A scanning app with optical character recognition (OCR) is indispensable for getting organized. The best scanning apps help you capture all kinds of information such as presentation slides from a meeting, whiteboard notes, business cards, not to mention important documents. They come in handy for other uses, too, everything from digitizing paper recipes to saving warranties.
A few years ago, I had to get a new passport and on the same day, drop it off for a visa. Right after I picked up the passport, I thought, “I should probably have a copy of this before I hand it over.” I took out my phone and scanned it. Sure enough, the visa took more than two weeks, and in the meantime, I needed the details of my passport for a bunch of paperwork. Good thing I had a legible copy!
How Do Scanning Apps Work?
When you use a mobile scanning app, it’s not much different than taking a picture. In an ideal setting, you play your document flat on a contrasting background and point your phone’s camera at it.
Then, the scanning app guides you through the process. It usually tells you to line up the edges of the document with crop marks on the phone screen. Hold steady as you can, but don’t worry. The app adjusts for slight movements. The scan takes a second or two. When it’s done, you generally see a preview of your document. The app usually then asks whether you want to add more pages or start a new scan.
Perhaps you’re thinking that you could skip a scanning app altogether and instead take a photo of any papers that you want to save digitally. You could, but there are two disadvantages. First, an image is unlikely to be as clear as a scan, so you run the risk of not having legible text. Second, you can’t search the text, which could make it extremely difficult to find what you need later.
What Should You Scan With a Scanning App?
Let’s look at examples of how you can use a scanning app to stay organized. After that, I’ll explain which features you should look for in the best scanning apps and name a few apps that have them.
The next time someone hands you a business card, use a scanning app to capture that person’s contact information, and then return the card. You’ll show how easy it is to be paperless while also collecting their details in a digital format so you don’t have to type anything later. Some scanning apps can detect business cards and create a new entry in your contact app. Others search LinkedIn to suggest connecting there.
Whiteboards and Presentation Materials
In meetings, most of us want to give each speaker our full attention. That’s hard to do if we’re squinting at a presentation or whiteboard, hoping not to miss an important detail. A great solution is to quickly scan the slides or other materials as they appear knowing that you can look over them in more detail later.
Documents to Email or Back Up
While many people and organizations are happy to send you digital documents, there are still plenty of instances when we encounter paper. Let’s say your bank gives you an important paper document to sign, but you want your lawyer to check it over first. That’s a great time to use your scanning app. Scan a few pages so you can email them stat. Some scanning apps include a tool that lets you digitally sign them, too.
Other important papers that you might want to scan and back up include immunization records, tax documents, and legal certificates (birth, marriage, immigration, etc.).
What to Look For in a Scanning App
The best scanning apps capture your documents clearly, make the text searchable, and help you save the finished files in the right places. Here’s what to look for:
Automatic Edge Detection
A great scanning and OCR app automatically finds the edges of your documents automatically. When you point the camera at the paper, the crop marks you see on screen should search for the edge of the document on their own and adjust to different dimensions. So, whether you’re scanning an A4 sheet of paper or a business card, the app figures it out automatically.
Save and Export Options
The best scanning apps give you options for where you can save or export your newly scanned texts, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or another storage service. You don’t want an app that forces you to keep documents in a new place.
I mentioned OCR at the top of this article. When you have OCR, any words you scan become text. You can also copy and paste the text or edit it. Let’s say you scan a recipe and see that it has a typo. With a really good scanning and OCR app, you should be able to fix the typo. Some apps can convert your final text to a familiar word processing format, like .docx. Others let you change the text right in the app without having to open the document in a word processor first.
OCR also enables you to search the text of documents. This means if you want to find your immunization records, you could try searching for your doctor’s name to find the file. You don’t need to remember what you named the file. If you use search a lot for finding files, then you definitely need OCR.
Maybe you’re not super organized when it comes to exporting and saving your files to another location. In that case, you’d want to be able to search the contents of the scanning app for anything you once scanned and now need. A great scanning app will have its own search functionality.
Really good scanning apps can scan multiple pages consecutively. They should then collate all the pages into a single PDF with ease. The most high-end scanning apps also correct for page distortion, such as when you scan pages from a book and can’t quite get it to lay flat.
Many of the best scanning and OCR apps have a free level of service and a premium paid level. OCR is sometimes considered a premium feature. The pricing of scanning and OCR apps is a little nuts. For a while, you could expect to pay between $4 and $7 for a decent app. Now, the one-time fees are ten times higher. While subscription rates are more reasonable, some people only need a scanning app a few times a year.
The Best Scanning Apps
Now that you understand what scanning apps can do and why you might want one, here are some of the best ones you can find. I’ve focused on apps that offer scanning and OCR and make your text editable. There are plenty of apps that just do scanning. Evernote Scannable and the mobile Dropbox app are two examples. But they don’t give you a final text that you can copy and paste or edit. These apps do.
No matter which app you choose, you’ll find that having a scanning app on hand that you trust helps you digitize your documents and stay organized.
Free; Pro for $4.99 per month, $19.99 per year, or $59.99 one-time fee
ABBYY FineScanner is possibly the best and most capable scanner and OCR app for mobile devices. It exports files to a variety of formats, lets you save files to most major storage services, and even runs OCR on more than 40 languages. You need a Premium account to get OCR, which costs $4.99 per month, $19.99 per year, or $59.99 for a one-time fee.
Available on Android, iOS
Microsoft Office Lens is one of very few scanning apps that’s completely free. It’s slightly slower and clunkier than other apps with edge detection and cropping, but it gets the job done. The app has special modes for scanning business cards and whiteboard. To edit the text you scan, you must export the text via Microsoft OneDrive and then open it Word.
Available on Android, iOS, Windows
Free; Pro for $4.49 first year then $22.49 per year; or $69.99 one-time on iOS
Scanbot is an excellent scanning and OCR app. The said, the company recently changed its pricing model from a low-cost one-time fee to an annual subscription or more expensive one-time fee ($69.99). Additionally, prices are very hard to track down. In any event, the Pro version of Scanbot is worth considering if you need a fast and accurate scanning app for nearly any type of document. It has good color correction and optimization tools, plus other scanning features, such as a QR code reader and barcode scanner. You can also use it to sign documents using nothing more than your finger and phone or tablet.
Available on Android and iOS