What’s the Difference Between Barcode and RFID?


Barcode and RFID are two different forms of technology that are used for reading and collecting data. Although they are both commonly used for asset tracking and inventory tracking in business, their capabilities and how they work differ significantly in some ways. Understanding how each works, including the advantages and disadvantages of each, can help you choose which technology is the best for your business.

barcode vs rfid

Barcode Technology

Most businesses are familiar with the barcode inventory system as a means of managing and tracking stock inventory. In retail sales, the use of barcode also allows for swift checkout.

Barcodes require the use of an optical barcode reader or scanner. The scanner decodes the barcode’s black bars, which generally represent a series of numbers. The decoded information is sent to a computer, which interprets what has been read. This information typically contains data regarding the manufacturer, the product, and, when applicable, the price.

To scan a barcode, it must be oriented properly and the scanner must have an unobstructed view of it. This is referred to as the line of sight. Without a clear line of sight, the scanner may be unable to read the barcode. This is one of the primary differences between a barcode inventory system and RFID, as the latter does not require a line of sight.


RFID Technology

Radio frequency identification or RFID technology reads information by using radio frequencies as opposed to an optical laser. RFID inventory management systems require tags and an RFID reader.

Each RFID tag contains a microchip that holds information about the item to which it is associated. The most widely used and inexpensive tags, passive ultra high frequency (UHF) tags, typically will only contain a basic identification number; other RFID tags are capable of holding up to 8 KB of data, anything from price to color, manufacturing date, shipping date, expiration date, maintenance history, and more. Each tag includes a radio antenna that allows it to receive signals from a reader.

In a passive RFID system, the reader, which also has its own antenna, sends out radio signals that activate tags that come within range. Readers receive the signals that are bounced back from the tag and are able to capture the unique identification information about the item or asset. In some cases, the reader is also able to write or encode information directly onto the tags. Software on the reader is then able to pass information about the item information to an organization’s back-end systems.


Additional Differences

Line of sight is just one of the many differences between the two, however. Companies that utilize barcode tracking software, whether for fixed assets or inventory, require human labor to scan each label separately. But when a business uses RFID tracking software, potentially hundreds of tags may be read per second, as the tags are activated by radio signals from the reader. As a result, the time it takes to perform activities that require scanning many items can be drastically reduced.

Additionally, RFID tags may be read from as far as 50 feet away. RFID technology is also not hampered by some of the common problems that affect barcode scanning, such as dirty, torn, or obstructed labels. Barcode labels are susceptible to these problems because they typically are printed onto paper or plastic, both of which are easy to damage. RFID tags come in many form factors, from paper labels to extremely durable hard plastics. RFID use, however, can be hindered by metals and certain liquid materials. These elements can interfere with radio signals, making it difficult or impossible for the reader to accurately interact with tags.

In addition to efficiency and effectiveness, cost can also be a major factor when considering a tracking system for one’s assets and inventory. Barcode asset tracking can be considerably cheaper than implementing an RFID asset tracking and/or inventory tracking system. From tag or label media to specialized readers and antenna, RFID system components should be selected for their suitability to an organization’s specific environmental conditions and the items they need to track.

The two are different in many ways, and one is not necessarily better than the other. Ideally, a company should evaluate its inventory or fixed asset tracking needs and weigh the positive and negative differences between barcodes and RFID tags.


Here’s a recap of the differences between barcode and RFID technology:


Read MethodRadio signalsOptical scanner
Line of SignNot requiredRequired
Read Range0 – 50 feet0 – 10 inches
Read RateMany at onceOne at a time
Tag DurabilityCan be very durableNot usually durable
CostTypically more expensive than barcodeTypically less expensive than RFID


Need additional help?

RedBeam Asset Tracking combines the two technologies, providing a complete barcode and RFID solution in one. Essentially it’s RFID asset tracking software that also supports barcode asset tracking for the same price or lower than most barcode-only systems. If you’re not sure which is best for your organization, we can help. Our friendly and knowledgeable application specialists are standing by to assist you.