Types of Barcodes and What They Do

May 22, 2018 / by George Vaniotis, Ph.D

Previously, we established that thermal printers are ideal for printing barcodes. The use of barcodes has multiple advantages, including improved data management and lower costs. With a wide range of uses, barcodes can be used everywhere from retail stores, to hospitals, and industrial work sites. However, barcode labels are not one size fits all, with different types of 1D and 2D barcodes each having their specific uses. Here we’ll give a brief overview of the different options available, to help you chose the barcode that will best suit your needs.


1D Barcodes

A one-dimensional, 1D (linear) barcode is the most commonly used type of barcode today, with all the information in the code organized horizontally from left to right. While simple in structure, there are however several versions, with some able to encode only numbers while others have the ability to encode any keyboard character. Depending on the specific type of 1D barcode used, you can encode between 20-25 characters. A barcode scanner is required to read 1D barcodes.


UPC code

The universal product code (UPC-A) format is the one most people are familiar with. The UPC-A code is a 12-digit long code comprising the UPC company prefix along with the number assigned to that unique product. UPC codes are unique, with no 2 products in the world, from one or many companies, sharing the same code. The last number, is a check digit calculated from the previous 11 number and used to verify the validity of your barcode number. Mostly used in retail, to identify products, these barcodes are ideal for encoding a limited amount of information and can be used by any industry.


UPC barcode example by ga-international.com


Code 128

A high density linear barcode, similar in appearance to the UPC code. The 128 code can encode alphanumeric data as well as all standard ASCII symbols and control codes. In addition to the encoded data, the barcodes also include a start bar, a check digit and a stop bar. Their concise and space efficient design make them useful when encoding a long string of data. These barcodes are frequently used for asset management, used throughout the inventory, shipping and distribution supply chain. They are ideal for encoding proprietary data, as well as serialization of any products not destined for the retail market.


Code 128 barcode format example by ga-international.com


GS1 databar (expanded, stacked)

The GS1 databar expanded code is a new structure that can encode even more information than traditional UPC codes. This barcode should generally be used when a shorter, wider symbol is required. The expanded stacked GS1 code allows for additional information to be encoded by stacking two linear barcodes. Most commonly used on coupons and in the healthcare field, where limited space might be an issue.

 GS1 expanded stacked barcode example by ga-international.com



The PDF417 barcode consists of 3 to 90 rows, in between of a start and stop pattern. The PDF417 barcode also incorporates features typical of two dimensional barcodes but can still be read with a simple linear barcode scanner. This barcode can encode a great deal of information, even compared to 2D barcodes, but also takes up more space, up to four times the area. PDF417 codes are primarily used by commercial and government organizations, these barcodes are perfectly suited for encoding large amount of information.


PDF417 barcode format example by GA International.com


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2D or not 2D, that is the Question.

Two-dimensional, 2D barcodes are a bit more intricate as they organize information both vertically and horizontally. This allows 2D barcodes to hold more information, up to 2000 characters, and take up less space, down to 1/8th inch square, than a 1D barcode. A 2D imager is required to properly read a 2D barcode. 2D barcodes can be read in any orientation, eliminating the need to perfectly align the bars of a linear barcode with the scanner’s laser.


QR code

The standard in 2D barcodes, the QR code is a 2D matrix barcode that can support numeric and alphanumeric text, binary code and even kanji. Flexible in size, with a high fault tolerance, the QR code is a versatile option, that is ideal for asset management in warehouses, at retail and in research laboratories. QR codes can also be read using your mobile phone, tablets and other electronic devices, after downloading the correct code specific applications.


QR Code barcode format example by ga-international.com


Data Matrix

Data Matrix barcodes are similar to QR codes, with fast readability and high fault tolerance. What really distinguishes them is their ability to label small items. Data Matrix codes are highly scalable and can also be read with your mobile phone by downloading code specific applications. The highly scalable nature of Data Matrix barcodes makes them an optimal choice for any industry where space might be a concern. As such they are highly used by the electronics industry and in the clinical and research fields.         


 DataMatrix barcode format example by ga-international.com


Aztec Code

Aztec 2D barcodes have a bulls-eye pattern that resembles an Aztec pyramid, hence their name. With their lack of a surrounding blank area, termed a “quiet zone”, Aztec codes have the potential to use less space than other matrix codes. Moreover, their ability to be decoded even if they have bad resolution, makes them useful for the transportation industry for use on tickets.


Aztec barcode format example by ga-international.com


Barcodes: Now available in 3D

3D barcodes operate on the same principle as linear and 2D barcodes. However, they add an additional dimension to either increase the memory capacity of the code, or to enhance its resistance to harsh environments. Far more specialized in their use, 3D barcodes are less common, but no less useful.



The PM code, is basically a colorful version of the QR code. The PM code has the ability to encode between 0.6 Mb and 1.8 Mb of information. This impressive capacity allows them to encode everything from images to short videos. With PM barcodes becoming scannable by mobile devices, this opens the door to providing access to images and small promotional videos to end users, without the need for internet connectivity.


 Color 3D barcode example by ga-international.com



Another type of 3D barcode involves the barcode being engraved or applied to the product itself as part of the manufacturing process, giving it depth and thickness. A direct part mark scanner can be used to read the embossed barcode, by measuring the differences in the height of each line, rendering color no longer an issue. As the barcode is engraved into the product, it can more readily resist high temperatures, harsh solvents, and variations in pressure that might otherwise destroy a more traditional barcode. These barcodes are primarily used in the industrial sector.


Embossed 3D barcode example by ga-international.com


Things to Consider

In choosing your barcode, keep in mind the size of the area to be labelled. The space you have to put a barcode will determine the size of the barcode itself, which in turn will dictate how much information you can encode, as a smaller barcode can encode less information. Once you’ve selected the barcode that will best meet your needs, you’ll need to print it. Thermal printers, both direct thermal and thermal transfer, are the ideal choice for printing barcodes. In combination with these printers, Label Matrix and Bartender software allow you to design, format and align your barcode, providing optimal results.


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Topics: Labels, Printer, Barcodes