What is the Difference between an RFID Tag and a QR Code?

While both an RFID tag and a QR Code are used for product inventory management, the technology behind their functionality differs heavily. This article gives an overview of how they both work, what they’re used for, and how to scan them.

What is RFID?

Originally invented in 1980 by Charles Walton, RFID stands for Radio-frequency Identification, meaning it uses a radio to transmit data. RFID has quite an interesting history behind it. Its ancestor was used as a listening device for the Soviet Union just before the Cold War. The device gained popularity until it was developed into a passive radio transponder with memory in 1973 to be used as a toll device. As demand grew for large product inventories, a more powerful technology was needed to keep track of individual products, which is where the modern form of RFID was put into action.

How do RFID tags work?

RFID uses electromagnetic fields (radio waves) to identify and track objects with tags. These tags are attached to other objects based on an electronic chip, in which the chip transmits the inventory number to an antenna and then an RFID reader.

A four-step graphic overview of how FRID tags work
A graphic overview of how RFID tags work

There are two types of RFID tags: active and passive. Passive RFID tags are powered by the radio waves themselves and active RFID tags are powered by a battery, making them readable from a distance up to hundreds of meters. In either case, a special RFID reader is required to transmit the data from the RFID tag to the computer database. Their data capacity is fully flexible depending on the context.

What is an RFID tag used for? 

In addition to product inventory management and tracking, RFID tags have a wide range of applications. They are often added to company cars, computer equipment, and even animals during transportation. Particularly when an active RFID tag is used it extends its capabilities to include toll collection, making documents machine-readable, tracking for the timing of sports events, and billing processes.

How an RFID tag works on a company vehicle
An RFID tag used on a company transportation vehicle

What are QR Codes?

QR Codes were also developed to improve product inventory management systems in 1994, but they don’t use any radio-based technology. Instead, they function much more like a Barcode, which uses a rectangular shape that’s read horizontally. QR Codes take Barcode technology a step further by using a square shape, meaning they can be read both horizontally and vertically. This feature sped up loading times, increased data capacity, and improved error resistance, which is why they’ve become so widely used today.

QR Code use with product inventory management and the information available after scanning
QR Codes have better functionality than Barcodes for product inventory management

How do QR Codes work?

QR Codes are made up of 7 different elements that complete their square shape. These seven elements determine aspects like how the QR Code is read, how much data it holds, the level of error correction, and the quiet zone (space that distinguishes the QR Code from its surroundings). In order to read their data, you can simply use any smartphone to scan the image of the QR Code.

What are QR Codes used for?

QR Codes can be used for practically any situation where your goal is to provide convenient access to digital information. This of course still applies to product inventory management, but they’re also useful for business and marketing purposes such as digital business cards, growing social media followers, sharing images, videos, and PDFs, planning events, and much more.

Reasons why QR Codes are better than RFID tags

If you’re looking to do a comparison between RFID tags and QR Codes, QR Codes are a much better option in the majority of cases. They don’t need complicated technology to be read, have no limit to scan distances, and can even be customized for a particular brand. So, here are the reasons why you should opt for QR Codes instead of RFID tags.

#1 Simplified scanning and data readability

While an RFID tag requires a special scanner to read and transmit the data to a computer, QR Codes can be scanned with any smartphone. QR Code scanning is always possible with a third-party app, and newer smartphone versions have even automated QR Code scanning with the camera (iOS and Android). Plus, when a QR Code is scanned via mobile, then the data or content within that QR Code is directly readable on your smartphone.

The process of scanning a QR Code on a dentist's brochure and viewing its contents within seconds
Scanning a QR Code and viewing its content takes mere seconds and only a smartphone

#2 No limit to scan distance

Even though active RFID tags can be scanned from hundreds of meters away, QR Codes can be scanned from extremely far away distances – without a battery to power them, too. All you need for a QR Code to work is to design the image and print it. And if you want it to be scanned from far away, make the image larger. As long as the square shape is maintained and the image has a high resolution, your scan distance is limitless.

The proper QR Code scan size and radius in relation to scan distance
An example of QR Code scan radius depending on scan distance

#3 Less chance of errors

When you choose a QR Code, you choose the option that decreases your chances for errors. RFID tags are based on radio wave technology, so if they’re damaged in any way, are out of range from the scanner, or lose battery power, they will no longer work. It makes much more sense to rely on a QR Code because it’s based on just a simple image. Plus, their error resistance is up to 30%, meaning that a third of the QR Code can be damaged and still function. When all you need is a smartphone to scan them, it makes them a much more durable and less complex option.

#4 Customization for branding

One major advantage of QR Codes is branding—something that RFID tags have absolutely nothing of. RFID tags are not meant for marketing, because they’re basically just metallic chips placed in silicon. But QR Codes are becoming an increasingly popular tool, because of what they can do for marketing campaigns. First off, you can style them however you need, including brand colors, custom frames with an editable CTA (call to action), different edges, and your logo in the middle.

QR Code customization panel in a QR Code Generator account
QR Code customization panel in QR Code Generator

What’s more, QR Codes are downloadable as 4 different image file formats (JPG, SVG, EPS, PNG), making them easy to customize further and add them to your own graphic designs.

#5 Flexible marketing

The second reason QR Codes are useful for marketing is due to their flexibility. There are QR Codes for every type of marketing campaign, both print and digital, or even a combination of both. If you want to use QR Codes on digital platforms, you can use its short URL. Every QR Code you designed automatically comes with a customizable short URL which speeds up loading times to the content you connect, as well as gives users the option to view it via desktop, tablet, or mobile. Use QR Codes on large-scale billboard ads, print business cards, or even email marketing campaigns. With this fact in mind, it’s a no-brainer why QR Codes are the winner.

QR Code in an email marketing campaign prompting the reader to scan or click the Code to save the date for an open house viewing
An example of a QR Code in an email marketing campaign

#6 Editing and tracking

There are two further reasons why QR Codes completely beat RFID tags: editability and trackability. While there are certain types of RFID tags that are editable, the process is difficult and requires complex updates to the device itself. But if you need to edit a QR Code, all you need to do is choose a Dynamic version, and then it’s always updatable from within your QR Code Generator account. You can even completely change your type of QR Code (for example swap out images for a video) without having to create a new QR Code.

Scan metrics for a QR Code campaign
A demo version of scan metrics for a QR Code campaign with QR Code Generator PRO

Regarding trackability, yes RFID tags are trackable, but not as comprehensively as QR Codes are for marketing. When you use QR Codes for marketing, you can track the related scan data based on location by city and country, scans over time, operating device used, and unique vs. total scans. What’s more, you can even integrate QR Code campaigns with Google Analytics to get full oversight on everything from the QR Code scan up to the final purchase.

Now that you’ve got the facts, it’s clear as day as to why QR Codes are the true winner!

Adriana Stein

Adriana Stein is a Freelance Content Writer for Egoditor GmbH and is originally from Oregon, USA. She is now based in Hamburg, Germany, and specializes in creating and managing SEO and content marketing strategies for businesses across a variety of industries. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn!

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