Comparing Card Printers: Direct-to-Card vs. Retransfer
When choosing a card printer solution for your business, one of the first decisions you'll have to make is what type of card printer you need. The initial choice boils down to two options: a "direct-to-card" printer or a "retransfer" printer. Before we dive into the differences, let's review the three primary factors that will influence your decision: print quality, speed and cost.
Technology: Image Quality
The first thing to understand about direct-to-card versus retransfer printers is that the name of each category comes straight from the underlying technology. Direct-to-card printers use a heat transfer process known as dye sublimation to transfer color from a ribbon directly onto the card stock. Retransfer printers print onto an intermediary "retransfer" film, which is then bonded onto the card substrate.
Printing to a retransfer film is generally expected to produce a higher quality image with more sharpness and more intense colors than you can expect to get out of a direct-to-card printer. The reason for this is simply that the retransfer film provides a better, more consistent surface to print on that the card stock itself.
Also, because the retransfer film covers the entire surface of the card substrate, retransfer printers offer true edge-to-edge coverage, so you can create cards that don't have any hint of white border. For many users, the ability to produce true "full bleed" cards is the deciding reason to choose a retransfer printer.
Another image-quality factor is printer resolution. Most direct-to-card printers top out at a maximum of 300dpi, but many retransfer printers offer the ability to print at 600dpi. The increase in resolution has a tremendous effect on image quality. If your application requires true photo-quality images and the sharpest possible text and barcodes, you'll want to give strong consideration to a retransfer printer.
The print-quality advantages of retransfer printers are easily noted in a side-by-side comparison, but the added image quality might not be necessary for your application. Zebra's direct-to-card printers employ advanced printing technology that can achieve near-photo quality and border-free printing, which may be all that you require.
Performance: Print Speed
One of the primary differences between direct-to-card and retransfer printers is output speed, with direct-to-card printers usually offering a significant performance advantage.
For comparison, consider that Zebra's market-leading ZXP7 direct-to-card printer produces as many as 225 full-color double-sided cards per hour. That's about 25% faster than you can produce the same cards with Zebra's ZXP9 retransfer printer. The performance boost is even more significant when printing single-sided cards, with the direct-to-card ZXP7 outpacing the retransfer printer by a whopping 65%.
So, while there are some trade-offs in image quality when choosing the direct-to-card model, the performance boost might be just what's needed for high-volume applications.
The Bottom Line: Cost
This one is straightforward: direct-to-card printers usually cost less than retransfer printers and, on a cost-per-card basis, they are less costly to operate than retransfer printers. That's a combination that makes direct-to-card printers the first choice for many applications, especially those where the need for high-volume output outweighs concerns about maximizing image quality.
There are a few other factors you may want to consider as you evaluate your card printing options.
First, since retransfer printers print on an intermediary film - not the actual card surface - they are well-suited for specialty card stocks, including those with uneven card surfaces such as key tags or smart cards that can be a challenge for direct-to-card printers.
Retransfer printers also have durability and security advantages; thermally bonding the retransfer film to the card adds a permanent layer of protection and creates a tamper-evident layer. For applications where card integrity and security are essential, the extra level of durability and fraud protection might be the deciding factor in your choice of a retransfer printer.
That said, it is possible to match the retransfer printer's durability and security advantages with a premium direct-to-card printer. ID Specialists and Zebra offer a wide range of specialty ribbon options and a full lineup of overlays and laminates that can be used to enhance the durability and security of cards produced on direct-to-card printers. For even a higher level of security options, you also may want to consider ordering your card stock with custom security features. You can use one or the other, or even use both on card and in printer security features.