Impact printers are the oldest print technologies still in active production. Some of the largest printer vendors continue to manufacture, market, and support impact printers, parts, and supplies. Impact printers are most functional in specialized environments where low-cost printing is essential. The three most common forms of impact printers are dot-matrix, daisy-wheel, and line printers.
The technology behind dot-matrix printing is quite simple. The paper is pressed against a drum (a rubber-coated cylinder) and is intermittently pulled forward as printing progresses. The electromagnetically-driven printhead moves across the paper and strikes the printer ribbon situated between the paper and printhead pin. The impact of the printhead against the printer ribbon imprints ink dots on the paper which form human-readable characters.
Dot-matrix printers vary in print resolution and overall quality with either 9 or 24-pin printheads. The more pins per inch, the higher the print resolution. Most dot-matrix printers have a maximum resolution around 240 dpi (dots per inch). While this resolution is not as high as those possible in laser or inkjet printers, there is one distinct advantage to dot-matrix (or any form of impact) printing. Because the printhead must strike the surface of the paper with enough force to transfer ink from a ribbon onto the page, it is ideal for environments that must produce carbon copies through the use of special multi-part documents. These documents have carbon (or other pressure-sensitive material) on the underside and create a mark on the sheet underneath when pressure is applied. Retailers and small businesses often use carbon copies as receipts or bills of sale.
If you have ever seen or worked with a manual typewriter before, then you understand the technological concept behind daisy-wheel printers. These printers have printheads composed of metallic or plastic wheels cut into petals. Each petal has the form of a letter (in capital and lower-case), number, or punctuation mark on it. When the petal is struck against the printer ribbon, the resulting shape forces ink onto the paper. Daisy-wheel printers are loud and slow. They cannot print graphics, and cannot change fonts unless the print wheel is physically replaced. With the advent of laser printers, daisy-wheel printers are generally not used in modern computing environments.
Another type of impact printer somewhat similar to the daisy-wheel is the line printer. However, instead of a print wheel, line printers have a mechanism that allows multiple characters to be simultaneously printed on the same line. The mechanism may use a large spinning print drum or a looped print chain. As the drum or chain are rotated over the paper's surface, electromechanical hammers behind the paper push the paper (along with a ribbon) onto the surface of the drum or chain, marking the paper with the shape of the character on the drum or chain.
Because of the nature of the print mechanism, line printers are much faster than dot-matrix or daisy-wheel printers; however, they tend to be quite loud, have limited multi-font capability, and often produce lower print quality than more recent printing technologies.
Because line printers are used for their speed, they use special tractor-fed paper with pre-punched holes along each side. This arrangement makes continuous unattended high-speed printing possible, with stops only required when a box of paper runs out.
Of all the printer types, however, impact printers have relatively low consumable costs. Ink ribbons and paper are the primary recurring costs for impact printers. Some Impact printers (usually line and dot-matrix printers) require tractor-fed paper, which can increase the costs of operation somewhat.