Technology Untangled: Document scanning in the palm of your hand

October 8, 2014

technology-bourWe likely all use the camera on our smartphone from time to time to grab a quick snapshot of a paper document, such as a printed article, a receipt or a page of a contract. The resulting images are certainly functional, but often less than ideal. Given the choice, most of us would prefer to run important papers through a document scanner and create a high-quality PDF image. Today we will look at an application that allows your smartphone to function as a surprisingly capable portable document scanner, capturing images of higher quality and much greater utility than a typical .JPG photo capture.

The idea for this article came about during a recent deposition that I helped to facilitate via videoconferencing. An attorney on the remote end of the link needed to show our witness a spreadsheet that had not been provided in advance. Instinctively she took a photo of it with her phone and emailed it to us. We quickly downloaded and printed the attachment. The .JPG image was usable, but it was less than ideal.

A portable scanner would have worked much better in this situation, but only a phone was at hand. Could the always-handy smartphone double as a scanner when needed? I searched for and discovered a highly rated Android app called CamScanner.

CamScanner is a free app available from the Google Play Store. There is also a premium version that adds a few more features for just $1.99. I downloaded it and tried it with two main questions: Would it be easy to use and would it provide good, useable scans? The answer to both turned out to be yes.

Once installed, you simply launch the app and take a picture of your document. The interface helps you by providing a grid to help square it up. In addition, a useful graphic image that looks like a bubble level pops up to help you get the camera lens parallel to the surface of the document, thus minimizing any keystone effect.

I like how you do not need to be overly precise on framing the edges of your document or receipt. Once snapped, the software automatically crops the image down to the edges of the paper. Even if you misalign your image capture, the enhancement software will true up the image as it is automatically cropped. Manual adjustment is also available if you prefer to fine-tune the cropping.

At first, the capture looks like a typical photo, but with the next button stroke, the image processing software kicks in to enhance the photo and change its appearance to that of a scanned document. I was impressed with the transformation. There are also plenty of manual adjustments for image quality if you so desire. At this point, your document can be saved as a PDF and is ready to be exported, emailed, printed or faxed. I highly recommend one additional optional step. OCR, Optical Character Recognition, “reads” the document and recognizes text in the image, thereby making it searchable.

The quality of even my worst test scans appeared at least as good as a fax. Generally, they were not quite as sharp as a scan from a page-fed scanner; I did some quick math and realized why. My Fujitsu scanner is set at a resolution of 300 dpi. The camera on my phone can obtain only about 275 dpi when imaging an 8-1/2 x 11 document. This is simply a limitation of the 10-megapixel rating of the camera. If your phone has a finer camera, the imaging results should be even better.

I think this program could be very useful on a daily basis for cataloging receipts or client documents. The searchability of your collection is a great utility as your scan collection grows. You can also add searchable background notes to each PDF, as well as organize your scans into different tagged categories. While this app is best used for the scanning of paper documents, I experimented with capturing a document displayed on a computer screen and found that, while this scan was not quite as good, it was still useable.

Viewing of scans is not restricted to just your small phone screen. Once you register, all scans can be automatically uploaded to a sync folder at camscanner.com, making it easy to use them on your computer. The premium version of the app also allows you to cut and paste portions of scanned text into other documents for editing.

A version of CamScanner is also available through the Apple App Store. You may also want to check out another similar, highly rated app for the iPhone/iPad: Scanner Pro. Be aware that many iPads do not include a camera good enough to capture high-quality scans. Most iPhone cameras will work better.

CamScanner is a simple and useful tool that you should consider adding to your smartphone toolbox.•


Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.


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