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Barcode Scanner Buying Guide: How to Choose a Handheld Scanner

Asset tracking systems lay the foundation for successful inventory control, maintenance management, resource utilization, and a variety of other benefits that streamline processes and contribute to a healthy bottom line. But even the best asset tracking systems lose effectiveness if they’re not paired with the right automatic data capture tools, such as handheld barcode scanners. This guide will help you identify the features and capabilities to meet your application requirements.

Today’s handheld barcode scanners offer greater functionality and durability than early models, not to mention convenience offered through Bluetooth connectivity, cordless functionality, and other benefits that make it possible to manage assets in-house, in the field, and even in harsh environments.

In this guide, you’ll find information about the typical uses and applications for handheld barcode scanners, key questions to ask in selecting the right handheld scanner for your company’s needs, a general glossary of terms and various classifications used to describe the types of barcode scanners and their functionality, key features, general cost ranges for various types of handheld scanners, and individual handheld barcode scanner reviews. Jump to a specific section by clicking links in the table of contents below.

Handheld Barcode Scanner Use Cases and Applications

Handheld barcode scanners have a variety of use cases. In fact, these devices are used in practically every industry, but for applications ranging from point-of-sale scanning to standard asset management in office environments and to monitor equipment maintenance and repair programs in industrial settings.

The following industries commonly rely on handheld scanners for asset management, inventory control, maintenance and repair, or other scanning requirements:

  • Warehouse – The warehouse industry relies heavily on barcoding and barcode scanners to manage inventory, streamline processing, ordering, and much more.
  • Defense – The defense industry has strict requirements and carefully monitors each and every asset it controls with sophisticated asset tracking systems, aided by barcode scanners.
  • Oil and Gas – The oil and gas industry manages a wide array of assets both in-house and in the field, and must maintain accurate records for equipment maintenance and asset utilization. Industrial barcode scanners are often used in the field to streamline documentation and manage assets.
  • Utility – The utility industry must track a wide range of different assets, both indoors and out, and manages a large quantity of data associated with each asset. Utility poles, meters, and even transformers and other equipment can be better managed with the right handheld barcode scanner.
  • Telecom and Cable – Much like the oil and gas and utility industries, the telecom and cable industry has a vast collection of assets spanning its geographic coverage area. Tracking all of these assets and resources is a complex process that’s only achievable through efficient asset tracking systems. Because field technicians work outdoors, often in harsh weather conditions, requiring industrial barcode scanners to aid tracking.
  • Manufacturing – Maintenance and repair is a primary need in the manufacturing industry, requiring the ongoing monitoring of equipment and documentation of regular maintenance activities. Handheld barcode scanners up to the task aid manufacturing companies in staying on top of maintenance activities, quickly identifying parts for repairs, contacting vendors, re-ordering, and other activities.
  • Retail, Education, Government and Other Industries – It’s not just industrial and heavy-duty applications that benefit from handheld barcode scanners. The retail industry uses barcode scanners primarily for inventory control and POS (point-of-sale) applications, but many other industries rely on handheld barcode scanners for tracking expensive assets, managing resource utilization, and other asset tracking needs.

Key Questions to Ask in Choosing a Handheld Barcode Scanner

There are several considerations that help identify the best handheld barcode scanner for your application:

  1. Will your handheld barcode scanners be used indoors or out? Some barcode scanners work just as well in natural sunlight and dim lighting conditions as they do in ideal lighting. If your application requires outdoor scanning or scanning in dim lighting conditions, be sure to carefully evaluate the lighting specifications for the scanner models you’re considering.
  2. What types of barcodes and symbologies do you work with? If you often work with barcodes which are damaged or faded, you’ll need a barcode scanner capable of reading imperfect barcodes. Additionally, there are several primary categories of symbologies, including 1D, 2D, and Postal barcodes. Not all handheld scanners are capable of decoding all symbologies.
  3. How often, and how heavily, will the device be used? If your business application requires ongoing scanning for long periods of time, considerations such as battery life and corded connectivity come into play. Also, some barcode scanners are able to capture 60 images per second or more and offer rapid, continuous scanning capabilities without delay. If your application requires the scanning of hundreds or thousands of barcodes in a day, you’ll need a handheld barcode scanner with these capabilities to avoid unnecessarily slowing down the workflow.
  4. Does your application include exposure to harsh environments? If your scanning requirements include less-than-ideal environmental conditions, such as scanning products stored in freezers or outdoors in rain, wind, or other elements, you should choose a handheld barcode scanner with exceptional durability.
  5. What scanning distance do you require? In some applications, holding a handheld scanner within a few inches of a barcode is not always achievable. For these applications, carefully evaluate the scanning distance requirements for the handheld scanner models you’re considering.

Barcode Scanner Terms and Classifications

Barcode scanners are commonly categorized by scanning capabilities, such as laser barcode scanners and imagers, but you may also find barcode scanners grouped according to class, such as POS (point-of-sale), industrial, and other types, or by function, such as handheld, wireless, and portable. Here are a few common terms used to define and categories barcode scanners.

Handheld Barcode Scanner – This broad term refers to barcode scanners that are portable and easily used with one-hand operation. These scanners typically use a trigger-like mechanism with point-and-scan functionality. Handheld barcode scanners may be corded or cordless, capable of scanning any combination of 1D, 2D, and postal codes, and capture barcodes using a laser or imaging technology.

Laser Barcode Scanners – Laser barcode scanners, typically, are compatible with 1D barcodes only. These scanners rely on a laser beam light source, which is scanned back and forth across the bar code. The bar code is decoded using a photo diode which measures the light intensity reflected back from the laser, and a decoder interprets the waveforms produced as a result. The barcode reader then sends the information to your computing source in a more traditional data format.

Image Barcode Scanners – An imager, or image barcode scanner, relies on image capture rather than a laser to read and interpret barcodes. Barcode labels are decoded using sophisticated digital image processing functionality.

Wireless or Cordless Handheld Barcode Scanners – Wireless, or cordless barcode scanners, rely on a rechargeable power source to provide cord-free operation. These barcode scanners may be laser or image scanners. A key consideration in choosing this type of barcode scanner is how long a full battery charge lasts, on average, under typical use. If your scanning needs require staff to be in the field, away from a charging source, for many hours, you’ll want a barcode scanner with a long battery life.

Industrial Barcode Scanners – Some handheld barcode scanners are called industrial barcode scanners. This typically indicates that the scanner is constructed with durable plastics and other materials that allow it to function in less-than-ideal or harsh environments. These scanners are also tested and sometimes classified with an IP rating (Ingress Protection Rating), an international rating system that classifies electronics based on resistance to environmental hazards such as dust, moisture, and other conditions.

Omni-Directional Barcode Scanners – Omni-directional barcode scanners rely on a laser, but a complex and interwoven series of lasers creating a mixed-grid pattern, rather than a single, straight-line laser. Omni-directional barcode scanners are laser scanners, but the omni-directional functionality enables these scanners to decode 2D barcodes in addition to 1D barcodes.

Key Features to Look For

Now that you have an idea of your application’s requirements, you can begin to narrow down the handheld scanner models that meet your specifications. There are several primary features and characteristics that can help you determine the best handheld scanner for your needs.

Corded vs. Cordless Scanners – If your application requires outdoor, on-floor, or cross-facility use, and your staff won’t always be near a power source, a cordless scanner will better meet your needs.

Durability – If your application requires a handheld scanner that functions well under harsh conditions, look for a handheld barcode scanner with an IP rating of IP54 or IP65, indicating that the device will withstand dust, water spray, or water jets in multiple directions. For the harshest environments, you’ll want to consider a specialty handheld scanner designed for use in your typical environment.

Connectivity – Some handheld barcode scanners are Bluetooth-enabled, meaning they can connect to your network wirelessly and transmit data to a Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) or other database or application.

Scanning Capabilities – Know what symbologies your company works with, and choose a handheld barcode scanner capable of decoding 1D, 2D, and Postal symbologies as required.

Laser vs. Imager Scanning Functionality – Imaging scanners are more advanced than laser scanners, and they generally offer the most scanning capabilities.

Omni-Directional Scanning – If you do opt for a laser scanner, choose a model with omni-directional scanning functionality. This means, in most cases, that your scanner is capable of decoding 2D barcodes.

Operating Systems and Software Compatibility – Some handheld barcode scanners operate on common mobile platforms, such as Android. Some have built-in software, and some enable companies to develop custom applications for scanners using an SDK (Software Development Kit). Some handheld scanners are compatible out-of-the-box with Microsoft Windows or iOS, but others require the download of a specific driver for full compatibility.

Scanning Distance – Scanning distance defines the distance at which a barcode scanner is capable of decoding various types of barcodes, and the scanning distance often varies based on the type of symbology. For instance, a barcode scanner may be able to decode a 1D barcode at a distance of 10 to 12 inches, while it may require a closer distance for PDF417 or Postal symbologies.

Scanner Networking – If your application requires the use of multiple barcode scanners, look for scanners that enable several handheld scanning devices to interface with a single base. This streamlines device management and cuts down on implementation costs.

Environmental Conditions – While the IP rating defines durability, handheld scanners also have other ideal usage specifications for ambient lighting, usage temperature, and storage temperature. This is a consideration if your scanning needs demand use in dim lighting or bright sunlight, or in higher or lower than normal average temperatures.

Scanning Speed – For large-scale scanning requirements, look for a handheld barcode scanner with rapid, continuous scanning capabilities. Some barcode scanners can scan 60 to 120 images per second, enabling ongoing use with minimal downtime.

Warranty – Handheld scanners generally offer warranties between one and five years. Longer warranties are advantageous if your environment is less-than-ideal.

Costs: What You Can Expect to Pay for a Handheld Barcode Scanner

Costs for handheld barcode scanners vary as widely as the functionality and capabilities they offer. Generally, image-capture scanners are more expensive than laser scanners, with omni-directional scanners costing more than straight-line laser scanners.

This corresponds to scanning capabilities, as omni-directional scanners and image-capture scanners capable of decoding both 1D and 2D barcodes, whereas straight-line laser scanners can decode 1D barcodes only. General-purpose scanners generally cost between $200 and $600, although pricing varies widely.

Additionally, durability plays a key role in costs. The most rugged handheld scanners designed for use in the field and in harsh environments are among the most expensive barcode scanners, although their functionality and rugged durability is a worthy investment for harsh applications. These handheld scanners can cost up to $2,500 or more. A few less-rugged, but still durable, models are available in the range of $500 to $1,200.

For more details and specifications on many popular and specialty handheld barcode scanners, click here for a detailed comparison chart or click through to read a detailed review for any model in the list below.

Handheld Barcode Scanner Comparison Chart

To make comparing the different handheld scanners we’ve reviewed above easier, we’ve created a handy barcode scanner comparison chart. The chart includes quick checklists of all the feautures and capabilities for each scanner, so you can do side-by-side comparison for the different models and manufacturers.

Click on the image below to view the full chart.

View Chart

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