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Portable Scanners Have Image Issues

November 02, 2000|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN |

The promise of new hand-held scanners is tantalizing. These portable devices, mostly shaped like highlighter pens, seem to offer a new way of life for students, businesspeople and anyone else who has ever had to copy an address, a paragraph or a page from a book or magazine.

Unfortunately, the lower-priced hand-held scanners are technological underachievers. For the most part, the gizmos--still not cheap at $99 and up--fail to live up to their potential or hype. Not all the news is bleak, though. Depending on the task, a few portable readers do better on a first scan than I do on a first type.

The best contenders are specialized or pricier players--some as much as $299. The lower-cost pen scanners and their optical character recognition technology, or OCR, aren't quite ready for everyday use.

I tried four scanners--picked because of good ratings, low prices or both. The first two, Siemens' Pocket Reader and WizCom Technologies' QuickLink, are reasonably priced, portable and pen-like. Corex's CardScan and Hewlett-Packard's CapShare provide a chance to see how the more expensive small scanners fared on a test of magazine pages and business cards.

Pocket Reader failed to read even its own enclosed test page, which presumably offers optimal paper, type, color, font and so on.

All my early scans yielded the messages "line lost" and "no line found." Funny, neither of these phrases appeared on the practice sheet. When I finally got an actual reading, Pocket Reader displayed ". . . J:!;)ii"'!'!::!' . . . " That wasn't on the test page either.

I tried again and this time, the practice page line "Try scanning this line of text with your Pocket Reader" came out "ry scanning this jjne of text uNith your Pocket Reaier." Granted, the product information suggested a steady hand and moving in a straight line. Maybe this scanner is best used by surgeons and artists.

So what happened with actual, real-life text? You guessed it, very little. "Sarah H. Bartholomew" and a phone number became: "SwahH. Bardlclcmew 212-947," meaning even if I could read the name, I couldn't call her because I'm missing the last four digits of her phone number.

A better and pricier option came in WizCom Technologies' QuickLink Pen, which lists for $159.

Guidelines on the pen help less-than-perfect artists put the pen in the right spot. And a tighter scanning surface means that QuickLink scans the small type of books and magazines far more accurately than Pocket Reader.

It also offers a few very useful functions, including infrared beaming directly to my Palm Pilot and templates for specialized scans. To scan a business card or other written address, it offers an address form on the pen window, allowing the user to separately enter first name, last name and other information.

Although not exactly time-saving, it's still better than typing. Using the form also puts all the data in the right places once beamed to a Palm's address book.

Users can also choose to enter text as memos or Web addresses. Once saved and transferred to a PC, QuickLink automatically treats the URLs as links, allowing users to go to the scanned Web site with just a click.

But QuickLink couldn't read even my most careful handwriting. And there are other imperfections.

Multiple functions loaded onto a pen means buttons with several tasks each. Making corrections on the scanner was cumbersome because I could use only space-by-space deletions and an unfortunate system that requires directing the cursor to letters of the alphabet.

In short, you could more quickly watch yourself grow old. Given QuickLink's misreads, on-scanner corrections are key--downloading a large volume of information and correcting later is a drag, especially because of something as simple as a dropped letter.

To get a sense for the portable scanner universe, I tried two other specialty readers, the Corex CardScan 500 and the HP CapShare 920 Portable e-Copier.

I was prepared to hate the $299 CardScan. For starters, it's clunky, heavy and clearly meant as a desk accessory. On top of that, the machine first forced me to recheck my wires about 18 times. I finally called tech support, waited on hold and eventually got a very nice technician who guided me through reconfiguring the port speed on my ancient laptop.

Most of all, I thought I wouldn't like CardScan because given all the multiuse portable scanners, why would anyone want a contraption that works only on business cards?

Because it works better and faster than anything else.

Having just returned from a conference with a slew of business cards, I let CardScan have at them. I first gave it my own card as a test. CardScan immediately put everything in the right place.

Because the name of my employer is written just as it appears on the front page, in a gothic script, CardScan wrote "Los Angeles Times" as "Boe An9elee me."

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