Business card scanners have been around for many years, all promising to take that pile of business cards that you haven't got around to typing into your Outlook/Notes/Palm contacts database. So far, so good; but the problem with many of these offerings is that they simply don't work properly.
In fairness, this has more to do with the apparently infinite design permutations of business cards in circulation today. There is no standard layout for where the various name, company name, email etc fields appear on the card.
Many optical character recognition (OCR) programs bundled with many scanners we have tested just can't cope with the layout diversity. The result is the wrong entry placed in the wrong field in the database, or just simply meaningless rubbish text being entered.
However, the CardScan 600c Executive produced by Corex Technologies promises that it can easily and quickly deal with all manner of business card layouts and intelligently populate the database fields in most popular contact management appliactions. The question is, did it live up to this promise? The answer is, very nearly, an unqualified yes.
Out of the box, the scanner - measuring about 200mm by 75mm - was compact and solidly built from charcoal grey plastic with a single triangular LED status indicator.
It comes with a USB lead but, apparently, as it cannot draw sufficient power from this connection, also needs an AC power supply as well - though thankfully one without a chunky AC adaptor.
The supplied documentation comes in the form of a surprisingly large manual and a quick start card. There is also a 'getting started' chapter in the manual.
As directed we installed the software from the CD before connecting up the scanner itself. This was a totally painless, wizard-driven process. The installation warned it might take several minutes but completed faster than we expected.
We were then prompted to plug in the scanner. Selecting autodetect from the menu checked the company's website for the latest software available, then installed the latest drivers. The hardware was set up in just over a minute. So far, so good.
We were next required to calibrate the hardware. This entailed taking a card supplied with the unit and inserting it in the scanner. The automatic feed pulled this through in around five seconds and the setup program informed us our scanner was calibrated.
In the interests of testing how idiot-proof this installation software was, we randomly clicked the 'back' option several times every now and again to see if it would get confused and hang. It didn't.
With the installation completed, users are presented with the CardScan application interface which presents the contact database fields in what is designed to look like a rolodex.
The acid test was the actual scanning. This is achieved by placing the card, blank side down, into the scanner. The unit then pulls the card through automatically and deposits it on a useful pull-out tray.
After the image has been scanned, the program posts up a box asking the user to process the scan. This can be done in colour or, if speed not image resolution quality is of the essence, monochrome.
Once the image has been processed, the program retrieves the text from the card and posts it into the appropriate database fields.
The impressive thing here was the very surprising degree of accuracy. In almost all of our testing with a wide variety of card formats, the right piece of information - name, job title, company etc - was put into the right field. Even if the card is put in upside down, the software is smart enough to recognise this and turn the image up the right way.
The problems only occurred when we tried to scan cards with very dark backgrounds. We tried one with orange text on a purple background, one with a fetching lime green background and one with silver text on black. None of these card scanned successfully. But the vast majority scanned perfectly, taking less than five seconds to process.
There is also a useful batch processing option if it becomes necessary to feed many cards through in succession.
Once this scanning is finished, CardScan provides a clear view of any one particular card with the scanned image of the card shown below the scanned text fields. There's the usual alphabetic and search box options for finding various contacts.
Transferring the scanned data from CardScan to a user's preferred contacts manager, in our case Microsoft Outlook, was a doddle. Selecting Outlook in the application's export wizard gave us the option of invoking dynamic data exchange which seamlessly transferred the scanned information into our Outlook contacts database. Similarly, any tab or comma delimited data file could be easily imported or exported.
The other important thing to consider here is compatibility. In this area CardScan scores well: all major contact management applications are supported.As an added bonus, Corex also offers an online storage facility at website cardscan.net. From the CardScan software interface, users are invited to login to the online site. After registering to get a username and password, scanned contacts can be transferred to the website where both the text fields and the image of the original card are displayed.
This is potentially useful if it is desirable to access the contacts database, securely using the assigned password, from a public access terminal.
The CardScan application can also synchronise its own database with a user's preferred contact management program, using intellisync. We wonder how useful this may be, as most users will probably only use CardScan as an intermediate stage and, once they have scanned their business cards, just export them to Outlook or Notes or whatever their preferred PIM may be.
However, if the online cardscan.net service is used, this could be a good way of keeping the online database up to date.
For anyone who has a stack of contacts' business cards 'filed' in an untidy pile inside one of their desk drawers, then this could be the answer. It doesn't come cheap, but the build quality is good and the OCR delivers the best accuracy we have seen to date.
UK distributors: Widget 08450 550005