thing and get down to business.
Our testers had no trouble reading the Epson screen. Like all the other screens in the bunch (save the Epson LW-400, which is backlit), the Epson LW-300 screen is black and grey. Although it’s smaller than the Brother PT-D200, measuring 2” long by ½” wide, to Brother’s 3” long by nearly 1” wide, it’s much clearer and easier to read. Even when not illuminated, one can see the font, size, style, case, and width options on the Brother screen when it’s slightly tilted at an angle or held more than 6” from the face.
Ease of use is one of the few points of differentiation when it comes to these things, so we asked testers to make several labels of varying complexity to assess how they performed out of the box to an unfamiliar user—a common use-case considering the fact that many people who buy these use them infrequently.
The keyboard also goes beyond simple QWERTY layout; symbols that we’re used to seeing on computer keyboards are also represented as readily available keys, so typing *, #, $, %, and @ is achievable without a hunt. Another dedicated button to access accented letters also made typing in Spanish (and other languages) painless. The LW-300 also boasts a few more dedicated buttons for things like multiple printing and font style changes, which cut the time required to bang out more complex labels.
And Epson’s selection button for menu items—a frequently used button—is handily located near the resting position of the right thumb, whereas the equivalent button on the Brother required an awkward thumb stretch to reach. Overall, this makes it easier to just pick up the Epson and start labeling out of the box, even if you’ve lost the manual and completely forgotten how to use it after forgetting it in your desk drawer for too long.
This good design translated to real results in our testing as well. The Epson performed well, beating the other label makers in all but one test. For the first label, in which testers typed the simple phrase “PLZ DO NOT TOUCH,” the Epson LW-300 required one of the least amounts of time and fuss to make the label. For the more-complicated second label “2. LEE Bryan.,” the Epson model again came in as the easiest machine to use, with the Brother just trailing it. Where it earned its ease-of-use ranking was when testers made a very complicated label (in which bold and cursive fonts were chosen and “$Aquá&” was typed); the LW-300 came in fastest out of six.
* Couldn’t find accent mark. gave up.
** Couldn’t find font change. Gave up.
[NOTE: Font changes are not available on DYMO models, those with two ** above]
Because the Epson LW-300 and Epson LW-400 are so similar in their layout and functionality, and because there is such a steep learning curve in using these simple machines, we were concerned that testers may have learned how to use the Epson LW-300 just by having already made a label with the LW-400. Though testers clocked the second and third fastest speeds with the LW-400, signaling that the two machine’s functionality was easier to use, we decided to run a second set of tests with two new testers. This time, we tested the Brother PT-D200 and the Epson LW-300 back to back, timing testers while making the same labels as in the first round of testing.
The results, below, show that the both models were neck and neck for ease of use, one trailing the other by mere seconds in each round. While there was no conclusive winner when it came to typing the more basic labels, both users found the Epson LW-300 to be easier to use when making the most complicated label, strengthening our original data in marginal favor for the Epson LW-300.
The Epson was small and easy to hold. At 5.7” wide, 5.9” deep and 2.16” high, it’s a wee bit smaller than the Brother, and its rounded edges fit comfortably in the palms of the testers’ hands. Though the Brother also has rounded edges, its longer body and positioning of important keys means users have to choke up on the machine a bit, splaying palms of the hands along the straight sides rather than resting comfortably on its curved edges.
What’s more, at about about 15 oz., the Epson packed enough weight to feel sturdy in our hands without weighing us down. Similarly, the distribution of weight felt nice in the hands; the machine wasn’t top-heavy like other models and didn’t put pressure on the wrists when using the machines for more than 10 minutes. Like the Brother PT-D200 and Epson LW-400, it features padded feet to control slippage while on a surface. While nice, this feature isn’t such a big deal, since the machine is generally carried in hands, not placed on a surface, when in use.
Amazon users also ranked the Epson model a top-rated labeler in the category (4.4 stars over 273 reviews vs. 3.5 stars over 165 reviews for Brother at press time)—something that wasn’t considered in our testing but nonetheless strengthens our final conclusion.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Epson LW-300 doesn’t print barcodes. But since our focus is on the home user that likely doesn’t need to slap barcodes around the house, this missing feature doesn’t rate too highly on our list of qualms. A small business user may want to invest in a more expensive model with barcode capabilities like the Brother PT-H300.
While PCMag.com rated the Brother more favorably (the Epson got 3.5 of five stars vs. Brother’s four of five stars), we disagreed with some of the criteria within the publication’s reviews. In our own tests, we found the Epson more comfortable to hold and straightforward to use, and while we did find their assertions that the Brother has a faster printing speed true, we just don’t think the printing speed is that important—no one is speed-labeling their house.
The Brother PT-D200 was nearly as easy to use; it ranked closely in timed label-making tests. Ultimately, we prefer the Epson—it’s simply more intuitive and versatile—but if you can’t get your hands on it, or find a great deal on the Brother, you’ll still get an excellent machine.
Epson LW-400 – This label maker has a few bells and whistles that our pick did not—namely a backlit screen, the ability to print barcodes, and a cable-wrapping print mode, where the print takes up ¼” of the tape area, allowing more white space to wrap around a cable. However, these features went beyond the needs of an everyday user (Segura estimates that 98% of people using label makers are doing so indoors; plus, home users don’t typically need to make barcodes, and while cable-wrapping is nice, similar effects can be achieved with a little tweaking of the settings) and weren’t enough to validate the higher price ($50).
Dymo LM-160 – While the price was right for this label maker ($40) and it featured several dedicated keys for font positioning, font type, size, and more (making it delightfully easy to format our labels), according to our testers, its keys were squeezed too closely together, which encumbered typing (the keyboard size is about as wide as a Samsung Galaxy phone) and made for error-ridden labels. In our tests, this model didn’t clock a single high score for fastest label creation. Plus, testers were stumped when looking for a way to change fonts—the model only prints in one font, and therefore it didn’t have cursive font options.
Dymo LM-210D – The curved, ergonomic shape of this label maker made it the most comfortable to hold in the group. And the keys were positioned comfortably apart. But this model was not as intuitive to use, creating frustration among testers. It doesn’t have dedicated number keys and featured deeper menus than testers would have liked. And it only prints in one font.
Dymo LetraTag LT-100T – The keys were spaced a bit too far apart for our more petite-fingered testers, requiring them to really stretch the thumbs to reach the center (and TY, GH, and CV keys) of the keyboard. The keys also required quite a pounding to get characters to register on the screen, which created frustration among testers. Finally, testers clocked some of the longest test times when striving to create and print a label because basic punctuation like periods and commas did not have dedicated keys or keyed options on the keyboard. Instead, users needed to guess their whereabouts by playing around with “insert,” “settings,” and “format” buttons to access the punctuation marks. They’re hidden in a “symbols” menu, confusingly only accessible via the “insert” key. Finally, like the other Dymo label makers, this one only comes with one font option.
Epson LW-600P: The idea of creating a label on your phone and printing it on this gizmo sounds cool, but for household and office organizing projects, having to haul two machines from project to project is not practical. Most people need to type the labels they need when looking at what they’re organizing—it helps to look at the pasta, spices, chips, teas, and crackers to know which labels need to be created for the pantry, for example, rather than trying to recall its contents from a desk elsewhere in the house. And while it’s easy to whip out our phones to make a label while anywhere in the house or office, having to then retrieve the label from the LW-600P, wherever that might be located, is more of a pain than it’s worth. Finally, the $100 price point, more than double the cost of our pick, doesn’t win it any points. For these reasons, we only tested label makers that are all-in-one, portable devices that can print directly from the machine.
Brother P-Touch PT-H300 – After getting the models out of the box, we immediately discarded this model because while perhaps a good option for small businesses, the model didn’t offer anything special for the additional cost. (It sells for $70, well above the much easier-to-swallow $30-$40 price point for other models.) It was also considerably heavier and bulkier than the other models. However, for those looking to kick out barcodes or business-oriented labels, this model is a great pick for its robust options, 5-line screen, and clear-and-easy navigation and usability.
What makes a good labeler?
A good labeler should help simplify the organizing process. It’s hard to imagine cases in which the less a gadget can do, the better it is. However, as we spoke with our three professional organizers from around the country (all recommended by National Association of Professional Organizers Spokesperson Jill Banks), we found that in the world of organizing, simplicity is king. A great label maker is the one that will allow us to deftly create clear and simple labels for our collections/arrays of things without getting sidelined by confusing interfaces, deep menus, or superfluous bells and whistles.
With this in mind, we put the most stock in finding a label maker that is easy to use and comfortable to hold and type on. This is a tote-with-you-as-you-go tool, and since the machine is simple in purpose, it should be equally intuitive to use. We looked for something that prints on last-minute, project-friendly tape (i.e. that which is stocked by big box retailers) and featured adjustable margins so we don’t waste too much of the stuff. (Because at $25 a cartridge, tape feels twice as pricey when uninked edges span inches.)
While fancy fonts, borders, and other iconography are big label maker marketing points, we placed a lesser importance on these features because all three organizers told us that bells and whistles like borders and frames, icons, and fancy fonts are generally not used for everyday jobs (the goal is to create a clean look when organizing, not something junked up by special shading and emoticons).
As California-based professional organizer Grace Brooke noted, “By nature, we try to make things fancy but when it comes to organizing and labeling, fancy just complicates it instead.”
Such features don’t matter much when creating an organized system in the home, but we did consider them added bonuses. While nearly all labels made are done with clarity in mind, it’s nice to know that for the times when, say, a one-off barcode may need to be made for an at-home business, or framed labels created with cute beakers would amp up a science fair entry, the machine can rise to the occasion.
Care and maintenance
Both the Epson and Brother models automatically shut off after 5 minutes of idle time, so users who get sidetracked in their projects don’t need to worry about uselessly draining the batteries.
Tape cartridge jams can happen occasionally, and when they do, it’s best to open the door and remove the cartridge to fix it. Don’t try to yank at the dangling tape from outside the machine. As with any electronic device, spilling liquid on its surface, dropping it, or leaving it in extreme temperatures will damage the thing.
Wrapping it up
The Epson LW-300 is an easy-to-use, comfortable-to-hold label maker that’s well suited for any home or office organizing project. We love its well-placed, dedicated keys for changing settings, fonts, styles, and symbols, as well as its five-minute auto shut-off feature. Its battery life indicator, robust selection of design options, and ability to print ribbon, fabric, and tape cartridges also make it a best pick for the price.
Originally published: March 10, 2014