POS Systems Buyers Guide
Point of sale hardware -- input devices
Table of Contents
Keyboards and touch screens
One of the first choices you will have to make about your POS system hardware is whether to go with a touch screen or a programmable keyboard. A good system will support both. Most businesses choose touch screens. The only market where keyboards are more popular is grocery stores, where the ability to program individual keys for specific item codes and prices is appreciated.
Touch screens are more intuitive to use than keyboards for many users. They also provide more flexibility in the user interface and programming. Most touch screens sold these days are based on flat-screen LCDs instead of traditional CRT monitors. While LCD touch screens are slightly more expensive (typically $600 to $1,000 instead of $400 to $500), they last longer, use less electricity, reflect less glare, and take up less space.
Some systems use standard keyboards, while others have POS-specific keyboards, such as the flat-panel membrane keyboards common in fast food outlets. Often, POS keyboards come with built-in magnetic stripe readers for processing credit cards. Programmable keyboards usually go for between $150 and $300.
No matter which you choose, make sure you consider the environment where it will be used. Both keyboards and touch screens are available with varying levels of spill- and dust-proofing.
All scanners work in the same basic manner, reading a bar code and sending the resulting numbers back to the computer. Bar code scanning improves speed and accuracy during checkout. Consider your volume when selecting a scanner.
Entry level scanners are based on charge-coupled device (CCD) technology. These scanners are inexpensive, but usually have a very short range -- the item being scanned needs to be 1 to 3 inches from the scanner.
Laser scanners, which use a beam of light to read bar codes, offer better scanning ability and can scan at longer distances. Some laser scanners are "autosensing," meaning they turn themselves on when an item is placed in front of them, scan the code, and then turn off again. This feature is ideal in specialty retail environments because of their flexibility, accuracy, and ease of use - just grab the tag and scan it.
Omnidirectional scanners send out 15 or 20 lasers simultaneously, letting you scan a bar code from any angle. And the top of the line are embedded scanners, which are omnidirectional scanners that are installed below a counter, as is common in supermarkets.
Choose a scanner based on your customer volume. If you do not usually have more than a customer or two in line, CCDs or entry-level laser scanners should meet your needs. A fairly constant flow of customers might call for an autosensing model, and very high volume businesses should investigate omnidirectional or embedded scanners. Prices range from below $295 for the most basic CCD scanners to $1000 or more for omnidirectional laser scanners.
The latest type of input device is the handheld, wireless terminal. Essentially a PDA, each handheld terminal wirelessly transmits orders back to a base station. A distinct advantage for restaurants is that they increase the amount of time servers spend on the floor taking orders and interacting with customers, because they never have to go back to a terminal to enter orders.
Some buyers prefer write-on handhelds: instead of trying to compress a touch-screen interface onto a tiny PDA screen, these devices allow servers to simply write the orders down. Handwriting recognition software parses the order then sends it on to the kitchen and bar as needed.
Handheld terminals are understandably more expensive than traditional touch-screen order terminals. However, they can make up for the cost by allowing your servers to spend more time upselling desserts and drinks.
New POS features under development include mobile phone and tablet apps. In hospitality these can track wine lists, menus, and sales data all the way to the item level.