(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)
A lot of folk ask me whether they should buy a scanner: those things that take bits of paper, or photographs, and turn them into files your computer can use.
Frankly, I’m surprised by this (not the taking and turning, but the asking). Why would people not have a scanner? I have four.
Well, five, actually, if you include that little business card scanner sitting in a drawer somewhere. OK, six. I bought a backup scanner once in case all my other scanners eloped. I scan every piece of paper that I can.
I scan whole books I want to read on my computer. I scan coworkers who pass me in the corridor. The truth is that scanners can save you lots of time, space and pain. But I readily accept that my passion for scanning may not have won you over.
First off, don’t get your hopes up. Twelve years ago I bought a scanner that, lulled by the pictures on the box of pages flying into my computer, I thought would rid me of a ridiculous four-drawer filing cabinet full of stuff I had been lugging around Asia.
I was to be disappointed. Scanners won’t digitize everything paper, I learned, and sometimes they will but will take so long the task won’t be finished in your lifetime. No, scanners won’t make you paperless, but they may lighten your load.
So, the second task is to figure out what there is you have to scan, and then get the right scanner for the job. There are flatbed scanners, which look a bit like the tops of photocopiers, which scan one loose sheet of paper at a time. (You can sometimes buy sheet feeders that, well, feed the sheets in, to some of these units.)
These can be cheap: Less than US$100 will buy you a quality Canon device. These are good, and do the job well. They’re fine if you’ve got the odd document or photo to scan, or the odd chapter in a book you want to store on your computer.
But they’re not good if you’ve got lots of stuff. For this, I’d recommend something like the Fujitsu ScanSnap. I have one of the basic models (5110EOX, selling for $300 to $650), which looks a bit like a small fax machine, and it’s still going strong after three years of heavy-duty scanning.
You can only scan single sheets into it — none of the flatbed/photocopier option — but it will scan pages fast, front and back, without you having to do anything other than press a button. The pages are scanned direct to a common file format called PDF.
I love my ScanSnap. I will scan all incoming business mail — bills, receipts, statements, letters of eviction — which means I need keep no formal paperwork except the odd will or letter from Aunt Maude that has sentimental value. The ScanSnap can also handle business cards, which it can scan more or less directly into Microsoft Outlook.
Neither of these options is particularly portable. If you scan and you travel, you may want to consider a small portable scanner. NeatReceipts has two scanners that make more sense if you move around: one a thin, long device that looks more like a truncheon or night stick, and one a small, cigarette box-sized business card scanner.
Which brings me to the important bit of scanning: What happens to the document once it’s scanned. Most software simply converts a physical thing to a digital thing, but to make the text that is on that physical thing something you can edit, search or add to, you need to run more software over it called optical character recognition, or OCR.
This software – which usually comes included with the scanner — basically looks at the patterns in the image of your document that the scanning software has created and tries to figure out the letters.
OCR software nowadays is remarkably accurate, so long as you give it good, clean documents to start with. Don’t expect your spidery handwriting or a smudged and heavily annotated tome from the Dark Ages to come out 100 percent accurate.
NeatReceipts doesn’t just specialize in digitizing and organizing your receipts: The smaller device handles business cards too. But for most jobs, you’d be better off with something like Paperport, which will handle all the OCR for you and also help you organize your documents into folders.
Bottom line? Scanning stuff is a very useful way to keep your desk clear and to be able to find stuff. But you have to be disciplined about it, and get a rather perverse joy out of watching paper disappear into a roller.
And be prepared to be regarded by co-workers, friends and family as a bit of a freak.