Shipping Label Printing for the Masses
TLDR: I’ve been shipping using thermal label printers for years, and I go with the “Honda Civic” of label printers, the venerable Zebra LP2844, aka the “UPS Printer”. You can get them cheaply on ebay, parts and the one consumable you’ll need (labels) are plentiful, and there’s no vendor lock-in, even if you bought one with the UPS or Fedex firmware.
I’ve been shipping things for work and personal reasons for years, and the ability to fire off a label with postage, tracking, and address already on it is an incredible time-saver. But whether you use stamps.com (subscription required), Endicia (subscription required), Pirateship.com (free), or GoShippo.com (free, and awesome), they all give you the option of printing out a label on “normal” paper and taping it to your box, and they all also give you the option of printing your label using a “4x6” printer. And until you have one, they seem like a silly investment. After all, a new Dymo printer retails for $269. Also, they’re terrible and you should never give them money.
So why the hating on Dymo?
You may not be old enough to remember the name Dymo. They started off in the 1950’s making those little embossed label makers that look like this:
And they won the brand-recognition game shortly after they came out. In a feat of notoriety typically held for Ziploc and Band-Aid, these things were just as “Dymos”. When I was a kid, I thought this was the coolest thing to label audio tapes, VHS tapes, buttons in our family camper, you name it. When Brother came out with the P-Touch, this 50-year business model was suddenly threatened. Brother had come up with a tool that did things better, and created a magic new market. Label printers had existed for decades, but *handheld* label printers were new.
Since then, Dymo has been fighting hard to remain synonomous with “Labels”, and when the idea of internet postage became a thing, Dymo wanted to be first in line. And here, there’s an elephant in the room. There’s been some recent news about the Dymo company recently making it so their label printers only work with their labels, by embedding a little RFID chip into every roll of labels, with some fairly complex encryption.
The tech vloggers covered this pretty well, including Louis Rossmann and EEVBlog:
On top of that, EEVBlog notes that they took the amazon listing for their previous version of non-drm printers, with many positive reviews, and dropped the NEW restricted printer into the old listing.
If you thought some of the obnoxious things Canon or HP did to lock you into their ink were evil, this is way more so, especially because there are labels out there that work *better* for some purposes (say, are more easy to peel off) than the ones dymo sells.
So again, let’s get back to talking about the love of my label-printing life.
So, which printer do I buy?
Cool, you somehow missed my first paragraph! This is the Zebra LP 2844. You’ve seen them at packing/shipping places everywhere, and you need one. They’re discontinued for a while now, and their replacement, the Zebra GC420 costs $300. But they pretty much never die, and have survived for years in nasty mailrooms all over corporate America, Just Working.
For a long time, if you got a shipping account with either UPS or Fedex, they would give you one of these, but with slightly modified firmware, possibly to remove some of the features, but *definitely* to make it impossible to flash back to the factory firmware, at least easily.
Because of UPS and Fedex giving them away with an account, plus many failing companies in the various dot-com busts, and many people liquidating their office stock, the market is flooded with people selling them for around $50-$150, some without power supplies (easy amazon find, see below), some “untested”. There’s a cottage industry of people buying them up, testing them, putting together a bundle of cables, labels, and the like and selling them for higher prices. (See my picture of an ebay listing below).
They contain a serial port that you’ll probably never use, possibly a parallel port that you might use (or a network port), and a USB port that’s a perfectly fine way to connect this thing to a single computer that you do your label printing from. Windows will find drivers for them, and Macs and Linux machines (which use CUPS) have drivers built in.
If you don’t get one with built-in networking and if you know how to configure your router to hand out a static IP address (for those of you that don’t work for a company that makes two different DHCP servers), you can acquire one of these, a ZebraNet print server.
This thing requires no additional power, clips on to the parallel port that you’ll no longer use since it’s not 1993, and gives you a wired 10/100 ethernet interface, and now everyone on your network with a Windows or MacOS machine can print to it. (You need to add a TCP printer port, here’s a youtube describing the process if you don’t know how). Macs make this insanely easy. There’s even a neat little button on the print server that will print the network config onto a label for you.
Even better, if you have an always-on Mac, you can run Printopia (or another Airprint bridge) and your printer will be advertised to all your ipads and iphones as well. Some routers can also advertise a connected printer via airprint, or if you’re a nerd, you can do it on a Raspberry pi or other BSD/Linux machine using CUPS and Avahi. Here’s a howto. When we were moving, I gave everyone a document pre-calibrated for the 4x6 label size and we could just fire labels off from our phone as we loaded boxes.
Other miscellaneous tech bits:
- You are almost always going to want to be printing on 4*6 labels. It’s what all the shipping sites use.
- Buy your labels on a roll, but not a big giant one. If you’re not printing from a roll, there’s a slot to pass labels through from a box.
- When you first get one, if you see any gaps in the printing, you need a new print head, or your barcodes won’t look right. These are cheap parts that are easy to replace. Search ebay for the part, YouTube for the instructions.
- Often, if you find instructions that are written for a stock printer, they won’t work right on a UPS/Fedex one.
- The official windows driver has managed to send a label calibration command to my printer (Fedex firmware) when nothing else I found worked. (Turning it on with the feed button held down doesn’t — this is part of Fedex/UPS’s lock-in, they wanted only their software to be able to do it).
- If you find your labels are failing to print when there would be a solid black bar on the label, your power supply is going. Get a new one from Amazon.
- According to the EPL Programming Guide (Here), the “xa” command can be used to trigger an autosense routine.
- Some Adventurous Soul has done a much more technical teardown on trying to revert one of these things to the stock firmware.
- Some printers have a feature where they can peel the label for you, which is pretty slick, and some will even detect when you’ve taken the label and hold on printing another until you take one. While this might be useful in an assembly line, I like being able to tear the label off with the backing still on it.
- Here’s a link to the operating manual.
In conclusion, I’ve been sending lots of people lots of care packages in the last two years. (I miss people). This has made the process solidly easier. If you’re running a business where you need a warranty and need someone to call if the thing breaks, by all means, spend the money on something new, but if you’re like me and just hate hoping the USPS can read your handwriting, just buy one. You’ll thank me later.