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Testing by Greg Nelson, VP and CTO, Gware POS (formally Genesis-POS)
A VAR evaluates four 2-inch mobile receipt printers and shares the pros and cons of each.
Mobility in the worlds of retail and hospitality is one of the hottest topics. There’s also a lot of hype, confusion, and speculation. In an attempt to provide clarity on just one aspect of a mobile POS solution, we decided to review 2-inch mobile receipt printers. We once again teamed up with Greg Nelson, VP and CTO of GwarePOS (formally Genesis-POS). As our starting point, we utilized our most current Best Channel Vendors survey results, re-sorting the data to determine which manufacturers had the highest product-related scores in the survey. As a result, we had a field of about 10 manufacturers with scores we felt were high enough for consideration. As with our previous 4-inch mobile label printer review, we found some vendors didn’t offer the type of printer we were testing. Others had products that fit but openly told us that they didn’t think they’d fare well in the review, or certain aspects of the review, because their products were outdated. So, if you’re wondering why your manufacturer of choice isn’t included in the review, it’s not because we didn’t ask. In the end, we received units from Citizen, Epson, Star Micronics, and Zebra. Once the units began arriving, Nelson began his testing.
Setup and Configuration
The first thing we wanted to test was ease of setup. Back in May when we did our mobile label printer test, we expected setup to be a breeze. We were dismayed to discover that getting those printers con- figured on the tester’s wireless LAN was more than challenging. Therefore, I was eager to see how the receipt printer manufacturers compared.
Thankfully, Nelson found the units relatively easy to set up. All of the units require software to be installed on a PC and then for the printers to be connected to that PC via a standard mini USB cable. The only exception is the Zebra unit, which requires a special USB cable. Once the software was installed and the printers connected to the PC, Nelson was able to configure the printers’ network connectivity. The Star SM-S220i was the only unit tested that didn’t support Wi-Fi (Bluetooth, instead). All of the Wi-Fi-enabled printers except the Zebra unit were quickly connected to his wireless LAN. In fairness, at the time of testing, the Zebra printer was brand new. Nelson was able to get his connectivity issues resolved after a phone call with Zebra, and we were assured the issue would be addressed in time for mass availability.
In configuring the Star unit for Bluetooth connectivity, Nelson ran into some minor challenges. First, he had to (gasp) read the instruction manual to learn the Bluetooth ID code to pair the printer with his computer. He wondered why Star didn’t make use of the printer’s LCD to reveal the Bluetooth code when pairing.
His second Bluetooth observation has more to do with all Bluetooth printers and not just the Star model. While not included in this write-up, some manufacturers sent additional printers that didn’t exactly meet our testing criteria. That didn’t stop Nelson from doing some tinkering. In looking at other Bluetooth-enabled mobile receipt printers, he discovered how user-unfriendly it is to determine to which port on the computer the Bluetooth printer is connected. His advice: “Don’t get frustrated. Just remember to be ready to find the correct serial communication port associated to the Bluetooth.” He also openly wished the manufacturers would include some functionality that allows VARs to quickly determine the ports being used.
Battery life is something else we wanted to test. It’s one thing for a manufacturer to promise that a printer will work over a full shift, but would our tests prove otherwise? Each unit tested used 7.4V batteries but differed when it came to amps. Epson’s had the most juice at 2,000 mAh, while Star’s had the least at 1,130 mAh. It’s important to note that size doesn’t necessarily mean more run time. For instance, the Epson unit needs the extra power to supply its Wi-Fi and automatic paper cutter.
Nelson planned on running batteries completely down but discovered that after 15 minutes of continuous printing (something you wouldn’t see in a real-world application) batteries had only lost 7% of their power. Rather than continue draining batteries and making conclusions on an abnormal use case, Nelson agreed with the manufacturers’ statements that the printers could easily handle a full day of printing. However, Nelson did say that if the printers are going to be used in a high volume location, you may need to have a spare battery around toward end of shift. Of the printers tested, all batteries were easily accessed and swapped out.
Evaluation Tip: To not waste an opportunity to educate, Nelson looked at the batteries of mobile printers not in our review. He found that one printer required the belt clip to be removed and used a bayonet-style connector (basically, a wired connector with plugs) for the battery, which is not exactly user friendly. Something to keep in mind as you evaluate printers: Don’t assume modern devices all have drop in batteries. If there’s a plug involved, know that “ease of use” will suffer
In testing mobile label printers back in May, loading rolls of media was an area where some printers strug- gled and others shined. Nelson reported paper loading to be a nonissue with all the printers we reviewed here. All the units had easy-to-access buttons to open the media door and fast, pain-free paper loading.
All of the printers clock in at more than 3 inches-per- second print speed, with the Epson coming in fastest at almost 4 inches per second. We also looked at time to first print. That is, we sent a print job and measured how long it took for each printer to begin printing. Again, not much difference here. You can look for yourself in the attached chart, but know that only 3/10 of a second separates the fastest from the slowest. The gist of all this is that Nelson found all the printers comparable in print speed and performance.
If you or your customers look only at features and price, you could be dooming users to wear a brick all day long. A major factor when it comes to evaluating mobile printers has to be the size and weight of the units. On paper and in person, it’s easy to see the physical differences among the reviewed units. The Epson came in largest and heaviest at 1.69 lbs. with paper and battery. In fact, it’s almost three times the weight of the Zebra (the lightest) unit tested. But just seeing the printers doesn’t make a good test.
Nelson took time wearing all the units and discovered that, despite the relatively small size and weight of all the printers, it doesn’t take long for them to begin wearing heavy on the hip. Therefore, the extra weight of the Epson printer was definitely felt. “Think about who is going to be wearing these printers,” says Nelson. “A teenager weighing just over 100 lbs. is going to have trouble wearing this all day.” If a printer is too heavy, the door opens for all sorts of issues, including employees not wanting to use the devices and/or taking them off. The moment a user takes a printer off due to weight, you might as well have sold your customer a traditional receipt printer.
All that said, understand that size and weight might not be an issue for certain customers who are searching for a bulkier, more durable unit.
Without any special cases or protection, all the print- ers are classified as being able to withstand four foot drops to concrete. While we didn’t push these claims, Nelson did drop each printer once from the edge of his desk. All of the printers came through unscathed.
When it comes to protection from dust and liquids, the printers in the field represent a variety of levels. For instance, both the Zebra and Citizen units are IP42 rated (i.e. solid objects and drops of water), but adding a protective case can bring that rating up to IP54 (i.e. a little dust and splashes of water). The Star Micronics printer does not have an IP rating since it’s in no way ruggedized (according to Star). Rather than go for a “bulky ruggedized” appearance, the company opted for looks and style (again, according to Star). Finally, Epson’s unit is IP54 out of the box without the need for an additional case. So, the extra weight we mentioned earlier brings with it extra protection. All of these factors should play a part in your decision in finding the right printer for your customers.
When the review was completed, Nelson had these final thoughts to share about each of the printers tested:
Citizen CMP-20 — Nelson found the Citizen unit to be solid and a great compromise between durability, weight, and performance. Even though it wasn’t tested here, the Citizen printer is also available with an integrated mag-stripe reader.
Epson Mobilink P60II — The weight and ruggedness of the Epson printer heavily influenced Nelson’s appraisal of the unit. He felt strongly that, since all of our test units printed at roughly the same rate, the decision to buy one over the other would depend on wearability, and he felt carrying the Epson for a long time would be uncomfortable. Of course, if rugged is what your customers need, the Epson might be the right choice.
Star Micronics SM-S220i — Nelson gave the Star high marks for its design, performance, and small size at the lowest price in the field ($495 MSRP). The only possible shortcoming is a lack of Wi-Fi and that it is the least rugged of the units tested, which might play an important part in your decision-making.
Zebra EM220II — One thing not mentioned thus far is the integrated mag-stripe reader that the EM 220II features. When you consider the competitive price of this printer ($650 MSRP), a card reader is a nice bonus. Apart from the mag-stripe reader, Nelson found the printer’s size and weight to be to his liking, with the added bonus of at least some protection from the elements.