December 29, 2000

Review: CueCat barcode scanner

Author: JT Smith

- by Jeff Field -

Several weeks ago I received a package in the mail from Wired. It contained a curious little catshaped device meant to be used with the included Windows software to scan a barcodes from a magazine or newspaper and open a corresponding sponsor's Web site. Of course, before most of the people this thing was targeted at even figured out what it was, Open Source developers began writing drivers and software to make the Cue:Cat useful for other purposes.
The problem
The problem is that the Cue:Cat's creator, Digital Convergence, doesn't like people using their hardware without their software present. (Therearemanyarticles dealing with the subject.) But that is not why I am writing today. I am writing to review the unit itself and the Open Source software available for it.

The device
The device itself is simple, as it consists of a PS/2 pass-through that you connect between your computer and your keyboard, and the cat-shaped reader itself. The reader is about the length of a mouse but roughly half as wide. The only external working part is the "eye" that reads the barcodes. As far as the physical operation of the unit goes, there isn't much to say. How the CueCat works with your computer is another story.

The Cue:Cat, as I said, uses a pass-through connection to your PS/2 port in order to transmit the data to the PC. Surprisingly, this device works even through my Belkin Omnicube, something I didn't expect since it's something that isn't a mouse or keyboard, and the designers of both products probably did not anticipate such a situation. Never the less, I can switch flawlessly between machines and the Cue:Cat works in all cases.

The software
If you go to a console and scan a barcode with the Cue:Cat, you get the raw, undecoded data the Cue:Cat sends. To make the Cue:Cat useful, you either need to use it with programs that understand and decode the data it sends or you need some sort of driver that will interpret and decode the information automatically. There are many such solutions for Linux, Windows, BeOS and others, and you should have little trouble finding free CueCat software for your preferred desktop OS.

The first type of software I will go over takes raw Cue:Cat data, decodes it, and displays the contents of the barcode, be it ISDN, UPC or any other sort of barcode. These programs have limited usefulness, because in the time it takes to decode the barcode of most things, you could probably just read the number off the back of the item (unless the number isn't given). Programs like this are PHatCat, catscan, CCScan, Cuehack, FooCat, jQKat, KittyCode, Perl CueCat Decoder, qccat and Skincat.pl. What these programs do is very basic. They take the data from the Cuecat and change it into numerical format.

The second type of software available for the Cue:Cat is more useful. This is software that takes the data read from the Cue:Cat does something with it. The first program I played with gthat does this is WebQcat. WebQcat is a web-based Cue:Cat parser that takes raw Cue:Cat data inputted through a browser, takes the ISBN of a book, and looks up the information on the book at several websites. My only problem with this is that most of the time, when you scan a book you get the UPC and not the ISBN, so the lookup failed. Perhaps this is user error, but I haven't seen anything telling me where to get an ISBN barcode.

The next program, and perhaps the most useful I have found, is a program called QBookCollector. QBookCollector takes barcodes of books scanned with the CueCat, looks up the information on the book from Amazon.com and stores the information on your books in a MySQL database. This is the most interesting use I've seen so far, and one you'd think Digital Convergence might want to look into - rather than giving the Cue:Cat away, selling it for this purpose. If there were more programs like this available for the CueCat, I would certainly spend money to get one.

Another use, and one that is admitedly limited, is getting a driver/program that automatically translates Cue:Cat output and enters the barcode into programs that use barcode information. In my case, I used a Cue:Cat to enter all of the used DVDs I'm selling on Half.com. This use, while not practical for everyone, can be a timesaver for someone like me who regularly sells large numbers of things online in this fashion.

Conclusion
If you use a Cue:Cat with its included Windows software, you will quickly find it certifiably worthless, but if you download any of the various Open Source utilities available for it, you can easily turn it into something at least moderately useful. And, since it is free, any use you get out of it makes it instantly pay for itself. You can order a CueCat online for $9.99 "Shipping and Handling" (Which translates into $3 shipping and $6.99 into Digital Convergence's pocket), or you can go to your local Radio Shack, pick one up for free, and start playing with it right away -- assuming you're a U.S. resident, because at this time the Cue:Cat is only being distributed in the United States.

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