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That Is the Question

Ah, barcodes. So many types. What do you need for your application? We’re here to help you figure out the difference between 1D and 2D barcodes. Do you need a linear (also known as 1D) barcode, or a 2D barcode? (And, yes, there are 3D barcodes as well, used in manufacturing. But those are special cases and don’t figure into this conversation.) Which is right for your product?

First, a quick definition. 

1D Barcodes

Barcode with code 39 symbology
Code 39

Linear barcodes use a series of bars or lines in a variety of widths; the spaces between the bars also have different widths. This variation in the bars and spaces is how the data is encoded – a visual Morse code. Because linear barcodes get longer as more data is added, many are restricted to fewer than 15 characters.

There are a number of different linear barcode types. Some of these are alphanumeric (Code 39, Code 128), while others are numbers only (UPC and EAN, used for retail products, for instance). 

You need a special scanner in order to read linear barcodes. The scanner emits a beam of red light that “looks” at the bars and translates them into letters and numbers.

Details associated with the barcode (pricing, purchase dates, checkout dates, expiration dates, costs, whatever) are typically stored in a connected database. You usually need to be within 4-24 inches of the label or tag in order to scan the code correctly. The code can be read rightsize up or upside down, but there is no redundancy – you need a clear scan of all the bars.

2D Codes

QR barcode

2D barcodes can store information in two directions, horizontally and vertically. Like linear barcodes, 2D codes come in a number of different varieties. QR is very common; Data Matrix is becoming more so, especially in the US. Both are in the public domain.

Just as linear codes get longer as more data is encoded into them, 2D codes increase in size as well.

2D codes can store much more information than linear barcodes, and can include other types of binary data. This data may include images, logos, urls, even music. This is, of course, useful for marketing purposes, but can be valuable for asset tracking and recovery as well. In addition, there is a high fault tolerance, in some cases up to 30%. That resilience allows for some artistic or creative expression, too!

2D scan apps are widely available for smartphones and other handheld devices. The codes can be scanned from any direction, and from a greater distance away than linear barcodes.

Which Is Better?

Well, like everything else in life, that depends. Because linear is the older technology, many companies already have 1D barcode scanners and a database connection all set up. If that works for you, there’s no real reason to switch. If you don’t have anything and are looking into using barcodes for the first time, or if your linear barcode system leaves something to be desired, here’s some questions to ask yourself.

(Note: Retail products are typically required to use either UPC (US/North America) or EAN (Europe) codes, and are not considered in this blog post.)

Does Size Matter?

Comparative sizes of 1D and 2D barcodes

As you can see, 1D and 2D barcodes encode data differently. Even within the categories, some do so more tightly than others.

The data we encoded, “MAV1234567890” creates a very long and tightly spaced Code 39 bar. It’s visibly shorter in Code 128.

The QR code, on the other hand, is pretty small, and the Data Matrix code is tiny. In addition, 2D codes are generally square in shape, while linear barcodes are horizontal rectangles. One style may fit your labels better than the other.

2D codes do have a much higher capacity than linear barcodes. Remember, though, the size of any of these barcodes will increase as the encoded data increases.

Be sure that your largest amount of data will fit into the space available on the label or tag you want prior to submitting any code for printing. The size required is the size required; shrinking it manually may make it unscannable.

Size increase in data matrix code with additional characters
Size comparison of Data Matrix 2D code with 13 characters and with 30 characters

According to our production staff, when printed, a quarter-inch square will fit 20 characters using QR; it’s 25 characters for Data Matrix. A half-inch square will fit 50 characters in QR encoding, 100 in Data Matrix.

Need more? A one inch square allows 200 characters in QR and 400 in Data Matrix. But a 1×1 square is pretty darn big for most labels or tags.

What Data Are You Encoding?

Are you just printing serial codes? Do the tags connect to an inventory database with additional information on the item? Might this information change over time (who a laptop is checked out to, what price you’re charging for the product, etc.)? The simplest method for these scenarios is probably a linear code. We use linear barcodes to track our equipment inventory, for instance.

QR code that opens a URL

Or do you need or want some sort of action to take place? A QR code works well for this. Say you have tagged a laptop that then gets left behind somewhere. If someone finds it and scans the QR code on the tag with their smartphone, your code can respond. Response options can include a phone call, an email, or sending a text. Or (most commonly), it could open a page on your website. 

2D codes can be used to pull up a specific piece of information about an item, such as a serial number or expiration date. You could check these on your smart device, wherever in the office or warehouse the tagged item might be, in places where lugging around a barcode scanner might not be convenient. 

And, of course, 2D codes are very handy for marketing and advertising.

Dependable and Affordable

While there is a difference between 1D and 2D barcodes, both types are useful, low-cost methods of encoding data and tracking items. There are, of course, fancier methods of tracking inventory, but these frequently go above and beyond the needs of the typical business, with a matching price increase. 

Because linear barcodes have been around longer, many organizations are already set up for and invested in their use. They work well with database connections. 2D codes allow you to encode more information, can work with publicly available smartphone apps, and have better resilience when damaged. Which you decide to use will depend on your setup and needs.

More details on specific barcodes and their uses may be found at

Other Resources
Barcode FAQ



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