Everything you need to know about barcode scanning in one simple guide...
What is a barcode scanner ?
A barcode reader or scanner is an electronic device for reading printed barcodes. Like a flatbed scanner,
it consists of a light source, a lens and a light sensor translating
optical impulses into electrical ones. Additionally, nearly all barcode
readers contain decoder circuitry analyzing the barcodes image
data provided by the sensor and sending the barcodes content to the
scanner's output port.
The first step in finding the right scanner is identifying your specific needs....
What environment will the scanner be used in?
How often will it be used?
What kind of barcodes will you be reading?
Do you need the scanner to be corded or wireless ?
What type of barcodes do you need to read?
If you are looking to read "conventional" 1D barcodes (these are the ones commonly found on most supermarket products you would purchase) then all you need is a 1D barcode scanner. 1D barcode scanners are capable of reading 1D barcodes ONLY. 1D barcodes typically hold a single line of information, such as a part number.
If you are looking to scan 2D barcodes (these are the ones found on advertisement boards or magazine articles for example and look like a square maze), then you will need to look at 2D barcode scanners. 2D barcode scanners are capable of reading both 1D AND 2D barcodes. 2D barcodes are capable of holding multiple lines of information, such as someones name, address, and phone numbers.
Barcode Scan Engines
One of the most important concerns when choosing a suitable scanner
is the type of scan engine it has. This is ultimately dependent on the
type of barcodes that you will be reading and how aggressive you need the scanner to be. There are 3 main types of scan engines:
This is the most well known scanner type. It uses a red diode laser to
read the reflectance of the black and white spaces in a barcode. Laser scanners
are only able to read standard linear (1D) barcodes but are also the
most cost effective option. Standard laser scanners can read from a few
inches to a foot or two away depending on the size of the barcode. Lasers tend to be more accurate in terms of aiming, so if you have barcodes close together this is a real advantage.
Linear imager scanners
are similar to lasers in that they also only read 1D barcodes. But
instead of reading reflected light from the laser, they take a picture
of the barcode. It then analyzes this image to extract the information
from the code. Linear imagers have become a very good replacement for laser scanner as their read
ranges and costs have become similar. A linear imager also does a better
job reading poorly printed or damaged codes compared to lasers. For
applications that need a more aggressive scanner, a linear imager will
be a great fit for the same cost.
2D Area Imagers
Like linear imagers, full 2D imagers also capture an image to analyze.
But compared to the linear only devices, these scanners can read any
type of barcode. 1D, stacked, and 2D barcodes are all supported by a 2D
imager. Another advantage these imagers have is that the orientation of
the barcode isn't important when reading. With lasers and linear
imagers, you have to line up the indicator horizontally across the
barcode. A 2D imager is taking a more detailed image and is more
intelligent, so you can read a code in any direction. This results in
faster reads with less aiming. 2D imagers
can also read barcodes off of any surface including a PC monitor or phone
Once you know what type of scanner you'll need, the next big question
is what form factor the scanner will be. Most of us are familiar with
the basic gun-style and in-counter scanners from retail supermarket stores. There are 4 main form factors for scanners, and each has
advantages depending on your application and how you'll use the scanner.
Handheld scanners are by far the most common form that scanners come in and are
very easy to operate. Simply aim the scanner at the barcode and pull the
trigger. Most models will also offer a stand for hands-free operation. Handheld scanners are also available in cordless form to avoid cable clutter and increase your mobility.
Presentation scanners are designed to sit on a counter-top and don't need to be picked-up or
held. These scanners are made for hands-free operation and don't require triggering to read. Likewise, instead of a single aimer like
handheld scanners, presentation scanners have wide reading areas to
reduce the need for aiming. You'll find these types of scanners at
retail checkouts since it is easy to scan lots of items quickly. Just
present the barcode in front of the scanner and it will read it
are similar to presentation scanners in that you just present the
barcode in front of the reader - however, these are made to be built
into a counter-top. You have probably come across these types of
scanners at supermarkets and self checkouts.Many models also have integrated scales to completely serve a POS lane.
Fixed Position scanners
are a bit more specialised compared to the other types since it is
really meant to be integrated with a larger automated system. These
scanners are made to be mounted on a conveyor line or in a kiosk and do
not have a typical trigger or button to scan. Often, these scanners will
always be on or get triggered by external sensors or controllers. Fixed
position scanners come in a wide range of speeds to accommodate even very high speed assembly lines without any user intervention.
Connectivity - Corded vs. Wireless
Every scanner has to communicate with a PC or terminal device to transmit the barcode
information into the software that you are using. Historically, there
were only corded scanners that connected directly to the PC through a
cable. These are still the most common scanner type and normally
interface with a PC through a USB connection. Serial (RS232), PS/2,
and proprietary terminal connections are also available for many
models. Corded scanners are easy to get up and running and will be your
least expensive option.
Wireless scanners have become more common, as their costs have
become much more affordable. These handheld scanners function the same
way a corded scanner does except that the scanner communicates to a
base station wirelessly. This base station is then connected to your PC
through a cable. Your PC does not need to have any wireless support
since the cradle and scanner handle all of this. Just plug in the
cradle, pair the scanner to the base, and you are ready to start
scanning. It is very easy to replace a corded scanner with a cordless
one since it has no effect on your PC or software.
Some wireless models also offer additional features that
corded scanners don't, such as batch memory modes and direct pairing, without the need for a cradle.
This makes it a perfect match to use with a laptop, tablet, or
smartphone that has built-in Bluetooth capabilities. Cordless scanners
can provide greater mobility and freedom from cable clutter in any
Regardless of the environment that you'll be using your scanner in,
ruggedness is always something to consider. Environment is a big factor,
though you should also consider how the scanner will be used. You may
be in a standard environment but if the scanners are mistreated, a more
rugged option will help save time and money down the road.
Most scanners are designed for daily use in an office or retail
environment. An accidental drop once in a while will be ok. But if you
are using your scanners in a warehouse or outdoor environment, you will
want to consider a ruggedized unit.
The differences between a ruggedized and standard model are quite
drastic. Rugged units are completely sealed against dust and can handle
repeated drops onto concrete. With a rubberized case, they can handle
severe mistreatment. Rugged scanner have a much better IP rating than standard unit. Read more on IP ratings below.
You can always identify a rugged scanner by their bright yellow or red
cases. They may be more expensive, but the time lost when a scanner
breaks and the cost of replacing it quickly balances out the initial
An IP Rating is used to define levels of sealing effectiveness of the barcode scanner against
intrusion from foreign bodies (tools, dirt etc) and moisture. The numbers that follow the "IP" each have a specific meaning. The first indicates
the degree of protection from moving parts, as well as the protection
of circuitry from foreign bodies. The second defines the protection level
that the scanner casing provides from various forms of moisture (drips, sprays, submersion
etc). The below should help make some more sense of it:
First Digit (intrusion protection)
0. No special protection
1. Protection from a large part of the body such as a hand (but
no protection from deliberate access); from solid objects greater than 50mm in
2. Protection against fingers or other object not greater than
80mm in length and 12mm in diameter.
3. Protection from entry by tools, wires etc, with a diameter
of 2.5 mm or more.
4. Protection against solid bodies larger than 1mm (eg fine
5. Protected against dust that may harm equipment.
6. Totally dust tight.
Second Digit (moisture protection)
0. No protection.
1. Protection against condensation.
2. Protection against water droplets deflected up to 15° from
3. Protected against spray up to 60° from vertical.
4. Protected against water spray from all directions.
5. Protection against low pressure water jets (all directions)
6. Protection against string water jets and waves.
7. Protected against temporary immersion.
8. Protected against prolonged effects of immersion under
Do I need any software for my barcode scanner to work ?
Not for basic entry scanning. Gone are the days of dealing with decoder boxes and multiple cables
going everywhere. Simply plug the cable from the scanner into the PC and
you're up and running!
In some circumstances where bespoke
software packages are being used, it would be best to check with us
before purchasing as to whether you will require software.
Is the price of my item in the barcode?
A barcode can hold any type of text information you encode but with
product labels the price is not usually encoded. The barcode will denote
what product it is and your Point of Sale (POS) software or database will have pricing information associated to this.
Finding the Right Scanner
With all the options available for barcode scanners today, it's
important to find the right device for your business needs. Determining
how you will use the scanner and what features you need will make the
decision process easier. If you are still having difficulty or have
additional questions, simply give us a call. We'll be more than happy to