Over the years I've spent shipping products, both personally and professionally, one category of tool used in that endeavor has always created a level of fascination that's practically unmatched: thermal label printers. I've talked about some of my existing favorites here, and that recommendation list has primarily done folks well. However, I also haven't strayed from that list for a good reason: sometimes, tried and true is the best option. The idea here is no-frills, no gimmicks.
Stay until the end for a $50 discount on the FreeX Wifi Thermal Printer!
Of the categories of thermal printers, the units I've found that can make or break the most are the ones folks used to print shipping labels. Any operation with even a sliver of volume will tell you that once they switched from churning through 8.5x11 sheets of paper through an inkjet or laser printer to a device with fewer moving parts, fewer supply costs, and always seemed to work, the name of the game changes practically overnight.
However, there's one category that I hadn't considered seriously (see idea above) is the concept of a wireless thermal printer, especially one designed to print shipping labels. Hardcore shippers would likely already have the infrastructure in place to accommodate just about anything, so they're likely to throw cables around wherever they need them. Small shops would have probably set everything up at one station, regardless of the actual productivity won or lost in doing so.
But what if the compromises weren't necessary? Imagine sitting in an office, cranking out shipping labels, then heading out to pack and seal all the boxes. Your labels are sitting right there, ready to go, in a place that makes the most sense.
That's what we're exploring today, with the FreeX WiFi Thermal Printer.
Before we get started, I have to say that FreeX reached out to me and offered to send a unit to poke at and test. I didn't pay for it. I also did not receive monetary compensation for this review either. What can I say? I like trying new stuff, so I'll always say yes to a demo unit.
What is the FreeX WiFi Thermal Printer?
The headline says it all. There is no shortage of wired label printers on the market, from my favorites to large commercial units like the Epson C7500G (an ink-based unit!) or the Honeywell PM43A, and others in between. The wireless market is a bit more scarce, depending on where you look and your needs. The two easiest to find that don't cost a fortune (That Honeywell unit is wireless) are the Dymo LabelWriter Wireless (doesn't print shipping labels), the Brother QL-1100NWB label printer, and the Zebra ZD620d (Bluetooth). There are a host of other random brands on Amazon that tout Bluetooth capability, too. Unsurprisingly, they all look either like the Rollo or the Brother QL-1110NWB.
We could go into the entire sub-genre of thermal transfer printers, but no one should be buying those at this point. I can't think of a legitimate reason to do so because it re-introduces supplies and complexity. So naturally, the market has shifted to direct printing, where the heating element inside the printer does the work directly on the Label.
The wireless printing market is where FreeX joins the fray, looking to target the desktop-class Brother and Zebra units directly. At $299, it has large shoes to fill. In the USB-only market, the Zebra ZP-450 runs between $200-400 depending on where you get it, the Dymo 4XL at $249, the GK420d at about $349, among others. The Brother QL-1110NWB I mentioned earlier is the only WiFi-enabled thermal label printer out there to use for comparison that’s actively produced and targets the same market with an MSRP of $280. (When it came out in 2018, it retailed for $320.)
Unboxing & First Impressions
When taking the FreeX printer out of the box, build quality is what I'd expect and felt very familiar: it opens like a suitcase or clamshell with the printer head in the top half. However, the first thing that stood out was its weight; it's on the light side at 1.58 kg (3.50 lbs), where my Zebra ZP-450 tips the scales at 1.87 kg (4.12 lbs). The weight difference is likely due to t he FreeX unit having its power supply outside, as a part of the power supply from the wall, compared to the Zebra ZP-450 that carries its power supply with it.
On the topic of size, the footprint of the FreeX is slightly larger. However, the overall space it occupies is just about the same. We can consider this just a variance in how the printer is shaped compared to the Zebra ZP-450. Unfortunately, I don't have the above Brother or wireless Zebra unit to compare to in person.
Turning the unit around to the back, we see the regularly issued ports: power, a kycon 3-pin power connector, and USB Type-A. The power port is a standard issue for DC power connectors of this type, so if the power supply needed replacement (a 100-240v input, 24V, 2.5A output switching power supply), you'll be in good shape. What's most interesting, however, is the blank spaces along that same face.
Given their size, I suspect the blanks would, in theory, support RS-232 serial and Ethernet connections at the factory if FreeX had ordered the units in that configuration. But, unfortunately, the FreeX doesn't support RS-232 or Ethernet connections. I would have liked to see Ethernet support for a printer that also does WiFi, but it's not necessarily a deal-breaker. The market this unit target isn't as likely to have that kind of setup, anyway. Without Ethernet, though, large operations can't be expected to climb on board, either. The QL-NWB supports Ethernet, Bluetooth, and Serial, but again, it’s $100 more expensive. That might be worth it to some, but on its own, I can’t say it’s enough to push me over the top.
Keeping along the back, the FreeX has a slot for rear-fed labels. So if you're a fan of large rolls (greater than 500 each) or fan-fold labels (UPS shippers can get them free from the carrier), this feature is for you.
There's not much to say about the sides. The seams are good, and the releases to open the unit work well.
I went looking through my packing material, thinking I missed the sample roll of labels. Unfortunately, FreeX does not supply a sample roll in the box. It looks like you have to get your own. If you're coming from another printer, you likely already have your own, too, so no significant foul there.
Returning to the inside of the unit, there's not a ton to talk about that you wouldn't find by other brands. A spool holder guides to keep the paper on track, depending on the side, thermal print head, and roller. One thing I didn't notice at first, but now that I see it is a neat trick: with the spool, arms expanded all the way, there's a small latch that keeps them in place. Being spring-loaded, this is a nice touch. For the next revision of the product, I'd love to see them take this one step further and have a default position for 4 inches, too. The spool holder appears to support label roll cores of multiple sizes, though one-inch cores seemed to fit best.
The FreeX printer supports label rolls of up to 600 per roll, which is fantastic. Most printers support about 400-500, depending on the core size. Unfortunately, the only place it appears one can get a 600-label roll is through FreeX. You can buy larger rolls elsewhere, but they won't fit. The FreeX team tells me the 600-label roll is more of a space saver. I’d believe it if the core is smaller. The 500-label roll used for this test had a much larger core than it needed to.
However, at the time of this writing, the 600-label roll was an eye-watering $25 and sold out. While more labels per roll equate to time saved, you might still be better off with something like this 4-pack of 450 labels for just a few dollars more. I’ve never run into a printer that couldn’t use but one specific brand–or only first-party–of labels.
Loading the paper was straightforward, though I highly recommend not doing so when it's on. The printer beeps, rather aggressively at a high pitch, when it's open and on. It's uncomfortable and entirely unnecessary. I asked about this, and FreeX tells me the next batch of units won’t do this. Whew.
When loading the printer for the first time, it had trouble detecting the perforations of the roll I’m using. My test roll doesn’t have alignment holes. After a second attempt (and from there on), it detected the seams just fine. The Zebra ZP-450 and others like it have a dedicated calibration mode that will detect the paper (alignment hole or none). Low-quality labels or continuous feed labels might not work well here since there’s no way to tell if that’s the
The FreeX WiFi Thermal Printer has a quick start guide for both macOS and Windows. I wanted to jump straight into printing over WiFi, but the way the Quick Start Guide is written, implies I have to start printing via USB first. That's not entirely the case, but after working through the steps, I'd recommend going in order so you're not missing anything. The FreeX printer requires things to be configured in a specific order.
(I'm on a Mac, so screenshots from here on out are based on that OS)
The experience and usability of any product extend heavily to its software presence, too, especially the setup stage. I was a little surprised to see the drivers served via a Google Drive folder. Given their size (just a few MB), serving the files directly from the Web site is table stakes. This is primarily a nitpick based on my professional background. It's an entirely acceptable method to serve driver downloads, but some professional polish is lost.
Beyond that, the software doesn't do a whole lot. If you wanted to stop after installing the software, you'd be fine to start printing and be on your way!
The download also includes a toolbox application that's good for testing the printer and its connection.
Setting up the printer to connect to WiFi is done inside that toolbox application.
The instructions provided by FreeX make this process pretty straightforward, but if you didn't have the directions open while setting up and didn't understand what all of these terms mean, it could feel a little daunting.
(For example, there's no explanation about the Mode that can be either
station, the option to configure a device as something that connects to a WiFi network, and
access pointMeaning the device creates a WiFi network.)
This is also the first time I learn that the printer only supports 2.4 GHz wireless networks. It's an unfortunate but typical implementation in IoT and IoT-like devices to skip the 5.0 GHz radios for cost savings. Missing the faster WiFi hardware can affect speed, too—more on that in the Testing section.
I suspect that since this is version 1 of the software, we'll see some polish and tightening of the user experience in future major versions. But, for now, the guide will keep you on track. The rest of the notes I have on the toolbox interface aren't relevant to this review and wouldn't impact the product in any way–just stuff I noticed based on my background.
Working through the configuration to completion, I ran into an unknown error a couple of times. However, whatever was erroring out didn't affect the device's wireless configuration because it spits out a correct WiFi name and IP address when I start it up.
Now that I have the FreeX connected over WiFi, I have to go back and re-add the printer, which is fine. Writing software to do this automatically is hard, especially with modern OS security restrictions. However, the additional step could have been more straightforward, at least on macOS, with the support of Bonjour (Apple's printer discovery profile), drivers not being auto-detected, and lack of support for IPP. But, again, this is all fringe stuff that doesn't affect the printer's functionality but does affect the setup experience.
As an aside: while undocumented, the printer also has a hidden web server that exists on port 80 of the device. If that means something to you, here’s what it looks like, with languages both in Chinese and English:
This interface also lets us know the WiFi module inside the printer is the HF-LPB100. It’s a pretty common module and has been around for almost 6 years. It doesn’t serve a lot of purpose outside of configuring network settings and settings for components it doesn’t have (like the serial connection I mentioned earlier). I imagine it’ll create a pretty stable connection to your network.
The default login credentials are easily guessable but also can be changed. It’s probably worth doing if for no other reason than being able to lock down the device. I couldn’t find anything inherently unique about the Web interface that can also be set via the provided software.
If you’re into doing things the ~complicated~ way, the printer’s WiFi settings can be set through this web server, so the FreeX toolbox isn’t explicitly required. It’s still a good idea to install the printer drivers, though.
With all the setup done, we're ready to print!
This is the part of the review that's relatively straightforward. With the printer configured, it'll just print; at least, that's what I was hoping would happen. Then, using a test label from Pirate Ship, I had to make sure the paper size was correct. (This is something the printer can communicate to your computer automatically if it's set up to do so; it appears the FreeX does not do that.) The default page size was 8.5x11, and after changing it to 4x6, I clicked print.
If you print any volume of shipping labels, these are the specs you'll want to pay attention to the most. In this exercise:
- I printed the Pirate Ship test label, both wired and wireless, from the FreeX, as well as the Zebra ZP-450.
- These numbers are an average of five runs in seconds.
- The 10-label and 25-label tests used the same file, duplicated to have 10 and 25 pages in a single file.
- The 10-label and 25-label tests are meant to mimic batch printing from shipping software.
- Default print qualities are used. For example, the Zebra ZP-450's default darkness level is 13.5 on a scale of 1-30, and speed is 5 inches per second. The FreeX's darkness level is 8 on a scale of 1-15, and print speed is 5 inches per second.
- Time is measured from the moment the Print button is clicked when the print is complete.
|Network||DNF (see note)||20.24s|
|Network||DNF (see note)||46.24s|
Editor’s Note: During testing, it became clear that 10 labels over WiFi were too much. A 10-label or 25-label batch yielded a blank page plus only the last label. The limit seems to be 8 labels. I suspect this is a buffer/storage issue on the device, and it’s not capable of holding more than 8 labels. Printing eight labels took an average of 1 minute, 43 seconds, or ~12.9s per label.
The two printers did exceptionally well in the USB tests. For the FreeX printer, the single-label turnaround time of 18 seconds felt prolonged. The buffer time for printing over wifi scales with the number of labels being sent over, though not linearly. In other words, it won’t take 18 seconds per label, up to the eight it supports. This is because most of the time was spent not on printing but transmitting the job to the printer. Likewise, printing the duplicate files to the Zebra ZP-450, which is also on the network, though not over WiFi, took much less time. Part of this, I suspect, is to do with the WiFi radio inside the unit. Once the print job was fully transmitted to the printer, the print job began producing wonderfully quickly.
Print Quality Sample
The FreeX generates labels exceptionally well. At no point did I wish it was darker, slower, or crisper.
The print quality and speed can be changed in the toolbox app, too, if you find a tweak is necessary.
Conclusion & Recommendation
I appreciate any new entrant into the thermal printer space that's not simply a slight re-badging and re-skinning of the same printers that come out of China. So the FreeX WiFi Thermal Printer landed on my desk, and it gave me high hopes that we'd see a viable, fresh, aggressive new bit of competition to knock the rather lackluster Brother and expensive Zebra off their perch.
Unfortunately, I don't think that's happening here. While it's a fast and crisp-printing USB thermal printer, I'm not sure it's ready for WiFi prime time.
The insert inside the packaging made me believe the SuperRoll labels they sell are proprietary, and I started wondering if I should have ordered some before testing; would the printer work well or at all without them? Unfortunately, nothing appears remarkable, besides the fact that there's a 600-label roll option that's not even available as I write this.
Pros & Cons
- Clean design and suitable size
- Prints shipping labels quickly over USB
- It comes with all the necessary cables to get started
- $100 cheaper through than the Brother QL-1110NWB
- WiFi functionality is slow to start but usable when it gets going.
- WiFi printing is limited to eight labels per job.
- If you land a first-batch unit: the beeps.
If you're looking for a snappy USB-connected thermal label printer, the FreeX will do you very well, and the price is on part with other units in that regard. When it comes to printing over WiFi, it’s not a slam dunk and isn’t suited for high-volume jobs. If FreeX came out with a full-connection option that included Ethernet, Serial, and Bluetooth and supported larger jobs, I’d probably replace my Zebra ZP-450 with it.
But for the audience this targets, and its price point, the FreeX printer is a viable option. If you’re only printing a handful of labels at a time, or even a lot of them, but individually, the FreeX Thermal Label Printer will meet your needs well.
Buy the FreeX Wireless Thermal Printer, $299, getfreex.comLast Updated: November, 26th, 2021 at 05:05 am UTC