Four Reasons Not to Use Your Smartphone as a Barcode Scanner
by Karl Trepagnier | Senior Solutions Architect
Are you thinking of using your smartphone as a barcode scanner? Your smartphone helps you manage most other areas of your life, so it’s logical to think it would also serve your barcode scanning needs. And it will work – to an extent. But depending on your use case, there are advantages and disadvantages.
While using your phone to scan barcodes may seem like a great idea at first, the scanning process is only half the battle. You will also need to know how and where the data will be stored. After you scan an item with your phone, the data from the barcode is captured on to your phone’s hard drive.
The easiest way to use a smartphone as part of a barcoding operation is to connect the device to a separate handheld barcode scanner. The scanner captures the data, and the smartphone or tablet serves as the computer or database that collects and stores the data. A fast and simple way to connect your devices is with Bluetooth, which comes standard on some scanners and most smartphones. A Bluetooth barcode scanner typically includes a base unit that pairs with your smartphone. As long as you’re physically within range of the base, you won’t need to carry both the phone and the barcode reader with you as you scan. The typical line-of-sight range for Bluetooth connectivity is around 32 feet, but varies depending on the environment. Another option besides Bluetooth is to connect a corded scanner to your smartphone or tablet with a USB cable.
While this method may work fine for basic barcode testing or verification, if you need to store your data in a spreadsheet or database, you will need to transfer or import it from your phone or tablet. Many barcode scanning apps can only export a comma delimited file, which then must be merged with your existing database. Depending on the volume of data, this process could take several steps to complete and require formatting and mapping data fields to make sure the information ends up in the right place.
Depending on what you’re trying to do, a smartphone may not offer the most streamlined approach to scanning and capturing data. Here are four factors to consider before deciding to use your smartphone as a barcode scanner.
If you’re managing a warehouse or running a distribution center, a handheld barcode scanner will offer more security than a smartphone. The data that your employees are capturing and transmitting to a spreadsheet, inventory tracking system or even a comprehensive warehouse management system needs to be kept secure. Since the data from your scanned items is on the device itself, your employees should be required to leave their smartphones at work so that the data isn’t available outside your facility. But this may be an unreasonable request, especially if your organization has a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy.
A BYOD requirement makes it even easier for confidential information to be shared with others outside the walls of your facility. Plus, if you’re asking employees to use their personal devices at work, you’re assuming that everyone has a smartphone, which isn’t true.
Barcode scanners offer more security than a smartphone because they are not designed to store or share data. At the end of the work day, scanners are typically locked up and not allowed to leave the facility. But even if a scanner were to accidently go home with someone, there would be minimal danger of a data breach. A barcode scanner can’t transmit data without reading it from a source, and unlike a smartphone, a scanner can’t be compromised or altered by downloading apps or other software onto it. If data security is important to your barcoding operation, a scanner will give you more control than a smartphone.
2. Cost efficiency
Because barcode scanners are single-purpose devices, they are far less complex than a smartphone and significantly less expensive to buy and maintain. A cellular-enabled smartphone can cost more than $700 while a wireless barcode scanner with a base station starts in the $300 price range.
But even if your business can afford the initial cost of smartphones, you should also consider the total cost of ownership for the life of the device. A barcode scanner has a longer lifespan because it does not rely on the latest technology to perform. For this reason, scanners don’t have to be replaced as often as a smartphone. As we all know from personal experience, the phone you purchased less than two years ago is already a dinosaur. Smartphones require regular software and operating system updates to function properly, while a barcode scanner does not.
If you plan to scan items in a warehouse or other environment where your device could be easily damaged, a barcode scanner is the more cost-effective option. Even with protective cases and enterprise sleds, smartphone screens are still susceptible to cracks, which are expensive to repair and can make your device unusable. In addition, if you break your smartphone before you’ve transferred the data to your computer or inventory management system, you will need to rescan everything, which costs you lost productivity.
Rugged scanners are specifically designed to withstand drops onto a concrete floor and other bumps that commonly occur when used in a warehouse or cross dock. The rugged form factor protects the scanner glass and laser so that the device can still perform even after multiple drops and tumbles, which saves you money over time. The Zebra DS3608 rugged industrial scanner undergoes rigorous testing to make sure the device is dustproof and even waterproof for up to 30 minutes. The cost to repair and replace a rugged barcode scanner will be significantly less than that of a smartphone.
3. Speed & reliability
If performance is important to your barcode scanning application or use case, you should consider a wireless handheld scanner instead of a smartphone. While smartphones are designed to perform multiple tasks at once, a barcode scanner is intended for a single purpose, which makes it faster and more reliable than a smartphone.
A barcode scanner contains a scan engine that only reads barcodes. There are different scan engines for linear imagers and laser scanners, and the right one for you depends on the type of barcode you’re trying to read. For example, a 2D barcode such as a QR code or PDF417 will require a different scan engine than a 1D barcode, such as a Code 39 or Code 128. If you need to scan multiple types of barcodes with your phone, you will require an app, or multiple apps, capable of decoding different barcode symbologies.
A 2D imager contains a camera and LED to illuminate the barcode while reading it. Similarly, when you use a smartphone to scan a barcode, the camera on the phone takes a picture of the barcode and the flash serves as the light. However, the camera and light on a 2D barcode scanner is purpose-built to read complex barcodes at a certain range, while your smartphone camera is intended to take pictures at a variety of distances.
Since a smartphone does not have a scan engine, the read range is determined by the size of the barcode. The smaller the barcode, the closer your phone has to be to read it and vice versa. If you need to scan a barcode from a distance, such as location tags in a warehouse, you will require a long-range scanner.
Additionally, your smartphone battery will run down quickly if you’re using it to scan barcodes all day. Powering the screen in addition to running the operating system and other applications at the same time can drain the battery and require regular recharging. Since most barcode scanners are only “on” when you pull the trigger or actually read a barcode, the battery life will last considerably longer than that of a smartphone. Barcode scanners that allow handsfree scanning, such as the omnidirectional scanners used in grocery store checkouts, require a power source.
Besides the ability to actually read the barcode more quickly and maintain a longer battery life, a handheld scanner can help your employees work faster. Most scanners are designed with ergonomic enhancements that minimize wrist movement to encourage productivity. Even though many of us use our smartphones throughout the day, the devices are not designed for repetitive scanning motions.
4. Database integration
As discussed earlier, if you’re scanning barcodes with your smartphone, you’ll need to connect it to a computer, tablet or other device so that the data can be collected in your database or system. In some cases, you may be able to connect your smartphone to your computer via Bluetooth, but there may be additional steps required to integrate with your database. A wireless barcode scanner can typically connect to a computer using Bluetooth, or a USB scanner offers a simple plug-and-play option to streamline your data capture. A barcode scanner doesn’t require you to download any drivers or specific software in order to use it with your computer.
Today’s smartphones aren’t ready to replace wireless barcode scanners. If you’re debating whether to use your smartphone as a barcode scanner, think about your specific application and choose the right tool for the job. If you’re looking for a barcode scanning app that lets you price check items in the grocery store or scan QR codes, by all means, use your smartphone. But if you need to run a real barcoding operation, a barcode scanner is your best bet.
Looking for a barcode scanner? Find yours here.
Senior Solutions Architect, Peak-Ryzex
As a dedicated solutions architect for Peak-Ryzex Direct customers, Karl brings extensive technical expertise with multiple data collection technologies, including WLAN, RFID, mobile computing, printing, media and software. Prior to joining Peak-Ryzex, Karl spent eight years in the RFID industry where he focused on the healthcare and pharmaceuticals markets. Before that, Karl spent 26 years at Intermec as a Sr. Field Engineer.
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