Denis Kondopoulos – Senior Technical Project Manager – Naxtech.com
POS printers, thermal printers, receipt printers – all terms typically refer to an 80mm (paper width) thermal printer, connected to a point-of-sale system for the purpose of printing receipts. However, in recent years there’s been a new kid on the block: the intelligent POS printer. So what is the difference and what’s all the fuss about? Let us answer these questions and let you decide what is best for your own needs.
As you may already know, typically, printers are ‘dummies’ and need to be connected to a computer in order to print. The computer uses a ‘driver’ program to communicate with the printer and tell it what to print. Most printers come with drivers for the Windows operating system. I’ve yet to see any printer with drivers for mobile operating systems like Android or iOS. So, all in all, printers rely on the computer’s operating system and the ‘driver’ program to know what to print and how.
An ‘intelligent printer’ in practical terms is nothing more than a ‘computer + printer’ but in the shape of a printer – a POS printer that is. So what does that mean? It means that the printer in reality is not a printer but a computer, with a printer on it, and it still looks like a normal ‘dummy’ POS printer. As such, the computer part of the printer is able to hold software in it that can do all sorts of things, from extracting the contents of receipts printing out, to remotely connecting and printing at other printers (ie the intelligent printer receives an order and then commands a kitchen printer and a printer at the bar to print it out). In some cases the intelligent printer can act as a web application server, actually running a web application that can be accessed by devices on the local network the printer is on.
In recent years, such printers have been armed with technology extensively used in online food ordering scenarios, such as Just Eat, Deliveroo etc, where the (intelligent) printer itself initiates (so as to avoid firewall related blockages) the connection to a system to check for new orders at regular intervals. Then, when it receives information about a new order, it automatically prints it out and responds to confirm that printing was a success. Because the intelligent printer is not just a printer anymore, it can be connected directly to the router/network without needing to connect to a computer at all. This is particularly practical in small and tight environments, such as restaurants where worktop space is valuable and you don’t want to have computers taking space or being at risk of getting dirty or damaged.
The two main manufacturers of intelligent printers are Epson and Star; both Japanese companies with a good track record in POS printers and a wide range of relevant products. Both makers have intelligent printer models but their overall implementation approach is slightly different. In reality, the ‘intelligence’ aspect of those printers covers various use case scenarios, but for ease and the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on what one might call ‘cloud printing’ or simply the concept of orders made online being printed automatically by an intelligent POS printer.
Epson’s approach to this is called SDP, short for ‘Server Direct Print’. In practice, it’s nothing more than the printer being able to request up to three XML feeds at regular time intervals. The XML used is called ePOS XML and is specific to Epson. The way it works is that the printer requests whatever URLs are defined in its settings, and any XML returned essentially defines what is printed, and by which printer (eg the printer might instruct a different printer to print something remotely). What actually happens behind the scenes is that the printer translates ePOS XML into ESC/POS. All this ‘intelligent’ functionality exists in all the printer models which support SDP, such as the TM-T88VII and TM-m30II-H.
One interesting thing to note about some intelligent POS printers in terms of fonts, text sizes and character sets (ie languages) is that the options are somewhat limited and based not on just the specific model, but also a particular part number. For instance, the TM-T88VI has a specific part number that supports Mandarin Chinese, another for Traditional Chinese, and another for Western languages. There is no T88VI part number which has everything. They’ve improved that with the TM-T88VII, but the point is that printers of the same model are not necessarily the same. This can be quite confusing. Fonts and text sizes are also somewhat limited, with just three text sizes available.
But worry not; there is a workaround for bypassing some of these issues: instead of sending the receipt to the printer as formatted pieces of text, you can essentially convert the entire receipt into an image and then ask the printer to print the image instead. That way the entire receipt is an image and is not restricted by font sizes and supported character sets. However, it does mean that the size of the data you send to the printer is increased which, depending on the use-case scenario, could make things slightly slower.
Star’s approach is based on similar principles. Star’s technology is called CloudPRNT (aka Hi-X-Connect interface) and it can be found on printers like the TSP654II-HI-X and mC-Print3. What’s more, some older printers like the TSP700II can be ‘upgraded’ by changing their interface to the Hi-X-Connect one which then turns the printer into an intelligent one. Like the Epson, the printer does not require a connection to a computer but just to the router/network. The printer has a setting for a URL that you set to be polled at regular intervals and that URL provides the printer with a feed containing the receipt. It appears that Star’s approach makes the receipt-as-an-image approach the preferred option. That way you do not have to worry about font sizes and languages etc.
The above are simple examples aiming to demonstrate what ‘intelligence’ in a printer can do. In practice, intelligent printers can do a lot more than fetching online orders but that is a much bigger topic.
It is worth noting that if we look to the Far East, and China, in particular, intelligent POS printers available used to be difficult to find. However, in recent years their approach appears to have changed and the region now seems to be viewing printers as nothing more than IoT (internet of things) devices. This is why nowadays you will find that the technology they support for their printers tends to be MQTT (MQ Telemetry Transport) which is a messaging protocol aimed for use in unreliable, low-bandwidth environments. It is certainly a technically valid approach, but more complicated than entering a URL or two into your printer’s settings. In any case, it will be worth watching how things develop.
Intelligent POS printers, what they are, how they are used and how things work under the hood, is a continuously evolving area that surely will keep developing. They will, most likely, start playing a more regular role in our everyday lives, whether shopping in a retail environment or ordering within a hospitality one. The opportunities are endless.