We talked about barcodes and their many uses in our blog Barcode Basics: A Simplified Guide for Startups. There, we discussed one-dimensional barcodes at length and only made a brief mention of two-dimensional barcodes, aka “2D barcodes.”

These ciphers are also used for data management. They have similar functions as their 1D counterparts but look very distinct. Here, we discuss 2D barcodes and their advantages, drawbacks and applications in retail.


What Are 2D Barcodes?


A 2D barcode is a type of barcode that has both vertical and horizontal components. They are like mathematical matrices, which is why they are also called “matrix barcodes.” Instead of bars and spaces, they use combinations of squares, rectangles, circles, and other geometric shapes to encode information.

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Many 2D barcodes currently in use are internally generated and not issued by standardizing organizations like GS1 and ISO. This means that business establishments can use them without registration and licensing fees. Consequently, they have various applications in many industries, not just retail.

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What Are the Differences Between A 1D and 2D Barcode?

The differences between 1D and 2D barcodes exist, not just because of their form, but also their functions and properties:



Number of Dimensions​

The most obvious difference between 1D and 2D barcodes is the number of dimensions they need for creating distinct patterns. 1D barcodes require only one, whereas 2D ciphers need two.

In 1D barcodes, each character is encoded by combinations of bars and spaces that run in only one direction, either horizontally or vertically. The bars and spaces have variable widths, and unique identifiers are generated from their variations.

In contrast, 2D barcode markings run in both directions, producing geometric patterns in many cases. Unique identifiers are created by combining different shapes and other elements, such as dots, lines, and spaces.


The Presence or Absence of Y-Axis Redundancy​

Y-Axis Redundancy

Redundancy in the y-axis, or the vertical direction, means that a bar or space extends upwards or downwards without changing the barcode’s meaning. The top, middle and bottom portions look the same, so the cipher can be read in any of these regions and yield the same character string.

Y-dimension redundancy is a property of 1D barcodes, but not 2D barcodes. In 2D barcodes, horizontal symbols are flanked by unique markings above and below them. Because there is no wasted space in the vertical direction, 2D barcodes encode more characters per unit area than their 1D counterparts.

One-dimensional barcodes usually generate strings with 10-20 characters. Although some types, like Code 39 and Code 128, can encode much longer combinations, doing so will also make the barcodes too long to fit standard-size labels. In contrast, a single 2D barcode can encrypt thousands of characters and other non-human-readable data, making them suitable for more complicated data storage.


Types of Information Encoded​

Because of y-axis redundancy, 1D barcodes can encode numeric and alphanumeric characters only. Furthermore, the character strings are meaningless if they are not assigned, e. g. to a product and its characteristics.

In contrast, 2D barcodes can encode not just letters, numbers, and symbols but also images, sounds, websites, and other types of information that can be processed by a computer. One 2D barcode can encrypt enough details about a product, eliminating the need for re-assignment.


The Need for an Elaborate Database​

Since 1D barcodes’ character strings have to be assigned to be meaningful, they require lengthier databases for recording those assignments. By comparison, 2D barcodes directly encode items, not meaningless character strings, so they can function even without complicated databases. That reduces the number of steps required in recording business information.


Scanning Technology Required​

One-dimensional barcodes are scanned by laser scanners and some imagers. Matrix barcodes can only be read by imagers, such as those built into camera phones. Imagers are usually good at picking up the intricacies of barcodes. This is one reason why 2D barcode readability is less affected by the factors affecting 1D barcode scanning.



Effect of Contrast

Matrix barcodes can be read with as low as 20% contrast. By comparison, 1D barcodes require 80% contrast. This doesn’t only impact reading efficiency but also the design options for 2D barcodes. With contrast being less of a factor in reading these new-age ciphers, they can use more color combinations than 1D barcodes.



Matrix barcodes are capable of error correction, as they are generated using algorithms that enable them to self-correct. What this means is that you don’t need the entire barcode to be clear to scan it successfully. Other markings will fill out the missing information, in effect, correcting the reading.

Some one-dimensional barcodes, like the UPC and EAN, have a checksum, which lets users identify wrong or counterfeit sequences. However, they do not improve the readability of wrinkled or faded barcode labels.

Bottom line, 2D barcodes are less time-consuming to scan than 1D barcodes.

These differences make 2D barcodes more suitable for some purposes than 1D barcodes.

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What Are the Advantages of 2D Barcodes Over 1D Barcodes?​

The innovations incorporated in 2D barcodes give them certain advantages over 1D barcodes.

Speed Up Information Recording

Make Scanning Faster

More Versatile than 1D

Can Be Printed Small


2D Barcodes Speed Up Information Recording

Matrix barcodes do not need an extra step in setting up a recording database. They can encode plenty of characters and other types of information more efficiently. Eliminating an extra step in recording makes the process more direct and less error-prone.

2d barcodes


2D Barcodes Make Scanning Faster

Matrix barcodes can rely on their self-correcting mechanisms and the imagers’ acuity to make scanning more efficient as well. Since 2D barcodes can be read despite some distortion, they also enable users to save on labels that may be otherwise wasted by barcode reading errors.


2D Barcodes Are More Versatile than 1D Barcodes

Since they can encrypt more types of information, 2D barcodes are more versatile than 1D barcodes. They can directly encode flight information, shipping details, and other data that require addresses. These ciphers can directly encrypt audio, video, and images. They can also be printed in a variety of colors.


2D Barcodes Can Be Printed Small

The error-correction mechanism of 2D barcodes allows you to print them small without affecting their readability or your ability to identify the contents of tiny transparent containers. In contrast, shrinking 1D barcodes seriously impairs their scannability. 

These advantages make 2D barcodes more efficient and effective to use for tasks like bill payment, parcel tracking, visitor identification, and many others.

What Are the Disadvantages of 2D Barcodes Compared to 1D Barcodes?

The following are the main drawbacks of 2D barcodes:

2D Barcodes Are Impractical to Use on Simple Data

Imagers Are More Expensive than Laser Scanners

Printing 2D Barcodes Costs More


2D Barcodes Are Impractical to Use on Simple Data

Matrix barcodes can encrypt a larger amount of data and are thus more appropriate for complex information. They are less practical to use on simpler tasks, such as price tagging, which is one of the main uses of 1D barcodes. You will thus need both barcode types if you want to record a variety of information in your business without wasting resources.


Imagers Are More Expensive than Laser Scanners

Imagers are typically more expensive than laser scanners. However, newer models are now available that are cheaper and able to read both 1D and 2D barcodes. Their prices do not significantly differ from those of laser scanners. Some can even be bought for as low as $20.


Printing 2D Barcodes Costs More

The self-correcting feature of 2D barcodes is not a complete solution for reading errors. While you can print shipping labels and their 2D barcodes with just a 230-dpi printer, some, like small labels, still routinely require higher-resolution printers.

To reduce costs, you can use 1D barcodes for simpler tasks and save 2D barcodes for complex encryptions. For some applications, 2D barcodes do not have to be printed at all and only need to be displayed on a mobile device.

As you can see, these disadvantages are minor in comparison and are easily remedied.

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What 2D Barcodes Are Most Useful in Retail?​

There are a lot of 2D barcodes in use today, but only a few are important in retail. They are briefly described below.

QR Code

[Example of a QR Code]

What Does a QR Code Look Like?

The quick-response code, or “QR code,” is the most commonly used 2D barcode in business today. Visually, it contains prominent squares on three corners—the top left, bottom left, and top right—and the rest is filled with variable combinations of dots, lines, spaces, and other geometric figures.

QR codes encrypt numeric strings, alphanumeric strings, and binary codes, i. e. non-human-readable codes for sound, images, etc. They also encode Japanese characters, as they were originally developed for the Japanese automotive industry.

Where Are QR Codes Typically Used?

Today, QR codes are widely used in the following:

There are many others. The list of the uses of QR codes is long. Most QR codes do not need to be licensed, but GS1 issues its own set of ciphers for its members. 

PDF 417

[Example of a PDF 417 Barcode]

What Does a PDF 417 Look Like?

The portable data format 417, or “PDF 417,” is another highly useful 2D barcode in modern commerce. It contains stacked linear barcodes that are arranged like those on 1D barcodes. PDF 417 has a quiet zone, start code, left row identifier, unique identifier code, right row identifier, and a stop code.

What Are the Uses of a PDF 417?

Today, the main uses of PDF 417 barcodes include the following:

  • Boarding passes
  • Government-issued identification, such as driver’s licenses and visas
  • Inventory management
  • Shipping labels, especially those purchased from USPS

Just like the QR code and your SKUs, PDF 417 barcodes are not usually licensed.

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[Example of a MaxiCode]

What Does a MaxiCode Look Like?

A MaxiCode has a round bull’s eye pattern in the middle, surrounded by variably arranged hexagonal dots. 

What Are the Uses of a MaxiCode?

The MaxiCode system was created by USPS, which is why these ciphers are mainly used in logistics. Presently, they are standardized by ISO.

Data Matrix

[Example of a Data Matrix Barcode]

What Does a Data Matrix Barcode Look Like?

Data Matrix barcodes have dots arranged in a square or rectangular pattern. They are bound by solid lines on the left and bottom sides. They are scalable and can be used for marking small items.

Where Are Data Matrix Barcodes Normally Used?

The main uses of Data Matrix barcodes in retail today are:

Some Data Matrix barcodes are issued by GS1.


[Example of an Aztec Barcode]

What Does an Aztec Barcode Look Like?

Aztec barcodes resemble the top view of Aztec pyramids, hence their name. They have a square bull’s eye pattern in the middle, with surrounding bars and spaces arranged variably. They do not have a quiet zone, and they need less space for printing compared to other 2D barcodes.

What Are the Uses of an Aztec Barcode?

Aztec barcodes are found nowadays in the following:

  • Government
  • Transport
  • Utilities

They are mostly internally generated, although ISO is also issuing its own set of Aztec barcodes.

It is important to be familiar with these barcodes so you can maximize their use in your business. Lastly, remember the many benefits of using a barcode system.

  • Barcodes allow you the privilege of selling in major US stores.
  • They facilitate the transition to international trade.
  • They make logistics and inventory management easy and fast.
  • They promote the efficiency of other tasks.
  • Barcodes enhance workplace security.
  • They protect from internal theft, cargo theft, and porch piracy.
  • They improve patient care.
  • They make a positive impact on the environment.
  • Barcodes are cost-effective to use.


In summary, 2D barcodes are expanded ciphers that can hold more data than their 1D equivalents. Otherwise known as “matrix barcodes,” they are more efficient but tend to be pricier or too complicated to implement. The balanced use of 1D and 2D barcodes in business helps optimize resources.

The five most important 2D barcodes in retail today are the QR code, PDF 417, MaxiCode, Data Matrix, and Aztec barcode. Familiarity with these ciphers helps businesses in many ways.

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