You can still buy new dot matrix printers. Why?

They have have gone the way of trackballs* and Hercules graphics adapters for most of us, but did you know you can still buy a variety of Dot Matrix Printers down at your local Office Depot? They aren't cheap, either—the lowest-end Epson is $300. They're still used in a lot of places to print out receipts, reports, and forms in systems that haven't been updated since the early '90s. Some stores even have new color dot matrix printers like the picture Okidata Microline 395C, which you can add to your office for just $1,164. (Available exclusively in Nicotine Stain beige.) Is there a good reason you're still using dot matrix printers in your workplace, besides an affection for their cicada-like screams? * Sorry, trackballers, I can't resist an opportunity to tease.
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51 Responses to You can still buy new dot matrix printers. Why?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have a 24 pin dot matrix printer that i bought in the late 90’s and I still you bit today for text printing. ribbon is $7 and paper is even cheaper. Now do that with an ink-jet. Ink is $80 and up. It’s retarded! I’ve gone through 4 ink-jet in as many years. There crap!

  2. jenjen says:

    Another liberrian here. We use em in labelling as others have said but also at the desk for receipts and transit slips because you can just print the amount you need and tear it off. Why waste an entire sheet of paper when you only need two inches for a hold slip?

  3. spazzm says:

    “Also good for real-time printing of log files that only produce a single line once in a while.”

    Folding greenbar wide format paper is great for monthly sales reports, which we need to keep monthly dead tree archives of.

    This has always mystified me: Bureaucrats that think that the safest, most easily re-constructed form of data storage is flammable, non-water resistant, mould-prone, non-searchable, non-formattable, acid-based paper.

    I once worked in a place where certain emails had to be “printed and stored”. That’s the actual quote. No specification of type of paper. No specification of what sort of type of storage.
    Being too curious for my own good, I asked why this was considered necessary when all my emails, in addition to being backed up to disk by me, were stored on two geographically separate RAIDs, backed up hourly to magnetic tape (also two geographically separate) and weekly to optical disk. I received only blank stares as a reply.

    In the end I complied by printing the damn mail and storing it in the recycling bin.

    There are many legitimate uses of printers, ink and paper. Archiving is not one of them.

  4. JustinS says:

    The company I work for manufactures and re-manufactures (recycles) ink and toner cartridges, and ribbon for various printer models.

    These old printers never die. There’s still a robust, if small, market for all sorts of old printers because it really is a better solution in terms of speed and reliability. I’ve seen laser printers blow their fuser or have toner explosions (very colorful) after a few months of heavy usage; I’ve also seen a old greenbar printer print continuously during business hours for more than a year without issue. There’s a huge difference in total cost of ownership after a year.

  5. spazzm says:

    To clarify, the double-redundant mail storage policy was company-wide, not just me.

  6. Reagan says:

    They’re also very very quick to start up – not spooling or waiting. The ambulance corps in my area used to use them to print out run information transmitted from the 911 center. In an emergency you don’t want to be standing around waiting for the laserjet to warm up!

  7. MT_Head says:

    I don’t use one myself, but I still have several clients who use them for multi-part forms and/or logs. Several of the medical laboratory firms still use ‘em to send results directly to doctors’ offices; recently, some of those are moving to laser or LED printers, but the impact printers are a LOT more reliable – they can go for years and years with virtually no attention.

    OkiDoki FTW!

  8. Joe says:

    Thanks for the interesting (and reassuring) article. It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who still uses these types of printers.

    I use mine for printing NCR invoices. In this day and age, you need to cover your proverbial behind, and with NCR invoices, I get signatures in triplicate. The customer reads the fine print that’s on the invoice, signs it, and that’s it. Just try that with a laser or inkjet.

    Newer isn’t necessarily better, and these types of printers prove that point.

  9. muteboy says:

    As mentioned above, logging system messages in factories, connected to a SCADA system.

  10. OneTB says:

    Working in Systems Operations for a university, I used a massive dot matrix to print checks for roughly half of the entire university staff. It was an awful racket but it made my print jobs a breeze.

  11. matt blank says:

    Same here – our shipping departments use these as they work like horses in dirty environments and never ever need supplies (aside from paper). Plus we use the triplicate paper so shipping documents can be sent with the package and a copy for our records. We have ancient software that manages all of this process that runs on windows 2000, and when it works perfectly why bother the expense of upgrading/changing everything that has the added cost of supplies.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I worked at a place where safety was so important that each time someone left the building a sting with the names of all the current occupants was printed. Without the dot matrix we would have went through 50x more paper.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I do IT network support for many car dealerships in my area, they use dot matrix printers for forms that they print from very expensive proprietary software.

  14. LA_Fro says:

    I work in health care and there are a lot of dot matrix printers still in Labs.

    The reason is that in the US all medical lab devices have to be certified by the FDA. When they certify these instruments they are certified with including the OS so any change requires a re-certification which can take upto 6 months. I know of instruments running NT 3.5, old Mac OSes and more than a few with Windows 95 and I guarantee they are not going to get re-certified just to add driver support for newer printers which were not even available when these machines were conceived. Instead they have parallel connectors to generic dot matrix printers.

    Don’t even get me started on the networked ones that have Win 95 without any patches because that is how it was certified.

  15. kerry says:

    My little benchtop cell counter uses a dot matrix printer, but that might have more to do with the fact that we had a spare one lying around and not a requirement. Back when I was in school (about 10 years ago) we used dot matrix printers on most of the instruments in our hospital lab. Now just about everything’s gone electronic, though I do hear that familiar dot matrix noise now and again. More interestingly, our department has at least two typewriters, if not more.

  16. bardfinn says:

    The first hack I ever did was sitting down at a DOS 3.0 workstation, invoking edlin, and using the ALT+Numpad ASCII codes & Ctrl-Z to dump a DOS 3.0 binary program out of my brain into a .exe that sent an arbitrary string to the printer. The scream of that print head still echoes in my mind whenever I conceive of some truly deep coding.

    In plain English: I like the cicadesque harmonies.

  17. mavrc says:

    Man, this brings back memories. I used to work in a casino, and you could bet that anywhere the word “form” was used, there was an impact printer.

    I think they were in constant state of phase-out throughout the whole enterprise, but in back-of-the-house applications, they still ruled the roost. Since damn near all of them are compatible with some Okidata or Epson standard that hasn’t changed since the 80s, you could drop a replacement in at a moment’s notice without doing anything, and get the recieving reciepts or maintenance orders flowing again. Plus, they’re tanks – they run in places like the recieving dock, that’s constantly covered in dust no matter what, where even tough old HP lasers would have given up the ghost long ago.

    Also, they’re really fun to direct filtered log output to. It’s like a little bit of the 70s, right on your desk.

  18. Anonymous says:

    They use dot matrix printers because they have to use NCR triplicate forms.

    Me? I use a trackball because I have no desk space.

  19. Anonymous says:

    why impact printers?

    1. cheap to operate (didn’t i read somewhere in here that printer ink is more expensive than crude oil?)

    2. very fast

    3. can produce a large number of copies of the same document as long as you don’t mind the smear of carbon copies

    4. legacy apps

    5. confidentiality – payslips, for example, can be printed on special sealed 2-ply forms with an inner carbon layer that will print out the impacted text into the inner surface; just use your dot matrix printer without a ribbon.


  20. Anonymous says:

    Trackballs? I use a trackball all the friggin’ time. (Logitech marble mice, all…smooth operation, works great attached to the arm of my recliner at home, ambidextrous.)

    More appropriate would be light pens.

  21. Blackhat says:

    Multi-part forms here too–ours are 6-part shipping documents. Every couple of years we ask if we can switch to something more automated and the shipping department says no. Finally this year there was a serious attempt to go to online FedEx shipment preparation that looked like it was going to get approved but the plan ran into some sort of snag. Oh well, that’s what comes of working for the Gov’t. Glad to hear we can still get new Epsons; sounds like we’ll be using them for a while!

  22. Anonymous says:

    Good times…

    Remember the insane quality improvement when 24 pin print heads started hitting the market?

    And surely I’m not the only one who tried printing a windows document to a dot matrix printer. Once.


  23. Rob Beschizza says:

    Extremely cheap running costs. Especially thermal ones that don’t use ink! But even the ink ones are a fraction of the cost of inkjets and laser printers.

    Newspapers often use them for printing circulation records and bundling and so on.

  24. Rob Beschizza says:

    I remember buying one, in fact — it came with a thermal print head that claimed a billion characters of life before it needed replacement.

  25. Anonymous says:

    +1 multi-part carbon forms.

    Doing the 4500 courier labels 2-4 times a year was always a highlight. The prepaid labels were worth $15-18 AUD each, I’d wrecked 40 or 50 of them with registration issues from our crappy printer before anyone bothered to mention it (and they only mentioned it in passing). Ripped multipart doesn’t come out of gears easily.

    One of my suppliers once rang up in the middle of a print run and asked me “What’s that music you’re playing?”.

  26. Colaroid says:

    I work in a library in Minnesota and we still use these for printing out the labels that go on the outside of periodicals we receive. I believe the reason is that they thing NEVER fails, jams, runs out of ink, etc. I have replaced the ribbon once in the past three years.

  27. Ushao says:

    @44 Crude oil? Try blood! Inkjet ink can cost twice as much per unit as human blood. There’s a place down the street from our printer shop that advertizes $5200 for a gallon of inkjet ink.

  28. Agies says:

    I need something to print my Printshop Deluxe banners with!

  29. Anonymous says:

    Also for printing multiple (carbon) copies. We used to have one that printed a form in triplicate – white, blue & red copy.

    Requires the actual friction/impact.

  30. Randy says:

    Three words – multi-part forms.

    Okay, two words…

  31. kpkpkp says:

    (Hey Randy, beat me to it)

    NCR: No Carbon Required: The ability to print multiple copies in a single pass onto several layers of different colored paper.

    Plenty of legacy application use this and changing the application is much more costly than changing the printer and the warehouse full of preprinted forms.

    Visit the local cable TV company and see what their workorders look like……

  32. OM says:

    “Also good for real-time printing of log files that only produce a single line once in a while.”

    …And unless it’s a plotter, I can’t think of a single inkjet or laser printer that will do a continuous-feed print from a large roll of extremely cheap paper. And even then, most plotters only support plots of no longer than 100″, althought I think there’s some HP units that will do longer ones.

    …You know, the ancient TI Silent 700 would do something like that, but it used thermal paper, and even a 25′ roll was expensive as hell back in the day.

  33. nickfromdc says:

    Also good for real-time printing of log files that only produce a single line once in a while.

  34. jimkirk says:

    I alays though it would be cool to modify the print head mechanism so it could follow the contours of, say, a human body, and print raster tattoos.

  35. Rob Beschizza says:

    The model we had also would start printing instantly, too: you could even use it like a USB typewriter, printing each character as you typed.

    None of the bizarre internal machinations and calibrations that go on inside inkjets before they wake up, or laser printers browning out the national grid as they charge up.

  36. wsycng says:

    I’m sure all the reasons discussed are valid…

    But at a THOUSAND BUCKS?!!

    And what about the NOISE? MERCY.

  37. sparkdale says:

    I used to work for a newswire service, and all newsrooms are hooked up via “the wire”. Everything we sent out was sent out using really primitive technology and printed on dot-matrix printers. The reason was standardization and compatibility issues. Getting every newsroom in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America to switch to a new system would be too costly and a technological disaster. Imagine trying to figure out drivers? Also, they’d print on a roll, meaning you had a steady stream, no seperate pages, no wasted space, and those rolls were transfer paper, so you’d immediately have three copies.

  38. Anonymous says:

    useful on industrial systems that print out line by line so you don’t need to waste an entire page. Also for high volume low quality printing, the ink costs are almost nothing in comparison. No clogged nozzles or messy powder.

    Plus you can load an ENTIRE huge box of paper via the fan-fold system and the printouts neatly stackup (in order forever) on the other side. No humans required for months at a time. The paper is typically thinner and takes up less space in storage.

    For general home use, yes it would suck.

  39. toasterfire says:

    I see a fair amount of dot matrix printers in shipping/receiving rooms, too; workhorse machines that can deal with being kept in a grimy warehouse corner.

    Plus there’s the ability to use spooled paper. Can you still buy that?

  40. Reverend Loki says:

    1) In our offices, the dot matrix tractor-driven workhorses run faster, cheaper and more reliably (if louder) than their inkjet and laser counterparts. In draft mode, anyways, and sure the print quality isn’t as pretty, but that’s not always the needed criteria.

    2) Folding greenbar wide format paper is great for monthly sales reports, which we need to keep monthly dead tree archives of.

    3) As someone has already said, multi-part forms. One multi-part page prints a lot faster than a laser page, and even then the laser would need to print 2 or 3 more pages to catch up. Plus, with multi-part there is more assurance that the info on all copies matches.

    Now admittedly, in this office we have some high-speed, dual path impact printers (no one calls them “dot matrix” anymore, that’s so 80s) that run in the thousands pricewise, but to be fair we also have a nice multifunction Ricoh laser office machine to run it against. Use the impact printers for daily orders, long reports, mostly inter-office things, use the laser for the nice rports, collating, stapling, etc. Use the inkjets pretty much where a disposable printer is needed.

    Asking why anyone would use impact printers anymore when lasers and inkjets are so cheap and pervasive is like asking why anyone would use a plotter anymore. The right tool for the right job.

  41. schmod says:

    The longevity on these things is incredible too.

    Impact printers from Oki and Epson are well-known to last 10-15 years.

    I had to replace one such printer a few years back — I think the one that broke down was nearing 20 years of continuous service. Astonishingly, Oki still produced the same model, making the replacement process surprisingly easy (after an initial nervous panic that we wouldn’t be able to replace the thing)

    The hardest part of the process was finding a new serial-line interface card for the printer to hook up to the DigiBoard.

  42. Marshall says:

    I use them because the sound is the only thing that still gets me off.

    My father worked for Epson and Citizen back in the day, and my house used to be littered with these things, in all shapes and sizes. I had piles and piles of ribbons, so I was using a dot matrix, long,long after they were cool – they worked, and they put text on paper. The best thing about them is when they’d go crazy and break down, just spewing random ASCII garbage onto sheet after spooled sheet. Compared to that inkjet and laser printers are just so damn boring. Who want’s a machine that’s incapable of dying a glorious, melodramatic death.

  43. MrWeeble says:

    We had to buy one a few years back in order to print information (payees and amounts) onto cheques. As they are an impact printer they leave an impression on the paper so even if you lift or dissolve the ink somehow, the original info is still visible so providing evidence of tampering.

    It was a noisy bugger, though not as noisy as the alternatives: I considered getting a daisy-wheel to really annoy the accounts department and force them to switch to online payments but the idea was overruled as being a step too far.

  44. Anonymous says:

    As NickFromDC says – these are good for log files, but not only ones that create a line once in a while.

    As each line is printed as it is generated, it’s great for ‘tamper-proof’ audit logging (erase/change the log file, the hard copy still exists), and better than a sheet-fed printer for this task because there’s much less scope for tampering after the log entry has occurred.

    I have heard (citation needed) that various governmental compliance requirements stipulate a dot-matrix printout for this reason.

    Of course, this all requires the printer to be in a secure room. But you’d probably want that anyway, to avoid going insane from the noise.

  45. Joel Johnson says:

    Impact printer! That’s a new one for me. And an awesome one, at that.

  46. Anonymous says:

    I can testify that Okis are bricks. In one job, I printed around 2000 sheets a week on on (on spool feed) and never had to do anything to it besides keep it fed with paper and ink for 4 years.

    That machine also helped me evangelize the printer dance.


  47. Ushao says:

    I repair these suckers as part of my job servicing printers and I’ll tell you, the longevity, simplicity and economy of these dot matrix printers is better than anything else. We see tons Oki 320’s and they generally only ever need a gear or two replaced or a new printhead every so often. You can’t beat these dot matrix printers for longevity in environments that are excessively grimy and would kill a laser printer in a matter of months.

  48. Maneki Nico says:

    “Is there a good reason you’re still using dot matrix printers in your workplace, besides an affection for their cicada-like screams?”

    Dude, if you’re going to answer your own questions, why do you even ask?


  49. arikol says:

    I worked in an aviation service company where we used a few of these.
    For increased work efficiency we printed out each inbound flight plan to make it easy to visualize the order of inbounds, as well as to change times, re-arrange, and so forth.

    Also for printing outbound flightplans and confirmations for the pilots that the flight plan had been filed. Each flight plan is less than 10 lines long so using this meant very little wasted paper (compared to printing on A4).

    We had separate printers for each major task. One for calculated flight plans which ranged from just under one page to around three pages. Again, having it printed in one stream is just easier for those rhat need to use it.

    Then we got new owners.
    Those thought that anything old was bad and implemented new systems all around the company without any care or thought. We needed to double the workforce.
    Old stuff does not mean bad stuff. Those printers can jam once in a while but it takes a major catastrophe to break them properly.

  50. evildoug says:

    I’m glad you asked that question! I work for an academic library in IT. I just had the occasion to buy 4 new dot matrix printers. I was VERY surprised that they’re still made. Back when I was a young punk rocker and tech goober I worked on these (early 80’s) When I got back into the biz last year I had no clue that I’d be doing this again. Turns out, you need dot matrix printers for printing labels with the ultra expensive (kinda crappy) specialty software we use. Nothing else works. THAT’s why they still make Dot Matrix printers. Or at least a reason.

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