Scanners Scaled To The Desktop

If you're like most businesspeople, there are probably a lot of things on your desk you wish were inside your computer. It would be nice, for example, to quote at length from that consultant's study in your report without retyping the text. That graph you saw might add some punch to a presentation. And the ability to feed in a copy of a letter could turn your modem-equipped computer into a full-fledged fax machine.

What you need is a scanner--the tool that moves text and images from paper to your hard disk. Long the property of libraries and graphics shops, scanners are moving onto the desktop. Traditional flatbed scanners--the size of a laser printer--claim too much real estate, but a variety of smaller devices can find space on an executive's desk.

By itself, a scanner only converts an image on paper into its digital equivalent. For drawings or charts, that's enough. Software lets you resize the image, then incorporate it into your documents. But it's much more complicated to turn printed words into text you can edit in a word processor. Your PC needs something called optical character recognition (OCR) software to translate the scanner image into data the word processor can understand.

EASY DOES IT. Unfortunately, OCR is far from perfect, and even 95% accuracy leaves a lot of missed or misread characters to be fixed by hand. While a good spell-checker can be a big help in cleaning up text, you have to be very careful when proofreading numbers. OCR also demands a fast PC with lots of random-access memory. That said, I've found that a scanner can be a blessing.

Logitech's budget-priced ScanMan is the best-known handheld scanner for Windows. (The Caere OmniScan is a similar device for the Macintosh.) It reads a swath about five inches wide, then uses software to stitch together a full-width page. Like all handheld scanners, ScanMan requires a slow, steady sweep down the page for best results. My initial efforts were disappointing, but accuracy improved dramatically with practice. ScanMan attaches to your computer via a special board that plugs into an internal slot.

The I.R.I.S. America DataPen and the Visioneer PaperMax take quite different, specialized approaches. The DataPen is a six-inch-long device that plugs into the printer port of your computer while still allowing the use of the printer. You hold it like a pen and scan text one line at a time. An OCR program deposits the scanned text directly in your word processor or other Windows program.

It helps to be right-handed. I'm a lefty, and I found the DataPen extremely awkward to use. But my right-handed son found it a pleasure. The U.S. distributor for the Belgian-made device says work is being done to make the DataPen more southpaw-friendly.

PaperMax is a 12-inch-long sheet-fed scanner that claims hardly any space on your desk. It plugs into a serial port, making its installation the easiest of the devices. Feed a sheet of paper into the slot on the front of the PaperMax, and within 10 seconds, the scanned image will appear on a Windows screen (a Mac version is due this fall).

PaperMax is not primarily designed for text recognition, though you can buy OCR software for it. Its strength is quickly and easily scanning in pages that can be sent out as faxes, attached to E-mail, or pasted into your documents as images. And, coupled with a laser printer, it turns your computer into a desktop copying machine.

Both hardware and OCR technology are steadily improving, making the scanner a useful business tool. Any of these three very different units can be a valuable addition to your high-tech toolbox.


I.R.I.S. America Inc.

407 395-7831 $399


Visioneer Inc.

800 787-7007 $499


Logitech Inc.

800 231-7717 $199

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.