How Do Square’s Card Readers Compare to Competitors?

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square-register-tablet

When it comes to mPOS card readers, functionality and reliability play a big role in choosing quality hardware. Price, features, and overall design can also influence a decision on which mobile payments options to choose. Square has some of the most affordable hardware, and the biggest variety, hands down.

Square started with just a simple magstripe reader — which it offered for free. Most other mPOS solutions followed suit. Today, magstripe readers are still as widely available as ever, but EMV-compliant hardware (card readers that can accept chip cards) are eventually going to take over most, if not all, of the market.

You don’t have to upgrade to an EMV reader yet, but if you’re worried about processing a fraudulent card and getting stuck with the bill, it’s something that should probably be on your radar. At this most, most mPOS solutions also have an EMV option in addition to the free magstripe reader. Some (like Square) have more than one option.

Where is the best value in mPOS hardware? Let’s take a look at how Square stacks up against the most popular card processing options in terms of its hardware. On the list are the following companies:

Read on for our assessments of each company’s hardware, and be sure to check out our full review for each!

Square Hardware

Square has the most options for card readers out of any mobile processor — five of them, in fact. It had a handle on EMV card readers well before most other companies did, a fact that I commend Square for. The company was clearly on the ball when it came to developing and getting its hardware certified (not an easy task considering there’s been a backlog of certification requests for a while).

Something I do want to point out is that some Square merchants have had issues with the company’s EMV readers — either they arrive DOA or they lose their charging capability within a few weeks. For now Square is being pretty good about replacing faulty hardware, and I expect this issue will go away as Square works out the kinks in its hardware.

Basic Magstripe Reader (Free)

square magstripe reader

Square is still handing out free magstripe readers like candy when you open an account. If you wind up needing more, they’re available for $15 each.

Square’s basic magstripe reader is a white square (of course) with the company logo that plugs into your headphone jack. Unlike some other readers, it has nothing to secure it onto the phone while swiping, but the reader is small enough that this really isn’t an issue, either. I’ve rarely heard of anyone having trouble with this particular reader beyond the occasional equipment fails.

EMV/Magstripe Reader ($29) 

Square EMV Reader

A step up from the magstripe reader, the EMV/magstripe reader looks…pretty much exactly like its predecessor, which is a good thing. The biggest difference is that instead of one slot for swiping cards, there’s two slots — one for the chip cards, one for magstripe transactions. Some people might find it a bit frustrating remembering which one is which, but I think overall it’s a short learning curve.

With the added EMV technology, this particular reader requires charging (handled via microUSB port). But the battery is supposed to last at least a full day of heavy use, so recharging mid-sale won’t be an issue.

I really like the price on this reader: $29 is pretty cheap — even for low-volume merchants who might be reluctant to upgrade to more expensive technology. For bigger companies, $30 is nothing compared to the cost of a terminal.

The one (minor) issue is that this reader processes EMV transactions as chip-and-signature, not chip-and-PIN, which is more secure overall. But you can solve that issue for the most part by checking IDs if you are that worried about it. Additionally, most of the EMV cards issued in the US thus far are just chip-and-signature anyway — not all of them support chip-and-PIN.

Square’s site says this reader is currently backordered. So it might take a while for this reader to get to you.

Contactless + Chip Reader ($49)

Square contactless + chip reader

A step up from Square’s EMV/magstripe solution is its EMV/NFC readers, which allows you to accept chip cards and contactless/tap-to-pay options such as Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay. At $49, that’s also pretty affordable considering the cost of most NFC-ready terminals and even some of the other NFC-capable mobile card readers.

These devices are a bit different than most other card readers. For one, it doesn’t have any sort of magstripe capability. (Square includes one of its free magstripe readers in the box, so you’re still covered.) Like most terminals, you insert the entire card into the slot for EMV transactions. For NFC, it’s simply tap-and go.

Again, this reader uses chip-and-signature, not chip-and-PIN technology.

You can use the reader as a handheld device, because it links to your phone via Bluetooth, not your headphone jack. Some people have had issues with the Bluetooth pairing, but so has pretty much everyone who’s ever used some sort of Bluetooth device. There’s also a dock available for an additional $29, which serves as a base for the reader and also as a charging station.

Square is making this hardware option more affordable by offering a finance option — just a dollar a week for 60 weeks. Granted, that means you’re paying an $11 finance charge on a $49 purchase, but if you are really strapped for cash and want the reader, a dollar a week isn’t bad at all.

Square Stand ($99)

square-stand-screenshot

The Square Stand is a clever little register/tablet stand for merchants. It’s compact, it spins, it’s very sleek looking. If you are running Square on your iPad, it’s definitely worth considering getting the Stand to use as a register, especially for $99. (Most tablet stands will cost you AT LEAST that much.)

There’s just one problem: It has only a magstripe reader. Now, that’s not the worst thing in the world. You can get the EMV/magstripe reader, or opt for the EMV/NFC reader, which can sit in the dock and connect to the Square Stand via USB.

I’ll be curious as to whether Square upgrades the stand to at least support EMV, if not contactless payments, at some point in the future, and how much that will affect the price. But for now, the Stand is a good option for a register, and it works with the rest of Square’s equipment.

EMV/NFC Reader – Chip-and-PIN ($129)

Square Miura M010 Card Reader

If you want the maximum data security available, or you want NFC and magstripe capabilities in a single device, Square has one final bit of hardware available: the Miura M010 reader. It’s the only one of Square’s solutions that isn’t made by Square and if the name doesn’t give it away, you’ll be able to tell the moment you look at it.

Miura doesn’t actually offer its own payment processing app. It licenses its products to other companies to resell. The M010 is actually just one of the company’s products.

That said, I really like this little device, even if it works with iOS devices and the Square Stand only. However, it pairs with your phone via Bluetooth and has a magstripe reader integrated with EMV and NFC support. The M010 has a PIN pad for chip-and-pin transactions, but you can also use chip-and-signature. It fits neatly in the palm of your hand without having to balance a phone and steady a reader — but you’re going to want to keep your phone handy to complete the transaction and capture signatures. There’s even a dock available for the reader.

The only thing I don’t like is the price: $129 is more than double the cost of Square’s branded EMV/NFC reader, but I get exactly why it costs so much. It supports three payment methods and has a PIN pad. And if you’re a bit wary of Square’s hardware reliability issues, this is a good option because it’s not made by Square, but Miura, which is licensing the exact same reader to two other companies at the moment. Which, by the way, brings me to the next company in our comparison…

PayPal Here Hardware:

PayPal waited a few years before it decided to get into the mPOS game with the PayPal Here app. Despite that, it’s still right up there with Square as a top choice. Until recently I felt that PayPal actually had the advantage over Square in terms of overall appeal, but lately Square’s been rolling out some interesting features that make it far more competitive.

As far as card readers are concerned, PayPal offers just two options: the free magstripe reader and its EMV/NFC/Magstripe reader.

Magstripe Reader (Free) 

paypal-here-magstripe-reader-screenshot

 

PayPal has recently redesigned it’s free magstripe reader. Originally it was a two-toned blue triangle with an arm that slid down and locked the reader in place. These days it’s just a solid black triangle. It’s roughly the same size — and just as easy to use, even without the handy little stabilizing arm. It retails for $15 if you wind up purchasing it through Staples or another store (you’ll get a credit in your PayPal account).

EMV/NFC/Magstripe Reader ($149) 

PayPal EMV Reader

 

If PayPal’s EMV/NFC/Magstripe card reader looks awfully familiar right now, you’re not crazy — PayPal is indeed using a branded version of the Miura M010. It just happens to match up with PayPal’s color scheme and hardware rather nicely. However, unlike Square’s version, this one works with Android as well as iOS.

I’ve already said that I really like the Miura. It is very easy to use, comfortable to hold, and it has the most advanced, secure payments technologies all wrapped up in one device.

You’ll notice that PayPal’s edition of the M010 is $20 more than what Square is charging. However, PayPal is offering a rebate of $100, which brings the final price to $49 – if you meet the terms for the rebate, which is $3,000 processed in 3 months.

For most mid-sized and bigger merchants, that’s not going to be a problem. It’ll be harder for low-volume merchants and those who only use the app sporadically. And unlike Square, there’s no less-expensive EMV option available.

Unfortunately PayPal doesn’t sell the dock for the Miura reader. But you could just order it from POSportal if you really want it.

Clover Go Hardware

clover-go-mobile-reader

Clover Go is just one of the products that exist as part of the Clover ecosystem. Go is the mobile card reader that can be used with smartphones and tablets.

While it can accept EMV and swiped transactions, the reader itself is somewhat clunky. It’s a giant brick that attaches to your phone via headphone jack and a clamp. It measures roughly 2 by 2.5 inches. The clamp is a nice way to stabilize the reader, but it’s still significantly larger than your typical magstripe reader.

The biggest problem with the Clover system, though, is that the experience varies so wildly from one reseller to the next. The pricing for the hardware varies from just $30 to more than $100, and your processing rates will vary too. If you’re already using a Clover product, it works well for you, and you want to expand to mobile, you should be fine. If you’re not already set on Clover, you might want to consider some other options.

Clover Mobile Hardware

Clover Mobile tablet

If you aren’t a fan of a clunky card reader attaching to your smartphone (I don’t blame you), Clover does have another option. It’s called Clover Mobile and unlike Go, it’s an all-in-one tablet and card reader — no device of your own required.

The Clover Mobile system supports magstripe, EMV, and NFC transactions all in one, with a 7-inch tablet screen. It also supports PIN debit. Clover Mobile even has a front-facing camera and a barcode scanner. And the system works with Clover Station, so you can have a register setup and still serve customers on the go, seamlessly.

I’m never going to call a tablet-only solution truly “mobile friendly” (I consider smartphone compatibility a must). However, this setup works. The tablet is pretty small at 7 inches, and the readers are built in seamlessly so there aren’t weird bits hanging out in different places. You can comfortably hold the tablet in your hand while swiping a card. Clover also sells holsters and stands so you can actually move around with it or keep it stationary as needed. There’s even a portable printer.

However, the price might make you think twice — the Clover Mobile setup will run you $350 to $800 depending on your reseller, and could be more depending on what accessories you opt for. Most of them are only available through Clover resellers, too.

I honestly think this is a better solution than Clover Go — but ouch, that price! It varies so much that Clover Mobile is only ideal if you’re already using Clover and really want a mobile EMV option that integrates with the larger system.

SparkPay Hardware

Spark Pay by Capital One is a genuinely mobile solution, but it also offers you the option for a register setup. It’s not the most robust mobile POS out there but it definitely has solid capabilities and a fair number of integrations.

With Spark Pay you currently have a choice of a free magstripe reader or EMV-compatible terminals. The company currently doesn’t offer an EMV reader for mobile use. If you check the support FAQs, you’ll see that it’s promising an EMV reader by Q1 of 2017.

Magstripe Reader (Free)

Spark Pay Magstripe Reader

Spark Pay will offer you one free magstripe reader to get started. You can purchase more readers for $13 apiece, which puts it right on par with Square and PayPal.

The reader is nothing fancy — it’s a simple, rectangular design with the Spark Pay logo on it. There’s a bit of a lip on the front side that acts as a brace. It connects via headphone jack, but it’s a design we know works.

Terminals (Wired $249/Wireless $619)

Spark Pay terminals

If you need EMV and are running the Spark Pay app from a tablet, you have the option for a wired or wireless terminal, both of which support EMV and NFC. They also both have integrated receipt printers, too. Overall, they’re your standard sized terminals from a well-known name. Nothing to be particularly concerned about here.

The wired terminal (Ingenico iCT220, which we review here) will run you $249, which isn’t bad. However, you’ll need a phone line or ethernet port to connect it. The wireless terminal (Ingenico iWL250) on the other hand means no cables, but it will cost you a pretty penny — 61,900 of them in fact (that’s $619, by the way).

Shopify Hardware

Shopify has expanded from just an eCommerce solution to a full POS with a mobile option. I personally think there’s not much sense in using Shopify for mobile payments unless you’re also selling online (the basic Shopify plan starts at $29/monthly, but there’s also a “Lite” version that’s just $9/month). Unfortunately, the retail setup for Shopify can be pricier than some other solutions if you want multi-user support and hardware. But in exchange, you get a very powerful POS with seamless eCommerce capabilities.

Here again you’ve got a choice of two readers: a standard magstripe reader and a re-branded Miura M010 for EMV.

Magstripe Reader (Free)

shopify-magstripe-reader

Your first magstripe reader is free, but retail price is $19 — that’s slightly higher than the competition, but not by much ($5). It’s nothing fancy — but it does have a rounded design with a lip on the bottom to stabilize it.

EMV Reader ($149 regular/$129 on sale)

shopify-emv-reader

Shopify is currently offering the Miura M010 EMV/NFC reader for $129, but it says list price is $149, putting it on par with PayPal. There aren’t any rebates available through Shopify. However, like Square it does sell the dock for the reader (available for $39). It also works with both Android and iOS.

Intuit GoPayment Hardware

Intuit GoPayment has (surprise surprise!) two card readers. I’m excited that Intuit finally has its EMV reader out; it’s been taking pre-orders for quite a while. Both designs are essentially identical, white with a vibrant green circle. However, the EMV reader has a little LED and a port for charging. I’m going to give points for style — these readers make me happy just looking at them.

Magstripe Reader (Free)

intuit-magstripe-reader

Intuit’s magstripe reader is basic — a simple rectangle that plugs into the headphone port on your phone or tablet. There’s no lip or brace to stabilize it, but it’s small enough that a stabilizer isn’t really necessary.

I really like that Intuit will give you three readers for free. Additional readers are only $9.95 apiece. That in itself is pretty awesome.

EMV Reader ($30)

Intuit GoPayment EMV Reader

Intuit followed the same line of thinking Square did with its EMV reader: The design is essentially identical to its magstripe reader and it has EMV only, no NFC. That’s not a deal breaker. It also means that the EMV reader is only $30, which is a nice price.

PayAnywhere Hardware

The final reader on this list is PayAnywhere. As usual, you can expect a free magstripe reader. The company also offers an EMV/NFC reader. There’s even a tablet system if you want a register setup.

Magstripe Reader (Free) 

PayAnywhere Magstripe Reader

PayAnywhere’s magstripe reader is free, and while PayAnywhere doesn’t publicly disclose how much additional readers are on it website, they are $10.49 on the Staples website ($8 on Amazon, $9.99 at Lowes). Don’t be fooled by the graphics you see on the PA site, either — it’s not that awful, big white clunky reader. I can’t seem to find that for sale anywhere on the web.

The reader that is currently in stock at several retail stores is the PAR-1 model. It’s a sleek little black reader with a rounded top and stabilizing lip. In fact, it looks rather like Shopify’s magstripe reader — which is not an uncommon occurrence in the payments space.

EMV Reader ($39.95) 

PayAnywhere EMV Reader

PayAnywhere brands its EMV/NFC as an “Apple Pay” reader. While that’s true, it frustrates me because it downplays the EMV factor — as well as the fact that it supports other contactless payment methods (Android Pay and Samsung Pay, for example).

But I promise, the reader does accept EMV payments. And for a nice price, too — you can get it for $39.95, which is definitely the cheapest price I’ve seen for an EMV/NFC reader. PayAnywhere and Apple are also teaming up to give you your first $5,000 in Apple Pay transactions free if you buy the reader from an Apple Store.

I’m just not keen on on the actual design. The reader is a big black clunky attachment that clamps onto your phone. It plugs in via headphone jack rather than pairing via Bluetooth. It just feels clumsy to me. I can’t find many other user reviews one way or another about it, though.

Storefront Tablet Stand (Free)

PayAnywhere Storefront Tablet

PayAnywhere is the only mPOS solution that will give you a tablet completely free of charge. There’s a couple of caveats, of course. One: It’s not an iPad. It’s just an unbranded Android tablet. Two: You have to sign up for the Storefront plan, which has a $79 minimum processing fee if you don’t process at LEAST $5,000 in transactions that month.

The stand has an integrated magstripe reader. If you want EMV or NFC, you’ll have to get the PayAnywhere Apple Pay reader.

As I said in our full PayAnywhere review, I’m a bit skeptical of the too-good-to-be-true nature of this offer. The full retail price for the tablet, stand, and register setup is $900. The stand itself appears to be about $200 (PA says the cost of replacing the stand if it’s damaged is $199 plus shipping and handling). Still, if the price is good for you and you’re meeting that monthly minimum volume, this could work.

What’s the Best Value for Card Readers?

Switching payment processors can be a bit of a nightmare, but the EMV liability shift has made it necessary for most merchants to consider what the best — and most affordable — hardware option is. With four card readers ranging from free to $129, Square has something for everyone. But other companies (including PayPal and Shopify) have high-quality options, as well. It really comes down to which company has the right mix of features, pricing, and hardware for your needs. So don’t hesitate to check each one out and see whether it’s right for you!

What’s your experience with mPOS card readers? Which ones were your favorites, and which have you despised? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson is an independent writer and editor who loves e-commerce, digital marketing, technology, and social media. Once upon a time, she earned a journalism degree, but she went on to discover that she could work from home, researching, editing, and writing about the things she found most interesting. When she's not tied to her laptop, Melissa can usually be found in the kitchen, reading a book, or doing something of the nerdy persuasion.
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