3 document scanners: Move your data from paper to pixels

While the dream of a paper-free world has yet to materialize (assuming it ever will), using scanners to store digital copies of hardcopy documents has become de rigueur for most businesses, from enterprise-level operations to single-person startups.

It has also become a solution for individuals who need to keep their house -- and their tax statements -- in order. "These devices are marketed as the antidote to clutter," says Anne Valaitis, director for image scanning trends at market research firm InfoTrends. "Anything scanned takes up no space and hard drives have never been cheaper."

As a result, the desktop scanner market is growing quickly. According to InfoTrends, 685,000 units were sold in North America in 2011, the last year the firm has complete figures for. Of those, 300,000 units -- nearly half -- were entry-level devices that scan between 16 and 30 pages per minute (ppm). Valaitis forecasts entry-level scanner volume could rise to 395,000 units this year and continue growing for the foreseeable future.

In this roundup, I look at three of the latest desktop document scanners -- devices designed specifically for scanning and storing a variety of single-sheet documents: the Brother ImageCenter ADS-2500W, the Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500 and the Panasonic KV-S1015C.

High-end features

These are not simple one-sheet-at-a-time scanners. These desktop devices have been designed to scan a small pile of documents quickly and efficiently; as a result, they include many of the features that once could only be found in higher-end business devices.

For example, all three have a single-pass document path that scans both sides of a sheet at once. You can also scan originals to a variety of file formats (such as PDFs, Microsoft Word DOC files or various graphic file types). And you can decide the quality of the scan; for example, you can do a basic monochrome scan for use with an optical character recognition (OCR) application (and most scanners include OCR software with their software package), a 200dpi grayscale scan for archiving business receipts or a 600dpi color scan for photos and other color documents.

Document scanners don't take up a lot of desktop space -- like origami, they fold. Scanners open to deliver an automatic document feeder (ADF) at one end and a tray for the scanned items at the other. Each of the three scanners reviewed here comes with a 50-sheet document feeder and a top optical resolution of 600dpi.

In other ways, however, they are very different. For example, the Panasonic has three preset buttons assigned to different scan profiles for different types of documents, while the Fujitsu ScanSnap has a minimalist single scan button. Meanwhile, the Brother ImageCenter offers a small color touch display with up to eight scan profiles. You can also use the display to choose where to send your scan.

All three of the scanners include a variety of software that allows you to organize your scans. The Brother ImageCenter offers applications for the widest number of devices: It can work with Windows PCs, Macs and Linux computers as well as Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices. The Fujitsu ScanSnap works with Windows, OS X, iOS and Android, while the Panasonic currently works only with Windows.

All of the scanners let you save your output to the cloud, using online storage repositories like Dropbox.

None of these are inexpensive -- two of the scanners reviewed here list for $495 and the other goes for about $800. If you only need to scan the occasional tax document or photo, you'd probably be better off with an all-in-one device or even a smaller mobile scanner. But when it comes to cleaning up the paper clutter in the typical office, one of these desktop scanners can help do the trick with speed and grace.

Brother ImageCenter ADS-2500W

If you're the tactile type, the Brother ImageCenter ADS-2500W has something you'll like: an innovative touchscreen that controls many of its functions.

Brother ImageCenter ADS-2500W

Easily the largest of the three scanners reviewed here, the Brother ImageCenter takes up 11.8 x 8.7 x 7.1 in. width/depth/height (WDH) of desk space; when fully opened, the two trays extend its depth to 19.4 in.

The center of attention, though, is the 3.7-in. color touch display that responds to taps and swipes. Three hardware control buttons on the right side of the scanner let you go back a screen, go to the home screen and cancel an operation.

Tap the display to wake the scanner up and you have the choice of scanning to a variety of destinations, including a computer, network file server, FTP server or USB drive.

You can also save to an assortment of online services, including Evernote, Dropbox, Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and SharePoint using the scanner's built-in Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections. It takes a little extra setup time, but the versatility that it adds is more than worth it.

The Brother ImageCenter's display offers shortcuts for eight preset scans; however, I actually found the Panasonic's three hardware buttons (to which you can assign different pre-scans) easier to use.

With a pair of 600dpi optical scanning elements, the Brother ImageCenter can digitize both sides of a sheet in a single pass. It is the only one of the three to come with interpolation software, which uses numerical analysis techniques to take information in a 600dpi scan and boost it to the equivalent of 1,200dpi.

The scanner can create single-bit, grayscale or 24-bit color images, accommodate sheets up to 14-in. long in batches or single sheets up to 34-in. long, and handle up to 53-lb. stock originals. Brother rates its 50-sheet document feeder at 24ppm.

With Ethernet ports, along with 802.11n Wi-Fi, the Brother ImageCenter offers the best connection abilities of the three. There's a big bonus on the side of the scanner: two USB ports, one for connecting the scanner to a computer and the other for connecting a USB storage device to the scanner.

At a Glance

Brother ImageCenter ADS-2500W

Brother

Price: $799.99

Pros: Touchscreen control; Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections; 8 preset scan profiles; Windows, Mac and Linux support; tablet and phone apps

Cons: Higher price than other desktop scanners; need to download Windows 8 drivers separately

The scanner's software works with Windows PCs, Macs and Linux computers. (Note: While the included CD contains all you'll need for Windows 7 or Mac OS X systems, I had to download and install software for it to work with a Windows 8 computer. Brother says it will update its installation CD to include the new software in the coming months.)

For Windows users, the system comes with Brother Control Center 4.0 (for general settings and profiles), Nuance PDF Converter Professional 7, Nuance PaperPort 12 for document management (a good organizer that displays the scans as thumbnails and allows some minor editing) and Presto BizCard 6, a contact management system. (Note: Some of the software included is one or two versions behind the current versions being sold separately.)

Mac users get Brother ControlCenter 2, BizCard 5 and, to add more options to the scanning process, Presto PageManager 9.

Phone and tablet bases are covered with free Brother iPrint&Scan apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices.

Performance and quality

A good all-around performer, the Brother ImageCenter was able to turn a stack of 10 pages into digital files at the rate of 18.3ppm and scan a magazine cover at 3.9ppm, results that put it between the faster Fujitsu ScanSnap and slower Panasonic. Five business cards were scanned at the rate of 17.5ppm, the slowest of the group.

The Brother ImageCenter's scans were pinpoint sharp, but often it scanned both sides of a page even when the second side was blank -- something the others didn't do. It successfully scanned a thick driver's license but business cards set up horizontally often got jammed in the feeding mechanism. They worked fine inserted vertically.

Bottom line

The Brother ImageCenter ADS-2500W is not cheap. In fact, it lists for $800, over $300 more than either of the other two scanners reviewed here. (Retail prices range from $644 to $1,306.)

However, the Brother ImageCenter does so much and does it so easily that if you need to archive and organize a lot of documents, it could be worth the price for you. The Brother ImageCenter outclasses everything around it.

Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500

Small and compact, the Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500 packs a lot of punch with its ability to connect in a variety of ways and work with several online storage systems.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap takes up only 11.5 x 6.2 x 6.6 in. (WDH) of desktop space when it's closed, making it the smallest of the three. The scanner expands to 19.5 in., nearly the same size as the Brother ImageCenter with its feeder and output trays set up.

Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500

While the Panasonic system has three scan buttons and the Brother ImageCenter offers eight different scan profiles, the Fujitsu ScanSnap has only one, making it the most minimalist of the three. The long, rectangular button glows blue when the machine is ready to scan, which is a neat visual effect.

The scanner has a dual-element 600dpi optical scanning engine (so, like the other two scanners, it can scan both sides of a document at once) and can create single-bit, grayscale and 24-bit color files. The automatic document feeder can hold 50 sheets, can scan single sheets up to 34-in. long and can handle up to 56-lb. paper stock. Fujitsu rates its performance at speeds of up to 25ppm.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap connects with a computer via USB 3.0; the other scanners use the older and slower USB 2.0 standard. It is equipped with a Wi-Fi connection as well, but lacks an Ethernet port.

Unlike the other scanners, the Fujitsu ScanSnap uses proprietary drivers and can't work with more standard TWAIN or ISIS drivers. This means that it won't work with all third-party applications; if you're already using, say, a business-card scanning app, it's best to check with Fujitsu to see if your software is compatible with the scanner.

The included ScanSnap Organizer software shows thumbnails of scans, has some basic editing features, adjusts most scanning parameters and lets you assign one of several tasks to the ScanSnap's single scan button.

The device also includes Adobe Acrobat X Standard, Fujitsu's CardMinder business-card software and ABBY FineReader for ScanSnap 5.0, which can render a scanned original as a Word, Excel or PowerPoint file, Google Doc or Salesforce.com contact data.

You can send scans to a variety of applications, including Word and Photoshop. You can also send scans directly to cloud services such as Evernote, Dropbox, Google Docs, SharePoint and SugarSync using the scanner's built-in Wi-Fi networking. However, the Fujitsu ScanSnap can't send a scan to an FTP site or directly to a USB drive as the Brother ImageCenter can.

At a Glance

Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500

Fujitsu

Price: $495.00

Pros: Compact, relatively fast, has USB 3.0 ports, has apps for iOS and Android devices

Cons: Awkward installation, can't scan to external USB drive, no TWAIN or ISIS support

The Fujitsu ScanSnap can work with both Windows PCs and Macs. However, I found its installation scheme, which involves two discs, to be disjointed; it took me about 30 minutes. This may be because it involves a variety of separate operations: I had to install ScanSnap Organizer, Acrobat X Standard and Fujitsu's software for moving scans online; I then had to download and install a 100MB update.

If you want to use the scanner with your smartphone, you can download the ScanSnap Connect Application for your iOS and Android device. There are no apps for Windows Phones at this point.

Performance and quality

The Fujitsu ScanSnap was the all-around performance winner of the trio, with a scan rate of 20.3ppm for the stack of 10 assorted documents and 4.1ppm for the magazine cover -- roughly twice the speed of the Panasonic. The Fujitsu ScanSnap stumbled slightly when turning five business cards into digital files with a rate of 38.1ppm, slightly behind the Panasonic but still faster than the Brother.

Its scans were sharp with well-defined edges and it was the only one of the three not to suffer a misfeed during testing and daily use.

Bottom line

The Fujitsu ScanSnap lists for $495 (the same as the Pansonic), and retails for $450 to $540. This is the one to get if space is at a premium and speed is of the essence.

Panasonic KV-S1015C

The most basic of the three scanners in this roundup, Panasonic's KV-S1015C desktop scanner offers a good measure of scanning flexibility.

At 11.9 x 7.0 x 5.4 in. (WDH), the Panasonic fits right in between the smaller Fujitsu ScanSnap and the larger Brother ImageCenter. With its feeder and paper tray open, it expands to a depth of 27 in., 10 in. longer than the ScanSnap.

Panasonic KV-S1015C

Unfortunately, unlike the other two scanners in this roundup, the Panasonic has limited connection capabilities. It comes with a single USB 2.0 port for connecting to a computer, but is not equipped with either Ethernet or Wi-Fi.

The Panasonic has two separate buttons for turning it on and off and three buttons that can each be assigned to a preset scan format; Panasonic even provides adhesive labels so that you can note which button does what.

Alternatively, to start a scan with the default settings (which can be set through the scanner's software), just feed a sheet of paper into the scanner -- it starts up automatically and sucks the sheet in. It's the only one of the three that offers this.

The Panasonic is equipped with two 600-dpi optical scanning elements that can create double-sided single-bit, grayscale and 24-bit color scans. The document feeder works with sheets up to 100 in. long, holds up to 50 sheets at a time and works with up to 55-lb. paper stock; Panasonic rates it at 20ppm.

To prevent originals from getting damaged, the Panasonic has a built-in ultrasonic sensor. As soon as it senses a change in the scanner's vibration level -- an indication that two originals are being simultaneously fed into the mechanism -- it shuts down the scan process so you can rescue your documents.

Because the scanner can work only with Windows PCs -- although the company says it's working on Mac software -- the Panasonic comes up short on compatibility compared to the Fujitsu ScanSnap and Brother ImageCenter. The Panasonic comes with document management and sharing package Presto PageManager 9, Presto BizCard 6 and Panasonic's own Image Capture Plus, which helps you edit and organize your scans.

The Panasonic doesn't have either an Ethernet connection or Wi-Fi, so you have to be connected to an online computer in order to scan to any type of cloud storage. Once you are connected, Panasonic's software lets you store scans in Evernote and Google Drive, and can synchronize contact info with Salesforce.com data.

At a Glance

Panasonic KV-S1015C

Panasonic

Price: $495.00

Pros: Relatively inexpensive, instant feed, 3 programmable scan buttons, 3-year warranty

Cons: Windows only, slow scans, no networking ability

Performance and quality

The Panasonic was the slowest of the three scanners reviewed here. It scanned the stack of 10 originals at 13.9 ppm, one-third slower than the Fujitsu ScanSnap. At 2.0ppm, it took roughly twice as long for it to scan the magazine cover in color as the Fujitsu ScanSnap or Brother ImageCenter took.

The exception to this was the stack of five business cards, which it scanned at the rate of 40.3ppm, slightly faster than the Fujitsu ScanSnap and more than twice as fast as the Brother ImageCenter.

I did note that the software was very effective at correcting problems. When I scanned in my driver's license, the document went in crooked, but the software de-skewed the image and the scan looked great. Overall, the system produced sharp edges and quality scans.

Bottom line

While it costs the same as the Fujitsu ScanSnap, the Panasonic KV-S1015C offers (unlike the other two scanners) a three-year warranty that includes shipping out a replacement machine next day. At $495, it's a great scanner at a great price, even though it's a bit slower than its rivals.

Conclusions

To my mind, desktop scanning is all about ease of use and flexibility. If it isn't easy and quick, the paperwork will pile up.

These three desktop scanners have vastly different ways of fulfilling their mission of turning paper into pixels. For instance, the Panasonic KV-S1015C has three preset scanning buttons for different types of originals and includes a three-year warranty. It, however, lacks networking, apps for phones or tablets and is limited to working with Windows PCs.

In contrast, Fujitsu's ScanSnap ix500 covers the connection bases well with PC and Mac compatibility along with the ability to take control of the scanner with a phone or tablet. On the other hand, its single scan button means that choosing different scanning parameters needs to be done from your computer's screen.

The Brother ImageCenter ADS-2500W picks up where the others leave off and is the only one of the three to have a touchscreen control panel. The best connected of the three with USB, Ethernet and Wi-Fi, it can work with Windows, OS X and Linux computers as well as a variety of phones and tablets.

The Brother ImageCenter's only drawback is its price tag. But it is money well spent for those drowning in paper.

How we tested

To put these devices through their paces, I used each daily to digitize a variety of items, from manuals, reports and memos to business cards, magazine articles and invoices.

I started by setting each up and loading its software on a Dell Inspiron 15Z running Windows 8. After measuring each device when it was closed, I opened the automatic document feeder and output tray and measured how much room each takes up on a desk. I tried out the feeder guides and tried out several different-sized originals.

After going over the device's buttons and switches, I looked at the software that comes with the scanner and paid particular attention to how hard it is to change its settings and configure it to automatically place the digital images into a folder on a computer or network; I also noted the presence of preset modes for different documents. If the system included networking, I connected it to my office network.

I set up three timed tests, where the stopwatch was started when I pressed the scan button and stopped when the last image became visible on the computer's screen. Each scanner was set to de-skew and automatically orient the image. Scan tests included:

A 10-page stack of originals of varying sizes, which were scanned in 200 dot-per-inch single-bit mode

A magazine cover, which was scanned in duplex mode and the scanner's top color resolution

A stack of 5 business cards, which were scanned at 200dpi

My driver's license, which was scanned at 600dpi

After each run, I looked at the image files and compared them to the originals and to the output from the other scanners and a 600 dpi flatbed scanner. I looked for artifacts, lines, skewed images, blurred details and blank images that represented a scan of the back of a sheet. I used the scanner's software to correct any problems, such as skewing and visual artifacts.

I then tried to save the file in a variety of formats and places. I looked over the software's ability to arrange and store the scans, including its cloud abilities. I also tried out any associated tablet or phone apps.

This story, "3 document scanners: Move your data from paper to pixels" was originally published by Computerworld.

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