What Are the Differences Between an Aztec Barcode and a QR Code?

One is a black and white square with lots of dots, and the other is a black and white square with — even more dots? To the untrained eye, an Aztec Barcode and QR Code look similar in structure, but their design and applicability differ widely. But what are these differences? And where are they most used?

Get up to speed with the Aztec Barcode vs QR Code, and understand where and how each Code has its own unique features. First: the QR Code.

What is a QR Code?

A QR Code is a type of Code that uses 2D technology, giving it a square shape and the ability to be read horizontally and vertically. Originally designed to improve stocktaking, a QR Code system for inventory management has long been used in places like warehouses and supermarkets. 

Before QR Codes existed, however, inventory management relied on Barcodes — a 1D system of storing information that held much less data. In 1994, DENSO WAVE released QR Code technology to the public, and it could be used to manage inventory that had outgrown the needs of a simple Barcode. 

If you’d like to learn more about the history of QR Codes, check out our guide to “What is a QR Code, and how does it work?” 

How do QR Codes work?

The QR Code format is composed of seven major elements, resulting in a structure a bit like a crossword puzzle made of pixels. These elements determine how the QR Code should be read, what version the QR Code is, how much data it holds, the quiet zone settings, and more. 

The more data that is added to a QR Code, the denser the pixels become. A QR Code can hold up to 4296 characters, and it has an adjustable error tolerance of up to 30%. There is also no limit to how big a Code can be, but there is a minimum QR Code size.

What is a QR Code used for?

While they might have begun their technology journey in the supermarket industry, QR Codes are used for so much more. Due to their flexibility in data storage, ability to connect print to digital, and other uses, they have become popular on a global scale. 

A plethora of industries use QR Codes for everything from sales to marketing. Depending on the scenario, Dynamic QR Codes — a QR Code encoded with a redirect URL — may be used for sharing different kinds of digital information, including videos, images, social media profiles, and even event registration.

How to scan QR Codes

QR Codes can be scanned with any third-party app via smartphone or tablet. In newer models, QR Code scanning technology has been integrated into the camera itself, which makes scanning a QR Code as simple as opening your camera and pointing the lens at the Code. 

If you’re unsure about how this might work with your phone, our guide on how to scan a QR Code will give you a better idea. 

What is an Aztec Barcode?

An Aztec Barcode and the Aztec pyramid the design is based on
An Aztec Barcode and the Aztec pyramid its design is based on

An Aztec Barcode is a scannable matrix barcode and is encoded to store a specific set of data. It uses 2D technology, which means that it can be read horizontally and vertically. The square bullseye pattern moves in pixelated layers from the center outwards. 

An upgraded version of the Barcode, it was invented by Robert M Hussey and Andrew Longacre in 1995. Its technology was officially released to the public in 1997 when the patent was purchased by Aim, Inc. While traditional Barcodes use 1D technology and are only readable horizontally, Aztec Barcodes are similar to a QR Code in that they also use 2D technology. 

Why Aztec? When viewed from above, the mysterious, flat-topped pyramids found in Central and South America have a bullseye shape, similar to that of the synonymous Barcode.

Aztec Barcodes were designed in this way because they require less of a ‘quiet zone’ — the area a Code needs to distinguish it from the designs surrounding it. They also need less space than other similar Codes.

How does an Aztec Barcode work?

An Aztec Barcode format is centered around the central square, with a pattern of different layers. The pattern features square pixel layers of different sizes, such as 9 x 9 pixels, 13 x 13 pixels, 23 x 23 pixels, and so on. When combined, these squares are then encoded with the data the Aztec Barcode holds. 

Its corners also contain larger pixelated markers that indicate the direction in which it should be read, which replaces the need for the ‘quiet zone’ characteristic of other codes. Furthermore, Aztec Barcodes can contain up to 32 layers, which holds up to 1,914 bytes of data. Their size is fully adjustable depending on the amount of data included, and they have an error correction level of up to 23%, which means that even if almost one-quarter of it has been destroyed, the code is still readable.

How are Aztec Barcodes used? 

You might think that you’re more familiar with the ubiquitous cousin of the Aztec Barcode: the QR Code. But Aztec Barcodes pop up in common and everyday places, too: for example, they’re commonly found in the transportation industry, where they function as electronic boarding passes. To check in for a flight or train journey, passengers often have the Aztec Barcode on their boarding passes or tickets scanned. 

Aztec Barcodes are also integrated with Apple Wallet for mobile payments.

An Aztec Barcode on a German train ticket
An Aztec Barcode on a train ticket in Germany

Additionally, Aztec Barcodes are used for important documents such as invoices and car registration. Authorities can determine the legitimacy of documents based on the Aztec Barcode, and customers can also use them to make automatic payments for invoices.

How to scan an Aztec Barcode

Depending on the context, Aztec Barcodes can be scanned with a special Barcode scanner in the camera. However, it’s also possible for iOS and Android smartphones and tablets to scan Aztec Codes with a third-party app.

Aztec Code vs QR Code: which should I use?

QR Codes can do everything that Aztec Barcodes can do, plus much more.

Although Aztec Codes have many useful features, QR Codes still reign supreme. If you need to use a code for marketing or providing contactless services for customers, for example, a QR Code is your better bet. In the Aztec vs QR Code debate, the QR Code wins because it is easier for customers to identify, and there are more readily available online resources for you to use — such as QR Code Generator. 

Need convincing about which kind of Code is the right one for you? Let’s take a look at everything QR Codes have to offer!

They can be added to virtually anything

Due to their flexible size, data capacity, and ability to connect users with digital platforms, QR Codes can be used on just about anything you might need. Whether in the form of a business card QR Code or on a billboard, these humble little codes are more versatile than they look — you can even use QR Codes on TV.

Business Page QR Code in a Dentist's TV commercial prompting viewers to scan and book an appointment
An example of a QR Code being used in a TV commercial

Complete customization options

QR Codes needn’t be a distracting chunk of black and white that detracts from the otherwise sleek design of marketing campaigns. They’re customizable, and there are many different QR Code styles that can add to a company or brand’s overall aesthetic.

Unlike an Aztec code, you also have the option to download QR Codes into four different image file formats (JPG, SVG, PNG, EPS) to give you complete options for how they’re used in your graphic designs.

Video QR Code on product packaging prompting buyers to scan and watch tutorials of how the product works
An example of a custom Video QR Code on product packaging

Endless industry applications

What do gyms, cafes, museums, real estate agencies, or business consultants have in common? They can all use QR Codes to help their businesses in a whole host of ways. QR Codes are so versatile that a multitude of industries have integrated them into their everyday operations.

Want to boost social media followers for your retail brand? Try adding a Social Media QR Code to posters or labels. You’re a real estate agent? Using an Event QR Code for viewings can streamline the process for you and your clients.

QR Code on a For Sale sign prompting potential buyers to scan for more information, interior shots, and to schedule a showing
A QR Code on a real estate property sign encourages property viewing appointments

Editable and trackable

There are different kinds of QR Codes: learn more about the difference between the Static vs Dynamic QR Code in our guide.

Tracking QR Codes offers unique insights into how they’re used. In QR Code Generator PRO, you can access a dashboard of insights for each Dynamic QR Code you create, which lets you see the time a QR Code was scanned, the operating device used, location by city and country, and unique vs total scans. 

Something has changed with your campaign, product, or service? No problem! Dynamic QR Codes are also editable.

Scan tracking statistics available in a QR Code Generator PRO account: scans by time, operating system, country, and city
A demo version of the QR Code scan tracking dashboard

Combinable with digital marketing campaigns

A digital marketing strategy with QR Codes also offers marketers new opportunities, too. When you design your QR Code, the content you upload is also converted into a QR Code short URL. Similar to how URL shorteners are used for social media, QR Codes have this capability so you can keep changing the content even after print. 

All QR Code short URLs are customizable for branding and can be used on digital platforms like email campaigns, so users have the option either to view your content on desktop via the short URL or scan the QR Code to view it via mobile.

Coupon QR Code in a boutique's email campaign prompting recipients to scan and redeem 25% off their new collection
A Coupon QR Code on an email marketing campaign to boost mobile retail purchases

The winner: QR Codes

Aztec Codes have their uses and can contain a lot of information — but for overall ease and accessibility, QR Codes are the clear winner. From menus to billboards, shops, and gyms, there are few places this humble little code has left to conquer, and it’s little wonder why. 

QR Codes can help you glean insights with your marketing campaigns, offer contactless solutions for customers, and much more — so when considering which side of the Aztec vs QR Code divide you stand on, there’s a lot the QR Code has to offer.

Aoife McKeown

Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Aoife has been living and working in Berlin, Germany, since 2012. Her work focuses on creative writing, editing, and marketing copywriting, and she’s currently a Content Writer with Egoditor. Feel free to connect with Aoife on LinkedIn or reach out to her via her website.

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