NOTE: This is an update to an article I wrote four years ago. A newsletter reader asked about scanners today and I wanted to refer her to my old article. However, when I looked at the old article, I found some of the information I published four years ago is no longer accurate or relevant today. In addition, there are several new apps available today that did not exist four years ago. Therefore, I updated the article with today’s information and am re-publishing it now.
Genealogists have lots of uses for scanners. We like to make digital images of information from books, court records, old maps, and even records found on microfilm. High quality portable scanners are inexpensive these days, typically $50 and up. You can occasionally find them at even lower prices if you watch the sales. However, convenience is always an issue. Do you really want to carry a portable scanner with you at all times just in case you happen to encounter something you want to digitize? Actually, you probably already have such a scanner with you every time you leave the house.
Today’s Apple and Android smartphones typically have excellent, high-quality digital cameras built in. These make terrific scanners. Need to digitize a record in the deed books or the receipt you just received from a fast food restaurant? Make sure you have good lighting and snap a picture of it. I have been doing that for years and find it works well.
The handheld cell phone’s camera may not create images that look as good as those produced by a good flatbed scanner. You might not want to scan documents or photographs you later wish to publish in a book as the cell-phone produced images might not be as high quality resolution as a good desktop scanner. However, the images are always more than “good enough” for my personal notes. I travel a lot and I used to collect all sorts of pieces of paper as receipts from restaurants, taxi cabs, shuttle buses, and more. Keeping paper receipts for tax purposes results in a mountain of paper receipts of all shapes and sizes. I find it much easier to store and retrieve the receipts electronically. I snap a picture, file it electronically, and then throw the paper copy away.
I have read that the Internal Revenue Service actually prefers digital images when doing an audit. The IRS auditors also do not like to wrestle with hundreds of pieces of paper; they find digital images much easier to work with.
When I meet people who hand me their business card, I prefer to “scan” it with my cell phone and then I give the business card back to its owner. The scanning software I use then immediately uploads the image to Evernote and the Evernote servers then perform an OCR conversion of the words on the card. The result is both an image and the accompanying text saved in my Evernote account. Unlike paper business cards, I will never lose that image of the business card and I can retrieve it within seconds at any time on my cell phone, tablet computer, laptop computer, desktop system, or from someone else’s computer if I open a web browser and sign onto Evernote’s web site. I can easily retrieve business cards I scanned five years ago or even earlier. Can you say the same?
I would strongly recommend you download and install an app into your cell phone that is designed for scanning. For some time, I simply snapped pictures and saved them as normal pictures to various folders in my desktop computer’s hard drive, along with backup copies in the cloud. However, using a specialized scanning app installed in the cell phone results in additional convenience and often also results in higher quality images. Some apps have automatic page edge detection so that all you save is the paper, not the surrounding background.
Most of the apps also will de-skew an image you created when the cell phone camera was not perfectly aligned with the paper document.
In addition, several of the scanner apps for cell phones also have the capability of combining several pages together into one PDF file. That is useful when scanning a multi-page document. You don’t want ten separate pictures; instead you will prefer one PDF document containing ten pages.
Other scanning apps for smartphones will create either PDF files or the more common JPG images or both. Some even feature direct upload to Dropbox, Google Drive or Evernote so that the user doesn’t have to remember to do that manually at a later date.
Best of all, using a cell phone camera to digitize images does not harm the paper being digitized. Most other scanners require placing the old or delicate piece of paper into the scanner and, worst of all, some scanners move the document being scanned through a series of rollers. Never attempt to do that with anything fragile! Even sending a photograph through rollers that bend the item being scanned can result in damage to the photograph. Using a cell phone’s camera avoids those problems as the cell phone never touches the item being digitized.
All of today’s “cell phone scanning” apps are much cheaper than buying an additional scanner. I would, however, recommend using a cell phone camera that has at least 8 megapixels resolution. My present cell phone has a 12-megapixel camera that also does a great job of taking photos in dim light. Check your present cell phone camera to see what it can do. The next time you upgrade to a new cell phone, carefully check the camera’s specs! Most of today’s better cell phones will take excellent pictures to be used for scanning purposes.
You can find dozens of Android scanning apps designed for the purpose in the Google Play Store and similar scanning apps for Apple iPhones and iPads in the Apple App store. Here is a short list of the ones I am familiar with but it certainly is not an exhaustive list of all the scanning apps available:
The following are available for both Android and Apple iOS (iPhone and iPad) devices:
CamScanner is my favorite scanning app for cell phones. I use this one most of the time. It saves images as PDF files. A free version is available that watermarks your scans and limits some of the app’s more useful features. In effect, the free version is useful as a free trial but not something you would want to keep and use regularly. Who wants scanned images with watermarks prominently displayed? You can try out the free version and, if you decide you like it, then pay $1.99 for a full-featured version without watermarks. Where else can you buy a scanner for $1.99 (assuming you already own a smartphone)? A “Premium Version” of CamScanner is available for $4.99 per month. I used the free version for a few days and then upgraded to the Premium Version. For more information, see https://www.camscanner.com/.
NOTE: The company that produces CamScanner also sells a related product that might be useful for some people. CamCard is designed simply for use in scanning and storing business cards. I tried it and found that it works well but I don’t need a separate program for business cards. However, if that appeals to you, check out CamCard at https://en.ccint.com/personal-camcard.
Mobile Document Scanner, also known as MDScanner, has two versions: FREE and $4.99. It features multi-page support. That is, instead of having to take 10 pictures of a 10-page document and then having to store them as 10 separate files, Mobile Document Scanner allows the user to take the 10 different pictures and then stores the result in one larger PDF file that contains all 10 pages. It also includes edge detection of each document and a range of processing options for making text, pictures or whiteboard drawings stand out. I believe the Android user will find Mobile Document Scanner to be an excellent choice for digitizing all sorts of documents you encounter while out and about.
The Google Drive app for cell phones includes built-in scanning functionality. It isn’t quite as sophisticated as the other apps but, then again, it is free. If you already have the Google Drive app installed on your smartphone, you probably already have a scanner.
I cannot ignore a scanning app produced by Adobe, a powerhouse that produces all sorts of image handling software for a wide variety of systems. I tried Adobe Scan: PDF Scanner, OCR but didn’t really like it. The app has too many features to list here but it seems to do everything the other scanning apps can do. However, I found its user interface to be a bit kludgey. I felt like I was driving an 18-wheeler that required double-clutching when shifting gears. I prefer the sports car approach: light weight and fast. However, your experience might be different from mine. Adobe Scan: PDF Scanner, OCR is available free of charge.
Office Lens is a scanner application developed by Microsoft for scanning documents and whiteboard images. It can quickly scan any document and convert images to PDF, Word, or PowerPoint files. It also allows you save your files to OneNote, OneDrive, or to your local storage. It supports English, German, Spanish, and Simplified Chinese. While versions are available both for iPhone and Android, it certainly is a Microsoft-centric product. It tries to force the user to use Microsoft products only, such as OneNote and OneDrive. Admittedly, you can override these selections and store your documents elsewhere but Microsoft products will always be “in your face.” If you are a Windows user, this may be a non-issue. Office Lens is available free of charge.
The following is available only for Android:
Clear Scanner for Android allows you to scan any documents or images directly from your phone. You can convert your scanned documents and images to PDF or JPEG format. You can print the scanned documents or pictures by using Cloud Print. It also allows you to save multiple pages within one document, reorder pages, set page sizes for PDF, etc. It has cloud support for Google Drive, OneDrive, and Dropbox. Clear Scanner is available free of charge although it does contain advertising.
Tiny Scanner is the opposite of the app from Adobe. It is very easy to use but doesn’t contain all the features of some of the other apps. You can scan documents, receipts, reports, or any other files and save them in PDF format for future use. It has support for most of the significant cloud storage services and also allows you to print your necessary files within minutes. Moreover, it has auto edge detection that can help prevent distortion by straightening out the images. Tiny Scanner is free.
The following is only available for Apple iPhone and iPad:
Scannable by Evernote is a great app if you are using Evernote frequently. It can instantly scan business cards, sketches, receipts, paper documents, and even multi-page documents with ease, and automatically file and organize the resulting images and files in your Evernote account. Your scans are automatically cropped to remove backgrounds (like the table behind the receipt, for example) and enhanced so the text is readable. All items scanned are then automatically uploaded to your Evernote account.
FineScanner certainly is a very powerful app, perhaps the very best app for scanning with your iPhone. Admittedly, I haven’t tested ALL the available OS apps but I am impressed with FineScanner. The app’s OCR (available to premium users only) supports 44 different languages. You can export your resulting file as an image, or as any of 12 different document types, including Office documents, PDFs, text files, and more. FineScanner can remove backgrounds from your scans, automatically enhance the final image to bring out text or highlight graphics. Plus, everything you save is archived in the app for future use, or you can tell FineScanner to save your files to cloud storage services like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Evernote, and others. The basic FineScanner app is free, but some of its advanced features require payment by in-app purchases.
Scanner Pro is also available only for iPhone and iPad. You can configure it to automatically upload your scanned images to Dropbox, Google Drive, or Evernote. The app works well with multi-page documents, oddly-shaped documents like receipts, or even documents with special formatting or images. It also allows you to compress files, password protect documents, and more. Scanner Pro’s basic version costs $3.
The above is an abbreviated list of some of the scanning products I have used. A list of all the scanning products for use on cell phones probably would fill several more pages. Don’t hesitate to search for some other product that has the specific features you want.
Whatever your choice of software, using a cell phone’s camera provides a lot of capability in a convenient package you probably already have with you. On your next trip to a library or archive that allows scanning or picture taking, try using your cell phone’s camera. I suspect you will like the results.