What Is the Difference Between Impact Printers & Non-Impact Printers?

By Carol Finch

Non-impact printers are better at printing graphics and images.
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Impact printers were the original computer printers -- these included models such as daisy wheel, dot matrix and line printers. As print technologies developed, and printing needs became more complex, the industry introduced new non-impact models that changed the way that printers worked. These included inkjets, laser and thermal products. The primary difference between impact and non-impact printers is the print mechanism itself, but there are also differences in quality, features, usage and cost.

Print Mechanisms

Impact and non-impact printers get ink onto paper using different techniques. Impact printers work in a similar way to old-fashioned manual typewriters. They all need physical contact with paper to print; characters are struck onto the page when a pin or hammer hits the ink mechanism. Non-impact printers do not need to physically strike ink onto paper. Inkjet printers spray ink onto the page, laser printers use an electrostatic charge, and thermal printers use a heat transfer process. These different methods of operation may also affect noise and print speed -- the impact printer's mechanism can be a lot noisier, and sometimes slower, than a non-impact model.

Print Quality and Features

The original goal of impact printers was to simply print characters onto a page; the industry at that time had fewer options and requirements. Users often measured quality by whether a printer had a high enough resolution to print a formal letter. Impact printers typically have no, or limited, options for different fonts, colors and graphics, and print quality may be low. Non-impact printers, however, come with more features. Today's models can print exactly what appears on a computer screen at a high quality.

Batch Printing and Carbon Copies

Impact printers remain popular with some users because they can fulfill certain needs better than non-impact products. A line printer, for example, can batch print using continuous-form paper rather than individual sheets. This allows a printer to run unattended, printing in bulk reliably for long periods. Impact printers can also print carbon copies and multipart forms, as the strike of the pin or hammer carries through from the top copy to those underneath. This is not possible with non-impact products as they do not physically touch the paper with any force.

Printer Costs and Reliability

Impact printers tend to be cheaper to run than non-impact models. They use less complex consumables and have fewer mechanical parts, so may be less prone to breaking down. Non-impact printers typically cost more to run, especially if you print pages that are heavy in color, graphics, images and photos. The printer itself may not cost a lot, but its inks and toner cartridges can be expensive. Thermal printers also require specialty paper.