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Restaurant Receipt Printers: Thermal vs. Impact

Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 30, 2021

How to decide which type of receipt printer you need and where you should put it.

Every restaurant needs a top point of sale (POS) system, and the printer is an integral part of that system. Like retailers, restaurateurs use POS printers to print customer and card transaction receipts. But, if your POS system is comprehensive and covers the kitchen and bar as well as front of house, connected printers are invaluable.

What is a receipt printer?

A receipt printer is a small device that prints out customer and credit card receipts. They are most commonly used in retail shops, gas stations and restaurants. Food service settings may have both a front-of-house receipt printer for 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 print head, 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, both in terms of the initial purchase and operating expenses. They are also reliable and can work effectively in high heat, which is especially crucial for back-of-house restaurant tickets.

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, since thermal printers are (necessarily) heat-sensitive, they may not be as effective in a hot kitchen.

FYIFYI: There are two types of receipt printers, each with a different type of printing mechanism, which should be considered depending on the industry you’re in.

What Are the Differences Between Thermal and Impact Receipt Printers?

While both types of printers do the same job, there are several important distinctions between them.

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 printing mechanism.Minimal noise.

The biggest difference is the way that they print. Impact models, also known as dot matrix printers, are the more traditional variety. Dot matrix printers have a print head covered in precisely placed pins. These 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. This is paper that’s been thermally coated so it’s responsive to heat. The heat-generating thermal head makes contact with the heat-sensitive paper to create printed documents. Many models only print in black, but higher-end products offer multicolor and double-sided printing.

Did you know?Did you know? Impact printers are usually the better choice for back-of-house at restaurants and dining establishments because thermal printers may experience issues in high-high environments.

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.

What to look for in your restaurant printer

Which type of printer is best depends on how and where you plan to use it.

Performance in everyday environments

Impact or dot matrix receipt printers are known for their reliability but are noisier than thermal printers. They are also slower. However, they are the better choice for use in a hot kitchen. Because the paper that resides inside thermal printers is, by necessity, sensitive to heat, the performance of these printers suffers when exposed to the high temperatures and humidity levels of a professional kitchen. Therefore, if you’re choosing a POS printer for your kitchen staff to pick up orders, an impact printer is the better option.

Noisiness and efficiency

If, however, 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 to 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 restaurant, you should also consider whether you need single-, two-color, or multicolor printing and single- or double-sided capabilities. Budget is also a significant factor in choosing the best printers. If your eatery is concerned with being green or environmentally friendly, opt for green or eco-conscious printers and receipt rolls, which can also result in significant monetary savings over the life of the printer.

Additional software

Before you make your purchase, check whether the printers you want have the right interface to match your computer system and that you have enough spare ports to accommodate them. Your system will have RS-232 serial, parallel, or USB interfaces. Additionally, while 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.

What Costs Might You Incur?

As far as initial outlay goes, the more budget-friendly option is impact printers. These models tend to be less expensive per unit. Ongoing costs tend to be higher for impact printers, as it’s necessary to purchase ink or toner on a regular basis, whereas thermal models don’t use ink and toner.

Thermal printers have fewer moving parts than dot matrix units, so, in theory, they may require less maintenance or part replacement. 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.

Best receipt printers to consider

There are an array of brands producing thermal and impact receipt printers, and there are many high-quality models available, regardless of your budget. Epson, HP, Zebra and Star Micronics are among the top brands for receipt printers of all kinds. While some of these are simple and robust, with the basic features you need, others offer double-sided printing and grayscale graphic printing.

Thermal

  • Epson TM-T88VI ($411.95).
  • POS-X EVO HiSpeed Thermal Receipt Printer ($241.45).
  • Star Micronics TSP (ranges from $232.75 to $306.54, depending on connection type).

Impact

  • Bixolon SRP-275III (starting at $182.00).
  • Epson FX-890 (starting at $382.00).
  • POS-X EVO Impact (starting at $247.43).

How Many Units Does Your Restaurant Need?

Some restaurants manage with one or two receipt printers. However, depending on the size and layout of your restaurant, multiple printers may be a better option. If you’ve got multiple food and beverage stations, it’s advisable to purchase one printer for each station. That way, the bar gets the drinks order, the line gets the hot food orders, and the pastry chef gets the dessert ticket. You’ll then obviously need a printer for each cash register or credit card processing unit.

Image Credit:

rez-art / Getty Images

Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.