Is a POS Machine Just a Computer?

The answer to the question “is a point of sale machine just a computer” is both yes and no. All point of sale systems run off computers that we are largely familiar with – most commonly PCs but in some cases Macs as well. Large retail establishments may run their terminals as “dumb” terminals connected to back office large network servers where most of the processing is done. But they can still be considered “computers”. It is really software that defines a POS system. And unlike the computers that most of us use, many POS systems use touch screen monitors to eliminate the need for a mouse or keyboard. POS system computers also frequently connect to devices that we wouldn’t use at home – magnetic stripe readers to process credit cards, specialized receipt printers, pole displays to show customers what they are being charged, cash drawers that only open when a sale is complete, and bar code scanners that can scan in products based on their bar code.

All these devices run off the ports that are common to PCs – serial ports, parallel (printer) ports and USB ports. But they typically require specific configurations to work – they are not all “plug and play”. The software that runs your POS also handles the configuration for these other devices, and depending on the software can do many other things as well. The point of sale industry, in conjunction with the largest hardware and software companies, including Microsoft, IBM and Sun, have been working to establish standards that all POS software vendors can adopt so that there is some uniformity in the industry. More information about POS software can be found by reading this doc “what is POS software”

Devices called electronic cash registers (ECR) still exist and are in use across a variety of smaller businesses that don’t need all the functionality of a POS system. These are still “computers” with a variety of functionality, but are largely proprietary machines that need to be programmed by the vendor. If your business closes you can always convert your POS system to a home computer, but you will have no use for your electronic cash register!

So if you have a computer and can get access to POS software you can install it and see how it works. This will give you an understanding of what is involved in configuring it for your business. Many vendors offer demo copies or full-fledged versions good for a limited time of their software to get acquainted with it. If you are new to POS, this may be a good route to go.

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