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Updated Apr 01, 2024

What is a Receipt Printer? Thermal vs Impact Printers

Discover the differences between thermal and impact printers and which type is better for your business.

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Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Every business needs a top point-of-sale (POS) system, and the printer is an integral part of that system. Like retailers, restaurants, salons, banks and other enterprises use POS printers to print customer and card transaction receipts. But business owners have some options to consider when choosing whether to use a thermal or impact receipt printer. [Read more about what a POS system is and how it can help your business.]

What is a receipt printer?

A receipt printer is a small device that prints out customer and credit card receipts. Receipt printers are most commonly used in retail shops, gas stations and restaurants. Food service settings may have both a front-of-house receipt printer for credit card payments and a back-of-house receipt printer for order tickets. The two most common types of receipt printers are impact printers and thermal printers.

Impact printer

An impact printer, or dot matrix printer, works by physically striking the paper with ink, similarly to how a typewriter works. Impact printers have small pins placed on the printhead, which moves across the page and pushes the ink ribbon against the paper to form letters.

Impact printers are appealing because of their relatively low cost. They are also reliable and can work effectively in high heat, which is especially crucial in some business settings, like when dealing with back-of-house restaurant tickets in an overheated kitchen.

Editor’s note: Looking for the right POS system for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

Thermal printer

A thermal printer works via direct contact between the thermal head — which contains small, heated elements — and heat-sensitive thermal paper. The thermal paper coating turns black where it is heated, producing the letters or images.

Though thermal printers cost more than impact printers, they do not require ink or toner, which can save money over time. However, because thermal printers are heat-sensitive, they may not be as effective in hot climates.

Did You Know?Did you know
Impact printers are the better choice for high-heat environments.

What are the differences between thermal and impact receipt printers?

Although both types of printers do the same job, there are several important distinctions.

Impact printer vs. thermal printer

Features

Impact printer

Thermal printer

Printing

Ink-based printing (dot matrix mechanism)

Heat-based imprinting; no ink or toner required

Color capability

Most models print in black and red; some can print graphics

Most models print in only black; higher-end ones offer multicolor printing

Noise

Higher noise levels due to the printing mechanism

Minimal noise

The biggest difference between impact printers and thermal printers is the way they print. Impact models, also known as dot matrix printers, are the more traditional variety. A dot matrix printer has a printhead covered in precisely placed pins, which work in conjunction with an ink ribbon to form letters via a series of tiny dots. Most models can print in black and red. Some can also print graphics.

Thermal printers, assuming they’re used in the right environment, produce high-quality prints at a fast pace, with minimal noise. This type of printer doesn’t use ink and toner. Instead, it uses a thermal head in conjunction with thermal paper that’s responsive to heat. The heat-generating thermal head makes contact with the heat-sensitive paper to create printed documents. Many models print only in black, but higher-end products offer multicolor and double-sided printing.

FYIDid you know
Impact printers are louder and slower than thermal printers.

What to look for in your receipt printer

When you’re determining which type of printer is best for your business, consider these factors.

Performance in everyday environments

Impact printers are known for their reliability but are noisier and slower than thermal printers. However, they are the better choice for use in a hot environment. Because the paper in thermal printers is, by necessity, sensitive to heat, the performance of these printers suffers when they’re exposed to the high temperatures and humidity levels of certain spaces. Therefore, if you’re — for example — choosing a POS printer for your kitchen staff to pick up orders, an impact printer is the better option.

Noisiness and efficiency

If you need a printer to print out customer receipts and card transaction slips, a thermal printer may be the right choice. These printers have a fast output, at up to 20 lines per second, compared with the average of three lines per second for impact printers. Thermal models are considerably quieter than their dot matrix counterparts.

Color capabilities and cost

To get the right printers for your business, you should also consider whether you need single-color or multicolor printing and single- or double-sided capabilities. Your budget will also factor into your decision. If your company is concerned with being environmentally friendly, opt for eco-conscious printers and receipt rolls, which can also result in significant cost savings over the life of the printer.

Additional software

Before you make your purchase, check whether the printer you want has the right interface to match your computer system and make sure you have enough spare ports to accommodate them. Your system will have RS-232 serial, parallel or USB interfaces. Although most receipt printers are universal, you need to ensure the ones you choose are compatible with your type of POS system; otherwise, they are essentially useless.

Bottom LineBottom line
Consider your budget, the printer's compatibility with existing software and the printer's performance and features to determine the best option for your business.

What costs might you incur?

As far as initial costs, impact printers are more budget-friendly than thermal printers. However, ongoing costs tend to be higher for impact printers because you must purchase ink or toner regularly, whereas thermal models don’t use ink or toner.

Thermal printers have fewer moving parts than dot matrix units do, so in theory, they may require less maintenance and part replacements. However, because there are fewer moving and easily replaceable parts, if something goes wrong with a thermal receipt printer, it’s more likely that you’ll have to replace the whole unit. [Read more about common POS charges and fees you may incur.]

Best receipt printers to consider

There are a variety of high-quality thermal and impact receipt printers for a range of budgets. Epson, HP, Zebra and Star Micronics are among the top brands for receipt printers of all kinds. While some are simple and offer basic features, others feature double-sided printing and grayscale graphic printing.

Thermal

  • Epson TM-T88VI (starts at $325)
  • POS-X K3 (starts at $466)
  • Star Micronics TSP (starts at $227)

Impact

  • Bixolon SRP-275III (starts at $187)
  • Epson FX-890II (starts at $346)
  • POS-X EVO Impact (starts at $340)

Receipt printers FAQs

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about thermal and impact receipt printers.
Some businesses manage with one or two receipt printers. However, depending on the size and layout of your establishment, it may be better to have multiple printers. If you have several checkout stations, it’s advisable to purchase one printer for each cash register or credit card payment processor.
With regular use, thermal printers last approximately 10 years, and impact printers last about five years; a printer's exact life span depends on how often it is used. If you choose a thermal printer, you’ll also want to store it at room temperature to ensure maximum longevity.
It’s best (and most convenient) to clean your receipt printer’s printhead each time you swap out the label roll or ribbon. Doing so can minimize printhead buildup and associated damage, thus maximizing your printer’s life span.
No. Only thermal paper can be used in a thermal receipt printer. Standard paper requires the use of ink cartridges, which are not present in a thermal printer. You will need specially designed, heat-sensitive thermal paper to print properly.

Danielle Fallon-O’Leary contributed to this article.

author image
Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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