basics; labelers that whir rather than click

Posted by barello at 2020-03-19

BASICS , Section G, Page TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. FOR a time during the late 1960's and early 1970's, every family seemed to have one member, usually male, who left his mark in thin strips of embossed plastic. He branded his name on prized possessions with 3/8-inch-high, self-adhesive plastic tapes, fastidiously labeled every workshop drawer and posted critical instructions about the fuse box. Dymo, which is now part of the Swedish office supply conglomerate Esselte, continues to sell embossed-tape labeling machines, though in declining numbers. But it is also one of a small number of companies that hope to create a consumer labeling renaissance with machines that whir rather than click. Electronic labelers are, in effect, small printers that produce labels made on paper, plastic or metallic materials. Their results lack the tactile quality of embossed labels. But with those old machines, just about the only room for artistic expression came from choosing a tape color (as a teenager, I was partial to wood grain). By contrast, the electronic labelers offer users a range of choice in display styles -- including some rather peculiar designs -- in addition to different tape colors. Despite all that, the electronic units are relatively inexpensive, small and run on batteries -- lots of batteries -- making them easily portable. Superficially, the Dymo LetraTag with its vaguely pistol-like shape most resembles its embossing ancestors. But rather than a spinning alphabet wheel, it has a vertical keyboard, arranged alphabetically, and a tiny liquid crystal display for composition. Its half-inch tapes, which are available in paper, plastic or what Dymo calls ''metallic,'' are packed into small plastic cassettes that resemble the tape cartridges from the company's early days. All three kinds of Dymo tape are close cousins of the special paper that very inexpensive or very old fax machines must use. When touched by the labeler's tiny thermal printing heads, the chemicals in the tape form an image by turning black. Making a basic tape with the LetraTag, which takes six AA batteries, is straightforward. You tap in the label's text, push a bright red print button, wait a few seconds for the label to emerge and then chop it off with a built-in cutter. Unlike the embossing labeler, the LetraTag doesn't cut a little tab for removing the protective backing from its self-adhesive labels. Instead the paper itself is split in the center to ease its removal. Trying to create fancy effects with the LetraTag -- like a border that frames the label within a drawing of a grinning alligator -- is much less easy. It requires deciphering crude pictographs with less than obvious meanings on the minute display screen. Mr. Newmark agreed that the process wasn't easy. But he said that the low-cost machine was designed with the assumption that its owners would, for the most part, use it only to create basic labels. ''It's kind of like Microsoft Word,'' he said. ''How many of those features do you really use?'' Similar in style and features to the LetraTag, the Brother Home and Hobby also uses thermal tape, fitted into a different style of cassette. It is squat and an ugly green color rather than tall and thin like the LetraTag, which comes in three iMac-style colors. The shape allows the Brother machine to use a horizontal keyboard with the QWERTY key arrangement found on computer keyboards. It also pays homage to Dymo's wood grain with an optional border pattern that resembles a rotting plank. On the whole, it is no more difficult, or easier, to use than the LetraTag. (Its power comes from six AA batteries.) The more expensive Brother-Stanley model, however, does have at least one distinguishing feature that may be important to some users. And no, it has nothing to with its ruggedness. Despite the boasts about the Stanley's being ''contractor grade'' in promotional material, Brother sells a virtually identical model outside the United States without any claims for its burliness. Brother says the resulting laminated tapes can withstand years of exposure to the outdoors and can even be safely baked in an oven. It also makes a wide variety of TZ tapes, including one that produces labels that can be ironed onto clothing. Both the TZ tapes and Brother M series of thermal tapes have a serious shortcoming. Neither offers any splits, tabs or other devices to help users peel the protective backing from the label. Brother does make a gadget that is supposed to ease the process, but the company does not supply it with every machine. It looks like an oversize needle made from plastic. But when I hadn't misplaced it, I couldn't make the device work and was left wishing that I had longer fingernails.

While it can be used to produce small labels as a portable labeler does, the EL60 also accepts labels up to 2 1/4 inches wide. That makes it suitable for creating address labels. Once its software is installed -- a process that was a sometimes confusing chore using Windows 98 -- it offers perhaps the ultimate in address label convenience. When used on a Windows-based computer, the Dymo software adds a tiny logo of itself next to the conventional printer icon in Microsoft Word 97 or 2000. Click on it and the software copies what it believes to be a recipient's name and address from the document on screen at the time (and most of the time it guesses correctly). Another click of the mouse and it automatically formats the address to fit a label and within seconds spits out the result. For someone sending a small number of letters, it is much easier and faster than feeding envelopes or sheets of stickers through a full-size printer. The EL60 fails, however, when it comes to broader labeling. Making small labels that are suitable for, say, a file folder requires fiddly tape changes that suddenly make a marking pen seem like a good idea. For jobs like that, the low-priced labelers from both Dymo and Brother are better choices. The labels from all the machines seemed to stick onto pretty much everything, although with varying degrees of success. Most papers and metals, provided they were not heavily textured, formed a strong bond, while plastics and glass were sometimes troublesome. Often there was no obvious pattern. Labels for my cross-country skis, for example, stuck nicely and have remained in place after several long outings. But one of my wife's skis almost immediately lost its label while both of my oldest son's skis promptly shed theirs. As anyone who has used an old fax machine knows, thermal images are prone to fading. And indeed, William Henderson, the senior director of marketing for the P-Touch category at Brother, suggested that the thermal M tapes were probably best stuck on things that stay indoors. But he added that a TZ tape label on the mailbox at his previous house withstood seven years without obvious deterioration. Dymo's Mr. Newman, however, said that none of the electronic labelers, Dymo's included, can produce labels that last as long as those from an old embosser. ''If you want to label a boat motor and you want absolute durability forever, the embossers are best.'' They can also be very inexpensive. Mr. Newman said that later this year, Dymo will introduce the smallest embosser it has ever produced. While the final price has yet to be determined, he said the tiny label maker, which doubles as a key chain, will probably sell for less than $5. The company still makes five colors of embossing tapes in a variety of sizes and finishes. Unfortunately, wood grain is no longer among them.