Is a Barcode Scanner or Mobile Computer the Best Fit?

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A comparison of capabilities and functions for every type of barcode reader and mobile computer.

Barcodes have come a long way from their first retail use on a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum in the 1970s. They are now nearly ubiquitous, used in healthcare on patient wristbands and medications; in warehousing for shipping and receiving; in travel for processing tickets and coupons; and they’ve become commonplace for sharing information via smartphones and tablets. Both basic barcode scanners and more complex mobile computers can be used to read barcodes, in order to help business owners remain efficient and effective when tracking their products.


Related Article: Why Use 2D Barcodes

There are many types of barcode scanners and systems, Bluetooth or wireless barcode scanners, laser scanners, omnidirectional scanners and more. There are also various types of mobile computers, the capabilities of which allow for greater productivity and flexibility. Depending on your industry, you may only need one of these two increasingly common barcode reading technologies. There are subtle but marked differences between them.

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First, what is a barcode?

In order to understand the function of your barcode scanning device, we must first understand what a barcode does. A barcode is a visual pattern encoded with information that a machine can read.  You are likely familiar with both linear (one dimensional, traditional barcodes consisting of “picket fence” style lines) and 2D barcodes (such as square QR codes). Barcodes can hold any text information you encode, though linear barcodes only hold one type of information, such as an identifying number to find the product, while 2D barcodes are complex enough to tell you the product’s price, quantity and more.

Barcodes are read by scanners (though 2D barcodes require an imager scanner) which translate the pattern into an electronic code that is sent to a computer for further processing and information. This is how retailers get pricing, inventory and other data from a linear barcode.

When used properly, barcode scanners greatly reduce inventory tracking mistakes: The best readers make approximately one mistake per 70 million pieces of scanned information, compared to one error per every 100 characters typed by humans, on average. That kind of reduction can do wonders for the bottom line.

What is a barcode scanner?

A barcode scanner or reader is an input device that captures and reads the information in a barcode. Basic scanners simply record and translate the barcode into numbers and/or letters, that code must be sent to a computer database for further information. This can be done with a wired connection (such as through a serial or keyboard port) or wirelessly.

Mobile Computer & Barcode Scanner for Inventory Control

There are different types of barcode scanners:

  1. Pen-type reader: A simple reader with no moving parts that consists of a light source and photodiode to measure the width of bars and spaces in a linear barcode.
  2. Laser scanner: While similar to pen-type readers, laser scanners use laser technology instead of a light source, as well as mirrors and lenses to allow for more flexibility when scanning (in terms of distance from the barcode, direction and fewer errors).
  3. Camera-based reader: Less costly than a laser scanner, a camera or image reader photographs the barcode then processes the image to decode it. It can read a barcode from between three and nine inches away.
  4. CCD reader: Often seen in retail settings, a CCD reader has better range than a pen reader because it measures released ambient light rather than light reflected from the scanner itself. Several readings are taken with every scan to reduce errors.
  5. Omni-directional scanner: Easily the most advanced and efficient of this list, omni-directional scanners can decode barcodes from a distance, at a very high volume, and will do so despite rips, tears, crumpling or other issues that would otherwise render them unreadable by other scanners.

So while some barcode readers use lasers, and others use lights or cameras, they all have one thing in common: Their basic purpose is to translate the barcode into an electronic code and send it to a computer or database. They are merely one piece of a barcode-based stock system.

How is a mobile computer different?

Mobile computers come equipped with a built-in barcode scanner, often a laser scanner with other features to ensure accurate reading, but can do so much more. They are the PC and the scanner in one device, thanks to an onboard computer. This isn’t a smartphone that can take pictures of a QR code; it’s a computing and data entry solution that can be integrated into your existing system. While scanners often need to be connected to a PC, mobile computers can move freely via a wireless infrastructure while still performing tasks in real-time.

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Additional functions of mobile computers can include:

  • Running multiple business applications at once, such as an inventory or asset management program, or receiving and auditing counts.
  • “Green Spot” technology that confirms accurate barcode scans.
  • Functional keypad, such as a full QWERTY keyboard found on PCs and laptops, in case manual input is needed.
  • Color touchscreens running full Windows or Android operating systems.
  • Rugged design yet lightweight build that makes for great durability, in case of drops or adverse conditions such as dry and dusty or humid warehouses.
  • A variety of form factors, such as gun-grip or wearable devices.

In the end, the difference between a barcode scanner and a mobile computer comes down to the size and scope of your business. Barcode scanners are easy to start using. They don’t require special software or drivers when plugged in as a general input device to your computer but they are limited by the range of their bluetooth or wireless connection and are more of a tool than an all-encompassing system. Mobile computers are best for larger businesses that require high-volume and low maintenance scanning, in all conditions.  If you’re in warehousing, manufacturing, logistics or large-scale retail, you’ll likely want a mobile computer over a simple barcode scanner, for its ability to conduct tasks such as inventory management without having to return to your computer database to log information after every scan. Mobile computers do have their limitations, not all of them are able to read 2D barcodes, so if your business uses those you’ll have to ensure the mobile computer of your choice has the right scan engine, but depending on the setting they are invaluable to keeping your business moving.

Whichever you choose, you’ll be sure to see time savings, error reduction and better inventory control immediately. The return on investment for this kind of upgrade is worth it, and at this point, is essentially a requirement for any business looking to stay viable in a local or global economy.

How could your business use a barcode scanner or mobile computer to streamline daily operations?

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Paul Trujillo

Paul Trujillo

Paul Trujillo is a Product Marketing Manager at Informatics specializing in Inventory Warehouse Management and Supply Chain product lines. His nearly 15 years of experience has put him at the forefront of industry technology and developing trends.