Encoding information to simplify processes is a popular practice across various industries. The two most common types of codes with applications in everyday life are barcodes and QR codes. Essentially, both serve the same purpose. However, they encode information differently. This affects the storage capacity of each code type and its applications. If you’re looking for the right code type for your product or service, here’s how the barcode and QR code compare.
Barcode vs. QR Code: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Year of inception
|Norman J Woodland and Bernard Silver
|Unidimensional vertical barcodes
|Two-dimensional or matrix barcodes
|Rectangular or square shape consisting of parallel black lines and white spaces
|Square shape consisting of black and white squares and other black shapes on a white background
|Ways to read
|Horizontally with a scanner
|Horizontally or vertically with a scanner or mobile device
|About 100 bytes
|Up to 3KB
|Alphanumeric and symbols
|Product information, including price, weight, manufacturer, expiration date; membership information and loyalty points; personal details
|Can code most types of information, including product specifications, leaflet details, personal information, etc.
|Retail, store and inventory tracking, healthcare
|E-commerce and online shopping, marketing, advertising, retail, hotels, restaurants, tourism, transportation, etc.
Barcode vs. QR Code: What’s the Difference?
Bar and QR codes have been around for decades, but the former is much older than the quick response (QR) type. Invented in 1949 and officially recognized in 1952, the barcode is the brainchild of Norman J Woodland, who created it at Bernard Silver’s suggestion. However, neither of the two came up with the idea that such technology was needed. That idea came from a supermarket manager looking for solutions to optimize workflow and reduce queues at supermarket checkouts. Initially, they invented the barcode to be printed on groceries and scanned at checkout, simplifying inventory and speeding up the shopping process. Over time, other sectors adopted this unidimensional code type. While retailers and merchants widely used it, it is also used to identify machines in various industries or even to encode patient or test information in the healthcare field.
Masahiro Hara invented the much younger QR code in 1994 for Denso Wave, a Japanese corporation and subsidiary of automobile company Toyota Motors. The original purpose of this code was that of tracking automobile parts, but its ease of use compared to barcodes transformed it into the go-to choice for the advertising and marketing industry.
In short, barcodes and QR codes are two types of systems used to encode information about products, machinery, people, and more. We mainly used the former in industry and retail. The latter is much more popular in the marketing and advertising industry, although it can be used for nearly any purpose. Here’s how the two compare across several categories.
The most obvious difference between barcodes and QR codes is their appearance. Barcodes are square (sometimes) or rectangular (typically) structures consisting of vertical lines and white spaces. These lines and spaces code information in the binary system, representing binary digits 0 or 1. The width of the black lines plays a role in the coding, determining to which number each line corresponds.
The numerical formula encoded is usually displayed under the bars. Most barcodes translate into 12 digits, although codes with 13 or 14 digits also exist. Codes used in retail consist of a UPC company prefix that includes a country code and a unique reference that identifies a certain brand or manufacturer. These are the first six to ten digits in the code. Two longer bars at the center separate the UPC company prefix from the item reference. These digits are assigned by the manufacturer to identify a specific product or product category.
Barcodes used in other industries typically have more digits and include an identifier as well as unique references (for example, lot/serial number and expiration date or patient identification and specific bloodwork identifiers).
QR codes have a square design and consist of random square dots and blank spaces. These random patterns can encode digits, similar to barcodes, but they can also represent alphabet letters, symbols, and non-Latin characters and scrips. This ability makes it possible to use QR codes to encode all types of information. In addition to product details, QR codes can encode URLs, PDFs, and images, to name just a few.
The difference in appearance between barcodes and QR codes is the result of the way each code type stores information. Barcodes are unidimensional and store information in the binary system. The black lines represent 1 in binary code, while the blank spaces correspond to 0. Various binary sequences turn into numbers from 0 to 9 when processed by a computer. For ease of use, most barcodes nowadays have the represented number written under the unidimensional structure.
QR codes have a different appearance, but surprisingly, the black and blank spaces are also representations of the binary system. The approach is similar – black dots represent the binary digit 1, whereas blank spaces represent the binary digit 0. The crucial difference is that binary codes can represent any character or symbol, including numbers, letters, non-Latin scripts, and more.
Larger than unidimensional barcodes, bi-dimensional QR codes can store a lot more information. Specifically, a QR code can have a maximum combination of 177 rows and 177 columns, resulting in a maximum of 31.329 modules. The actual number of modules in the code determines the amount of data stored. Thus, at maximum capacity, a QR code can hold about 3KB of data.
Due to their unidimensional limit, linear barcodes can only encode up to 85 characters. However, since the character limit is specific to a given symbol, most barcodes hold a lower amount of data. Typically, these codes have a storage capacity of around 100 bytes.
Barcodes and QR codes were developed to simplify and speed up processes, but they are pretty useless if you can’t access the information they hold. In this aspect, QR codes have more advantages. Their matrix structure allows for easy decoding with a scanner or a mobile device. Sure, QR-ready mobile devices – such as modern smartphones – can read the QR codes due to their built-in scanners, but almost everyone can access the information in the code.
Only specific software can decode linear barcodes. To access the information, you must read the barcode with a laser or linear imager scanner. These scanners transmit the information to software that decodes it. Camera-based imagers – the ones that can read a QR code when scanning it with your phone – can scan both barcodes and QR codes. However, without the specific software, they won’t be able to decode the information stored in a unidimensional code.
However, scanning barcodes with a handset isn’t automatic either. While most phones nowadays can read a QR code automatically when pointing the Camera app at it, this app doesn’t recognize barcodes. You’ll have to download a specific barcode reading app if you want to scan and decode the information coded by unidimensional barcodes.
Lastly, an essential difference between barcodes and QR codes is the way we use each code. Linear barcodes were invented for the retail industry. To date, their primary use hasn’t changed. For example, manufacturers use barcodes for the easier identification of their products. Merchants use them to speed up the checkout process. Warehouses and online stores use barcodes for sales and inventory purposes.
Beyond their original purpose, linear barcodes are now used in many industries. You can find them on loyalty cards, for example, where they code specific information about the cardholder and their rewards. In the medical industry, barcodes identify various reagents. Pathology is one of the healthcare fields where the use of barcodes makes it easier to process samples and tests.
QR codes were invented for the easier tracking of automobile parts on the assembly line. We still use them in various industries, but they are staggeringly versatile and adaptable to everyday use. With the advent of smart devices, social media, and online advertising, QR codes became marketing allies. In addition, businesses use them to advertise their products and services. Restaurants encode their menus into easy-to-access QR codes. You can scan a QR code to download an app or open a website URL, and these are just some examples. Undeniably, QR codes are a lot more versatile and more adaptable to widespread use compared to unidimensional barcodes.
Barcode vs. QR Code: Must-Known Facts
- Barcodes were invented in 1949 for use in supermarkets. We now use them in various industries, including manufacturing and healthcare.
- QR codes were invented in 1994 for the easier tracking of automobile parts in the assembly line. We now use them widely for a variety of purposes.
- Barcodes use the binary system to encode up to 14 numbers. These numbers are identifiers of specific manufacturers and products.
- QR codes use the binary system to encode any alphanumeric character and special symbols. They can open up URLs, images, apps, documents, and more.
- QR codes can be scanned and read with camera imager scanners. Modern mobile devices come with built-in scanners that you can use via the Camera app, or you can download and use a specific app.
- We must scan barcodes with a laser or camera imager scanner. These scanners transmit the information to a computer that decodes it. Mobile devices may or may not be able to read linear barcodes.
Barcode vs. QR Code: Which One Is Better? Which One Should You Use?
QR codes are much more versatile than barcodes, but they aren’t necessarily better. If you want to launch a physical product, a barcode is the retail industry standard. Manufacturers and warehouses require barcodes for the seamless identification of products and inventory purposes. You can include QR codes on product labels, but they can’t replace barcodes quite yet. If you’re more interested in marketing, however, and spreading some news across various channels, then using a QR code is your best bet. QR codes are also the best choice for quicker access to information about services.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©iStock.com/Thatphichai Yodsri.