When they first came out, many people were baffled about the cryptic symbols on their items and produce. “A QR code?” they asked. “What’s that?”

Today, those strange squares have come to be almost commonplace. While their use in Japan and China has been widely established, North America continues to rely heavily on regular barcodes for merchandising needs and customer use.

What’s the difference between the two?

Here, we’ll explain in simple details the answer to the question everybody has wondered about: QR codes vs barcodes. Which is which?

Current Types

Contrary to popular belief, there are several different types of barcodes.

UPC codes (named EAN codes internationally) are the “old school” ones we all recognize when we go to the score. They’re made up of a bunch of black lines and numbers underneath.

There are also PDF 417s, which are found on drivers’ licenses, and the GS1 Databar. The latter is on prescriptions and other important documents.

And, finally, there are QR codes, which are actually a type of barcode themselves. (Does this bring to mind that adage we learned in math class, that a square is a rhombus, but a rhombus is not a square? It’s very similar.)

However, when we refer to “barcodes” in this article, we’ll be discussing 1-D codes.

More on that later.

QR Codes vs Barcodes

Sure they look different, but what are the functionalities of QR codes and regular barcodes? Does anyone really know?

From their history to how they work, we’ll cover the distinctions of both.

Quick-Response Codes

Quick-response codes, called QR codes for short, are one of the newest ways to store information on products. Like barcodes, they are in basically every store across the US and Europe.


The first QR code was created in the 1990s by Denso Wave, Inc., a company that provides solutions for automation and robotics. It was used to track vehicles. Although the company has received much attention for the creation, it remains a non-licensed product.

How They Work

QR codes work through algorithms, specifically the Reed-Solomon error-correcting algorithm. All the small boxes that make up the code have specific uses. They include several basic parts:

  • The finder pattern helps scanners detect the barcode’s position.
  • The alignment pattern takes distortion factors into condition to better “understand” data.
  • The timing pattern reads the symbols and provides information about module coordinates.
  • The quiet zone helps in easier symbol detection.
  • The encoding region is where all the magic happens. Here, it stores and relays data through binary values and rules: the algorithm.

As you can tell, more is stored on these small squares than meets the eye. When these are scanned, the data triggers an event to occur. That’s why if you scan one on your smartphone, it might bring you to a website.


QR codes offer several advantages. They are smaller for starts, meaning businesses can lend more of a product’s outside to marketing and branding. They are also easier to access, as they are read horizontally or vertically. As a result, they are sometimes called 2-D codes.

And you don’t need a scanner to read them. Anyone can download a free app to their smartphone and scan these types of codes.

QR codes also contain hundreds of times the information regular barcodes do. A commonly-used QR code can encode approximately 4,296 characters of information. The “old school” ones can store as little as 20 characters.

Finally, 2-D codes contain an error margin. This margin gives companies greater flexibility with the code itself. For example, logos or other pictures can be included directly in the code.

That error margin also means that more detailed information is provided about the product itself, including its condition, manufacturer’s information, location, etc. And even if the code’s covered, it can be decoded.


QR codes are extremely popular in Japan in China; some estimates suggest they resulted in as much as $1.65 trillion of mobile payments in 2016. However, these codes are having trouble in America, where many people don’t have the app to read them or simply don’t find them worth their time.

However, usage is on the rise, especially following Apple’s active QR reader, which the company integrated into their camera app.


The typical barcodes you see at the store also contain information, although not as much as QR codes. Still, they are able to relay all the relevant data needed to process and keep track of goods.


The first barcode was scanned in 1974 on a pack of Wrigley’s gum. The inventor, Joe Woodland, first imagined the technology that would one day be incorporated into practically every sector of America as he sat at an Ohio beach. He traced it into the sand as he thought about Morse Code.

How They Work

The “zebra stripes” on barcodes actually have a significant role in the storing of data. In the usual EAN system, 13-digit numbers store information. Bars represent each number and are a specific length and width. Computers read this information.


The 1-D barcodes many are familiar with are advantageous in their own right. They are simpler and less expensive, and yet businesses can still enjoy reduced labor and speedier monitoring or checkouts.


In today’s phone-centric world, many businesses may be losing out on marketing ventures with barcodes. Then again, only about 34% of US smartphone owners have scanned a QR code, so this may be an indication that marketing efforts are best saved for elsewhere.

Additionally, scanners must read them (not a cell or scanner) only horizontally.

Although 1-D barcodes are “old,” they are just as useful as QR codes in creating an efficient workplace and tracking items.

Scan Your Future

Next time someone asks you the difference, you can concisely explain QR codes vs barcodes. We’re sure you’ll look like a regular brainiac.

If you own a business and haven’t invested in barcodes, contact us today. They are a fantastic way to market, reduce labor costs and increase efficiency. Make your company better, and scan your way into the future.