AML Blog - The Scan

How to Choose the Best Handheld Mobile Computer for Barcode Data Collection

When it comes to choosing a handheld computer for barcode data collection, you want to end up with the best mobile device that fits your business environment. Here are a few basic fundamentals to help make the right choice.

Connectivity – Wireless or Batch Barcode Scanning

The first factor you need to consider before making a decision is whether you need “batch” or “wireless” mobile computers.  In almost every case, this decision will be driven by what you intend to do with the data you collect.  Is it simply going into a spreadsheet for manual manipulation, or is it going into a host software system like an ERP accounting system or a Warehouse Management System (WMS)?

  • batch handheld computerA batch handheld computer stores data directly on the device as it is scanned or keyed in.  It stays in the memory of the device until connected to a computer and then uploaded.  Typically, the data is uploaded using a USB connection, but in some cases, a Wi-Fi connection is used.  Either way, an entire file or collection of scans and entries are uploaded at once.  In this way, the data is uploaded as a “batch” of data, hence the name batch handheld computer.
  • Striker mobile computerA wireless handheld computer is the real-time alternative to batch data collection. These devices will be equipped with a Wi-Fi radio for communicating over a wireless LAN, to a server running the host software application.  Every barcode scan or entry of field data is transmitted over the Wi-Fi network to the server, and into the ERP or WMS software.  Consequently, data becomes available to users much faster with a wireless, real-time system than with a batch system.  However, the host operating software must accommodate this interface.  Generally speaking, if the host software can be accessed using a web browser, or has a dedicated mobile app (APK), or supports a terminal emulation connection, it is intended for real-time wireless connectivity with mobile computers.

The Type of Operating System for Mobile Computers

With the withdrawal of Microsoft® from the mobile computing space, no mobile computers or data collection devices are being produced with a Windows® operating system.  Dominating the space now is Android®, which is not only a major player in the smartphone market but is the only option when it comes to rugged mobile computers built specifically for data collection applications.   Android has many advantages over the older Microsoft® options.  For one, it’s free.  There is no license fee associated with the operating system.  Two, it’s open source.  The actual base code, or “kernel” for Android is Linux, which is open source, meaning developers can freely modify or add code to meet their specific application requirements.  The only real downside to Android is that it is fueled by the smartphone market and is constantly being updated to offer new features, so a new version is released every year.  No surprise, as Android evolves it requires more and more processing power and memory, and eventually, the newest version of Android simply won’t run efficiently on a mobile computer that was purchased just 3 or 4 years ago.  So, companies determined to stay current and up-to-date with their Android devices may find themselves refreshing/replacing them more often than they have in the past with Windows® devices.

Form Factor and Working Conditions

Next, you need to determine how it will be used, by whom, and in what type of working environment. Is the work environment light, medium or heavy-duty? The size, functionality, and ruggedness of a handheld mobile computer change from one organization to the next, and sometimes from one task to another in the same organization. Be careful to select a device that will survive your harshest conditions without being overkill.  Do you need a mobile computer that can survive a 6’ drop to concrete?  Will it be taken in and out of a freezer?  What temperature range will it be subjected to? Ruggedness and durability will come at a price, but the price might be justified if the barcode scanners are subjected to harsh environments and even abuse that will keep them in the service center longer than in the hands of your operators.

The Ergonomics of a Pistol-Grip Handle

After you’ve determined how rugged of a device you’ll need, you must consider the best basic form factors and functionality of the handheld computer. Many mobile computers come with the option of a pistol-grip handle. The handle usually contains the trigger for the barcode scanner, which is much easier to activate than pushing a button on the keypad. If the environment calls for hundreds or thousands of barcode scans per shift, the pistol-grip handle is the way to go. Handles can add cost to the unit, but for scan-intensive environments, it’s worth the investment.  However, handles also add bulk and weight to the mobile computer.  Oftentimes user preference should be the deciding factor.  What are they more comfortable with?  Fortunately, many handheld mobile computers are available with and without pistol-grip handles.

Battery Life of Handheld Computers

The life of the battery of handheld computers is crucial in most data collection applications. The trick to finding the right battery for your handheld computer is knowing your workload. Try to “guesstimate” how many scans the user may need to make during a single shift. Each time the scan button is pushed, or the trigger is pulled, the device will consume the most power. Ask your vendor how many scans you can get out of a single battery charge. If they can’t tell you, beware. When comparing battery specifications, be careful which data you use. Batteries will have different voltage ratings, e.g. 3.7 VDC or 7.4 VDC, and different current specifications identified in “mAh.” Never compare these specifications independently. The true comparison of the total power available is “watt-hours.” To get to this rating, multiply the voltage by the mAh rating and then divide by 1,000. Example: 7.4V x 2,600 mAh = 19,240/1000 = 19.2 watt hours. The higher this number, the longer the battery will last. It may seem trivial, but in fast-paced environments, having to replace the battery takes time the user may not have.

Mobile Computer Accessories

When you’re buying a mobile computer, the right accessories are crucial when choosing the best one. Make sure your vendor makes it easy to identify what accessories are critical. Ideally, the vendor should bundle accessories to make it less likely that something will be left out. The handheld computer should come with a battery, charging cradles should come with power supplies and line cords, mounting brackets should come with hardware, etc. Be leery of the vendor that only sells everything a la carte.

Technical Support for Your Handheld Mobile Computers

Mobile computers with integrated barcode scanners are technical devices that are subjected to hard work and sometimes abuse. Good technical support is crucial for both phone support and break-fix repair. Is the service center immediately accessible or do you have to “take a number” and wait for a return call… or even worse, is the first line of support a self-serve knowledge base posted on a website? Are the support technicians knowledgeable and helpful? Is the repair depot centrally located and does it have a reputation for reasonable turnaround times? Are there a variety of extended warranties and maintenance programs available to choose from?  These are all reasonable questions to pose to any vendor.  Almost every manufacturer will offer the opportunity to enhance the coverage and time of the device warranties, extending the duration of the factory warranty and also covering more damage and abuse scenarios. While these additional coverages may seem expensive at the outset, they can pale in comparison to the cost of “flat rate repairs” if your devices are subjected to abnormally high levels of abuse and incidental damage.

The Benefits of Barcode Scanning Mobile Computers for Automatic Data Capture

To experience all of the benefits of barcode data collection – a decrease in manual operations, paperwork, and operational costs, as well as increased speed and accuracy in daily operations – you must make sure that you choose the best handheld computers for your specific needs. The right one will be easy to implement, use, and maintain without causing disruptions to your workflow.

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