Barcode Scanner Buying Guide

Barcodes, machine-readable optical codes, have exploded in popularity since the 1970s, appearing nearly universally on grocery and retail products. More recently, barcodes have been utilized for everything from patient management, to assembly line production, to viral marketing campaigns. With them, barcode scanners, which read and decode barcodes, have become a familiar sight at grocery store and retail checkout counters, and are also used in settings from hospitals to warehouses. Since they are made for different uses, scanners come in many different types and sizes. Choosing the right scanner depends on knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each type, and matching that to the environment where the scanner will be used.

With the wide range of configurations and technologies in barcode scanners, it is possible to find a barcode reader for any use and budget. Small laser scanners are maneuverable and versatile, while a POS terminal might be better served by an in-counter system with a built in scale. While many businesses may only require 1D scanning, newer barcode systems use two dimensional barcodes which can only be read by 2 D scanners. Buyers can also find models with specialized technologies like long distance scanning, ruggedization, or wireless connectivity.

Barcode Scanner Basics
Since the late 1970s, barcodes have quickly become ubiquitous in both retail and industrial settings, often used on packaging to identify SKUs. A barcode scanner is an electronic device which reads barcodes, decoding and transmitting their information to a computer. Barcode scanners, like flatbed scanners, use a light source and a light sensor to gather optical information.

Defining a Barcode
Barcodes are optical representations of data, designed to store information and be read and interpreted by a machine. Early barcodes were formed by a series of vertical lines and gaps of various widths; these linear barcodes, like UPC codes, are found on almost all grocery and retail products today.

1D and 2D Barcodes
While early barcodes were simple one dimensional symbols, many modern barcode systems use two dimensional shapes like squares or dots. These 2D barcodes, such as QR codes and a number of industry-specific standards, can hold much more information per unit area than linear 1D codes. While 2 D scanners can read both 1D and 2D codes, 1D scanners can only read linear codes. For settings which require 2D codes, or might utilize them in the future, make sure to purchase 2D scanners.

Barcode Scanner Technology

Several different scanning technologies are used in barcode readers. Most scanners use laser technology, while other systems offer distinct advantages and disadvantages. With the exception of pen – like wand scanners, all these technologies are used in different scanner forms, from handheld units to stationary POS systems.

Wand Barcode Scanners
Wand scanners, also known as barcode wands or pen scanners, use a light source and sensor embedded in the end of a pen-like instrument. This wand is dragged over the barcode at an even speed, and the reflection from the light is measured to read the barcode. Pen-style readers are simple and inexpensive, making them perfect for small scale settings. However, they are typically slower than other technologies, and are sensitive to user error.

Laser Barcode Scanners
Laser scanners are the most common form of barcode readers, familiar from checkout terminals everywhere. Laser scanners use a laser and photo sensor to measure the reflection off a barcode, and work from a few inches to a few feet away. Laser systems are found in every type of scanner, from portable handheld units to stationary omnidirectional scanners, which can read barcodes from any direction and while moving. While laser scanners are cost-effective and widely available, they only read 1D barcodes, making them inappropriate for some uses.

Image-based Barcode Scanners
Image – based scanners use a video camera to take a picture of a barcode, which is then decoded by the scanner. Since image-based scanners decode a photograph instead of a reflection, they use ambient light and do not require a dedicated light source. Image-based readers can typically read damaged or poorly printed barcodes more easily than wand or laser scanners, making them ideal for environments which require aggressive scanning.

2D Image Scanners
While simple image-based scanners only read 1D barcodes, others are more versatile. 2 D or area scanners are image-based barcode readers which can read any type of barcode; 1D, stacked, or 2D. 2D image-based scanners can read barcodes in any orientation, saving time, and can scan codes off any surface including phone and computer screens. These added features, along with overall high performance, make 2D imagers an ideal fit for many industries, expanding the way that barcodes can be used.

Types of Barcode Scanners
Barcode scanners come in several different form-factors, to fit different settings and needs. While POS terminals might require a stationary scanner and scale, other applications may benefit from the versatility of handheld or wireless scanners.

Handheld Barcode Scanners
Handheld scanners are the most common type of barcode scanner, and are available with laser or image-based technology. Usually employing a standard form factor and pistol grip, handheld scanners are simple to operate; simply aim the scanner at the barcode and pull the trigger. Some handheld scanners are wireless, while others connect via a USB or keyboard port. Many models of handheld scanners come with a stand for hands-free scanning, making them ideal for applications which require versatility.

Wireless Scanners
A variant of the handheld scanner is the wireless or cordless scanner, which operates without a physical connection to a computer. These scanners generally connect via Bluetooth or radio frequency communication, although some use WiFi networks. Wireless scanners reduce clutter and are necessary for some environments where cords could present a safety hazard. Wireless range and battery life vary greatly in wireless scanners based on the technologies used.

Mobile Computer Barcode Scanners
Some wireless scanners are incorporated into mobile computers, providing scanning, decoding, and storage and communication functions in one device. Without the need for separate computer connections, these devices can roam freely, making them ideal for applications like inventory management which require true mobility. Additionally, many smartphones can be used as mobile barcode scanners, using built-in or add-on technologies.

Industrial Scanners
Some handheld scanners are made with increased durability and ruggedness, perfect for industrial uses. Many of these units are shock and water resistant, and some are dust or contaminant proof, making them suitable for outdoor use. Industrial scanners are usually distinguished by their yellow or red cases, rubber housing, and larger size.

Hands-free Barcode Scanners
While many handheld barcode readers are designed to be used with a stationary stand, many applications can benefit from a true hands-free scanner. Stationary scanners, also known as presentation scanners, generally have a larger scanning area and triggerless operation, making them much faster for scanning large numbers of items past a stationary point. This makes them ideal for POS and retail settings.

Omnidirectional Scanners
Omnidirectional scanners use multiple lasers or an image sensor to capture barcodes at any angle and direction. They are designed to scan barcodes as they move, and generally feature triggerless operation. Barcodes are scanned by moving them past the sensor, and their orientation-neutral operation increases scanning speed while decreasing the need for aiming. Omnidirectional scanners come in both 1D and 2D varieties.

In-counter Barcode Scanners
Many hands-free scanners are designed to embed into a countertop. These units often feature omnidirectional sensors and built – in scales, making them ideal for grocery stores and self checkout terminals. In-counter scanners are often the most expensive form of scanner, but offer unmatched functionality for many retail settings.


Evidenced by the ubiquity of barcodes, barcode scanners are an integral part of the modern retail, commercial, and industrial environments. Scanners are used to manage information for checkout, inventory management, and a large number of specialized applications from assembly lines to medical patient management. For these reasons, scanners come in many forms and technologies. Laser scanners are the most common, while image – based scanners and 2D imagers add special functionality. Handheld scanners are used in a wide variety of applications, while POS terminals benefit from dedicated stationary scanners. Buyers can find scanners with special features such as wireless connectivity, ruggedization, and more. With a wide range of options and price points, a little research can help buyers find a scanner that matches their needs exactly.

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