My desk has become a sea of paper. Drawers and drawers filled with old reports, warranty guides, receipts, and papers whose origin I haven’t the slightest idea about. I’ve never really considered trying to scan and catalog my physical world, converting it to a digital one.
I guess that is why I was taken aback when asked to review Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software like ABBYY FineReader. I never really thought I’d be able to organize everything in any of my drawers. But after looking at the different scanned-file organization and OCR options, I may yet find a way to search through the mess…
After the jump, I’ll explain what exactly OCR is, and walk you through a number of different solutions available for the Mac!
What is OCR?
Before we jump into the world of software comparisons, it might be good to ensure everyone has an understanding of Optical Character Recognition. Essentially, a scanned document is nothing more than a flat picture – it doesn’t contain any readable text, just pixels.
You can’t search for any of the words inside the document with Spotlight, as the actual text can’t be read from the computer’s point of view. OCR uses software to recognize the words and letters within an image, converting them into digital text. That way, it can be searched or edited later.
ABBYY FineReader for MacFirst up is the must-loved (on the Windows side at least) ABBYY FineReader Express for Mac. First though, a short tangent. I feel as if the most Mac-like applications have a similar naming convention. Normally, our most coveted applications have simple, easy to remember titles: Things, Adium, Billings, SuperDuper!.
However, corporate focused, multi-platform applications tend to tack on extra words to the name of the program. ABBYY FineReader Express for Mac is no exception – why not just “FineReader”? Anyway, that’s not particularly important in the long-run. Let’s assess how the application actually works…
Unfortunately, to add fuel to the fire of having to register for a trial download, FineReader also forces you to install the program via an install wizard (rather than the usual drag-and-drop).
Once you open up FineReader you are given a very simple (albeit slightly uninspiring) interface. You have the option to Scan or Import from a File and automatically perform the OCR process. After you grab the file / scan the paper, you can convert the file to various document formats. FineReader will convert the scanned document into editable formats like Word, Excel, HTML or an indexable PDF.
Once you have imported the file into FineReader, converted and OCR’ed the image, the editing window will appear (it will also automatically open the default program for that file type.)
Within the editing window, you can designate Text, Picture, and ‘Table’ areas in the document. All-in-all, ABBYY was super easy to use, very fast at OCR’ing my pre-scanned images, and comes in at under $100.
This app has a much steeper learning curve than ABBYY FineReader, as it combines both file organization and databasing as well as OCR. The OCR technology does require you to get the ‘Pro Office’ version, which is more expensive than the regular version of DevonThink, at $150.
However, if you have a need to manage hundreds of files as well as have them searchable, this slightly expensive offering might be what you’re looking for.
It should be noted that DevonThink also utilizes ABBYY OCR technology behind the scenes, so you should receive similar results and speed.
Another fairly pricy option which is also multi-platform: ReadIris. This one costs nearly 130 Euros and isn’t as well designed as either DevonThink or FineReader.
Also, there are some restrictions including per document page limits, multi-language support and folder monitoring. To access these features, you will be forced to spend over 400 Euros for their Corporate edition. A trial is available for their ‘lower’ cost version.
VelOCRaptor is the lowest cost OCR app I’ve found for the Mac – at just $29. It is very simple – just drag the PDF on top of the drop-zone and it will process through its ‘No-Click OCR’ process.
The application doesn’t offer any features available in the more expensive applications- like organization, Excel spreadsheet export or multi-platform support. However, this inexpensive option seems to work with most files I threw at it.
Definitely give it shot if you aren’t sure that you really need a more expensive application.
After running through all of these applications, I can’t say I’ll jump into the world of super-organized OCR users just yet – but it definitely would be a wonderful thing to have all of my receipts and important documents loaded up and ready to access anywhere with my Mac.
Alas, I’ll need to get a much faster scanner to handle my paper load! This is a very important factor if you’re planning on importing a big stack of documents, and you might want to consider something such as the ScanSnap for a quick and easy solution.
How about you? Are you a big paper-free OCR fan, or do you prefer a good old-fashioned filing cabinet?