AML Blog - The Scan

How to Choose the Best Handheld 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 model for your workload and environment. The first factor you need to consider before making a decision is whether you need a “batch” or “wireless” device.

  • A batch handheld computer stores data directly on the device as it is scanned or keyed in and it stays in the memory of the device until connected to a computer and uploaded.
  • A 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 the wireless LAN, to a server running the host software application.

Next, you need to determine how it will be used. Is the work environment light, medium or heavy-duty? The size, functionality and ruggedness of the handheld computer changes from application to application. Be careful to select a device that will survive your harshest conditions without being overkill. Ruggedness comes at a price.

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. Here’s what to look for:

Pistol grip handle

Many handheld computers come with the option of pistol grip handle. The handle usually contains the trigger for the barcode scanner, which is much easier to activate then pushing a button on the keypad. If the environment calls for hundreds or thousands of scans per shift, the pistol grip handle is the way to go. Look for a model where the battery is installed in the handle. The weight of the battery lowers the center of gravity of the device making it much more comfortable to hold. Handles add cost to the unit, but for scan-intensive environments, it’s worth the investment.

Battery life

The life of the battery 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.


With any handheld computer, some type of software will be required for the user to carry out their tasks. For wireless devices, it may be as simple as a web browser which is almost always available on Windows devices. Other applications may require “terminal emulation” (TE) software which is used to generate text-based screens originating from a host application on a server. Some handheld computers come with TE clients already installed, while others do not, in which case the user must purchase them separately then install them. Pre-loaded, ready to go is always best for obvious reasons.

Batch handheld devices need to have software loaded on them that creates the screens the user sees and then stores the data for upload later. These software applications are either created by a program generator or written by an experienced developer. Ideally the device will come with some simple pre-written applications already loaded and then some form of a program generator that allows the user to modify these applications or create their own.


When you’re buying a handheld 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 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

Handhelds 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?

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 computer. The right one will be easy to implement, use and maintain without causing disruptions to your workflow.

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