Which is better: Handheld or Hands-Free Barcode Scanners?

Hands-Free Barcode Scanners

What do you think? Would you rather use handheld or hands-free barcode scanners?

Like so many choices in business, it really depends on your specific needs and operating environment. However, it is helpful to know where to start – so we went to the experts. This article is a version from Zebra’s article Which is better: Handheld or Hands-Free Barcode Scanners?

They asked some AIDC and vertical industry experts to explain the best use cases for each type of scanner.

Hands-Free Barcode Scanners

Hands-free barcode scanners allow cashiers to quickly move items past the scanner without having to align barcodes to the scanner. This makes them ideal for applications that have many items per transaction (such as in grocery, convenience, and drug stores) or items with hangtags that require two hands to find (like apparel or jewelry). They’re also great for retailers that simply prefer cashiers focus their attention more on customers rather than scanners.

On the other hand, hands-free scanners are not designed to be picked up frequently (or at all). So, they may not be ideal for applications with large, bulky, or heavy items that cannot be presented to the scanner easily.

Zebra interviews Amanda BarkanBrian Walters, and Warren Zuelch. All three spend their days talking to front-line workers, operations managers, IT teams, and engineers defining the use cases and functionality requirements for barcode scanners. Here’s what they came up with.

Do the benefits of hands-free barcode scanners outweigh those of handheld scanners for many organizations?

Brian: …There are clear-cut benefits of having hands-free scanners on counters at cashier-operated registers. Social distancing and contactless checkout are among them. The cashier can present items to the scanner, or a customer can present their phone with a mobile loyalty/coupon barcode on it, without having to touch the scanning device. However, the handheld scanner is still far and away our most popular form factor.

Amanda: …We expect handheld scanners, especially cordless models, to always be available in both self-checkout and associate-assisted lanes in these types of retail environments. In fact, their use is on the rise right now.

Brian: …Handheld scanners are still very popular in healthcare facilities, such as hospitals and clinics where clinicians are going from room to room and need to be able to scan a patient’s wristband for positive patient identification or medication prior to administration. Something else to remember is that handheld scanners come in very small sizes these days.

Are there specific scenarios in which a handheld scanner would be recommended over a hands-free scanner, or vice versa?

Amanda: Handheld scanners are always better when you need to scan larger items that are hard to bring toward the scanner… The beauty of a handheld scanner is that it can also be an auxiliary scanner to a single plane or multi-plane scanner – which would most likely apply at the POS in retail, grocery, drug, and convenience stores.

Warren: We should note that hands-free scanners like the Zebra MP7000 Multi-Plane Bioptic Scanner are better for applications where a higher level of throughput is needed due to long lines with full carts, such as retail or grocery store checkout lanes. However, smaller hands-free scanners such as the DS9300 Series are often recommended where counter space is at a premium and items and basket sizes are smaller, such as at convenience stores or QSRs.

Are there other factors that could impact one’s decision to go with a hands-free versus a handheld scanner?

Brian: There are several fundamental areas of consideration when selecting a scanner, regardless of form factor. The first is the environment the scanner will be used in…will it be used indoors or outdoors and where specifically? In a hospital at the patient’s bedside? In the pharmacy? In a retail store at a checkout lane or in the stockroom? Will generally be clean and dust-free or if the scanner will be subjected to airborne dust and particles. We also confirm if there will be carpet or concrete underfoot. Hands-free scanners are much less likely to fall since they aren’t being picked up. But they could accidentally be knocked off a counter or have things spilled on them, especially if used at a QSR or coffee shop. Once we understand the durability and disinfection requirements, then we can start to narrow the field using other performance-impacting criteria.

Amanda: This is when we start to consider how the scanner will be used today, and potentially in the future. Sometimes customers don’t know what they’ll need down the road, just that they’ll need a device to accommodate evolving workflows. So, we think about the flexibility and scalability of each scanner before recommending the most appropriate solution.

What are adaptable scanners and why they were created?

Warren: Barcode scanners are now being designed to be more transformational in addressing organizations’ needs. A hybrid scanner such as the Zebra DS9900 Series, for example, is a handheld scanner with a built-in adjustable stand. This flexible design offers the convenience of a handheld and the swipe performance of a hands-free scanner in a single device. It senses when it is being picked up, automatically turns on an aiming dot, and extends the decoded range to adjust to the user’s scanning needs. In addition, the power sources of some scanners can be adapted depending on their use case. Case in point, the Zebra DS8100 Series can use either an intelligent PowerPrecision+ battery or a PowerCap Capacitor, which provides faster charge times and has a longer lifecycle.

Brian: There are also convertible scanners, such as the Zebra CS60 Series, which we already mentioned. The goal with these more transformational scanners is to be able to deploy devices once and then have the freedom to adapt them to the various worker and workflow needs over time. They have a very long lifespan and, as we have seen the past couple of years, things can change very fast in the environments in which they’re used. Now, you don’t have to manage multiple scanner models or rip and replace them often.

How can organizations streamline their scanning solutions?

Warren: We know there’s no such thing as “one-size-fits-all”. But there are many workflows and workers that can benefit from the same device – if users are able to switch from handheld to hands-free mode (or vice versa) with very little effort as they transition from one task or workstation to the next.

Amanda: The other success factor for hybrid and convertible scanners – or any barcode scanner, really – is device maintenance. I don’t mean just cleaning them, either. As part of our data capture DNA, we’re constantly pushing updates to Zebra’s scanners to ensure they can be seamlessly scaled by our customers. I highly recommend anyone using Zebra scanners, or thinking about deploying them in their operations, check out our new quarterly “Zebra Evolution Update.” This will give you a better idea of what we’re doing on the backend to ensure the scanners remain up-to-date and usable by front-line teams as operations evolve and expand.

Are there any reasons why organizations would need scanners that are exclusively hands-free or handheld?

Warren: Organizations that require high volume scanning would benefit more from an exclusively hands-free scanner like the MP7000 or DS7708 with the option to add an auxiliary handheld scanner if needed. Those that require the flexibility of moving the scanner would benefit from an exclusively handheld scanner.

Amanda: Even if an organization doesn’t choose a specific convertible or hybrid scanner, our handhelds can be used in a stand or presentation cradle to help meet a variety of needs. Plus, our Zebra Evolution Update keeps you current with ongoing feature enhancements. That said, convertible or hybrid scanners are purposely designed with this flexibility in mind and will offer the most return on investment (ROI) for years to come.


PaladinID is an official retailer and expert on Zebra products. We will help you figure out exactly what type of barcode scanners you need, and where you need to put them. We help businesses like yours streamline their labeling and inventory process – saving them time and money along the way.

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