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How many types of barcode scanners are there?

Laser scanners, imager scanners, or smartphones – Get a full overview for your buying decision

Barcodes are the easiest way to encode large amounts of information in a tiny area. They facilitate processes in transportation, retail, healthcare, and countless other industries. Hence, we encounter them every day on retail products, billboard advertisements, or – since the Covid pandemic – in our digital vaccination certificates. 

Whether one-dimensional barcodes with low data density, such as the popular EAN and UPC codes, or complex, two-dimensional standards like the QR code – everyday professional and private life worldwide relies on barcodes. 

We are all familiar with barcode scanners, too. After all, we see them every day. Whether it’s the classic handheld scanner, permanently installed scanners in supermarket checkouts, or our own smartphone, which can now easily read 1D and 2D barcodes within milliseconds using the built-in camera. 

But what exactly distinguishes these different types of scanners? What are their technical features, where are they used, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Let’s now dive deeper into the matter and compare the 5 most important barcode scanner types. 

1. Pen type readers / Barcode wands: This scanner consists of an LED light and a photodiode attached to the tip. This tip is simply drawn across the barcode. Here, the LED illuminates the black and white bars of 1D-barcodes. As those bars vary in thickness, they reflect a specific light pattern to the photodiode, which sends this information to a barcode decoder. 

Pros:

  • The cheapest option, with prices ranging from $10–80.
  • Robust and durable. 
  • Very compact, because the decoder usually comes separately.

Cons:

  • Requires direct contact with the barcode. 
  • Poor results with damaged codes, low quality prints, or unusual surfaces.
  • Low tolerance regarding scanning speed. 
  • Uncomfortable usage due to its shape and application. 
  • Requires intensive training, especially when scanning long 1D barcodes. 
  • Limited to 1D standards.
  • No direct visual feedback.

Due to its characteristics, pen scanners are common for low-volume use cases in small businesses or in the private sector. 

Their disadvantages, however, make barcode wands unsuitable for high-volume use cases that require precise and fast recognition. Human error can easily lead to faulty data collection, causing millions in annual losses. 

2. CCD barcode scanners (Charged Coupled Device): CCD barcode scanners, also called LED scanners, are common in POS environments. Unlike pen-type scanners, they capture an 1D-barcode in its entire width. For this purpose, the code is illuminated by light-emitting diodes. The code reflects this light onto a line of photodiodes. A decoder then deciphers the bars and gaps of the barcode and thus the contained information. 

CCD scanners work in distances from a few centimeters to about half a meter, depending on LED strength, optics (depth of field), barcode size, and ambient light.

Pros: 

  • Ease-of-use, even for inexperienced users. 
  • Fast barcode recognition. 
  • No moving parts.
  • Relatively high resolution.

Cons:

  • Low reading distance.
  • Limited to 1D standards.
  • No direct visual feedback.

Due to their ease of use, robustness, and accuracy, CCD scanners are perfect for in-store retail applications. 

3. Laser scanner: Laser barcode scanners direct one or more laser beams at the barcode. These beams are guided in a line across the code at high speed via an oscillating mirror, a mirror wheel or other optical systems. Then, the light reflected by the black and white spaces is turned into electrical signals by a photodiode. Finally, a decoder evaluates these signals and transforms them into readable data. 

Pros: 

  • Supports long distances between scanner and barcode.
  • Precise results even under bad lighting conditions.
  • Ease-of-use.
  • High barcode detection speed.

Cons:

  • Susceptibility to malfunction due to moving mechanical components.
  • Limited to 1D standards.

Due to the fast and reliable detection, even under poor lighting conditions and at considerable distances between barcode and scanner, laser scanners are particularly suitable for use cases in the industrial and transport sectors. 

4. Imager barcode scanner: Imagers function more like cameras than the classical scanner types above. Instead of shining a LED or laser at the code to read light reflection, 2D imagers use a built-in camera to take a picture of the barcode. This image is then analyzed using sophisticated digital decoding techniques.

Pros: 

  • Omni-directional scanning.
  • Robust and compact. 
  • Scans 2D codes with high information density. 
  • Works with damaged codes, bad print quality, and uneven surfaces.

Cons:

  • Relatively low 1D resolution (compared to 1D CCD scanners). 
  • Expensive, as the technology is fairly new. 
  • Direct visual feedback is supported on few, highly expensive devices.

5. Smartphone: Today, even standard smartphones can scan barcodes to decode information and thus become cordless scanners with ease. Enterprises can take advantage of this and create mobile apps or web applications to enable a digital workflow based on barcode scanning. Barcode Scanner SDK simplify the development of these apps enormously.

Pros: 

  • Omni-directional scanning.
  • Supports 1D and 2D formats.
  • Direct visual feedback on the device. 
  • Works with partially damaged codes, bad print quality, and poor lighting.
  • Highly cost-efficient.
  • Enables BYOD strategies.
  • Intuitive usage with no training required.

Smartphones are not only more mobile than other scanner types, but they also allow regular updates to adapt to new barcode standards. Especially for scanning 2D barcodes, they offer a cost-effective alternative to imager scanners. Their mobility, flexibility, and direct visual feedback make them suitable for a variety of applications. 

In summary, there is no such thing as the best barcode reader. It all depends on your specific application, device requirements, budget, and scanning volume.

Our experts are happy to discuss your individual use case with you. Together, we can find the best solution for your company. Let’s talk.

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