A retail store associate uses a Zebra EC50 mobile computer to scan the barcode on a shirt while the customer waits at the POS
By Lindsay Fahmi | August 14, 2023

What Your Workers Can and Can’t Scan with Different Types of Mobile Devices

Plus, our experts explain the cost of giving your front-line workers the wrong type of mobile device for barcode scanning applications.

A few months back, we connected with Lindsay Fahmi, Chandra Nair and Andrew Cornell about a new independent study from third-party organization U.S. Ergonomics (US Ergo) that confirmed consumer-grade devices aren’t great for business-class barcode scanning in most use cases and environments. Consumer smartphones lack both the technology and the ergonomics needed to deliver the high-performance scanning experience required to support fast, accurate transactions. The unbiased takeaway from the third-party study was that, if time is of the essence and frequent barcode scanning is par for the course, front-line workers need and want to be equipped with enterprise mobile computers that have a system of thoughtfully placed physical triggers, advanced aimers, and integrated scan engines.

Since that post, some questions have arisen about whether there are scenarios in which consumer smartphones might be sufficient for front-line scanning actions. So, we reconnected with these three experts to continue the conversation and get you answers.

Your Edge Blog Team: We’re often asked what customers can and can’t do with different types of barcode scanners. So, I’m curious if there is anything specifically that can be done with an enterprise device that has an integrated scan engine that absolutely cannot be done with a camera-based scan system.

Andrew: Scan engine aimers enable users to activate what we call “picklist” mode. Essentially, this allows the user without having to interact with the device screen to scan a specific barcode quickly even when multiple barcodes are in the field of view. This is difficult to do quickly with a consumer smartphone camera scanning solution, given that such solutions require the user to interact with the device screen to scan. 

Additionally, there are instances when workers may need to scan multiple barcodes at the same time – for example, when they’re trying to take inventory or verify what’s on a pallet. They may even need to report the captured barcode data in a specific order. These types of “multi-barcode” scans cannot be accomplished as easily with many consumer scanning applications. So, if you’re trying to improve workflows and reduce transaction times, you absolutely need to think about barcode scanning – and scanning technologies – in the context of desired outcomes. If workers need “first time, every time” data capture capabilities to queue bust, get orders out the door on time, or maintain shelf stock stability, then you need to be looking at enterprise-grade devices with integrated scan engines designed for scanning workflows– not consumer devices. You’ll still have plenty of options to choose from, so it’s not like you’re pigeonholed into a set of devices that will break the bank. 

Your Edge Blog Team: Speaking of budget…there are clear advantages to the enterprise-grade system in scan-intensive workflows, yet I know some argue there is still a strong business case for consumer smartphones in the workplace. For example, we know budget factors a lot into technology buying decisions, as well as perceived convenience of just letting workers use their own devices. But are there true cost savings if you’re not getting as many orders out the door? And what is your cost-benefit analysis of the “convenience” argument?

Lindsay: It’s not as convenient as you think when IT has to manage workflow applications, business system access, and security on multiple types of consumer devices. And it’s certainly not “convenient” – or cost saving – when you can’t get as much inventory moved or as many orders or payments processed each day. 

I can’t imagine anyone making the convenience argument in healthcare, either. In fact, in Zebra’s latest Healthcare Vision Study, nearly half of the surveyed executives say they now provide employees with hospital-owned devices intended for healthcare because they recognize that clinicians need durable and rugged devices and IT teams need an easier way to remotely manage mobile device fleets. Plus, eight-in-10 respondents who have already adopted clinical mobility solutions report an increase in medical workflow accuracy and precision as well as a reduction in preventable medical errors (that could otherwise cost them a lot more money than they would spend on the enterprise devices).

If you want to calculate the total cost of ownership (TCO), you must compare all the benefits you gain – or lose – by your device choice. With enterprise devices, you’ll always get more personalized and long-term support and service options when compared to consumer devices. It doesn’t matter if you choose a device like the TC52ax or the EC55. Something else that is a consistent value-add with enterprise devices is their overall ruggedness, which equates to solution longevity and a lower TCO. Security and software updates factor here, too, as you’ll be able to maintain the devices in a like-new performance state for five-to-10 years at least. That’s not something that will be possible with consumer devices. Operating system support may even after 2-3 years, which means device security and performance will lack after that point as well.

Your Edge Blog Team: Though US Ergo used the Zebra TC52ax mobile computer in this study, there are different classes of enterprise-grade devices available – some tailored to specific business applications and others designed to accommodate different budgets. So, I’m curious if you would expect a more budget-friendly enterprise device that has an integrated scan engine to still outperform a premium consumer device?

Lindsay: I can say that any Zebra device that has an enterprise-grade scan engine built in would be expected to outperform a device that relies on a camera to capture barcode data. Even mobile computers like the Zebra TC21 and TC26 that have been right-sized and right-priced for small business use – and may not have all the bells and whistles of premium enterprise devices – will be a better choice for scan-intensive business applications because they have an integrated scan engine. 

Andrew: Let me put it this way: consumer devices typically lack the scanning features and capabilities needed to improve productivity, while all these features and capabilities are typically offered in enterprise scan engine solutions. For example, Zebra’s enterprise-class scan engine algorithms accommodate blurry images or less-than-ideal lighting, so the user does not need to wait on the perfect image. This is something that can take time to achieve with consumer device cameras. Enterprise scanning systems also feature aimers designed specifically for intuitive use. By that I mean that a worker equipped with an enterprise mobile computer won’t have to “hunt” for barcodes or waste time trying to perfectly line up the device screen with the barcode – something that is necessary when using a camera-based system. Zebra device aimers are visible across long distances and outside, allowing users to instantly target barcodes in those scenarios.

Chandra: And don’t forget that even budget-class Zebra mobile computers are designed and purpose-built with ergonomics in mind. For example, the physical trigger buttons have been thoughtfully placed on the sides of these devices to make it comfortable and convenient to scan barcodes. Combine that with the aimer and the performance scan engine placed at the top of the device, and you get the quick, comfortable point and shoot simplicity that you won’t find on a consumer smartphone.

Your Edge Blog Team: Though the study findings were mostly objective, measured through well-defined and managed end-user testing, we did solicit user feedback on comfort, performance, and efficiency. How much influence do you believe workers should have on technology buying decisions? For example, if workers say, “we like these devices better because they felt easier to use,” should that have just as much weight as other selection criteria?

Chandra: It’s always important to take user feedback into account when making technology decisions, just as we always take user feedback into account when making technology design decisions. If workers aren’t happy with the devices they’re using, or the devices are not comfortable to use, then it’s possible they’ll stop using them and find workarounds. Or morale might just drop because they’re literally in pain or frustrated with how difficult it is to scan each barcode. 

One thing you must remember is that cell phone cameras are not really built to be barcode scanners even though they technically have that capability. So, end user ergonomics aren’t factored into design decisions and, as a result, physical issues emerge with extensive use. People may start complaining their wrists hurt or that they must physically exert themselves in unexpected ways to take the “picture” – meaning scan the barcode with the camera. With enterprise-grade devices, you don’t necessarily have those issues. 

Your Edge Blog Team: And with The Great Reshuffling and The Great Resignation still occurring and customer demands exponentially growing, the last thing employers want is for front-line workers to quit over technology being too difficult, painful or frustrating to use. 

Lindsay: You’re absolutely right. In fact, multiple recent studies have shown that people decide where to work based on the type of technology they’re given to do their jobs. So, end users must always be consulted before any buying decision is made, no matter the industry, technology or application. Give them an opportunity to test short-listed devices in a real-world setting for a few weeks. Have them rotate through the devices and then submit honest feedback. Businesses are always under pressure to reduce costs, and decision-makers may think that a consumer-grade device would be good enough. But that “savings” ends up becoming an even bigger expense from inefficiencies that cannot be recouped. Even recently, a big-box retailer that was unhappy with the scanning performance of the thousands of consumer smartphones they deployed, came to us to see if we could help. 

Ultimately, I remind decision-makers that “you’re buying the devices to make workers more efficient and productive. So, if they say one felt easier to use and, as a result, they were able to accomplish more, then that should be the device you choose – as long as it is compatible with your back-end systems and doesn’t require a lot of IT resources to deploy or manage.” 


Editor’s Note: 

You can download the full study report here. You may also be interested in hearing what Zebra customers had to say about the benefits of purpose-built enterprise mobile computers in real-world, scan intensive operations below:


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Lindsay Fahmi
Lindsay Fahmi

Lindsay Fahmi has been part of Zebra’s Enterprise Mobile Computing (EMC) Division for over a decade, having spent time in different roles across hardware, software, and most recently managing the EMC data capture portfolio, from the camera and scan engines to OCR and emerging data capture technologies. This mix of experience has allowed her to see how all parts of a mobile computing solution can either make a front-line worker’s job easy or make it hard.

Lindsay also serves on EMC's Patent Committee, is a tech enthusiast with a passion for User Experience Design, and believes the world of the Jetsons is not that far off

She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Eastern Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in business administration from Southern Connecticut State University.

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