If you're like me, here's what happens after a business event: You collect a pocket full of business cards, but never have a chance to enter the pile of cards into your contacts. A week later, you need to get back to one of the contacts and have to start searching through the piles. Isn't there a better way?
Turns out that yes, there is. Rather than muddle through the manual labor of typing in each card's contact info, let your smartphone do the heavy lifting for you. Business card scanning apps take your cell phone's rear-facing camera and put it to work as a scanner. These apps typically take a photograph of the card and perform optical character recognition (OCR) on the image to translate the contents to editable text. They then add that info to the app's own database, to your smartphone's contacts listing or both. Most of these apps will also retain the original image for reference.
I tested seven apps that are available on both Android and iOS, and looked at both the free and paid versions where available. I used a set of 12 business cards chosen specifically to "torture test" the capabilities of the apps, including cards with high visual design or glossy finishes; one with white text on a dark background; and several international cards (from Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan and Portugal).
I performed most of the tests using a Samsung Galaxy S4 Android smartphone. However, because the interfaces of Android and iOS apps often aren't similar, I tried some with an Apple iPhone 4 and an iPad as well.
Another caveat: Not only can Android and iOS versions of the apps differ, but there are dedicated tablet versions of some apps. In some cases you might get extras -- for example, ScanBizCard's HD Business Card Reader costs $9.99 on iOS and also includes a year of the company's WebSync service, which normally costs $10; as of this writing, WebSync was not included with the version for Android devices.
As always, the trick lies in picking the right app to do the job.
[[Note: Because this article was written in 2013, some of the information may be outdated. However, as of June 2016, all prices are current and any reviewed software that is no longer available has been noted.]]
iOS: $39.99 full version
ABBYY has been being doing optical character recognition software for years on the Windows side. So it comes as no surprise that the company's Business Card Reader software is among the best options available for iOS or Android -- especially if you want a robust app with support for Salesforce exports.
The free version is severely limited: It will save only the name and one phone number for a given contact. That makes the free version good only for vetting -- if you like the app, then skip right to the paid version. For iOS users, a Professional version is also available, which allows unlimited data export to the Salesforce CRM (users of the regular versions need to buy a separate subscription for that feature).
From the start, I found ABBYY had one of more pleasing and colorful interfaces among the apps tested here; for example, it is the only one that can rotate to landscape, should you prefer. Your options are clearly delineated with clean graphics and text is quite readable. You can have up to three of the app's 21 languages enabled at any given time, which is convenient.
To capture a card, simply line up its edges using the on-screen guides and snap your photo. The software controls your camera's autofocus and captures the card, puts it through an OCR process, then gives you a chance to edit the resulting text. You can see a small window of the relevant scan area for a given field, which makes edits simpler.
My experience with the OCR results was mixed. The app missed many things on each card in my test suite: The app assigned MD as a doctor's last name and it couldn't handle the text on a card with a dark background and white letters. On the other hand, when I added the Portuguese language to the app's capabilities, it worked well with a card in the Portuguese language, with the correct accent marks appearing on the "c" and "a."
ABBYY also correctly identified a cell phone as mobile, and properly recognized the tricky stylized "&." The software highlights problematic areas in red, although this doesn't stand out as much as you'd expect on the inverse black background of the app. The interface is convenient to move through, at least, and editing a scanned card doesn't require a multitude of extra taps or swipes.
However, the menus beneath the editing screen are as old-school Android as you can get, a boring pre-packaged list that lacks custom fields or modern communication niceties like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. The paid version has an option to search the Web for a person on any of those services, but this option is useless since you can't add that person's social-media info into the context of the contact. Plus, the omission of social media ignores the fact that so many cards now include that information.
Once done, you can save the contact information to the ABBYY Cardholder (an internal card database), to your contacts or both. You can search the app's cardholder by name, organization, job or city, and you can organize contacts into groups (although this is awkwardly implemented). And you can export to a .VCF file, although the app's design makes it hard to do quickly for a multitude of contacts.
Even with the limitations mentioned, ABBYY's Business Card Reader is one of the best options out there. Especially if you have multilingual needs.
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