Unitech MS912 – BIG BOSS Review

Unitech has just updated the MS910 with a new housing, IP42 rating, real time clock and 2mb of data storage. With the same scan engine as the MS910, the MS912 can scan 20,000 12-digit (or bigger) barcodes into memory. It has an IP42 rating, can withstand 5 foot drops to concrete and comes with a 1-year warranty. Street price for the Unitech MS012 barcode scanner will be in the $150-$190 range.

What will sell the MS912 is the fact that you can pair and run it as a bluetooth keyboard in iOS and Android and presumably any other operating system that recognizes a bluetooth keyboard. It seems the main additional feature of the MS912 is the ability to collect data into memory and with a time stamp when you don’t have a bluetooth connection. Surprisingly, that design aspect of the MS912 over the MS910 presumably assumes the value of collecting data without a host connection so the user isn’t encumbered with carrying a host device during the data collection process. Unfortunately, the paradigm is that the user always has a host available to them in the form of at least a smartphone.

The Unitech MS910 gives you 2 connection options: HID and SPP. To HID pair requires scanning in a PIN for authentication. If you have any experience with this, you’ll know it’s challenging. I have a hard time getting the 6-digit pairing code from my bluetooth keyboard to my blackberry right and I don’t have to a) scan a start code, b) identify and scan each digit of the host pin in the time limit and c) scan the stop code – all within the time limit the host is using for pairing timeout. With a HID connection, you need to double-click the scan button or scan a barcode to toggle the host’s soft keyboard – but this feature only works for iOS devices. We found the double press process confusing and a bit unreliable.  There doesn’t appear to be a way to do ‘mixed mode’ entry, scanning and using the soft keyboard at the same time.

Connecting via SPP (serial port protocol aka serial port emulation) mode allows you to connect via COM port over bluetooth. To use SPP you either need an App that has SPP communications built in (no word on an SDK) or with the recommended “BluetoothConnect” app that is very like old time keyboard wedge software that we used to run on green-screen terminals back in the day. Unfortunately, it seems BluetoothConnecf is available for Android 3.0 and higher only. The documentation hints at making an SPP connection to a PC, but offers no hints of what desktop software to use. Note that there is no provision to use the USB cable as a SPP connection conduit so you’re left with a lot of variables trying to get the MS912 to work with a PC or Mac in SPP..

What sells a dedicated barcode scanner over a camera based barcode scanner in the mobility space is the former’s ability to scan quickly, efficiently and accurately. Designed to scan 1-dimensional barcodes only, the MS912 uses the same CCD based linear imager scan engine as the MS910. The specifications indicate the MS912 will scan a 5mil Code 39 barcode at a focal length of  0.6″ and 2.3″ off the barcode. The next spec given is for Code 39 of 13mil resolution (1.2″ – 5.5″ focal length). Using Code 39 as the grading criterion for a barcode scanner is quite odd. Using the MS912 indicates why the specs are written as they are. It has a shorter than expected focal length compared to anything that passes as a barcode scanner on today’s market. While there ARE applications where this scanner can be appropriate, if your usage requires scanning different symbology barcodes or different density barcodes of the same symbology, the scan distances vary widely. Normal scan distance is between 6-10 inches on conventional barcode scanners typically on a 7mil UPC code. As you move to lower resolution barcodes, (less characters per inch) the focal length improves to a point. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough power / light generated by the scanner so you can get read distances over 12 inches. I found that the process of scanning multiple symbologies or even the same symbology at multiple densities very uncomfortable and frustrating. With its low price point, we’re left to wonder if Unitech cut costs here instead of somewhere else.

The Unitech MS912 is a welcome addition to meeting the needs of the burgeoning mobility market. In fairness, we saw some shortcomings of the product in our testing and evaluation. This is what Unitech could have improved:

  • In addition to not having enough power / light coming out the scan aperture, the scanner itself is under powered. Given the manufacturer’s habit of quoting the “best possible” specifications, it appears that you’ll only scan 5000 barcodes to memory before you run out of battery power. Imagine spec’ing a design where the memory exceeds the ability to fill it by a factor of four!
  • The charging connector is on the side of the device, so if you deploy these in numbers, you’re not going to be able to cradle them. The best you’ll be able to do is to have octopus cables coming out of USB hubs
  • The documentation is confusing and sometimes contradictory. We were early adopters of the MS910 and got used to the problems, but it will be difficult for the general user to decode what the instructions really mean. For example, the QuickStart guide clearly indicates that there is a “non-memory” version available (nope!) and that it has 2kb RAM for data storage (?). Contradictions like that are what cause customers to kick a product to the curb as they iterate for solutions.
  • Controlling the MS912 is done by control barcodes. If you need to disconnect the bluetooth connection, you have to scan a barcode. Then you need to scan a barcode to reconnect. You scan a barcode to turn off memory if you’re going to use the scanner full time with a host. Or scan a barcode to enable memory if you’re scanning in batch mode. Don’t forget which memory option you selected or you run the risk of scanning without a connection and the data being lost or scanning with a connection and inadvertently running out of memory and dealing with that error. If you want to batch stored data…. another barcode. Yet another to clear memory. Make a mistake when scanning? You can scan a barcode to delete the last record, but you’ll not know what it was. I think you’re getting the idea.
  • Unitech advertises that the device has 2mb RAM, but it’s a little dishonest. If reading 12 digit UPC codes, you should be able to store 166,700 barcodes, but they’re advertising 20,000. 2 mega-bytes divided by 20,000 barcodes would give you a record length of 100 characters – a nice, round number. Some of the space will be taken up with a time stamp (max of 20 characters), so if you’re logical, it appears Unitech has planned for you to be scanning 90 character barcodes. But wait! The manual indicates that you get not only the barcode data and date/time, but also an item number and field separator. Assume the item number is 6 digits and you have you have 3 field separators we’re now up to around 30 characters per record to administrative data. That means that Unitech is anticipating the longest barcode we’ll scan is 70 characters? Unfortunately, the physical limitations of the CCD imager mentioned above will keep you from ever doing that. So it appears we’re paying for memory we’re not allowed to use.

In summary, the Unitech MS912 is the memory version of the MS910 with the a little more bulk and durability., but the same scan engine problems as the MS910. While not for every applicaiton, the MS912’s price point and size / durability / functionality matrix make it a barcode scanner you may want to design your process around.