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The Complete Guide To Choosing a Receipt Printer

Jun 23, 2017 10:10:00 AM By Felicia Jordan

receipt printer image

Workhorses, Not Show Horses

Point of sale technology isn’t always exciting – but you may not want your POS system to attract attention, you might just want it to work. That’s especially true of devices that your customers interact with, like card readers, pin pads… and receipt printers. 

Even in a digital world, printed receipts aren’t going away any time soon. Many older shoppers prefer them, and a significant number of people of all ages don’t want to share the email addresses retailers need to issue electronic receipts. Generating a paper receipt is essential to completing most transactions, so finding the right receipt printer is essential to building a customer-friendly POS system.

The first step is simply determining what kind of printer is best for your business. There are many more varieties of receipt printers available than you may think – do you need one that can perform on the go, one that will print on very specific paper, or one that can connect to your system via Bluetooth? All of these options are available, and more – so it’s important to know what your needs may be before you shop.

Before anything, consider whether you need an impact printer or a thermal printer, and whether your printer should be stationary or mobile. From there, the other details become simpler.  


Impact Printers

Impact printers work like traditional dot-matrix machines, with a print head consisting of anywhere from 9 to 24 precisely placed pins. The pins strike through a ribbon to print letters, and sometimes simple graphics, in black or red.

Here’s why you want an impact printer:

  • Lowest initial cost
  • Simple and reliable
  • Can make multiple copies at once
  • Withstands hot environments, like kitchens and food trucks 

Here’s why you don’t want an impact printer:

  • They’re slow
  • They’re loud
  • Creates a lower-quality image
  • You have to replace the ribbon

Thermal Printers

Thermal printers are different. Instead using a traditional print head, these printers apply precisely targeted heat to paper, which may or may not be specially treated.

Here’s why you want a thermal printer:

  • They’re faster
  • They last longer
  • They’re quiet
  • They create a better, sharper image 

…and here’s why you don’t:

  • Higher initial cost
  • Possible higher media cost
  • Don’t work well in hot environments

 Most of the receipt printers you’ve seen at stores and restaurants are thermal, because of their key advantages in a customer-facing situations. Most retailers have decided that the bigger initial investment in thermal technology is more than worth it, because these printers are quieter and faster. And since many merchants like to include logos and other graphics on receipts, they appreciate the better print quality.

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

If you choose thermal technology, there’s another decision point: Direct Thermal versus Thermal Transfer. Direct thermal printers use special paper that darkens when exposed to a precise heat pattern, forming text and images.  Thermal transfer printers transmit heat through an inked ribbon, which melts the text and images onto regular receipt paper.

  • Lower initial cost than thermal transfer
  • Easier to operate
  • Doesn’t require ink, toner, or ribbon
  • Good for temporary labels and documents 

…but here’s why Thermal Transfer might be a better choice:

  • Better, more durable image
  • No need for specially-treated paper
  • Prints on all kinds of media, including plastic
  • Better in harsh environments / cold temperatures

When you’re weighing these technologies, the key question is: how important is it to have long-lasting image quality? If you’re using receipts as an advertising or promotional medium, or need receipts that are more durable, then Thermal Transfer is the best choice. Most of these printers are monochrome, but color and double-sided capability can be yours for a little more money. For internal applications in a back office, kitchen, or warehouse an impact printer might be a money-saving choice.

Stationary or Mobile?

Mobility is the biggest recent transformation in POS technology, and that certainly applies to receipt printers. Most printers are still tied down to a fixed location, and that’s the easiest option, but there are more and more reasons to think about mPOS—a mobile point of sale where you have the option to issue receipts on the go.

Warehouse and stockrooms are ideal for mobile printing, too, and the devices can be worn on a belt or shoulder strap for added convenience. 

Mobile Receipt Printing:

  • Gives your staff flexibility
  • Improves productivity
  • Responds faster to customers
  • Supports impulse purchases
  • Creates an innovative, ‘high-tech’ image

 Today’s receipt printers have kept up with the mobile revolution, and have:

  • Long battery life
  • Easy wireless connectivity
  • Compact, lightweight configuration

Some printers also come with an integrated card reader, which lets customers complete a transaction anywhere without ever losing sight of their card.

A Game of Inches

Whether you choose stationary or mobile printing, you have a choice of receipt widths—typically 2, 3, or 4 inches.

  • 2-inch receipts are especially common for mobile printers, and they’re easily slipped into a customer’s wallet or checkbook 
  • 3-inch receipts are standard for most restaurants and retail stores. They’re still manageable, but provide extra ‘real estate’ for graphics, coupons, promotions, and other information, and there’s a wide variety of media available
  • 4-inch receipts are the least common, although they’re found in places where customers are most likely to want to preserve their receipts, like jewelry and electronics stores

Hooking Up

Any integrated point of sale solution relies on rock-solid connectivity. Now it’s time to look at what kind of interface fits your needs best. As you’d expect, each one has its pros and cons.

  • Serial
    • Serial ports are a well-established hardware technology that’s simple, inexpensive, and widely established.  On the other hand…
      • Serial is older and slower than newer alternatives like USB and Ethernet.
  • Parallel
    • Since it has more wires than serial connections, parallel connectivity is usually faster. It works well over short distances, and is easily connected to a circuit board. On the other hand…
      • Parallel is also slower than USB and Ethernet
  • USB
    • Modern and universally available, USB connections can also carry power to devices, and adapters make it flexible for many devices. On the other hand...
      • It’s more expensive than older systems
  • Ethernet
    • With adapters universally available, and the capability of carrying signals across long distances, this hardware offers good LAN and Internet connectivity. On the other hand…
      • This is the most expensive wired technology
  • Wireless
    • More and more POS systems rely on wireless connections, and it’s easy to understand why. There are no more cables to clutter up counters, and of course wireless is essential to mobile receipt printing. On the other hand…
      • Wireless connectivity is more expensive, and more vulnerable to outside interference. It’s harder for employees to troubleshoot, and network security becomes an issue. 
  • Bluetooth
    • This wireless technology draws less power, so it’s easier on device batteries, and of course it cuts clutter, too. On the other hand…
      • Bluetooth is more expensive than traditional wireless and has a shorter range; the security might even be worse.

Of course, some POS installations combine different connectivity methods to meet different circumstances, or to serve both mobile and stationary printers.

Check, Please

 Now that you’ve looked at the options available and considered your specific needs, it’s time to talk to your technology distributor.  As with any technology purchase, you’ll balance your needs with your budget, but there are two important metrics for you to investigate, and printer spec sheets should spell them out: 

  • MTBF
    • ‘Mean Time Between Failures’ is just what it sounds like: the manufacturer’s estimate of how many hours of operation you can expect before the device fails. You can expect to see some high numbers; it’s common to see life expectancy in hundreds of thousands of hours. These are sturdy devices, but you can find top performers in that strong field by comparing MBTF numbers. 
  • MCBF
    • ‘Mean Cuts Between Failures’ is a little different, and tells you the expected number of cuts between failures that a particular printer is expected to make as it generates and clips off individual receipts.

If you’ve got a substantial order, ask if a given manufacturer will provide a Deal Registration for your distributor / reseller. You may get special bid pricing consideration that will cut your final cost.

Receipt printers are the most exciting technology you’ll ever buy, but they’re essential to building an effective POS system. Knowing what you need and what’s available will put you in control when it’s time to find the right devices.

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