Stepping motors can be viewed as electric motors without commutators. Typically, all windings in the motor are part of the stator, and the rotor is either a permanent magnet or, in the case of variable reluctance motors, a toothed block of some magnetically soft material. All of the commutation must be handled externally by the motor controller, and typically, the motors and controllers are designed so that the motor may be held in any fixed position as well as being rotated one way or the other. Most steppers, as they are also known, can be stepped at audio frequencies, allowing them to spin quite quickly, and with an appropriate controller, they may be started and stopped "on a dime" at controlled orientations.
For some applications, there is a choice between using servomotors and stepping motors. Both types of motors offer similar opportunities for precise positioning, but they differ in a number of ways. Servomotors require analog feedback control systems of some type. Typically, this involves a potentiometer to provide feedback about the rotor position, and some mix of circuitry to drive a current through the motor inversely proportional to the difference between the desired position and the current position.
In making a choice between steppers and servos, a number of issues must be considered; which of these will matter depends on the application. For example, the repeatability of positioning done with a stepping motor depends on the geometry of the motor rotor, while the repeatability of positioning done with a servomotor generally depends on the stability of the potentiometer and other analog components in the feedback circuit.
Stepping motors can be used in simple open-loop control systems; these are generally adequate for systems that operate at low accelerations with static loads, but closed loop control may be essential for high accelerations, particularly if they involve variable loads. If a stepper in an open-loop control system is overtorqued, all knowledge of rotor position is lost and the system must be reinitialized; servomotors are not subject to this problem.
Stepping motors are known in German as Schrittmotoren, in French as moteurs pas à pas, and in Spanish as motor paso paso.
Stepping motors come in two varieties, permanent magnet and variable reluctance (there are also hybrid motors, which are indistinguishable from permanent magnet motors from the controller's point of view). Lacking a label on the motor, you can generally tell the two apart by feel when no power is applied. Permanent magnet motors tend to "cog" as you twist the rotor with your fingers, while variable reluctance motors almost spin freely (although they may cog slightly because of residual magnetization in the rotor). You can also distinguish between the two varieties with an ohmmeter. Variable reluctance motors usually have three (sometimes four) windings, with a common return, while permanent magnet motors usually have two independent windings, with or without center taps. Center-tapped windings are used in unipolar permanent magnet motors.
Stepping motors come in a wide range of angular resolution. The coarsest motors typically turn 90 degrees per step, while high resolution permanent magnet motors are commonly able to handle 1.8 or even 0.72 degrees per step. With an appropriate controller, most permanent magnet and hybrid motors can be run in half-steps, and some controllers can handle smaller fractional steps or microsteps.
For both permanent magnet and variable reluctance stepping motors, if just one winding of the motor is energised, the rotor (under no load) will snap to a fixed angle and then hold that angle until the torque exceeds the holding torque of the motor, at which point, the rotor will turn, trying to hold at each successive equilibrium point.