Types of Barcodes: UPC, EAN, Code128 vs. QR & Datamatrix

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Types of Barcodes: UPC, EAN, Code128 vs. QR & Datamatrix

Usually we focus on scanning of barcodes rather than printing barcodes. But being able to scan a barcode presumes that you (or your users eventually) have a barcode to scan. This means that as developer or even brand owner you need to select a barcode type – sometimes also called a barcode symbology – for your purposes. There are a number of questions to address when it comes to barcode selection. What types of barcodes are available? What do they look like? Which one is optimal for a particular application? What are the advantages and disadvantages respectively? This post is the first out of three (for the moment at least) that will focus exactly on these questions.

In this post we aim to answer a fundamental question – shall you use 1D barcodes, or should you rather opt for 2D codes?

1D Barcodes
Well, first let’s look at each of these barcode types separately. The 1D barcodes might be the ones you have in mind when hearing the term “barcode” since they are a collection of bars, representing digits or characters. Together they form a barcode that can be scanned using a dedicated hardware barcode scanner, which you’ll most likely find at the point of sale or read with your mobile phone using an application that uses the Scandit SDK.

There is a number of different 1D barcode types that are common:

  • EAN-13 and EAN-8
  • UPC-A and UPC-E
  • Code128
  • ITF
  • Code39
  • GS1 DataBar

All of the above linear, 1D barcodes are great for laser barcode scanners which are used in point-of-sale systems in retail stores, but also in low-end and high-end handheld scanners. The different formats differ in the kind and number of characters they can carry, how compact they can store information and the printing tolerances required.

2D Codes
One of the most popular 2D codes is the QR code (QR = Quick Response), developed by the Japanese company Denso Wave back in 1994. If you have a quick glimpse at the example below, you will recognize that it’s actually not a “bar” code. However, as they are also optimal markers, they are often referred to as barcodes as well.

A QR code specifically can hold up to 7,089 digits or 4,296 chars while guaranteeing up to 30% fault tolerance. That’s a whole lot more than the good old 1D barcodes can hold. Most QR barcodes hold significantly less information – typically a URL or contact information though. They are commonly used to store information that adds direct customer value, for example a link to a website, an address on a business card, digital railway tickets or a coupon for a good deal in a store. With a mobile phone camera, it is actually easier to decode such 2D barcodes than it is to decode a 1D barcode. For a laser scanner, it is a very different story. Don’t choose a QR or Datamatrix code for your application, if you need to be able to work with barcode laser scanners.

So, what is the best solution for you? Well, it depends. If space is limited and you want people to be able to scan the barcode with an “old-fashioned” laser barcode scanner – you should definitely choose a 1D barcode.
If you are targeting consumers and want to store significant information in the barcode such as a website link or contact information, choose a 2D symbology such as a QR code or a Datamatrix barcode.

The next blog post will shed some light on 1D barcodes, explaining strength and weaknesses of the different formats, followed by a blog post that will look more into 2D barcodes.