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Find the best Credit Card Readers for your business

MSR Credit Card Readers Buying Guide

What is an MSR?

MSR stands for Magnetic Stripe Reader, i.e. credit card reader, swipe reader, swiper, etc. An MSR is designed to read the black magnetic stripe on the back of a credit card or gift card. MSRs can be built into POS keyboards, attached to touchscreen monitors, or designed as stand-alone units.

  • Magtek MSR Centurion/Dynamag
  • ID Tech Versa Keyboard with MSR

How Does an MSR Work?

  • Magnetic stripes have three “tracks,” which are sections of the stripe where information is stored. A typical Visa or Mastercard, for example, uses only the first two tracks and leaves the third track blank.
  • When a card is swiped through a reader, a magnetic sensor picks up the whole stripe, all three tracks. It then determines which tracks contain the relevant information, then sends the data to the computer.
  • When the reader sends data to the computer, it can use one of two methods to do so:
  • Keyboard Emulation – Older MSRs used a connector called a PS/2 connector. This uses a split-part cable where one part goes to a PS/2 keyboard, and the other goes the computer. Also called “keyboard wedge,” the PS/2 connectors used keyboard language to speak to the computer. Since newer computers come without PS/2 ports, USB stripe readers are designed to speak the same keyboard language, emulating a keyboard by reading the data and transmitting it to the computer in the form of keystrokes. Thus, the term “keyboard emulation” is used to refer to such readers.
  • HID-Mode – While most USB stripe readers come with keyboard emulation by default, some of Magtek's readers use Human Interface Device (HID) drivers instead. These readers are designed to use a specialized driver, such as an OPOS driver, instead of the normal keyboard emulation.
  • PS/2 Keyboard Wedge Interface CablePS/2 Keyboard Wedge Interface Cable

Common MSR Features

  • Single-head vs. dual-head – Most MSRs are single-head readers, with one sensor to read magnetic stripe data. This means that whenever you swipe a card, you must turn the card so the stripe is facing the appropriate direction. Some MSRs are available in dual-head versions which means you can swipe from either side.
  • Gift Cards – A reader designed to read all three tracks can also be used to run gift cards. Gift cards usually store their information on tracks 2 and 3, so special configurations may be necessary in some cases. The stripes on a gift card do not usually store the same information as a credit card, but the reader will read anything with a stripe.
  • Encryption – Some readers are now available with a special type of encryption to meet security standards of the Payment Card Industry (PCI). These readers are sold with a “KSID” key (or other type of secure key) specific to the customer or the processor/POS system.
  • Keyboards/Touchscreens – Some keyboards and touchscreen monitors have MSRs built into them. These readers usually do not function any differently than their stand-alone counterparts, but with the added convenience of having the reader attached to something useful, saving a bit of space and Velcro.

Common Magnetic Stripe Readers

  • Magtek
  • Keyboard Emulation Readers
  • 21073062 – Magtek's current-model keyboard-emulation reader, also called the Dynamag (or Centurion, its previous name). Single-head reader, reads all 3 tracks, detachable USB cable. Track selection and HID Mode can be configured using a utility available from Magtek's website.
  • 21040145 (newer) and 21040108 (older) – Magtek's older keyboard-emulation readers, also called the MiniMag series. Single-head readers, read all 3 tracks, hard-wired USB cable. Track selection and HID mode can be configured using a utility available from Magtek's website.
  • HID-Mode Readers
  • 21073075 – Magtek's current-model HID-mode reader, also called the Dynamag (or Centurion, its previous name). Single-head reader, reads all 3 tracks, detachable USB cable. Also available with encryption in the form of a KSID key, which needs to be specified at time of order. Track selection can be configured using a utility available from Magtek's website.
  • ID Tech
  • Keyboard Emulation Readers
  • IDMB-334133 – ID Tech's current-model keyboard-emulation reader. Single-head reader, reads all 3 tracks, hard-wired USB cable. Choice of white or black color. Track selection and other settings can be configured using a utility available from ID Tech's Website. Also available in 2-track version (IDMB-334112).
  • VersaKey Series – ID Tech's POS Keyboards with integrated MSRs. Available in several different sizes and configurations, the MSR is always a 2-track or 3-track keyboard-emulation reader. Available in PS/2 or USB.
  • Elo
  • Touch Monitors – Monitors such as the 1515L, 1529L, 1715L, 1729L, etc. use an integrated 3-track Magtek reader similar to model 21040145. Usually set to keyboard emulation by default, it can be configured to HID mode or select tracks using utilities available from Elo's website.
  • Touch Computers – Elo's B-series, D-series, and R-series computers use integrated 3-track ID Tech readers similar to model IDMB-334133. Keyboard emulation only, tracks and other settings can be configured using a utility available from Elo's website.