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Portable Scanners Won't Put an End to Your Paper Chase

January 29, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Remember the "paperless office?"

Futurists used to predict that computers would eventually be the end of paper documents. That forecast turned out to be as accurate as the one that put a personal helicopter in every garage. The truth is that the ease of writing and revising on a computer, as well as the ability to make multiple printouts, has led to more paper in our lives than ever.

Today the challenge for business and home office users is capturing the information on all that paper and getting it back into computers where it's more useful.

That's where scanners come in handy, with their ability to copy a page and then use optical character recognition software to turn the image into words and numbers. In theory, anyway.

Unfortunately, scanners still have a long way to go in the accuracy department.

Take, for example, NeatReceipts Inc.'s hand-held scanner, which is marketed to businesspeople in airport shops and office supply chains because of its ability to digitize paper receipts.

The device, which resembles a three-hole punch, attaches to a computer via a USB port. To use it, you simply feed a receipt up to 8 1/2 inches wide into a slot in its side.

A short time later -- 10 seconds to about a minute, depending on the size of the receipt and the complexity of its content -- information on the receipt shows up on the computer screen, including the name of the business, category (grocery store, etc.), payment type (cash or card) and amount.

That's when it works perfectly, as it did when I fed the device a receipt from an evening visit to Trader Joe's for an emergency bag of chocolate almond biscotti.

But after that, it was all downhill.

A receipt from a neighborhood pizza place correctly identified the category -- "meals/restaurant" -- probably because the place has "cafe" in its name. But NeatReceipts didn't pick up anything else, including the amount. (The software looks for the word "total" to identify the amount, but this restaurant instead used the word "sale.")

My electricity bill also was categorized as meals/restaurant (maybe because of the way my house eats electricity?) and the payment type was listed as a Diners Club card. I don't have one those.

A scan of my home delivery bill for The Times got the amount right but categorized my employer as a "transportation" company.

Stranger still, a bill from the lab my doctor used for my annual checkup was listed as a grocery store. ("Blood work on aisle 9!")

Furthermore, the amount it gave for the lab bill was $25, which would have been great if it was true. The actual amount was $151.56.

In all, I fed NeatReceipts 13 receipts of various sizes and types. Only four yielded more than a couple of correct entries in their listings.

I could use my computer to type corrections and add missing information, but it was a disappointing performance from a machine that costs about $250.

NeatReceipts performed much better in a task mentioned only briefly on its box -- scanning business cards and putting their information into a contact database.

I fed a dozen cards into the device and in each case it got much, if not all, the information correct, including the person's name, company, address and phone numbers, as well as e-mail and website addresses.

The information, which needed only minor tweaking, was given in a format exportable to Microsoft Outlook. (NeatReceipts works only with PCs that run Windows.)

There are other card readers available that cost less and also do a good job. But if you find yourself with a NeatReceipts device, scanning the stacks of business cards you've always meant to organize is a good use for it.

Another portable scanning device on the market is the DocuPen R-700 from Planon Systems Solutions Inc. Meant for situations when a full-sized page scanner is not available or practical to carry, the DocuPen is a four-sided, wand-shaped gadget that is drawn down a page to capture its image.

The DocuPen, which costs about $200, does a fairly good job. Under optimal conditions it can produce a reasonably clear scan.

But it's far from user friendly. Making a scan and downloading it to a computer involves more steps than an Alice Waters recipe. And unless those steps are followed with precision -- the wand needs to be moved steadily down the page, neither too fast or two slow -- the result will be a smudged scan.

The text recognition software -- ScanSoft PaperPort 8.0 -- that came with the DocuPen worked terrifically well with the scan, however, even when the image was a bit off kilter.

I scanned a note from FedEx and it digitized the text almost perfectly, including lines like, "This tracking update has been sent to you by FedEx."

It did mess up a bit, identifying the receiver as "Los Angela~ Timee," for example, but more than 90% of the text was correct.

Which is not bad at all. I can't wait to print it out.


David Colker can be reached via e-mail at Previous columns can be found at

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