Creating the Paper-Free Mac Office

Operating a paper-free office is, for many people, an enviable goal. For the last few years, I’ve been attempting to cut down on the paper I receive; asking people to send emails rather than post, receiving statements and forms via the internet, and recycling all the post I receive that isn’t absolutely necessary.

This has gone a long way towards achieving a paper-free setup, though I’ve still had several years worth of paper filed away. After spending a while settling upon a good solution for digitizing all this old information, I finally settled upon a combination of DevonThink Pro and a Fujitsu ScanSnap. I’m thoroughly impressed.

This how-to will take you through the hardware and software required for setting up a completely paper-free office, ensuring that it’s thoroughly easy to use, and carefully backed up.

The Hardware

The Fujitsu S300M

The Fujitsu S300M

A traditional flatbed scanner doesn’t really offer a usable solution for inputting a large number of documents. Being required to scan each side of every document in order, then manually combine them into a PDF takes an inordinately long time.

There are a few scanners on the market which offer the ability to record both sides of a document at once, feeding through several pages at a time. One particular group of these is the ScanSnap line from Fujitsu. These range in price considerably, with my choice being the S300M – a reasonably priced piece of kit, and incredibly small to boot.

A range of other options are available, most of which can be found at this site.

The Software

Once you’ve sorted out the hardware, you’ll need an application to handle all the information scanned in. Undoubtedly the simplest and most full-featured tool for the job is DevonThink Pro, capable of interfacing with your scanner and organizing documents in a thoroughly useful manner.

Documents can be stored in any number of ‘databases’ – I use one for my business documents, and another for personal information. Within a database, files can be organized through a system of groups (essentially folders). The interface is well laid out, making the process of navigating thousands of documents relatively simple.

DevonThink Pro in action

DevonThink Pro in action

After initiating a scan, DevonThink will automatically import the file and perform an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) process. This converts the image into a fully functional PDF, with searchable and selectable text. For me, this feature was a must-have, as I needed to be able to easily search through the content of the scanned documents. Unfortunately, it’s only available via the highest spec version of their software, and costs a little more.

Searching is very powerful, with results displayed by relevance:

Search Results

Search Results

DevonThink isn’t just capable of storing PDF documents from a scanner. They can be imported directly from your Mac if already digitized, or you can drag and drop almost anything else into the application – emails, web pages, text and images. It’s even able to act as an RSS reader, or run an in-built web server, allowing you to access your documents from anywhere.

It’s taken me a few hours a day, for a couple of weeks, to digitize all the documents I previously had floating around. As you’d expect, scanning a document, shredding the original, and gradually removing all the clutter previously apparent is a very therapeutic exercise.

Don’t shred everything! You’ll might want to hang on to those old academic certificates, an occasional bank statement, and a few utility bills in case they’re needed for identification.

Backing Up

With all this information digitized on your Mac, you’ll want to ensure that it’s well and truly backed up. I take a two-step approach:

  1. Time Machine – This takes care of storing a local backup, which is easy to revert to if any problems occur.
  2. Dropbox – I always like to keep a remote backup elsewhere, made simple through the use of Dropbox. You can either move your working database files directly into your Dropbox folder, or copy them across whenever you’d like to make a backup.

Win a Copy of DevonThink Professional

Devon Technologies have been kind enough to provide a free copy of Devon Think Pro for one of our readers. Keep your eyes peeled, as we’ll be giving it away sometime within the next week or two. It’s a brilliant way to get a head start with going paper-free.

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The combination of a decent, duplex scanner and DevonThink has made a process I was dreading remarkably simple. The workflow it offers is enjoyable and hassle-free. The application and scanner don’t come particularly cheap, but are well worth the investment to keep an office free of clutter.

I’ve been thoroughly impressed and definitely recommend giving DevonThink 2 a try. Even if you’re reluctant to shell out for a scanner, it’s a great way to organize online receipts, statements, e-tickets, and PDF books.


Add Yours
  • Nice post. I’ve been looking at acquiring a scanner to complete going paperless. I recently bought a tablet for a few reasons, one of which was to get rid of notepads. Digital notes are so much more handy, synced with my iPod touch.

  • I’m a big fan of NeatReceipts – – same workflow concept in one package.

  • Great little article, thanks :)

  • I have neat receipts and I do have a beef with it — it stores all documents in what appears as proprietary “meta data” file formats. I have yet to really get into the process, but I’d almost rather have some system of scanning the doc / item to the file system into a format that anything can read (jpg, pdf, etc) and then applying associative tags to it. Kinda what iTunes does to music. The files are still there and usable, the meta-data is kept in another associative file.

    I use YEP for this reason. However, I do like NeatReceipts and what it does, but I’m not too all warm and fuzzy about using it as a long term strategy.

    I have yet to play with Devon Think Pro.

    One other thought —

    I am trying to scan to a hierarchy that is based on years, then categories. That way a YEAR can be archived off and if you keep the categories (mostly) consistent from year to year, your filing methodology can be easily searched. Also — try not to overly complicate (or refine) things too much, else you may wind up with an item for which could possibly be stored in more than 2 separate folders .. and then what? .. send alias’s around?

    Great Article tho ..


  • Great article. I’ve been thinking about going paperless and now have a good intro to what I need to get this done.

  • @Mike Martin: Since you haven’t tried DTP I’d suggest you give it a spin. I began using it a few years ago to do a couple of very specific projects. Then I upgraded last summer to the “Office” version so I could scan and perform OCR on copies of some old printed magazines that I was preparing to upload on my web site. Believe me, DTPO was a godsend in that I don’t need a bunch of other apps open to scan, do OCR, proofread the OCR with the original image side-by-side, and eventually copying to a dedicated site admin program.

    I was using an epson 4990 firewire flatbed and found that it was really clumsy to feed lots of sheets of paper into so I investigated the Fujitsu line. With a little google detective work I found a site selling ScanSnap 500M (last year’s model – the current one is the 510M) for half the price of the 510M. I took delivery on it a few weeks ago and as great as DTPO is software-wise, this Scansnap is one heck of an adjunct to DTPO. Incidentally, the suffix M means Mac. Fujitsu is very proactive when it comes to supporting the Mac platform.

    What’s so nice about the Scansnap-DTPO setup is that you can specify DTPO as the target application for scans. When a scan is finished, you can choose where you want it to be filed – a HUD pops up with a list of your databases and the groups within them. If you don’t find a group that suits your need of the moment, you can create a new group (folder) on the fly – even within other folders.

    DTPO is now offered as a version 2 public beta. The developers are pretty responsive to questions asked on the online forums. Not only that, but they are rolling out the beta in steps: First offering a set of basic features to be tested by the public, then a series of ever-more feature rich releases, letting us test new feature sets in increments rather than dumping a hugely complex application on the public and having to then deal with the myriad of bugs.

    Finally, let me add the piece de resistance for you: DTPO stores all the files you throw into it as discrete Finder-viewable files that you can open with other applications (e.g. iPhoto, Preview, Word) should the need arise. Aside: I checked out neat receipts some time ago and found it much too restrictive in what I was looking for. Same with Leap and Yep, though all three are excellent programs in their own right.

  • I have the Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner and love it. I went so far as to buy an industrial strength guillotine style paper cutter. All of those books around the house that I didn’t really want to part with, but I didn’t have an emotional tie to? I cut off the spine and scanned them all. Over 150 books so far. The remains of the books have been given away on craigslist. I still have the e-copy for later.

  • Nice post. I am curious if I ever want to go paper-free, can’t stop my love for a Moleskine and my scribbles. But scanning in paper which we rather have digital is lovely.

  • @Tod — Thanks for the reply. I’ll give DTPO a go.

    @Vincent — Check out the Licescribe Pulse Pen. gives “digital copies’ of all the moleskine scribblies that you can give it (uses special “moleskine like” notebooks because of the imaging technology (ANOTO) used, but has both lined and unlined notebooks to use in the system).

  • I do the same thing with Evernote. Advantage of Evernote in place of DevonThink is the online-backup and OCR of all text – works great!

  • very interesting…. I like the idea of having all my paper documents as searchable pdfs

  • Useful post. Im keen to give this a try. The search function is a great time saving device. Can anyone recommend some alternative scanners?

  • i Agree in books around the house that I didn’t really want to part with, but I didn’t have an emotional tie to

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