Types of barcodes

Barcodes are around for more than 50 years now and there’s no end in sight. They first gained traction with the use as UPC and EAN codes on products, making supermarket checkouts much faster. Since then a lot of different types of barcodes have been developed.

What is the most common barcode format?

The most commonly used barcode formats are EAN-8, EAN-13, and UPC. You can find these article number barcodes on every retail product. They are defined by the ISO/IEC 15420 standard. Technically they are linear barcodes with multiple widths of lines.

A few years back, you had to use expensive hardware scanners, which used proprietary software from a single vendor. These limitations are gone with the wide availability of cheap smartphones and tablets with cameras and their broad adoption in the industry. With the biggest benefit, that they can run any software. A Barcode Scanner SDK makes it possible to add this feature to your apps and scan many types of barcodes.

One-Dimensional (1D) Barcodes or Linear Barcodes

Different types of linear barcodes

1D Barcodes are the most common types of barcodes we see every day. They are basically used on every product we buy in form of a UPC (Univeral Product Code) or EAN (European Article Numbering).
One-dimensional barcodes can only hold a very limited amount of data. Since they can be detected by optical laser scanners and a lot of this hardware is still around, they are still widespread. That is about to change with mobile scanning solutions like an SDK that can be used in any app to scan lots of types of barcodes.

Code 25

Code-25

Code 25 barcodes contain numbers which are encoded with five lines each. They don’t have a fixed length. But since there are only two different variations of a line (narrow, wide or tall, short) it’s not able to store a lot of data.

Code 128

Code-128 Example

This type of barcode is able to store alphanumeric characters, based on the ASCII standard. It’s defined in the ISO standard ISO/IEC 15417:2007 and also known from the standards GS1-128, UCC-128 or EAN-128.
Since it supports four different widths, the data can be stored much more efficiently.

GS-1

The GS-1 barcode is a sub-standard of Code 128 and was heavily adopted by the industry because it was introduced as a new standard to encode commonly used data together with an identifier. For example expiration dates, lot numbers, serial numbers and so on. The identifier tells you what data follows and it’s even possible to chain multiple kinds of data.

Two-Dimensional (2D) Barcodes or Matrix Codes

Different types of matrix barcodes

Two-dimensional barcodes are made of a grid of „pixels“ which can each have an on (black) or off (white) state. These pixels usually have a fixed width and height. A visual anchor, called a marker or symbology, makes it easier for the reading devices to find the code. You most certainly know the squares in the corners of a QR code. But there are many more patterns in these types of barcodes, like the central squares of the Aztec code or black lines of the Data Matrix code.

PDF417

PDF417 barcode example

PDF417 is a special type of barcode because it’s a two-dimensional stacked barcode with variable line width. This results in a very high data density. Because of the high density, a clean high-resolution print is mandatory. You can store around 2725 numbers or 1850 alphanumerical characters in it. It’s usage today includes paper boarding passes by airlines, machine-readable-zones of driver licenses, visas, id cards and it is also very common in the logistics sector.

Data Matrix

Data Matrix

The Data Matrix barcode was invented in 1987 and became an ISO/IEC standard in 2000. You can store between 6-3116 numbers or 3-2335 alphanumerical characters in it. The printed size can be really small (2.5 x 2.5 mm), which makes it work nicely on small industrial parts. The Data Matrix type of barcode uses a solid black L-shaped border as a marker.

QR Code

QR Code example

The QR code was first introduced in Japan in 1994 and became an ISO/IEC standard in 2000. It took the world in a rush. Because of its markers in the corners and is easy to scan with a mobile phone. This saves a lot of time that was used to enter data in your smartphone. Modern applications of this type of barcode include WiFi credentials, calendar events, business cards or location markers. Making them a perfect use for printed media and advertising.
QR codes can hold a lot of data and are able to store a variable amount of redundant information so that you can read them even if they are partially damaged.

Aztec Code

Aztec Code

The Aztec code is similar to the QR code but has a single marker in the center. It works very well with hardware scanners, where the code isn’t perfectly aligned. The scanner doesn’t even need to see the edge of the code. It will recognize the marker and read the data around it. It proved to be the best solution from all types of barcodes for mobile ticketing, where you display the code on your smartphone to scan it with a hardware scanner.

Other Types of 2D Barcodes

Other 2D barcodes use dots or colored triangles to be more efficient. But these standards are not very common and the industry mainly focuses on the above three.

Biggest benefits in different branches

In general, the biggest advantage is the ability to identify documents, objects or people with a code that can be automatically processed. The error handling and checksums ensure a 100% correct output which is crucial for perfect automation workflows. The speed of scanning is also important when boarding a plane or scanning each package in a logistics company. This process is also known as “automatic identification and data capture“. Also called AIDC.

Logistics

Bill of Lading and Container Ship
  • Track anything from shipments and products to orders and people in the different stages of your company’s workflow
  • Use SSCCs (serial shipping container codes) which are a subset of GS-1 and a standard to identify logistics units.
  • A perfect solution to use the collected data and get an overview of what’s happening and to identify problems early (like late shipments or missing items)

Learn more about mobile scanning in logistics.

Healthcare / Hospitals

Hospital and wristband for patient identification and medication plan with data matrix barcode
  • Widely used to identify patients. Wristbands are a cheap and fail-safe solution and work with many types of barcodes like Code 128 or Aztec
  • Medication management is much more fail-safe with scannable barcodes which can hold a lot of data about the patient.

Learn more about mobile scanning in healthcare.

Airlines

Airport and plane ticket and luggage tags with barcodes
  • Identification tags for luggage often use Code 128 barcodes which cover the whole tag to be easily scanned in any position.
  • The passenger ticket verification with mobile devices is usually implemented as Aztec or QR code, while paper tickets still use the PDF417 standard

Point-of-Sale Management (POS)

local shop that uses membership cards with barcodes to identify customers and price tags with aztec codes to identify products
  • Track fast- or slow-selling items in real-time when they pass the checkout and analyze the performance of your marketing
  • Track seasonal changes and start to predict them with enough data
  • With the use of membership cards, you can identify your customer, create personal profiles and identify patterns in shopping

Types of barcodes comparison

ExampleNameTypeMax. Numerical CharactersMax. Alphanumeric CharactersCommon UsageISO/IEC Certification
Code 25 Barcode ExampleCode 25Lines with two widthsVariableN/AIndustrialISO/IEC 16390
Code 128 Barcode ExampleCode 128Lines with many widthsVariableVariableGeneral Purpose, Product Identification (GS1)ISO/IEC 15417
PDF417 Barcode ExamplePDF417Stacked lines with many widthsVariableVariableLogistics, Ticketing, Driver's License, Visa, ID CardISO/IEC 15438
Data Matrix Barcode ExampleData MatrixPixel matrix with L-shaped border as marker23353116Industrial, HealthcareISO/IEC 16022
QR Code Barcode ExampleQR CodePixel matrix with markers in the corners70894296MarketingISO/IEC 18004
Aztec Barcode ExampleAztecPixel matrix with marker in the center38323067Transportation, Healthcare, LogisticsISO/IEC 24778

These are only a few types or barcodes and their use in the industry. Mobile barcode scanning SDKs enable a wide variety of options in the industrial and private landscape. Modern cross-platform applications make it possible to connect your workflows and be more efficient today.

Get in touch with a solution expert

Let us help you find the best solution for your scanning needs. Our solution expert team is ready to answer questions concerning the functionality, integration, best practices and the flat license model.

Max Stratmann
Chief Sales Officer

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