Ultra compact portable printers are similar in overall price to their larger competitors (by HP and Canon) but they’re vastly more portable. The two devices I’ll look at are similar in size to a laptop battery and incredibly lightweight too. Nevertheless there are some drawbacks to using them which some people won’t like. Learn why they’re so small, which are the best to buy and finally what the disadvantages are.
The only really compact portable printers use thermal technology
By definition all ‘portable printers’ are ‘compact’ or ‘small’ but by the word compact I’m taking things to the extreme and presenting you with the smallest devices possible. As I’ve stated above they all tend to be similar in size to a laptop battery and they’re at least A4 sized in length to allow for regular printing. It’s not just their physical size which is small (some have dubbed them ‘pocket printers’ – it’s their weight too… basically they weigh almost nothing.
Truly compact printers must use thermal printing technology. There’s no way around it. The reason for this is because they don’t require moving parts such as an inkjet head (which itself isn’t that large)… but most importantly they don’t require the air spaces the inkjet head needs to operate. If you’ve ever looked inside a regular inkjet printer you’ll see that most of it is empty space… this makes them inherently importable products.
Thermal technology allows for several main benefits. The first is a massively reduced size. The second is a much more reliable and durable portable printer which is far more likely to stand the tests of time. Inkjet heads are delicate, and the air spaces inside allow for a lot of rattling about which makes it far easier for key components to come loose. On the other hand you’ll find that products based on thermal technology (such as cashier’s tills or receipt printers) are more solid, more sturdy and can take a blow or two.
Drop it on the floor? That’s okay because a device based on thermal technology is much more likely to survive than a device based on inkjet technology. Try it for yourself.
Which are the best thermal portable printers?
Currently the best thermal portable printers are designed and manufactured by Brother. The image you see above is of a PlanOn PrintStik and while this will be a good choice for some people it’s a much older product with inferior specifications. But I’ll briefly talk about the pros and cons of both.
Brother PockJet 6 Plus – This is by and large considered the best device for those who want a product which is a work-only printer, durable and as small as possible. It really is tiny as you can see from the image above. You can purchase it with built-in Bluetooth. It has 300×300 dots per inch black and white resolution. The paper is stored in rolls within the main body of the device. It allows for regular usb data transfer. It doesn’t need ink or toner which makes the running costs much less. But there are two major downsides to this particular device. Firstly it’s a black and white only portable printer which doesn’t allow for color printing. Secondly its only wireless option is Bluetooth and it doesn’t support WiFi in any form.
PlanOn PrintStik – This is a good thermal printer but it’s very old now. There are a few massive downsides. Firstly the thermal paper costs substantially more for the PrintStik than the PJ 6 Plus – it’s around 6 times more expensive and I’ve heard estimates of around 30 cents which is pretty crazy. Its battery life is much less with the manufacturers predicting only around 30 A4 sheets on full battery. The PJ 6 Plus can manage hundreds. Finally, even though it does allow for Bluetooth (and not WiFi), this Bluetooth is only compatible with Blackberry smart phones. Yeah, it’s that old.
Why can’t I use inkjet technology mobile printers?
When it comes to the mobile printing world there are two fundamental core pieces of technology to look at – thermal and inkjet. I’m sure you’re all very familiar with the last one, but when it comes to thermally based devices you’re probably far less sure. They’re used almost exclusively in cashier’s tills, ticket printers and anything which does a lot of consistent printing. You’ll likely be using them every day without realizing and they have a few advantages over their inkjet counterparts.
To start with they use neither ink nor toner, and this dramatically drives down the costs of running the device. They operate by a thermal head with lots of micro filaments being heated to very high temperatures. They heat, or ‘burn’ specific areas of special thermal paper which causes the chemicals which are woven into this paper to melt. Upon melting these chemicals undergo a color change (usually from white to black), and as soon as they’ve stopped being heated they re-solidify whilst retaining the color change.
When it comes to mobility there are some obvious advantages to this. To start with they don’t require the annoyance or extra room required when needing ink cartridges. This is especially useful when travelling because the pressure changes when a plane is taking off and landing can cause ink cartridges to release some of their ink within the compact printer. It also saves money over time because you do not have to splash out on expensive ink.
Another advantage which is also very useful with regards to portability is in their reliability. Remember that unlike an inkjet they don’t have moving parts as the inkjet head runs across the page. These moving parts can cause substantial problems for people who have devices which are being tossed around in various pieces of luggage. A laptop will be able to survive this kind of treatment – indeed phones and such have managed to reach a leave of durability far quicker than printers. However when you move around moving parts then problems with the aforementioned parts are far more likely to occur.
However when it comes to thermal based portable printers they either have no or very few parts which can cause this type of damage. Now for stationary printers it’s obviously not a problem because they’re staying put for years on end. But when it comes to a situation where movement is introduced then you don’t just want a good printer with high specifications – you want something which can do the bumps and bruises and come out working fine.
Now I’m not saying that inkjet’s are definitely going to be damaged, but when it comes to a relative scale they’re vastly more likely to need expensive repairs or be completely broken. Issues commonly occur with the paper feeder and as you can imagine this will be incredibly annoying – especially if you’re travelling and especially if you’re trying to balance all the extra ink cartridges you need which HP ripped you off for at the same time!
So which should I choose?
If you want a device which is as small as possible and you don’t care about WiFi or color printing then I would definitely choose Brother’s PJ 6 Plus. I would stay away from the PrintStik. If I’m being honest the only reason I put it in is because it seems a bit silly to put in one choice and say it’s your best option. It is your best option, but people like to feel like they have a say in what they’re purchasing. If you’re going to purchase the smallest portable printer possible then you won’t be wanting to go for PlanOn’s RubbishStik.
On the other hand if you find that you can’t live without color printing or WiFi connectivity then I suggest Canon’s iP100. It’s a great piece of kit which is the most popular device at the moment. It’s much larger than the PJ 6 Plus and its comparable in size to a notebook apart from being twice as thick. The question is whether you want to sacrifice real ‘pocket sized’ portability for extra functionality, and whether you will use those extra capacities.