InsightsBlogSmartphone or standalone – how do you choose a lateral flow reader (part 1/3)

Smartphone or standalone – how do you choose a lateral flow reader (part 1/3)

Lateral flow test developers are constantly looking for ways to improve their tests, whether it’s to get better accuracy or to add new functionality.

An increasingly popular option that achieves both of those aims is to add a detection technology, also known as lateral flow reader, into the mix.

But with so many reader options commercially available, it can be difficult to know which one to choose to get the best results.

This choice has been enriched by the recent addition of smartphone readers into the market.

This blog is part 1 of our series on lateral flow reader technology. We’ll look at the evolution of readers and the available options with their unique characteristics. We’ll briefly discuss which reader might be best depending on the context and the use of your lateral flow assay. 

In part 2, we will focus a bit more on two of the most widely used options and look at their advantages by comparing some key features. But first, a quick look at the history book.

How did reader systems develop?

Ever since the advent of lateral flow diagnostics, test developers have been exploring how to use technology to read results more accurately.

The earliest lateral flow tests produced qualitative (i.e. yes/no) results that could be interpreted easily by the human eye.
Developers wanted to create tests that could produce more informative, quantitative results – how much of the thing they were testing for (the pregnancy hormone for example) was present in the sample. 

But for that they needed a way to more accurately view the test line and measure the result.

Advances in digital photography made this possible and the first patents for lateral flow reader technology were filed in the mid-1990s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the first readers became commercially available.

One of the first on the market was Accuscan, launched by US food safety firm Neogen in 2004. It combined a digital camera reader with a personal data assistant (PDA) and “intuitive data management computer software”.

Technology moved on quickly and today we have a wide range of solutions, from large desktop machines that can read batches of tests at once to smaller handheld devices for individual point-of-use tests.

What these systems all have in common is they use digital camera technology combined with computer algorithms to provide more precise, measurable results. 

Now, a new option has emerged - the smartphone reader

With their inbuilt digital cameras, powerful software and cloud connectivity, smartphones offer an affordable and convenient all-in-one lateral flow reader solution.

Bench top, portable handheld, and smartphone readers in a nutshell

Bench Top Reader With Embedded Software

  • works best in controlled environments (lab/hospital)
  • limited uses
  • requires specialist training
  • low risk of error
  • can read batches of tests at once

Handheld reader with wireless connectivity

  • great for individual & field testing
  • established optical detection technology
  • reproducible image quality
  • minimal training required
  • data management capability
  • high regulatory scrutiny

Smartphone reader with embedded connectivity

  • familiar technology, can be used by anyone, anywhere
  • great for consumer diagnostics & lifestyle assays
  • high connectivity
  • data management capability
  • high regulatory scrutiny

1. The most common solution is the standalone bench top unit with embedded software which offers the highest level of control and security. Some of these can read batches of assays at once.

However, this type of reader can only be used by trained experts in a remote setting (e.g. in a lab or hospital) and often requires wired connection, which limits its usability and suitability for decentralised point-of-use field testing.

2.Advancements in technology and consumer demand for more portable, wireless solutions have led to a second option emerging – a standalone handheld reader with built-in connectivity (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc.) and capacity for adding a data management solution. 

These are the ‘sweet spot’, the middle ground and could become the cash cow for most reader manufacturers. They can read both quantitative and qualitative assays, visual or fluorescent. With them, the optics unit is kept separate to offer complete control and the best quality of picture and image interpretation. 

With data becoming the ‘new oil’ and field connectivity becoming a priority, a growing number of reader companies are advancing their products by adding cloud services and data management solutions, such as the one offered by our digital platform Transform™. With Transform™, data transfer is enabled by connecting the reader to a smartphone app (or a tablet app), which is also the user interface.

3. Lately, a third solution has been gaining traction – the smartphone reader, where the reader app is also the user interface. They benefit from high connectivity and can read both qualitative and quantitative assays.

There are certain cases where a smartphone reader may be the most convenient solution, for example in consumer ‘lifestyle’ diagnostics and home testing, and even infectious disease field testing. 

Smartphone readers can also benefit from cloud data management where results data can be aggregated and stored. Real-time updates and visual data trends can be enabled via a dashboard as part of a digitally connected ecosystem.
In part two we will look at the differences between smartphone and handheld readers, and how digital platforms are adding value, to help you make the best choice for your lateral flow test.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to learn more about digitally-enhanced lateral flow diagnostics, please check out our platform or get in touch.