The Best Label Maker
After 25 hours of research (including talking to small business owners, kitchen managers, professional organizers, and home users) and spending 15 hours testing eight popular models, we’ve determined that Brother PT-D210 is the best label maker for the most people. It was the easiest to use and printed consistently high-quality labels, despite being one of the cheapest models we tested.
The PT-D210 has the most intuitive interface, which makes it immediately accessible to someone who’s never used a label maker before. It also produces durable, reusable labels with up to two lines of text that can survive a trip through a dishwasher. Our only gripe is that that it uses six AAA batteries instead of a rechargeable battery pack and doesn’t come with an AC adapter (though one can be purchased separately). Replacement tape is both affordable (especially compared to Epson’s) and widely available in stores and online.
If you want something that can print more text on wider labels, and/or can do barcodes, step up to the Brother PT-D400AD. It can print up to seven lines of text on ¾-inch tape; the PT-D210 is limited to two lines of text on half-inch tape. It also comes with an AC adapter.
Overall, Brother label makers are better for most because the replacement cartridges are more affordable and the keyboard layouts are more intuitive. But if crafting is your primary goal, Epson’s label options are a bit more expensive per foot and come in a wider variety of media, including iron-on fabric options that have fewer complaints of washing off than the Brother’s, and ribbons for customized gift wrapping or other projects. Among Epson’s label makers, we prefer the LW-400 because of its slimmer, more ergonomic form factor and ability to print barcodes.
Table of contents
- Why should you trust me?
- Who should get a label maker?
- How we picked and tested
- Our pick
- Who else likes it?
Why should you trust me?
I’ve developed hundreds of recipes for jams, pickles, and other preserves as a cookbook author and food blogger. My secret to keeping track of what’s what in which jar is durable, legible labeling that’s printed from a reliable label maker. At this point, the need for quick, clear labeling is in my DNA—I jumped at the opportunity to review them for The Sweethome.
But it’s not just my own expertise you should trust. In addition to talking to several at-home labelers, I also interviewed Elizabeth Halen, owner of Flying Monkey Bakery in Philadelphia to get an idea of what small businesses could need from a labeler; as well as Amanda Sims, home editor of Food52; and Certified Professional Organizers Amy Trager, Ellen Delap, and Helene Segura.
Who should get a label maker?
While my goal here isn’t to convince you that label maker ownership is mandatory, they can be a useful tool and might be helpful keeping things a bit more organized in your home or office. Labels on toy bins and dresser drawers set clear expectations for young kids and makes it easy for them to help with cleanup. A label on the bottom of your travel mug will prevent it from disappearing from the office dish drainer. If you shop from bulk bins, stickers with names and dates will help you tell couscous from millet and remind you that the walnuts are from 2013. You can print labels for the nest of cords behind your TV and to make a sticker for the Wi-Fi router, so you never again forget the password.
Label makers straddle the line between personal and professional. While they are often put to work labeling file folders and mail slots at the office, for many of us, the output of these label makers will adorn the pantry shelves, our kids’ toys, and even the bathroom medicine cabinet. We tried to keep both venues in mind as we tested and evaluated.
How we picked and tested
Currently, only Brother, Epson, Dymo, and Casio produce label makers for consumer use. We looked at their various product lines and chose to include three from Brother, two from Epson, and three from Dymo. In the case of Brother and Dymo, we chose units from the bottom, middle, and top of their lines: the Brother PT-D210, Brother PT-400, Brother PT-D60 and Dymo Letra-Tag, Dymo LM-160, and Dymo LM-280. The Epson models we choose are their only two units designed for handheld use: the Epson LW-400 and Epson LW-300. Every other label maker they produce is designed to connect to a PC and print using proprietary software. We wanted our pick to be useful right out of the box and chose not to include these PC-only printers in this evaluation.
We decided not to include models from Casio because their units had middling reviews on Amazon, and the tape they require wasn’t as widely available as the cartridges used by the other three makers.
Once we had those eight units in hand, I took a systematic approach to evaluating each label maker. I unpacked one at a time and loaded each up with batteries and the enclosed label tape (all the units come packaged with at least one tape cartridge, although the Brother units comes with sample cartridges rather than full ones). I took note of how easy it was to install the batteries and the tape cartridge, where the compartments for each were located, and if any special tools were required.
Then, I started using the label maker, taking note of the ease of typing, the clarity of the screen, how one moves from lower case to upper, how smoothly the tape cutter sliced the labels, and generally how the label maker felt in the hand.
Finally, I looked at the labels themselves. While they were all easy to read, legibility isn’t useful if the label itself degrades too easily or if they’re too difficult to apply—and re-apply. Elizabeth Halene, owner of Philadelphia’s Flying Monkey Bakery, told me that they use labels extensively in the bakery and that they reuse them at least half a dozen times before they need to be replaced. With that in mind, I started by applying labels and then removing them again. I dedicated a glass jar to the task and covered it with labels. Then, I peeled them off to see how well the adhesive removed. Then I put them back. After torturing the labels like this for a while, I ran the jar through the dishwasher to see how the labels would stand up to water, heat, and detergent.
We chose the Brother PT-D210, Brother’s entry-level label maker. It’s a sturdy unit that is comfortable in the hands (but also works nicely when positioned on a desk, table, or countertop) and downright affordable.
Of all the units I tested, I found that the PT-D210 was the most intuitive to use. In part, that’s because it has a standard QWERTY keyboard (complete with keys for Shift and Caps, two functions that other label makers often roll into one, much to my great annoyance). Additionally, the various functions of the other keys are spelled out to avoid confusion. Those clearly labeled function keys allow you to choose between 14 fonts, add one of 97 different frames, tweak the margins, insert one of over 600 symbols, and browse a template library without scrolling through endless menus. You can also choose to print labels vertically if you’d like. The label makers we tested from Epson and Dymo often used symbols to express the roles of their function keys and hid much of their utility in menu listings, leading to frequent frustrations.
In addition to being clearly labeled, the buttons on the PT-D210 feel great too. They are responsive and allow you to type swiftly. In contrast, the keys on the PT-D600 required an excessive amount of pressure to trigger each letter.
Another reason that the Brother PT-D210 is our pick is that the edges of the letters on the finished label appear to be slightly crisper than those that Epson or Dymo label makers produce. Anyone who obsesses over small details will appreciate those clean lines.
The PT-D210 uses Brother TZe labeling tape (as do the PT-D400 and PT-D600). Basic half-inch replacement tape (black text on white laminate) is usually available for about $10 per 26.2 feet, which is about in line with Dymo (depending on the day), and about 10¢ cheaper per foot than Epson. Brother makes this tape in a wide variety of styles, colors, and sizes of tape, depending on your needs—including an iron-on fabric tape for labeling clothes (but beware that user reviewers complain that Brother’s iron-ons have trouble staying attached after a few washes). The more basic tapes are widely available at office supply stores like Staples and Home Depot, but the more specialized tapes might not be in stock. Because a label maker is useless without tape, we do recommend that you keep a backup cartridge on hand to prevent frustration.
The Brother PT-D210 is easy to maintain. To access the tape and battery compartment, you push a clearly marked button on the top edge of the unit to release the latch. The back panel swings open, allowing easy access, while also remaining attached to the unit along the bottom edge. Once you’ve inserted the tape or batteries, it closes smoothly and with a satisfyingly sturdy click. The Gadgeteer review of the PT-D210 has a good photographic rundown of how to do this if the manual isn’t enough.
An unanticipated, but welcome, side effect of having the tape on the back is the fact that the PT-D210 doesn’t produce any noticeable fumes while printing. The same couldn’t be said of the Brother PT-D400 and D600 label makers, which have a separate tape compartment on the front of the machine. As a result of the tape compartment’s more prominent location, you get a faint odor of permanent marker when using it. This can be a huge turn off for those with sensitive noses.
Who else likes it?
There aren’t a ton of editorial reviews of label makers in this day and age, but Dennis Moore recently reviewed the PT210 at Gadgeteer and liked it a lot. He writes: “most people don’t scream woo-hoo at the thought of using a label maker to get organized. However, with the various frames, templates, and symbols at your disposal, the Brother PT-D210 can make organizing a bit more fun.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Our biggest complaint about the PT210 is that it prints more margin on each label than is necessary. This means you burn through tape a bit faster than you should. It is possible to set the margins to narrow, but that only shortens the right side of the label. Because of the way the interior was engineered, the machine can’t reduce the amount of label on the left side. Instead, it prints a cutting guide on the left side, so that you snip off a bit to make the label even on both sides. It’s a nice touch, but nicer still would have been a way to waste less label tape.
Another frustration is that the LCD screen doesn’t offer any kind of illumination; there were times I found myself wishing that it were backlit. I might not have even registered the issue, though, if I hadn’t been testing against other, higher-priced models.
Being limited to tapes no wider than a half-inch shouldn’t be a problem for most at-home labeling needs, but if you anticipate needing more space for whatever reason, you should read about our upgrade pick for business use.
Finally, there’s the issue of power. This unit requires either six AAA batteries or an AC adapter. Neither are included in the purchase price and so do represent an additional operating cost. The recommended, branded AC adapter costs around $24 at the time of writing (though generic compatible ones can be had for around $10). The Dymo LM-280 had the best power solution I spotted during our testing, coming with an integrated rechargeable battery.
Runner-up that’s better for businesses
If you’re planning on giving your label maker heavy use, or want one for a busy office environment, consider upgrading to the Brother PT-D400AD instead. It does everything the PT-D210 does and has the same easy-to-use keyboard layout, but it adds the ability to print barcodes. It also accepts tape up to ¾ of an inch and can print up to seven lines of text per label instead of the PT-D210’s two lines. It also comes with an AC adapter, which helps offset its higher sticker price.
The PT-D400 is bigger and heavier than the PT-D210—like a fat iPad Mini—and designed for desktop as opposed to handheld use, which isn’t ideal for home users. But it would feel right at home in a mailroom or at an admin desk. It also comes with a quick startup guide that could be laminated and posted next to the unit, allowing it to become a labeling station that would be easy for the whole office to use.
For the labeling power user, a PT-D600 might be the right fit. It does all that the PT-D400AD can do, but adds the ability to connect to a PC for label layout and design. It can also accept tapes up to one inch wide and has an even easier to read, backlit color display. It’s a mighty machine (with a bit steeper learning curve) than the average home user needs but would be right at home in a professional setting.
While the Brother PT-D210 remains our preferred label maker, I do want to give a shout-out to the Epson LW-400 for crafters and sewists. The Epson interface isn’t as intuitive as Brother’s, but Epson makes an array of labels made from ribbon and fabric, which allow you to print iron-on name tape for your kids’ clothes and make customized ribbons for scrapbooks and gift wrap. (Brother also makes an iron-on tape for labeling clothes, but it has more user reviews complaining that the labels fall off after just a few washes.) The LW-400’s slimmer form factor gave it superior ergonomics for handheld use when compared to the squatter shapes of the older Epson LW-300 and our Brother picks. Like the Brother PT-D210, it uses half-inch tape, but unlike the PT-D210, it can do barcodes—a feature only available on the higher-end Brother label makers.
However, learning and navigating the Epson interface was a real slog. During testing, I could not change the font size without direct consultation with the manual, and it is frustratingly easy to accidentally wipe out the all the label formatting you’ve scrolled through menu after menu to construct.
Also worth noting, Epson tapes tend to sell for about 47¢ per foot compared to the roughly 37¢ per foot the other brands’ tape sells for. The Brother may be more limited in its abilities, but it is better at the things most people would use most of the time.
Our pick last year was the Epson LW-300 and it’s still pretty good. But this time around, we like the Brother units better because of their cheaper label cartridges and better interface. And the newer LW-400 is a better deal because it costs about the same, but has a more comfortable shape and can do barcodes.
We tested three Dymo label makers, and while they were useful units, there were a few things that prevented us from recommending them. I dismissed the Dymo Letra-Tag after only initial testing, because it felt cheap and was lacking things as basic as dedicated number keys.
With the remaining two Dymo units, the primary point of frustration was getting the tape to feed from the cartridge and into the printing area. With both the LM-160 and LM-280, I wasted three to four inches of label tape trying to get the label to feed and print correctly. First the labels didn’t progress at all, and then they bunched. Only when I pulled a length through did it finally work as intended. The fact that this happened with both units concerned me.
They were also unbalanced in the hand, which is surprising, since their physical design makes you think they’ve been designed for handheld rather than tabletop use. The keys required more pressure to register and the pictograph selection process was maddening if you wanted to include more than one image. I did, however, appreciate the integrated rechargeable battery and the backlit screen that the Dymo LM-280 offers.
(Photos by Marisa McClellan)
Originally published: January 13, 2016