If you are looking for a new ID card printer, there are a few essential pieces of information you need to know before comparing individual models. We break down those key elements for you here:
- Single-Sided vs Dual-Sided
The first decision you will need to make is whether your circumstances require a dual-sided printer. A dual-sided machine will likely cost anywhere from $500 to $1000 more than an equivalent single-sided printer.
If you plan to print on both sides of your card, keep in mind that you can always use a single-sided printer as long as you don’t mind running your cards through the printer a second time for the back side. However, if the information on the back needs to be collated with information on the front of the card (Example: A photo ID on the front with a barcode on the back that corresponds to the cardholder), then you will want to spend the extra money for the dual-sided capability so that you don’t have to spend valuable time trying to match data after manually flipping the cards.
- Direct-to-Card vs Re-Transfer
The second decision point is which type of printing technology you want to use. Direct-to-Card is the more common process, and it does exactly what it sounds like. A high temperature printhead is used to apply the image directly into the surface of the card. When printing in full color, successive color ribbon panels are layered onto the card to produce a full color image (a standard dye sublimation process). Because the printhead must lift from the card at the beginning and end of the process, there is often a small whitespace area (< 1mm) left near the edge of the card after printing.
Re-Transfer is a newer process that adds a clear transfer film into the process. The image is first layered onto the transfer film (also a dye sublimation process), and then the complete image is bonded to the card surface using heat and pressure. The printhead never comes into contact with the card in the Re-Transfer process. Re-Transfer printers offer a true “full bleed” result, eliminating the whitespace that can be left by a Direct-to-Card process.
Which is better? It depends on what you are looking for. Expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000 more for a Re-Transfer machine. But you do get something for your money, as the image quality can be noticeably better on a Re-Transfer printer (even though the resolution is 300 dpi on all machines). Also, if you will be printing on an uneven surface (such as a “smart card” with an embedded contact chip or a card with a pre-punched slot), a Re-Transfer printer is your only option as uneven surfaces can damage the printhead on a Direct-to-Card printer.
We find that Direct-to-Card printers are a better choice for the money in most situations, especially with some of the newer models that provide great image quality and are so close to full bleed that you can barely tell the difference.
Additionally, the cost per print will typically be higher by a few cents per card on a Re-Transfer printer. This is due to the additional cost of the Re-Transfer film (the printer requires both a color ribbon and the clear Re-Transfer film), and also the fact that Re-Transfer printers generally require more expensive composite cards (vs standard PVC) due to the higher temperatures used.
- Card Volume
A third decision factor is your expected card volume. Generally speaking, there is not a significant difference between most card printers unless you plan to print more than 10,000 cards per year. Most manufacturers have an “entry level” and a “professional level” printer. The professional level machines are generally built with sturdier materials and will often carry a better warranty. You will generally pay close to $1000 extra for the professional level printer, and if you are truly printing in high volumes the extra cost is probably worth it. Additionally there may be some advanced features that are only available on the professional models.
However, we find that the print quality and basic function of the entry level machines will get the job done for about 80% of users and we generally recommend these machines with no reservations unless you run high daily (more than 500) or annual (more than 10,000) volumes.
You should also consider the input/output capacity of the printer. The low end of the market is generally held by single-feed printers that require the user to manually feed the card into the printer each time. This is fine if you are only doing a few cards per day and the printer is conveniently located. Most printers have a standard 100 card input feeder (a few have slightly larger capacity), which matches the usual 100 card packaging of most blank card stock. However, the output hopper size can vary widely (from 15 to 100) depending on the printer model. If you will be doing larger print runs this can be a big issue, assuming you don’t want to have to empty the output bin every few minutes (most printers keep printing and will end up either jamming or throwing cards onto the floor once the output bin is full). Again, this should not be an issue for you if you are only doing a few cards at a time.
- Advanced Features
The last major factor in your decision is whether you will require any advanced features such as magnetic stripe encoding, smart card encoding and/or security features like holograms or lamination. Depending on the printer model, some of these features must be selected at the time of purchase, while some can be installed after the purchase. If you are looking for these features, we find it is best to talk to one of the factory authorized resellers to make sure you get exactly what you need. We offer a list of recommended dealers.
- Other Requirements
In addition to the printer, you may need the following items to get your printer up and running:
- Ribbons – most printers do not ship with a ribbon included, which means you should plan to purchase one when you buy your printer. There are often multiple ribbons available for each model so make sure you select the right one for your needs. The standard ribbon for most models is generally a 5-panel (YMCKO) full-color ribbon.
- Cards – you will probably need blank cards as well. Cards come in a variety of colors, with blank white being the standard. Generally you can by them in packs of as few as 100 cards or in higher quantities if needed. PVC is the standard material, although there other “composite” materials available which may be required if you are using a Re-Transfer or laminating printer.
- Cleaning Kits – to keep your printer operating properly we highly recommend getting a cleaning kit at the time you purchase the printer. Cleaning takes just a few minutes and will keep your printer operating properly for a much longer period (like an oil change for your car). Additionally, some manufacturers track cleaning cycles and can void your warranty if you fail to clean them regularly. Generally you should run a cleaning cycle whenever you change the ribbon.
- Software – ID printers are standard printer devices, and you can generally print to them from any Windows based software (such as Word, Photoshop, etc). However, if you want to manage your card templates and have things simplified for you, we recommend getting a card design and management software. There are several good options available (see our reviews here), but prices vary widely depending on the features you need.
- Camera – if you will be using your printer for photo ID, you should get a camera for your system. The resolution of most web cameras will work just fine and don’t cost much. However, you can use higher-end digital or SLR cameras as well. Some of the card design software programs will have a list of cameras that can be fully integrated and controlled though the software program. Camera models change often, so if you want to be sure of the most current information we recommend you check before making a purchase.