Review: Intermec SF51 bluetooth handheld barcode scanner

Lock your doors!  Hide the children in the basement!  I’m about to share with you my personal experiences with regard to a barcode scanner made by Intermec: the SF51.

Intermec SF51 bluetooth barcode scannerWhat is it?
The Intermec SF51 is a plain old 1D barcode scanner.  Nothing fancy here.  It’s shape is reminiscent of a flashlight.  It has a magnet in the base that can be used to adhere the device to the included belt clip, or just about any metal surface (including a pocket full of keys).  The scanner also comes with a cradle for charging and a USB bluetooth antenna.

The bad news
I’m going to go out on a limb and make an observation here: I have never had as much trouble with a single piece of technology as I have had with every single SF51 we have.  Never.  Never ever ever.  Now, that represents my personal opinion, and is not intended to be in any way a statement against Intermec as a company nor their products.  Perhaps I am the only one who is experiencing these issues.  Maybe we happened to coincidentally get twelve totally defective units.  Yeah, maybe…

Problem 1: the battery
Rechargeable batteries die.  It’s a fact.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter; you can just pop another one in.  Not so with the SF51.  If there is any hint of a battery issue, you must return it to the company for service.  (Which means you’d better not skimp on getting a full service contract on these blessed things.)  What happens when the battery dies?  Lots of fun things.  For instance, right now I have a scanner with a nearly dead battery on my office desk.  It’s still trying to connect to a workstation on the plant floor.  Still.  It’s a zombie.  And if it does connect…well…then other scanners can’t.  Wonderful.  We once had to put such a zombie scanner in a car and drive it away from the building in order to make it stop.  Wow.

Problem 2: the antenna
Oh, it just gets better.  The generic USB bluetooth antenna is innocent-looking.  But under the covers things are not well.  The device creates a virtual serial port through which the PC (Windows only) can communicate with the scanner.  Fair enough.  However, if the phase of the moon happens to change, or someone on the other side of the world burps too loud, the device decides to randomly change its serial port number.  Until you determine what it changed the port to and update your PC’s setting you are totally unable to use the scanner with the PC.

Sometimes scanners will connect to the device successfully, only to refuse to scan anything.  Your port is configured correctly.  Your battery is fully charged.  There are no visible issues.  It.  Just.  Won’t.  Scan.  Expect hours of troubleshooting to be followed by just giving up, putting a spare into service, and sending the malevolent device back to the company.

Sometimes the antenna just disappears entirely.  It doesn’t even show up in the Windows device manager.  It’s just gone.  What do you do then?  Just cry.  That’s all you can do.  That, or if you are made of money and have spares laying around, use one.

Problem 3: the software
You would think that the fact that it’s a bluetooth connection would mean that it should Just Work™.  After all, how many devices (cell phones, for instance) use bluetooth really well and seem to have no issues?  Apparently, however, it was decided that the world would not be complete unless they forced you to use an additional, special software program to interact with the scanner.  It’s called Keyport Lite.  Does that mean there is a Keyport Pro?  I don’t know.  Frankly, I don’t care.  This software is a big part of the reason I am going bald.

You have to configure this program with the number of the serial port that the bluetooth antenna creates.  So, when the antenna decides to open up a can of hate on you by changing the serial port number, this is where you have to match it up.  If it doesn’t match, you don’t scan.

But wait, there’s more!  If you use any language of Windows other than English, I’d like to offer you a moment of silence and my deepest, heartfelt sympathy.  You have been set up to fail.  Keyport Lite requires you to enter a serial number in order to register it when installed.  Normally that is fine and you’ll only do it once.  But, if you use (for instance) a computer which has been configured to use the Japanese language as it’s default Unicode language, you can expect the serial number to get screwed up every time you exit the program.  When it’s screwed up you can’t make the program start communicating with the scanner.  So you have to fix it by keying it back in.  And, when you close the program, it will key it back out.  The only solution I found was to create a copy of a still-good config file and then craft a batch file to copy that file over the normal config file before the program runs.  That way, it can screw up the file a million times on exit and my batch file just keeps replacing it with my good copy before it starts again.

The good
It’s cheap.  I searched just now and found some for around $500.  We have some other bluetooth scanners (Symbol) that cost three times that (but work with none of these issues).  So, if cost is your concern, you could afford to buy at least two times as many of these scanners than you need and still come out ahead.  In that way, you’ll have spare scanners and antennas for dealing with any issues you may have.

When it works, it works.  When the moon is aligned and people stop burping in Russia it actually scans quite well.  It’s got a reasonably fast scanning engine, and it seems to work really well, especially for the cost.  If you can get past it’s temperamental nature, it may work well for you.

I can only tell you of my experiences: I can’t pass absolute judgment on this particular device.  I can, however, tell you that if I could do it all over, I would have purchased a more expensive and reliable scanner instead of these (read: you get what you pay for).  Hopefully you can now make an educated decision with regard to any consideration you may be giving to buying some of these.  That’s my goal.

Mind you, Intermec makes many great products.  I’ve not had issues with their printers at all, or some of their other scanners and handheld data terminals.  But, to me, this technology just was not ready for prime time.

My final recommendation?  Get a demo unit.  Negotiate to keep it for at least a month or two to try it out.  Like I said, maybe I’ve just ended up with a dozen derelict units and perhaps yours will work flawlessly.

[note: Intermec and SF51 are property of Intermec or trademarks or something like that.  Keyport Lite is also a trademark of some company somewhere.  They reserve all rights to these wonderful things.]