Review: 3 new scanners store your documents in the cloud

Today's scanners keep your documents safe by sending them either to your hard drive or your favorite cloud storage service.

We may be in the digital age, but paper is still everywhere -- from the tiny receipts you save while traveling to invoices from vendors to that handwritten note from your favorite aunt. A page scanner can be handy solution to digitize and save all your hardcopy documents. Even better: The latest scanners have tie-ins with cloud storage services, so you can upload scanned content directly to the cloud.

However, methods used in scanning to the cloud can vary dramatically. I evaluated three very different scanners, each with its own angle on how to handle cloud services and how to handle the scanning experience as a whole.

All three contenders -- Brother's $300 ImageCenter ADS-1500W, The Neat Company's $500 NeatConnect and DCT's $159 SimpleScan DP -- support scanning directly to a host of popular cloud storage services. In addition, all have cloud storage services of their own for managing your scans independently.

Two of the three -- the Brother ADS-1500W and the NeatConnect -- have automatic document feeders, while one, the SimpleScan DP, is just a sheet-fed scanner. Two -- the Brother and the NeatConnect -- are optimized for scanning receipts and business cards. All three have software and services that already, or soon will, support ties into Intuit's QuickBooks.

How I tested

For all three scanners, I used the same set of business documents and papers, to see how each handled the challenge of scanning to a Toshiba KiraBook Ultrabook laptop and to the cloud.

I scanned a single page, a stack of a dozen pages (served up single-feed on the SimpleScan DP), a stack of 10 business cards (the same group of mixed paper stocks and types I used when reviewing business card apps), and a mixture of small receipts, from a thin taxi print-out to more sturdy but awkwardly sized restaurant receipts.

I tested each scanner's ability to connect with cloud services by sending them to Google Drive and Dropbox accounts. To test speed, I timed how long it took to scan a single page through each unit.

Which scanner is right for you? Read on.

ImageCenter ADS-1500W

The $300 Brother ImageCenter ADS-1500W wireless portable scanner has hooks into cloud services, and it packs a slew of power options. However, the software has an old-school interface design that impacts usability.

The scanner itself is built like a tank. It measures 11.2 x 4.1 x 3.3 in. and weighs 3.5 lb. That means the scanner is technically portable, but Brother refers to it as a desktop scanner -- and the truth is, only serious road warriors who have need of heavy-duty scanning would even consider toting what amounts to the weight of an extra laptop.

Brother ImageCenter ADS-1500W

The Brother's cover opens up to become the automatic document feeder for up to 20 sheets. Guides let you choose how to adjust the paper guides for A4 letter and legal size paper (up to 35 in. long), B5, A5, and business card-width paper. Brother includes a long, narrow plastic sleeve so you can safely feed in receipts. (If you leave the cover down, you can still scan plastic ID cards using the slot at the rear right.) The scanner also offers a USB port (so you scan directly to USB) and a Kensington lock slot. The scanner connects to a computer via a mini-USB cable or 802.11n Wi-Fi.

Installation was simple. The scanner comes with an installation CD, but I downloaded the software from the website and ran through the full suite install; then I rebooted my PC and plugged in the scanner. I chose to set up via USB connection the first time around, but the second time I used the wireless network option; both worked smoothly.

The LCD interface: Convenient but confusing

A 2.7-in. color LCD on the scanner lets you initiate and route scans to your computer or the cloud; you can also initiate a scan from the included desktop software. Sadly, I wasn't impressed with the scanner's user interface. The display has a resistive touch screen that I found unresponsive and difficult to navigate. I'd often have to press an icon more than once before the display responded, or I'd press one button when intending to hit another.

These traits were complicated by the small, narrow onscreen keyboard buttons, and by the fact that the buttons often go right up to the edge of the display, leaving little room between them and the plastic bezel that surrounds the display.

The scanner's top-level menu has a set of six icons, with preset shortcuts for scanning to FTP, network, computer system, USB drive, email server and Web. You can't reorder the icons and some -- like Scan to network -- prompt you to configure them via "Web Based Management" on your computer, an odd entreaty considering there's only an option for Remote Management, not Web Based Management, among the included utilities. (It turned out that "Web Based Management" referred to the act of opening a Web browser and manually entering your system's IP address in order to manage the scanner).

Beneath the icons, there's a button that leads to your own shortcuts -- you can set up to 12. While having the option to set up your own shortcuts is handy, it's also annoying that you can't replace one of the preset icons in the carousel with your own shortcut of choice.

Software

The CD that comes with the scanner contains Brother Utilities, a launcher from which you access Brother's Web-based services, local scanner management utilities, manuals and the Control Center 4 application that serves as your scanning activity hub.

You also get a wealth of third-party applications: Windows users get Nuance PDF Converter Professional 8, Nuance PaperPort 12SE and Presto BizCard 6 software, while Mac users get Presto PageManager 9 and Brother's Control Center 2 for Mac. Windows users can also separately download Brother's BR-Receipts software, handy for scanning and organizing receipts, generating expense reports and exporting data to Intuit's QuickBooks and Quicken.

(Note: Although the Brother website says that the full software suite download gives you a copy of everything you'd get from the CD, the Brother Utilities and Control Center software are actually the only applications you get in the installer download.)

Unfortunately, Brother Utilities is badly organized, confusing and not at all well integrated with its variety of features. For example, the Brother Utilities launcher contains four tabs -- Scan, Tools, Use More and Support -- each of which includes several icons. The Scan tab has three icons: one that offers access to Control Center 4, the main scanning application; one that leads to the Windows Scanners and Camera setting; and one that links to a website called How to Scan.

The Use More tab is where the important Web Connect link -- which lets you set up direct scans to Web services -- is buried. The link leads to a generic webpage with a warning that the "services available for your machine may vary depending on the model and firmware version of your machine." Clearly, this site is intended to service multiple Brother models, but it left me with the impression that the Web Connect options are not well integrated with the scanner.

Click on the service you want to set up (Evernote, Dropbox, Facebook, Flickr, SkyDrive, Box, Google Drive or Picasa), enter your login info to give the scanner access and the Web Connect service returns a code. You then have to enter that code on the scanner's LCD by drilling down to the Connect to Web option and tapping on the corresponding service.

All of this takes a lot of effort to configure. However, once it's done, you can then label the account with a name, which opens the door for multiple accounts under a given cloud service -- convenient if, say, you have more than one Dropbox account or if you're sharing the scanner with other users. In addition, you can create an optional PIN number for a cloud account. Features like this make the Brother ADS-1500W viable for sharing in a department or small workgroup.

Some of the other utilities include a Status Monitor that tells you if the scanner is online or offline, and a much more useful link to Brother's website for troubleshooting and for buying supplies.

One note of advice: When you first open the Control Center 4 application (again, found via the Scan tab in Brother Utilities), you're asked to choose between Home Mode and Advanced Mode. Advanced Mode, ironically, felt easier to use: It had clearly labeled icons and screens that are more concise and friendly in design than the Home Mode.

Test results

For all of my issues with the disjointed interface and software, I found the scanner worked well enough once I navigated through those issues. The Brother can get scan jobs of all types done well -- and its generous software package gives you the tools to do things with your scanned documents. Scans fed through quickly, and scan quality looked good at the default settings, with reasonable sharpness and clarity.

At a Glance

ImageCenter ADS-1500W

BrotherPrice:$300 direct, $225 - $548 retailPros: Lots of power options, particularly for using via a network; compact design; scans plastic cards; comes with a range of desktop softwareCons: Interface has a dated design; tasks often takes multiple steps; scanner is portable, but heavy

Using the included Control Center software, it took six seconds to scan a single page at the default 300 dots per inch (dpi) -- it can scan up to 600 dpi -- and another 35 seconds to upload the file to Dropbox. Scanning to PC went much more quickly. When the same page was scanned via the LCD interface, the Brother took 4 seconds to prepare to scan, then 6 seconds to complete the scan to PDF on my PC.

It deposited the file in a Control Center folder in My Pictures. You can also make a host of adjustments (resolution, paper type, etc.) prior to initiating a scan by using the Control Center Software.

I occasionally had issues with the scanner feeding full-size pages through straight, but that was not the norm -- and was more an issue when I was scanning single pages or pages with folds in them (as on a hotel invoice). I had no issues with a stack of business cards. The device includes a plastic sleeve for scanning small, thin papers, like receipts.

The scanner has drivers for TWAIN and Windows Imaging Acquisition, as well as more specialized protocols like ICA, ISIS, and SANE. It also supports a slew of network protocols, making this scanner a good choice if it's going into a corporate network environment.

Bottom line

If you need maximum performance and versatility, the ADS-1500W delivers it in spades, even if many of the tasks require more steps than you'd expect to complete, due to the software's somewhat problematic user interface.

NeatConnect

The Neat Company's NeatConnect scanner takes the hassle out of digitizing the paper lying about your desk and sending it to your Mac or Windows PC or any of nine cloud services. It's a stylish, thoughtfully designed device whose biggest flaw is its hefty $500 price.

The NeatConnect is a stylish, slanted desktop scanner that's designed to fit well in a work or home environment. The wedge-like device stands 7.5 in. tall and requires a minimal footprint, measuring 11 x 8.7 in. (though you'll need a little extra space to accommodate the paper guide that extends from the automatic document feeder, plus another 7 in. for the pull-out paper output tray).

NeatConnect

The slanted face of the scanner is defined by its 3.5-in. LCD touch display and its three distinct paper slots at top. Each slot is labeled to represent the most likely document type you'd use it for: Documents, Receipts and Cards.

"Documents" is intended for letter- or legal-size pages measuring 8.7 in. wide and up to 30 in. long. The Documents section is the only one of the three to have an adjustable paper guide, and this moves smoothly and easily. For full-size documents, an extension pulls out from behind.

"Receipts" accepts paper up to 3.5 in. wide, good for the typical receipt and wide enough to accommodate a boarding pass. "Cards" is intended for -- you guessed it -- business cards and other papers measuring up to 1.5 in. wide. Each paper slot supports up to 15 pages.

You can remove the top plastic paper tray that contains the slot (magnets make it easy to remove and replace) and use the ADF beneath to scan up to 50 sheets (which can measure up to 8.7 x 30 in.).

Setup

The NeatCompany did a terrific job with the setup and getting started process. Everything, from the box's packaging -- with its neatly labeled components inside -- to the setup wizard offered a good user experience. Getting started is easy: Just push the large power button at back, and you'll get a display that looks like that on a mobile phone, with clear, large finger targets and modern text design. You sign into your network, sign up for a NeatCloud account (if you don't already have one), and then get a quick walkthrough of the scanner's abilities.

The walkthrough wizard actually mimics what it's like to do an actual scan. There are different options you can choose before starting a scan: color or grayscale, one-sided or two-sided, and whether each page should be scanned as a separate document or as a group. NeatConnect will remember these settings for subsequent scans, but you can change them as needed. (Which I found handy, since I'd often forget to change whether I wanted to scan my documents as a group.)

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