Feb 1, 2011

Scanning on the Go with the iPhone

At work, when we submit expense reports for a business trip, we have to attach images of our receipts to those expense reports. Typically, I take the receipts, scan them with our big scanner/copier/printer, and then email them to myself from this mammoth machine.  One time one of my receipts failed to make it back with me.  Fortunately, it was a small one but it could've easily been one that would've caused me big problems.  On my most recent business trip, I tried something different.

Along my trip, as I got receipts, I took pictures of those receipts with my iPhone 4.  When I got some down-time, I used an app called JotNot Pro to take those pictures, assemble them into a PDF, and mail them to myself.  This is all way easier than it sounds and I no longer had to worry about lost receipts.

JotNot is one of a number of apps, including the free and yet capable Genius Scan, that allows you to take a picture of a piece of paper, creates either a JPEG images or a PDF from it, and allows you to email the JPEG or PDF.

While the camera on the iPhone 4 captures the detail of writing very well, there are four main challenges to using your phone as a document scanner:
  1. Perspective: It's difficult to get a picture from exactly ninety degrees above the piece of paper.  It's often not even desirable because this can create a shadow on the piece of paper.
  2. Color: The lighting of a given room often makes the picture unfavorably colored when often what is needed is a simple black and white copy of the document. 
  3. Background: When you take a picture of a piece of paper, it is difficult to avoid capturing the background to that paper, whether it be a table, carpet from the floor, or whatever.
  4. Multiple Pages: Often you need to have more than one page, hence more than one image, in a single document.
These apps, and others like them, solve all of these problems for you.  I'll describe this with JotNot, which is my favorite, but the same things are true for Genius Scan, Prizmo, and other similar apps:
  1. You either take a picture with the app or import one from your camera roll.
  2. The app automatically tries, usually with success, to outline the page, even if you took the picture at an angle.  If it is off, you can correct it by dragging the corners of the outline to the corners of the page.  When your happy that the page is correctly outlined, you simply click a button.
  3. The app then corrects the perspective (which itself is almost magical) of the image, eliminates the background, and converts it to black and white.
  4. You can add more images to the same document if you want.
  5. If you choose to email it, it creates a PDF with each image as a page and emails it to whatever email address you choose.
Each of these apps allow you to tweak settings, allowing you to keep the color in each image instead of converting it to black and white, for example.  Any of these is really helpful but I like JotNot, which is $0.99 at the time of this writing, because:
  1. It's easy to use.
  2. It gets the outline around the page right most of the time without my help.
  3. It allows you to not only email a document, but send it to DropBox, Evernote, Google Docs, or any WebDAV server (including iDisk).
  4. It even allows you to fax the document though I haven't had need to do this yet. (It's $0.99 for 5 pages to fax.)
I've used Prizmo also, which has OCR to convert the image into text but I haven't had a lot of luck with that, nor have I really needed that feature.  I'm not sure it's worth the premium price of $9.99.  Whatever app you choose though, having this ability is really powerful, not just for receipts but for handwritten notes, documents that you don't want to carry around with you or might lose, etc.  Go get one of these apps.  You won't regret it.

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