by Ted Needleman
Magnetic ink character recognition printing software - better known as MICR - addresses some major pain points for accounting professionals by enabling them to just print their own firms’ checks and to print payroll or accounts receivable checks for clients. Keeping track of pre-printed check stock is the pain, and the more types of checks that you need to print, the greater the inconvenience.
MICR printing lets you use blank safety stock, as it prints the entire check, including the signatures if you wish, in one pass through the printer. In fact, you could probably print the check on plain paper, except that safety stock makes it much more difficult to alter a printed check. This capability lets you use the same check stock for all of your clients, and for all of your check printing needs.
In turn, this can save you big bucks on pre-printed checks, and eliminate the hassle of managing different checks for various clients.
To some extent, MICR has become mainstream. Many of the top payroll programs include MICR check printing capabilities as a standard feature or as an add-in option. Other check producing applications, such as accounts payable, also offer MICR capabilities.
However, the MICR applications offered as options with other types of software may be very expensive, or not well implemented. That leaves room for the vendors reviewed here.
When MICR was originally developed in the 1950s, magnetic ink was a new technology, and banks, clearing houses and the Federal Reserve system made huge investments in technology to accommodate the automated clearing and routing system. The magnetic check readers used in this process are expensive, and many banks are loath to replace any equipment that still works.
At the same time, the current state of the art is optical, not magnetic. Optical check readers are easier to maintain, more accurate and faster. They are, unfortunately, also expensive, so banks are replacing the old magnetic check readers with optical units only as budgets permit, and needs dictate.
Whether optical or magnetic readers are used in a particular bank, the MICR line itself is still the same. It contains routing and transit numbers, and account information for the checking account that will be charged for the check.
The check number and amount is keyed onto the MICR line as the check is processed, not when it is generated. The MICR font and special character set is well defined, as is the placement and positioning of these characters on the check. As long as these definitions are followed, an optical reader will accurately read a correctly generated check.
For magnetic readers, the toner must have a specified degree of magnetism. Standard laser toner may provide this degree, since it is made from powered iron oxide in a plastic binder. Special MICR toner, however, is guaranteed by the vendor to provide the magnetic characteristics necessary to be read by a magnetic reader.
The acronym, magnetic ink character recognition, pretty much spells out why this technology hasn’t really taken off. The character recognition is not the problem. Today’s graphic-oriented computers and printers have no trouble whatsoever printing the unique fonts that the MICR application requires.
It’s the “magnetic ink” part of the equation that’s the problem. Many small firms and clients simply don’t want to have to go out and buy a new laser printer just so they can find the requisite magnetic ink toner cartridges for it. To a large extent, off-the-shelf magnetic ink cartridges are limited to just a few mainstream (and expensive) laser printers.
If you are thinking of using a personal laser printer in the $200-to-$300 price range, your options are much more limited However, Productivity Systems, the vendor of the VersaCheck products, does offer a line of MICR toner cartridges for lower-cost laser printers.
One solution is to forgo using special magnetic ink altogether. The Federal Reserve clearinghouses have widely switched to optical check reading machines, which don’t care whether the ink on the check is magnetic. Plain laser toner or inkjet ink works fine.
Many major bank chains have also replaced their magnetic check reading systems with optical ones. Optical systems are the better choice, as they are easier to calibrate, need less ongoing adjustment, and are much less prone to misreading the check.
Unfortunately, many smaller local banks have yet to switch. New equipment is expensive, and if the older MICR readers still do the job, most banks will put off changing for as long as possible. That could be costly to businesses whose checks are not printed with magnetic ink, when they need to clear checks through a local branch not set up for optical check reading.
You can check with the manager of your branch to see if the branch (and the bank as a whole) has switched to optical equipment. Even if they have, you can still wind up getting nailed if the checks have to pass through other banks and branches that don’t have optical readers.
Eventually, the entire check-clearing path will be optical. Until you are sure, there are two approaches to take. If the number of checks you need to print is relatively small, consider magnetic inkjet ink. This is a relatively new development, and the industry has mixed opinions on how effective these replacement cartridges are.
We tested checks produced with the VersaInk magnetic ink inkjet cartridge with several local retail stores that use magnetic check readers. This cartridge is available for numerous inkjet printer models, and has magnetic particles that are suspended in the ink, giving normally nonmagnetic inkjet ink magnetic characteristics.
Another approach is to find a local toner refill provider who can refill the cartridge for your specific laser printer with magnetic toner. Some refill companies will provide this service; although, if the refiller doesn’t get a lot of call for MICR toner, they are unlikely to stock it just for you.
How we tested
Special hardware is not needed to run MICR check printing software, except for an appropriate printer. Hewlett-Packard’s LaserJet printers are still among the most highly supported by suppliers of MICR toner, and we printed our test checks on an old LJ4 that we still use occasionally. Test checks were printed with blank amounts, and were used in local retail stores which rely on magnetic check readers, since the two local banks that we use have both moved to optical check reading equipment.
When a particular package required an accounting software package, we installed either QuickBooks or Peachtree Accounting for Windows as suggested by the vendor. If a particular vendor provided safety paper, we used that for our testing. Check stock is easily found these days at most computer and office supply stores.
At just about $3,000, AcuPrint’s SecureCheck nX2 was the most expensive MICR application in the roundup. SecureCheck nX2 is a relatively new product and a major revision to the vendor’s Secure-Check check printing system. AcuPrint is one of the best-known companies in the MICR market.
SecureCheck nX2 is a software and hardware combination. MICR check printing, especially if it also includes the capability of printing a digitized signature directly onto the check, can leave you and your clients very vulnerable. With SecureCheck nX2, a special hardware board is fitted into the printer.
This board actually stores the digitized image of the check, MICR line information (including the transit, routing and account numbers), and any signatures. The software creates the rest of the check (payee, date and amount), and encrypts the data before transmitting it to the printer. At the printer, the data for the checks is decrypted, matched with the appropriate check image and printed.
This makes SecureCheck very secure. By restricting access to the printer that contains the firmware board, or even removing this card from the printer when not actually printing checks, you can restrict any unauthorized access to someone who might otherwise try to print checks.
SecureCheck nX2 is browser based, which makes it easy to use over a company network, or from anywhere for that matter. AcuPrint has greatly improved the installation, setup and configuration over the past year. You must, however, give yourself some time to perform this with your client (or in-house), as certain files need to be sent to AcuPrint for them to complete the configuration process. This precluded us from actually producing testable checks, though we did print out samples and inspect them with a MICR gauge for accuracy.
Because of the required firmware card, SecureCheck nX2 is restricted to working with specific laser printers. AcuPrint continually updates this list, but currently, only certain H-P Laser Jet models are supported.
Other hardware requirements are less restrictive, and SecureCheck nX2 will be useable on just about any contemporary PC. SecureCheck nX2 does not come in accounting-software-specific versions. Instead, you simply install a special printer driver in your accounting application and print checks to this driver. This, in turn, invokes SecureCheck nX2, encrypts the data stream and produces the MICR checks on the printer. SecureCheck nX2 is also the most comprehensive product in the roundup when it comes to compatible operating systems - it works with the Windows, DOS, IBM’s AS/400, VAX, Unix and Pick operating systems.
While SecureCheck nX2 is the most expensive MICR product reviewed here, it’s also the most appropriate one for larger and geographically dispersed clients. But, the enhanced security capabilities require more time getting it configured and running.
MICR doesn’t have to be expensive. While many of the applications that we tested are designed for high volumes of check printing and multiple clients, and permit micro-fine MICR line positioning, it is possible to produce MICR checks on a budget. At just under $20, CheckMagic lets you produce MICR checks from Quicken or QuickBooks.
In fact, the $19 version of the software will support up to 10 different checking accounts. That makes it perfect if you just want to try MICR printing with your firm or a single client. Many businesses need multiple checking accounts, and may have separate accounts for accounts payable, payroll and general office expense. With CheckMagic, it’s easy to generate complete checks directly from QuickBooks.
CheckMagic also offers a $69 “professional” version that handles up to 999 checking accounts.
The CheckMagic reviewed here came on a CD. The software is Windows based, and needs Win 95/98/ME or Windows XP. As with past versions, installation and setup is very quick and easy, and prints out a short booklet of documentation as part of the installation routine. As with the previous version, you can print from Quicken/QuickBooks, print hand checks from CheckMagic without using the Intuit software, or print blank checks (with the MICR line) that can be filled in by hand at a later time.
Considering its price, CheckMagic is surprisingly good. It’s not appropriate for use with a large number of your clients, but even if you don’t anticipate using CheckMagic frequently, having it in a drawer, along with a supply of blank safety paper and a MICR toner cartridge (or magnetic ink cartridge for your inkjet printer) can save your bacon if you run out of pre-printed check stock for your firm or a client.
If you need a midrange MICR application in a hurry, consider CheckMaster2002. You can purchase it online, download it, and be up and running in less than a half-hour. If you’d prefer, the company can mail you a CD (which is what we tested), but you get the same software and PDF manual regardless of how it is delivered.
The documentation even includes a MICR gauge, though it needs to be printed out on transparency material. We measured the printed-out gauge against one that was supplied with the Trans Micro package, and both appeared pretty much identical.
We tested the single-user CheckMaster2002 version designed to be used with QuickBooks. CheckMaster also has versions that interface with Peachtree, a universal package, and even a version that can be used in a check printing business, by printing custom checks for clients to use in-house. The software is affordable, starting at $359 for the single-user version.
Multiple-user licenses are available in five-user and 10-user versions, all of which handle an unlimited number of bank accounts. There’s a personal version available as well, so you can have an emergency backup in case you ever run out of printed checks and have forgotten to order more.
Setup is straightforward and quick. The screens are pretty plain, but nicely laid out and you won’t have difficulty figuring out what goes where. As with pretty much all the other MICR applications that we reviewed, it’s not difficult to add your own graphics, and there are more than 60 different pre-defined check layouts, so you won’t have any difficulty using blank safety paper from alternate sources.
Graphic components include logos and single or multiple signature lines. As with most of the other applications we tested, it’s easy to generate hand and blank checks, as well as deposit slips.
CheckMaster2002 doesn’t provide a lot of glitz. It is a nicely thought out and implemented - and affordable - system.
Piracle, which was known as Create-A-Check for years, is one of the better-known vendors in the MICR market. Its high-end products are used along with enterprise-level accounting applications from numerous vendors. Create-A-Check LE is it’s more affordable market entry.
Piracle doesn’t publish list prices, preferring to quote directly depending upon what you need. Our quote for the single-user version was $695, though it might run you more if you add options, want fancy graphics or opt for a two-user license.
At this base price, you can manage up to 10 checking accounts, so the version that we tested is essentially a single-company product. You can get a version of Create-A-Check LE that will handle 25 or 50 accounts, so you may not need to look at the more upscale version to accommodate a few clients.
If you want more capability, Piracle also has an enterprise version of the software, Create-A-Check RT, which is appropriate for large companies, or firms that want to provide check printing for their clients. As with the “LE” version, prices are quoted on a per-case basis.
Create-A-Check LE does not have many security options, but unlike AcuPrint’s SecureCheck, it does not require (or even offer) a hardware component. This reduces the total level of security by a bit, but it also makes Create-A-Check LE compatible with any printer that uses magnetic toner or ink. To offset the lack of a hardware printer board, Create-A-Check encrypts all data and requires extensive password security.
Piracle has been in the business for some time, and as a result, supports most mid-market accounting applications. If you are printing checks for more than one client, or for both your firm and clients, you may have to purchase and configure Create-A-Check with drivers for the different accounting applications.
Piracle is not a “see-and-forget” kind of vendor. In addition to the software, it is one of the more proactive vendors when it comes to support. You’ll have to pay for maintenance but, as part of this package, you send test checks to Piracle on a regular basis. They will examine each submission for accuracy, and if there is any problem, advise you on what to do.
VersaCheck Platinum 2003
G7 Productivity Systems Inc.
If you’ve run out of checks, and forgotten to order replacements, don’t panic. Just go to an office supply or computer store for a copy of G7 Productivity Systems’ VersaCheck Platinum 2003. The VersaCheck line is the only MICR check printing application that you can buy at retail. That’s both its strength and its weakness. The weakness is that even the higher-end Platinum 2003 that we tested is not really an industrial-strength MICR application. You can use it with Quicken, QuickBooks and Microsoft Money, but it’s not really designed for an easy interface with any other accounting application unless they can output a check file in the Intuit QIF format.
Having pointed that out, we’ll also say that VersaCheck Platinum 2003 will let you create a check that’s every bit as good looking as any of the “custom” check designs that you see in the check printing advertisements and catalogs of check designs. G7 Productivity Systems provides you with a large selection of clip art and other graphics, as well as one of the easiest-to-use check designers we’ve ever encountered. Your small business clients will love the kinds of checks that they can produce. The VersaCheck Platinum 2003 package comes with a very large selection of different check designs and even blank deposit slips, though there’s not a lot of any particular design. Once you decide on the check stock, it’s easy to find replacement safety stock at the same store where you purchased the software, or at the vendor’s Web site.
We really liked VersaCheck Platinum 2003’s interface, and found the application among the easiest to set up and use. Other G7 products include American Checkbooks software, which lets you create take-along checkbooks, just like the ones that banks supply. You can use the Platinum 2003 application along with American Checkbooks to produce more business-oriented, pocket-sized checkbooks. Platinum 2003 also can maintain a computerized check register and generate other forms, such as invoices.
As with the inexpensive CheckMagic, VersaCheck Platinum may not be a solution for a high-volume check printing office. It’s perfect, however, as an emergency backup. Pair it with one of G7 Productivity Systems’ VersaInk MICR magnetic inject cartridges, and you’ll never have to fear running out of check stock.
Check Factory v. 2
It’s been a few years since Trans-Micro made a major upgrade on Check Factory. That’s not laziness but rather the old “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. Check Factory is certainly “not broke.”
Trans-Micro is one of the original vendors in the industry, and Check Factory v. 2 is mature and polished. Even though the release number hasn’t changed in several years, Trans-Micro does update and improve the software on the fly. If you have an older version, be sure that you check their Web site for what changes have been made and what features have been added since the last time you upgraded. Versions are available in DOS, so if you have clients that still haven’t made the switch to Windows, they can also enjoy the benefits of MICR check printing.
Unlike many of the other vendors, Trans-Micro doesn’t offer a “universal,” one-size-fits-all version. You must use a specific accounting program, and order the associated version of the software. This greatly simplifies installation, especially with some of the higher-end accounting applications, as Trans-Micro does the lion’s share of the configuration for you.
Check Factory is available for all of the major accounting packages, and a complete list of applications that are supported is posted on Trans-Micro’s Web site. We tested the version that works with Intuit’s Quicken or QuickBooks.
The user manual, provided in a printed binder, is an excellent resource. Our review software also came with a transparent MICR guide to be used for checking the positioning and alignment of the printout. Except for having to use floppy diskettes, we found setting up pretty easy, and the manual walked us through the process step by step. The PC that we used for testing does not have a floppy drive, so we had to use an external USB drive to perform the installation.
The manual is also very helpful if you want to print a check that’s a bit fancier than the default layout. You can design as sophisticated a layout as you or your clients need, with multiple signature lines, graphics and even default signatures. If your checks use stored digitized signatures, you’ll want to implement Check Factory’s excellent security features, and as the manual suggests, remove the sections of the documentation that deal with the software’s security functions if the binder will be generally accessible.
Check Factory’s price varies according to which accounting application it is used with. We tested a single-user configuration that handles up to five checking accounts and is priced $299 - a very good value.
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