What is it: an integrated keyboard and document scanner
Applications: scanning documents;
bundled software includes Optical
Character Recognition and filing
Document scanners cater to the concept of a paperless office, in which documents are stored and distributed in electronic form. But you really need a scanner and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software for this to be a reality.
OCR software compares shapes captured by the scanner to images stored in its database of characters, so recognising letters of the alphabet.
The text can then be stored as word-processed documents and can be faxed, emailed or altered.
A paperless office obviously cuts back on filing and means there is less risk of losing documents. Also, combined with a fax-modem, you can fax documents straight from the desktop.
Because of improvements in scanning and OCR technology, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of document scanners on the market.
Scanning heads are now much smaller, and the motors which pull the paper under the head are smoother. This means the scanner does not misread sections as a result of irregular paper carriage.
All in all, OCR technology has improved so much that you can get impressive results even from scans of poorly printed or faxed documents.
The standalone Visioneer Paperport vx is the leading document scanner on the market. It fits conveniently between the keyboard and monitor.
With the Paperport ix, Visioneer has integrated the scanner into the keyboard itself. The idea has been licensed by Compaq, whose own version, the Scanner Keyboard, has been on the market for some months.
The scanner is extremely easy to use. As soon as it detects a piece of paper near its mouth, it automatically pulls it through, and launches the software. The Paperport ix only scans in monochrome because it is designed for documents. However, it is capable of some impressive scanning.
It can scan at resolutions up to 400dpi for more accurate results, although there is the risk of producing larger file sizes of the scanned image.
It also scans at resolutions of 100dpi and 200dpi.
It is better than many other scanners on the market because it distinguishes characters printed on colour backgrounds. It uses code which fades lighter shades and enhances darker ones. The darker shades can be seen more clearly, so letter shapes can be more easily distinguished for the OCR process.
For example, on a document with black type on a violet background, the type stands out while the violet fades to form a halo of white around the letters.
Although Paperport's success can be attributed to its impressive scanning capabilities, the software is the product's strongest feature. The software is also licensed by Hewlett Packard for using with their scanners, and has been copied by many other manufacturers.
The software is easy to set up and is controlled by an intuitive interface.
When installed, it detects the scanner, fax-modem and printer.
It automatically creates a link to your word processor, email package, spreadsheet or any of the other packages which are supported by the Paperport. These appear as icons on the computer screen.
The scanned documents appear on the desktop as thumbnail images. For a detailed view, you double click on them. To file them as images you simply drag them to one of the folders which are also on the desktop.
Images can be marked up just like paper documents, using electronic sticky labels and highlighter pens. Alternatively, they can be cropped to save only the part of the image you need.
If you want to work on a document in one of your applications, you drag it onto the appropriate icon. So, to scan a document and look at it in Word, for example, you drag the image to the Word icon and the OCR process kicks in automatically. Another clever touch is the inclusion of the Cardscan package, which can be used for OCR and storing business cards.
Verdict: it's difficult to fault the Paperport ix. Its only drawback is that you can scan only one page at a time. However, it is the best document scanner on the market, because it is so easy to use. Incorporating it into the keyboard adds great functionality without sacrificing desk space.
Scanning today's corporate options
There are three main types of scanner, of which hand scanners are the most basic. They are cheap and can usually scan colour, but are slow and cumbersome to use because you have to physically pull the scanner over whatever you want to scan.
The results are only as good as your ability to use the scanner. Optical Character Recognition can be erratic, so you often have to repeat the whole process until you get a satisfactory result. This is fine if you have time, but is not really up to the demands of an office environment.
Colour hand scanners start from around #75.
At the other end of the scale are flatbed scanners. These resemble a thin photocopier with a large glass plate, under which the scanning head moves up and down. Flatbeds used to be very expensive, but today, a low-end, colour flatbed costs as little as #250.
These scanners usually give good results. They are also more versatile than hand and document scanners because they can scan colour images, books and so on.
However, they are big and slow. Flatbeds measure about 450x300x100mm and so take up a large amount of desk space. They also take longer to scan than document scanners. This is because the paper needs to be carefully placed on the top of the scanner. Also, the scan has to be done twice - once as a preparation and then again as an actual scan.
For large-scale scanning of large documents, you can invest in a paper feed. This works on the same principle as the paper feed on a photocopier.
Sheets of paper are laid in a tray and are taken one at a time by the machine. They are then placed on the scanning surface and removed when scanning is complete.
By automating it, the whole process is faster and can be left unattended.
A paper feed costs an extra u400.
A few companies sell all-in solutions, such as Hewlett Packard with its Scanjet 4c Office Pro, based on the company's existing 4c flatbed scanner.
It incorporates an extensive bundle of software for u900 and has an optional automatic document feeder for #415.
Document scanners can only scan in small quantities; and very few have a paper feed. They are supposed to be bargain machines, with prices as low as #100, so they cannot do as much as flatbed scanners. However, they are designed specifically for the office. On all models the software incorporates filing and OCR software and sets up links to printer, fax-modems and word processors.
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