Brother P-Touch 2100 label printer
Sign of the times
Review While paper dominates most printing issues, there are those who need a different kind of beast to print on plastic to produce long-lasting identification and warning labels. The old embossed Dymo tape of yore, adorning dad’s tool drawers and just about every fuse box in the land, while still going today, has had to give way to more intricate labels with stylish fonts. A case in point is Brother’s P-Touch 2100, a self-contained label printer, which can produce a wide variety of print effects on cut-to-length PET tape.
Brother's P-Touch 2100 label printer
If you’re used to a printer being a big, heavy thing that sits in one place on a desk, churning out pages of black text and colour graphics, the P-Touch 2100 will come as a bit of surprise. Yes, it is intended for a very different kind of printing, but it also ably demonstrates what can be done to make a light, compact, self-contained printer, which can go where the work’s needed.
The P-Touch 2100 is about the size of a printing desktop calculator, the kind with a hard copy print roll. It has a nearly full Qwerty keyboard set into its sloping front surface, with ‘dead flesh’ rubber keys, which are still quite adequate for the small amounts of text likely to be typed on them.
Most characters are included in the Qwerty set, but there’s a distinct lack of punctuation. The missing symbols, which include straightforward things like exclamation marks and brackets, can be called up using the symbols menu and scrolling through until you find them. This is fine for more esoteric symbols, but it would be easier to have a second function key to get at the day-to-day ones.
The bitmapped 128 x 48 green LCD screen normally shows three lines of characters and displays what you type, but when accessing special functions, like font selection or label properties, it can show other combinations and sizes of character. It also displays the clip-art and symbols available in the printer’s memory.
Label of love: complete with packing case for the serious signwriter
Two sockets on the right-hand side take power from the 9V power supply, included with the machine, and a USB connection to a PC. Underneath is a battery compartment, taking six AA cells, so the machine can be used completely free of the mains. To emphasise the portability of the printer, it comes complete with an electric drill-style plastic carrying case, so you can grab your P-Touch 2100 at short notice and dash to where labels are desperately needed.
On the left-hand side is the slot where the labels come out. They can be 3.5, 6, 9, 12 or 18mm wide and come in 8m lengths, in drop-in cartridges. There’s a good range of coloured backgrounds, including red, orange, green and blue, as well as clear and white.
P-Touch Editor: complex labels from a PC with a bit of fuss
Brother’s TZ tapes are activated by a thermal head in the printer, although the ink which changes from clear to black, or a limited range of other colours, is not on the surface layer. Using a transparent layer of PET over the ink substrate, the ink is activated through the top layer, so the finished label is much less susceptible to abrasion. Much like modern photo papers, the label tape is a laminate of, in this case, six different layers, including the adhesive and a backing paper, which has to be peeled off.
When printing labels, you either have to specify to chop off 23mm of blank tape before printing each label, or to create labels with 24mm of blank tape at each end of the printed text. Either method is wasteful, particularly if you’re printing short labels; in an 8m tape, chop-offs will account for over a metre, if your average label length is 100mm.
Quick Editor: simple labels from a PC without fuss
One of the highlights of the P-Touch 2100 package is the P-Touch Editor, but this is only available for versions of Windows from 2000 onwards. There's no specific support for OSX or Linux. The editor screen looks a bit like a desktop publishing editor, only for long, thin documents. Labels can be set to have a fixed length or the length can be left open and the label expands as text or other graphics are added.
As well as standard functions, such as justification of text, selecting font and size – any font available on your system can be used in a label – you can add geometric objects, such as polygons, ellipses and freehand lines and run text horizontally or vertically.
From serious to fun labels
That's really just the beginning, though, as you can also add from a wide range of clipart and symbols, provided in the program, add decorative frames, include date and time and calendar information and even subdivide a label by building in a table. Table cells can each contain different kinds of objects, providing a wide range of design possibilities.
The P-Touch 2100 can print barcodes, too, and 17 different protocols are supported, including CODE39, CODE128, EAN128 and ISBN 2 and 5. The printer does surprisingly well at reproducing greyscale as well as black and white images. Although it's resolution is only 180dpi, the dither effects it uses generally give good results. More noticeable are the slightly jagged edges to circular characters and those with diagonals, but for general office labelling the results are quite acceptable.
Very limited punctuation on the keyboard
The device spends a little while thinking about printing before any label starts to appear, but a 100mm label took under 20 seconds to print. This isn't amazingly fast, but you rarely print so many labels you'll be left twiddling your thumbs. The only consumables are the tape cartridges and these vary in price, depending on tape width and, like the printer itself, can be bought for considerably less from on-line outlets, rather than direct from Brother. Using an 18mm wide tape as an example – since this is what’s supplied with the machine – and allowing for wastage with chop-offs, gives a cost of 15.6p for a 100mm label.
You shouldn't compare this with the cost of, for example, a paper address label, as tape labels are much more durable and are, for example, said to show very little sign of fading after a year of simulated sunlight. Even so, it's a bit more expensive than an equivalent length of Dymo printed tape (a similar technology label, not the embossed variety) and tends to curl more, so that when you remove the backing paper on the Brother label, you can find long labels sticking to themselves if they’re not handled carefully.
What the P-Touch 2100 does highlight, is that with some inventive thought, a simple application like labelling can be given extra purpose, through clever design of both the device and controlling software. Indeed, this is an extremely versatile, self-contained label printer, which can produce a variety of ornate and specialist labels, as well a bog-standard names and warnings. The PC-based software is excellent and extends the printer’s feature set. However, it’s wasteful of tape, which exacerbates the consumable cost. ®
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