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POS Hardware

The hardware of a Point-of-Sale system is specialized to perform a very specific task. The equipment is not available at your local computer store and has many qualities that are unique to the applications the equipment serves. It is for these factors and others
that there exists a great deal of confusion about POS hardware. Hopefully, this article will shed some light on some of these unique pieces of equipment.

After sorting through all this you may want to take the easy way to guaranteed compatibility between all these devices and get a complete Point-of-Sale kit. If so. follow this link to our complete POS systems.
Barcode Scanners

Barcode scanners use a variety of methods to “read” the small vertical lines and spaces of a barcode label. The scanner actually processes the information it reads sending the equivalent of letters and numbers to any of a number of interfaces with the POS software program. Barcode scanners are generally of three types: Closed Coupled Devices (CCD), Linear Imagers and Laser Scanners.

CCD The CCD Scanner is the least expensive, costing around $200 per unit, but it is limited in the size and type of barcodes it can effectively “read.” The barcodes must be so called “low density” and must be flat. A low density printed barcode is 3/8” to 1/2” high and has long as it needs to be to convey all the numbers and letters. Typically the barcodes are printed on 2 5/8” x 1” address sized labels. Flat means that the scanner can not read a label on a can or bottle for example. It is also necessary with CCD scanners to actually or almost touch the scanner to the barcode to get a good read.

Laser At the opposite end of the quality and price spectrum is the laser scanner. Most laser scanners will read so called high density barcodes as small as 1/8” high and can read from a distance of 6 inches to 3 feet or more. Cost is at least double from a CCD scanner, $400 to $800. On the down side, the equipment is somewhat sensitive to repeated dropping as the mirrors used to align the laser
light tend to become out-of-alignment.

Linear Imagers Not too hot, not too cold, the linear imager is the Goldilocks of barcode scanners. The ability to read is almost, but not quite, as good as a laser and the cost is about in the middle between CCD and Laser scanners. The important factor in favor of the linear imager is it's durability, it can handle the shock from repeated drops
much better than it's laser based cousins, making it a good candidate for industrial applications

Interface. Getting the information where is has to go is the function of the interface, and there are several choices. A keyboard wedge interface splits the input using a computer's PS2 connection. This makes the input “look” like keyboard input to a computer program, depending how the program “wants” to acquire the information, this is good or bad. A problem with the KBW interface is that the amperage of the 5 volt PS2 connection varies widely from computer to computer so that while theoretically, a PS2 keyboard signal can be split an unlimited number of times, a real limit exists that might only be a single split. This is obviously only a problem if multiple KBW devices are used, but a problem nonetheless. Other interfaces are 9 pin serial and USB,
here the issue is how the software using the input acquires the information, it may or may not be able to “see” information as input from either of these sources.

Other Considerations Barcode scanners also have options that allow them to perform better in specific situations. Auto Detect is a technology that activates the scanner whenever an object is placed in front of it. In the absence of auto detect, the scanner is activated using a push button or trigger. The advantage of auto detect is that the scanner can be placed in a stand and smaller objects passed in front
of the beam. If programmed with a return signal after a good read, it can be used to quickly scan large numbers of items.


Receipt Printers

Generally, a receipt printer prints a receipt which is 40 columns wide; however, a receipt can also be 80 columns wide which is the width of a standard 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper. The 80 column format is usually printed on an impact or dot matrix printer which allows 2, 3 or 4 copies
to be simultaneously printed. This application is most common when pick slips and packing slips are required at the point-of-sale. Thermal process 80 column printers, though not common, are available.

There are two basic types of receipt printers (based on print method) and there are some good reasons to get either type.

Impact or Dot Matrix These printers print approximately 10 mm per second, relatively slow in the world of receipt printers, and they require ink ribbons which can have two colors. They make a fair amount of noise, but allow simultaneous printing of two receipts, which can either create a paper listing of daily transactions for auditing purposes or provide a customer copy for signature with credit card sales.

Thermal These printers print from 70 mm to 150mm per second, are silent, print on treated paper with no ribbons to replace, are capable of two color printing and can print graphics and barcodes.

Thermal Transfer The direct thermal process is more commonly used in barcode label printers for it produces a printed product that has a very long usable life, up to 3 years, verses 1 year for thermal process. The direct thermal print method uses ink ribbons that are heated and print on plain paper.

Options All types of 40 column printers have options for auto cutting of the receipt once the printing is finished (actually all but 1/16 th on an inch of the paper is cut). Almost all printers come in a variety of interfaces: parallel, serial and USB. Plus, many printers are configured with an RJ-11 output jack for use with printer driven cash drawers.

Cash Drawers

Cash drawers come in a variety of sizes, but all basically perform the same function. Sizes range from 16” by 16” to 19” by 22”, the determining factor primarily being the location of the drawer in the sales counter; for all cash drawers have at least five bill slots in their removable plastic “tills.” Most cash drawers have tills with locking
covers which is a good way to control cash when a business has multiple clerks.

Interfaces The cash drawer will connect to a computer to receive the instruction to open when a sale is tendered. This connection may be through a dedicated serial port (9 pin or 20 pin) or by a connection to a receipt printer which has either an RJ-11 or BNC connection. The cash drawer will require a particular series of numeric commands to
open, which is either coded into the POS software, or the user specifies. Sometimes the POS program will call a text file which pops the cash drawer.

Display Monitors

Display monitors can be exactly the same as your home or office computer display monitor, that is probably a 15” or 17” flat VGA type monitor, however many POS applications, because of the sales counter layout, require smaller screens. Typically you will find 9 inch to 12.1 inch screens in use. The smallest and least expensive is a 9”
monochrome monitor, which uses various shades of gray to display images on its screen. Full color VGA monitors are available as small as 10”, and flat screen monitors usually start at 12.1 inches.

The trend in POS is probably toward Touch Screens which basically combine a mouse pointer and a display screen, and allow the user to physically point to a selection on the screen, and by touching the panel, make a selection. Touch screens are available as either flat screens, TFT or the traditional Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) type. There are two technologies used to allow a touch screen to work: pressure and resistive. Resistive, is the more recent and better, as the pressure method actually requires a slight amount of physical pressure to bring together two invisible grids, which cover the screen (the convergence of the grids along an x and y axis is sensed); while the resistive method senses changes in resistance in a single grid along an x and y axis that cover the screen.

One important consideration with touch screens is the way the screen is built and attached to a base. Because the screen is subjected to a great deal of handling it should be framed in durable metal and have a strong metal base.

Magnetic Card Readers

Magnetic Card or Strip Readers (generally referred to as MSRs) are simply devices which can “read” and send via cable to a computer program the information contained on a credit card or other card with a magnetic strip. There are actually 3 different lines of information contained in most magnetic strips, which are referred to as “tracks.”
However, credit card processing programs generally only needing the 2 nd track. Some POS programs will require the reader itself to be“programmed” (usually by a pre programmed magnetic card) to selectively read certain tracks, while programs contain codes which make the selection. Connection to the computer is by: PS2, Keyboard
wedge or serial (9 pin or 20 pin), again the correct method is determined by the POS software.

Pole / Customer Displays

The pole display or customer display is a device which communicates messages to the customer, as well as price, quantity and total information. The display is somewhat like a little television screen and usually sits atop a pole on the sales counter. The different characteristics from which you can chose from are primarily the size and the type of characters used.

The size of the characters is a concern for the average distance the display will be viewed. Sizes generally range from 5mm to 25 mm. The way the characters are formed, either dot matrix or segment, affect readability and the type of characters that can be formed. Dot matrix allows much more different types of characters and is generally
considered more readable.


Portable Data Collection Devices

Several manufacturers make handheld devices for data collection. These devices usually have a built-in bar code scanner and are useful for a number of different tasks. The handheld can, depending upon the software, be used to count inventory, receive purchase orders and even check-out customers.

Other Devices

Customer Signature pads These devices use a stylus and a resistive type screen, much like a touch screen to capture an image of a customer's signature for credit card transactions. The screens require a serial input and correct software to function.

Combination Keyboard and Magnetic Strip Reader The combination of input devices works well to solve an old problem of how to mount the relatively small MSR in a way that allows the card to be dragged through it without it being pushed around the counter top. The device also helps keep the sales counter from becoming too cluttered. The
downside is that they are not cheap.

There are many other variations on the major types of devices mentioned here, and depending on specific needs, may be appropriate. The biggest concern is getting all of the devices to work together so care must be taken in mapping out which device will use what computer resource, and that there are enough resources available. That is, if you will be using a serial port for a cash drawer,
and you require one for a customer display, you will either need to add a port to the standard computer configuration or change the cash drawer connection.

Also, you will need to know what devices your POS software can support and how it supports each device. This is critical because not all software supports all devices and may support some devices in very specific ways. The solution is to simply ask and follow the recommendations of the software maker or qualified POS system integrator.


Computer & Operating Systems

While a full discussion is well beyond the scope of this article, a few brief words may be helpful to avoid problems down the road.

Dedicated Computer for Point of Sale Use Because of the reliance placed on the point-of-sale system in terms of its daily use to process customer sales, and especially when the system includes integrated credit card processing, it is strongly recommended that the only task done at the POS sales station is sales, and no other software program be used. Allowing other software programs to add possibly conflicting settings, files and other changes to the operating system is simply not a good idea when one considers the downside of a system breakdown. In a network environment, it is suggested that the POS database be place on the POS sales station on its own partition of a hard drive for easy back up (when it is easy to back up, more backing up is done).

Finally, a word on operating systems. In the business world, the computer is a PC running a Microsoft OS. Almost all of the POS equipment discussed here (scanners, readers, printers and the like) are not sold in as large numbers as consumer items, which is one reason that engineering on many types of POS equipment is not progressing at the speed at which Microsoft introduces new operating systems. With Windows 7 you have a 64 bit operating system, and at this point in time not all harware manufacturers have drivers written for 64 bits, these devices will simply not work in this environment. This means that the Windows XP (or POS Ready, the dedicated OS for Point of Sale) is in most cases is the safest and therefore preferred OS for the sales station. It may always be the reality in this specialized area that POS systems will be in the safe zone, slightly behind the technology curve instead of in the vanguard.




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