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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bringing paper into the digital world, personal scanning options

SafelyFiled is a great solution for secure, immediate access to your important documents.  But many of those important documents are only on paper.  How can you bring them into the digital space?

The short answer is that you need to scan your documents.  During scanning, you take a picture of your document pages, and get a file (generally a pdf) that contains all the images.  Your scanning options have expanded in recent years.  In this article, we'll review your options for personal scanners.  In a future article, we'll look at other scanning options in your community.

PC/Mac scanners

You can go to your favorite electronics store and have a wide variety of scanners to choose from.  Most of these scanners will work quite well, but you need to consider for a few key features to determine what is the right choice for you.

Page feeding

You can acquire a very portable single page scanner such as the Vupoint Magic Wand for well under $100.   It is cheap and portable, but if you need to scan documents that are many pages, it will get tedious very quickly.  For a cheap and portable solution you probably want to investigate a smart phone solution instead (see section below).

Most larger scanners used to just be flat bed scanners.  You had to place the document on the glass like a copying machine, and press the button to scan.  Again for multi-page documents, this can be quite tedious.  Today many scanners have a auto document feeder (ADF) like the Epson Workforce or the Fujitsu ScanSnap.  You place your documents in the feeder and press start to copy.  Some scanners also provide a duplex option.  That is, it will scan both sides of the page put the results in the correct order in the resulting file.

Scanning software

Scanning will require some software on your PC or Mac.  Make sure that software provided with the scanner you select works with the version of the operating system on your PC/Mac.

The good news is that the usability of scanning software has improved over the years, but software usability still has some issues.   The ease of use of the software is a differentiating feature that is hard to evaluate in the store.  The Fujitsu ScanSnap line has a very good reputation for software usability.  Generally, the difficulty is just in getting things set up.  You may want to consider paying your neighbor's teenager to get things set up and show you which programs to run.  Once things are set up, it is generally a matter of starting up the scanning program on your computer, loading the document in the scanner and pressing the scan button.

USB vs networked

Another selection criteria is determining how your computer talks with the scanner.  All (almost all?) scanners provide a USB interface.  You just plug it directly into your computer.  This is probably the easiest option, but then only one computer can interact with the scanner.  Many scanners also provide a networked option, and today that is generally a wifi option.  If you have wireless set up in your home or office already, then it is just a matter of following the manufacturer directions to connect your scanner to the to the wifi network.  The networked scanners also support USB, but you're probably paying an extra $10-$20 for the networking feature.

All-in-one versus single function

You can buy dedicated scanners, but from a price/performance perspective you should also look at the 3-in-one or all-in-one machines.  These machines do printing, copying, and faxing in addition to scanning, and the cost is competitive with the single function scanning machines.  I recently purchased the Epson Workforce for under $200.  I don't use the fax function, but I do use the copying and double sided printing functions on a regular basis in addition to the scanning.

Smart phone scanning

Your smart phone has a high resolution camera, so it meets the hardware requirements of a portable scanner.  You could just use the camera app on your iPhone or Android to take pictures of your document, but you should investigate scanning apps.  The scanning apps will
  • Combine pictures of multiple pages into one document.
  • Do image analysis to brighten and re-orient your pages.  So even if you are taking pictures in less than ideal light, the resulting page image will look ok
Once you have scanned your document onto your phone, you could email it to yourself (or into your SafelyFiled account).  You could access the file by plugging the phone into your PC and accessing the scanned document file as you would access your pictures and music files.

The two leading scanning apps in the Android space are
 On the iPhone several scanning apps include
These scanning apps are very handy for scanning small documents on the go (like receipts and warranties).  And the quality rivals that of a dedicated scanner, but if you have a document that is 10's of pages long, you will want to find a dedicated scanner with a automatic document feed.

Today you have multiple relatively inexpensive options to scan documents.  For less than $10 you can make your smart phone a very capable portable scanner.  For under $200, you can bring a scanner into your home or office that is capable of efficiently scanning multiple page documents.
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