Get Smart About Labels

By Eric Grevstad | Posted September 23, 2005

Even with almost a quarter-century of experience, we still feel fear and loathing for one computing chore: printing an envelope. Even the smoothest, most easy-going printers on earth turn into snagging and skewing vandals when fed envelopes instead of letterheads. Switching between portrait- and landscape-mode word processing templates is a portrait of frustration. If the printer doesn't crumple the envelope, you — when presented with a crooked, cropped-off address — probably will.

That's why we like the idea of a dedicated label printer — a gadget that spits out personalized stick-on labels ranging from envelope to file-folder to shipping-carton size, automatically grabbing a name and address from a letter in your word processor or an entry in your contacts database, then adding your return address, your company logo, or a Postnet bar code if you like. Something like, in other words, Seiko Instruments USA's Smart Label Printer 430.

The 430 is a thermal printer, which applies a heated printhead to create black text and graphics on specially made, Seiko-brand labels — priced from about $6 to $11 per roll in various sizes and colors (including clear address labels). It has no ink or toner to replace, though the company admits it has a finite life span of some five million characters — i.e., hundreds of thousands of labels.

At $190, the Smart Label Printer 430 is the top of Seiko's line, able to handle labels up to 2 1/8 inches wide and print one in roughly three seconds (actually more like four, but we won't quibble). An arguably better deal for occasional use is the 420model ($130), which takes about eight seconds per label; there's also a 410model ($100) with a maximum label width of 1 1/8 inches.

Taking about as much desk space as your family-photo-cube paperweight Smart Label Printer plugs into a USB port or an RS-232 serial port (remember those?), as well as an AC outlet. It includes both USB and serial cables, a starter roll of labels and a software CD — the Smart Label 5.0 software (Seiko says it's in beta), which suffered unexpected glitches and terminations on our Windows 2000 test system, but version 4.61 worked fine.

Lifting the printer's flip-up top, you put the label roll on a plastic spool, then feed a label into a slot at rear; after a label's printed, you tear it off on a tape-dispenser-like serrated edge. A form-feed button advances or retracts the spool (bar-code-like markings on the back of each label tell the printer when it's lined up with the edge).

The software setup routine is straightforward, although it's the annoying kind that moves straight from installation to asking you to register the product and fill out forms about your phone number, job title and favorite color. While it asks your name and address, it doesn't pass that info on to the Smart Label program, which lets you specify defaults ranging from a return address to whether to enclose text with a solid or dotted border.

Off the Edge
Smart Label 4.61 gives you plenty of formatting choices, from a customizable toolbar of commonly used label types and sizes — address with Postnet code, file-folder tab with text on one or both sides, HELLO My Name Is So-and-So — to font style and type size. It automatically shrinks-to-fit text that's too big, so four-line addresses get slightly smaller type than three-line ones. Once you've created a label, you can save it for reuse.

You can also drag objects into position on the label, using the mouse to drag a square or rectangular frame that holds your return address, an image or barcode (available in several types as well as Postnet format), a text area (for a company slogan, say), or a border around existing text. The black-and-white printer's text is crisp and legible even in small sizes, though images are poor — a very simple line-art or clip-art-style logo works OK, but more detailed pictures or photos are murky and dotty. Smart Label can import Windows bitmap, WordPerfect, JPEG, PNG and a few other file formats, but not GIF images.

Seiko also adds a label-and-arrow icon to the system tray at the right of the Windows Taskbar. While in another application, you can select some text and then right-click the icon to perform what the company calls a Smart Copy — pasting the selected material into a label.

While in Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or one of several address/contact managers — Microsoft Outlook, Palm Desktop, Act, GoldMine — you can left-click the icon to perform a Smart Capture, in which the software finds or recognizes a name and address and copies it into a label. The trick worked like a charm with an Outlook contact (but not an e-mail) on screen, turning the name, business, and address fields into a label, and it did the same for addresses in Word letters. (A setup option specifies whether to use the first or second address on a page if you usually put your return address above the addressee.)

Stick With the Wide Labels
The ability to read an Outlook or other contact instead of using its own name-and-address database puts the Seiko one up on the Dymo LabelWriter 330 Turbo and the Smart Label Printer 430 is also quieter than the buzzy Dymo.

But other aspects are less convenient. Dymo's software added handy label buttons to Word's, Outlook's, and other applications' toolbars, instead of lurking in the system tray. It also had the invaluable ability to check your labels against the U.S. Postal Service database to fix misspelled street names and wrong or missing zip codes.

By contrast, Smart Label is a little unpolished. Its pull-down menu of Seiko label types didn't list the name or part number of the assorted file-folder rolls that Seiko's public relations agency sent us (although using the generic file-folder choice worked fine). And specifying various options required some not-very intuitive right-clicking or hunting through Label/Properties, Object/Properties, and Options/Object Defaults menus.

Much worse, while the Smart Label Printer 430 worked wonderfully with the wide (2 1/8-inch) labels we tried, it proved surprisingly difficult to load narrower (1 1/8-inch) address labels properly: Despite our efforts to center the spool with the sliding, inkjet-printer-style guides, then trying to straighten the feed by removing the front cover and adjusting a typewriter-style platen lever, we repeatedly saw crooked or out-of-place printing and had to start again.

It cast a frustrating pall over our otherwise largely positive experience with the 430. But if you're tired of grappling with the office printer — or even keeping around an office typewriter — to make your envelopes look as good as their contents, we think Seiko's model 420 or 410 is worth a look.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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