Picatext: An Attempt at OCR on the Mac

Intelligent recognition software, whether it be voice- or picture-based, is continuing to improve. Google Googles is a great example of this. It recognizes patterns in an image and uses them to search for related data. You can use the service to translate a sign in a foreign country or help you distinguish a piece of art. Google is definitely on top of the image recognition software, but smaller competitors are beginning to develop their own versions of the software.

Picatext is a new Mac app that hopes to bring text recognition to the desktop. It supports over 40 languages, claiming that it can take text from an image and copy it to your clipboard in a matter of seconds. Let’s find out if it works.

It Works, But Only Just

I tested Picatext with several sample documents, some photos and others screenshots. All the photos were taken with my Moto X, which has fine clarity in decent light, and all the photos were taken indoors under a desk lamp. The first thing I noticed is that the app took a bit to process each image. From what I can tell, Picatext takes an image and uploads it to the developer’s servers. In this case, you should probably be cautious of using sensitive documents for privacy reasons.

An PARS document I photographed and imported to Picatext.

An PARS document I photographed and imported to Picatext.

Now, on to formatting. Picatext extracts what it perceives as text and puts together the closest match it can. The problem is, it has no support for any type of decoration. If you wanted to process an old document with bold, italic, or underlining, it just doesn’t work. On top of that, vertical and horizontal bars and other arrangement tools used in documents are not supported. This severely limits the types of documents you can use.

The first document I used was a special notice about a retirement fund from a job I had a few years back. It was organized in the usual legal manner, using bold-italic headers, underlined sections, and bullet points. Picatext interpreted some of the bullet points as periods, but most of them weren’t even recognized. The document as a whole looked fine at the beginning, but as I began to scroll through it got progressively worse.

A screenshot of some writing in Helvetica.

A screenshot of some writing in Helvetica.

Due to the lack of support for any type of styling, most of the underlined headers were read as gibberish, or horribly misspelled. There should be a spellcheck feature to avoid this, matching misspelled words to ones that are close. I’ll get to that in the next section, though.

Missing Essential Pieces

If you scan something and extract it’s text, you usually want to copy it to your clipboard. This app should have a setting that does this automatically when it’s done processing. Picatext has a lot of missing features similar to this one. The first one I noticed was drag and drop. Most menu bar apps support dragging and dropping of images onto their icons to make things easier. There’s no way to do that here. Rather, you must click the out of place orange upload button and navigate to your scan or photo in Finder.

Picatext does not support drag and drop.

Picatext does not support drag and drop.

Another thing you may want to do with your recently-imported text is save it as a text document. There’s no support for that either. In fact, there’s no way to save anything in this app. If it crashes, say goodbye to your text. If you don’t want to lose your precious document, it’s best to copy everything and paste it in a text editor right after the app is finished reading the text.

There should at least be an export option in Picatext — a way to save everything so you can open it later. It’d also be nice to have a history of your scans. In addition to having an export option, there should be a way to organize previous results and quickly copy them to the clipboard, like with Droplr or CloudApp. These are basic features that should be included with such an app, but they’re left out, making it quite subpar.

Bugs and Other Issues

Usually I don’t have to dedicate an entire section to an app’s problems. Picatext has quite a few, so I wanted to detail them.

  • Using the app to take a screenshot and then pressing escape to cancel will crash the app.
  • There are a lot of display issues within the app itself (note the chopped off “t” in its name).
  • It’s not optimized for Retina displays and looks worse than most apps on one.

Lots of Room for Improvement

A quote from Lincoln's Code, a book I had to read from school.

A quote from Lincoln’s Code, a book I had to read from school. Yeah, it’s completely destroyed.

The developers call this app “An easy & nice to use OCR tool.” It’s easy to use, but the experience is far from “nice”. For one, a menu bar app that doesn’t support drag and drop is bizarre. It’s still usable, though, so we move on to the actual functionality. There I found simplicity in a detrimental form: most of the app is hampered by its lack of features. It does only what is asked of it and nothing more. I was hoping it would go beyond the call of duty, but the developer isn’t walking down that path at the moment. It’s very disappointing.


Summary

The promise of better OCR comes to the Mac, but falls flat on its face. It just doesn't work, despite everything the developer's claim.

5
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