Small personal scanners are a great way to track and tame both personal and business paperwork. For many professionals, just the number of business cards that are collected over the course of a year -- especially if they attend any conferences or trade shows -- can be daunting. Especially now that the optical character recognition (OCR) process has become more efficient, anyone who deals with a lot of hard copy on a day-to-day basis should be strongly considering a scanner.
I recently had a chance to try out two current scanners: A desktop scanner/software package for personal and small business use called the NeatDesk and the Xerox Mobile Scanner, a lightweight device for travelers. Although these are two different products, they perform essentially the same function: Providing a way to turn hard copy -- from business cards to letter-sized (8.5-x-11-in.) documents -- into digital formats that can be stored and search.
The Neat Company has been selling its personal and small business packages for several years now, combining small, efficient scanners with its own software. Currently, Neat's two main products are NeatReceipts, which combines a mobile scanner with its scanning/OCR/organizing application, and NeatDesk, which offers the same software with an interesting desktop scanner that handles a variety of paper sizes. The software (which is available for Windows and Mac computers) is also available separately.
I reviewed the NeatReceipts package several years ago for a different publication and thought it was an interesting and useful product. Since then, the software has undergone some changes -- especially recently with the introduction of Neat 5, the latest version. This time, I tried the new software with the NeatDesk desktop scanner.
The scanner itself is a marvel of design. The compact unit sits upright on your desktop; you feed your documents in at the top and they emerge at the bottom, where they are caught by a small pull-out shelf. The 600dpi scanner is duplex (in other words, it will scan both sides of the document at the same time) and according to the company, can handle up to 24 pages per minute.
The automatic document feeder (ADF) offers three separate areas via a segmented feed tray: one for documents, one for receipts and one for business cards. Each of these segments takes up to 15 documents each, so you can actually put in 15 letters, 15 receipts and 15 business cards and walk away while the scanner does its stuff. You can also remove the tray and scan up to 50 letter-sized documents. Meanwhile, two buttons on the front let you either scan to the Neat software or create PDFs; you can also make that choice from within the software itself.
The NeatDesk 's application is also nicely designed, although perhaps not quite as impressive as the hardware. The new version allows you to organize your three types of documents -- contacts, receipts and documents -- into a series of folders; you can create as many folders as you want and decide where the information should go.
The folders are listed on the left side of the screen. The center displays either the contents of the folder (as a list or as thumbnails) or the OCR'd contents of a single entry. The right side shows an image of the original scanned document.
You can import existing data into the application or export to a variety of formats; you can also create expense and tax reports from your scanned receipts.
I tried NeatDesk with some business cards, receipts and press releases. When I fed it several business cards, I found that, for the most part, the OCR software either correctly translated the information into text and placed it in the correct field, or ignored the problematic data completely, which meant that quite a few fields were missing data. Other OCR software I've tried in the past tended to pick up more data -- and make more mistakes.
As a result, I ended up with correctly translated text from the more plainly formatted business cards, and nearly none of the data from more elaborately formatted cards (NeatDesk was completely unable to pick up any data from cards with light text on dark backgrounds). In addition, while the scanner did pick up both sides of a card when set to duplex, it only OCR'd the front side of the card.
When I scanned some receipts, NeatDesk did a very nice job, even when they were crumpled and in less-than-ideal condition. However, once again, while it could pick up plain text, it was unable to parse more graphically-formatted receipts -- for example, when I fed in a Walgreen's receipt, it found the amount and the date but not the vendor (and identified the purchase as bought with a credit card -- one I don't own -- rather than as a cash transaction). Other, plainer receipts were more successful.
Letter-sized documents scanned clearly and legibly; the NeatDesk software doesn't perform any kind of OCR on these larger documents, although it does let you enter titles and categorize them. However, because you can scan them to PDFs, the lack of translation to text isn't as noticeable as it otherwise would have been.
I checked the speed of the scanner using a single document that had a color illustration and text. The NeatDesk was reasonably prompt. It scanned one side of the document as a JPG in 5.5 seconds (8.8 seconds in duplex mode); as a color PDF, it took 7.2 seconds to scan one side (9.2 seconds in duplex mode).
Basically, how well NeatDesk works for you will depend on your expectations. The printer is quick and efficient (and doesn't take up much desk space) and the software nicely designed. However, you may find yourself having to fill in a bit more of the information than you thought you would.
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