Colour scanning went screwy and required re-calibration after only two weeks.
Summary: The Neat Company specializes in products and solutions for digitizing and organizing documents, receipts, and all manner of information printed on dead trees. As an avid Evernote user, I was interested in finding a tool to bridge the gap between my paperwork and the organizational awesomeness of Evernote. The NeatWorks scanner delivers in a big way, though it's rough-around-the-edges software makes for some frustrations.
That Old Cliché...
The Paperless Office. I don't know about you, but I roll my eyes a bit when I come across that term. We should be living in digital bliss by now when it comes to paperwork, but it's still all too common in my work and personal life. Part of it is the bone-headed decisions banks, insurance companies, and others make about digital files. My bank, for instance, allows me to go digital and forgo monthly paper statements. Sounds good, right? It is, except they charge $1.50 for viewing a digital scan of a cheque I've written. When I get a paper statement, it includes a print-out of the digital scans for free. There's also the issue of having to remember to log into my bank to review credit card statements; for security reasons banks don't email out the PDFs they generate (which is the right call), but I rarely remember to manually review each statement every month. For those reasons I've resisted going digital on some of my accounts.
What about going digital after the fact? Sure, I have a scanner, but it was designed for scanning photos at high resolutions, not quickly chewing through a stack of documents. I've been curious about dedicated document scanners for several years now, but I didn't request one for review until recently. In retrospect, I wish I'd done it sooner - I'm amazed at how transformative it is to go fully digital with my paper-heavy existence.
King of the Hill?
If you do a search for consumer/SOHO-level document scanners, there are only a few big players: Fujitsu with their ScanSnap products, The Neat Company with their Neat scanners, and perhaps newcomer Doxie. NeatoCo has two different versions of the scanner: one with an automatic document feeder (ADF) that sells for around $399 USD, and a less expensive and more portable sheet-fed version ($199 USD). Document scanners like this aren't typically sold at your local Best Buy, so it's hard to get a handle on how well they work, or how useful they really are. And given the price-point, it's not an impulse purchase an average customer will make just to see if they work well.
As a recent convert to the Church of Evernote, I'm a true believer in the benefits of digitizing everything possible and having cross-platform, everywhere-I-go access to key information and documents. I saw the Neat scanners being promoted on Evernote's Trunk area, and requested one for review. I was sent the NeatWorks Scanner for Mac, but they also provided a key for the Windows version of the software by the PR agency who sent me the product. You only get once software license key in the box however, so if you're on Windows you'll want to buy the Windows version of this product.
Setting Up the NeatWorks Scanner
In the box you'll find the scanner itself, a software disc, a white USB cable, and a small AC power brick. The product setup was painless; I installed the software, connected the scanner to a rear USB port on my computer, and it was working in 30 seconds. I wish all products were this easy to set up! I have to give NeatCo a nod for their out of box experience; everything worked smoothly. There are two components to the product; the Neat ADF scanner and the NeatWorks software. The software has two interfaces; the full NeatWorks suite, which has powerful tools for organizing and tracking receipts and paperwork of all kinds (here's a good tour), and the Neat Quick Scan tool, which allows you to configure various aspects of the scanning process.
Using the Product
There are two basic types of reviews you'll see online for any product; one is where a reviewer spends an afternoon with the product, does some basic tests, snaps a few pictures or takes a few screenshots, and cranks out the review. These types of reviews are fine for some products (I've done my share), but they don't really capture the experience of "living with" the product. The other type of review is what you get when the reviewer has really lived with the product for weeks or months, and gets to experience using the product in many scenarios; let's call it a "full immersion" review. That's what this review is - I've integrated the Neat scanner into my life, using it to scan well over a thousand pages of documents. I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly with this product.
So how well did it perform? I'll put it to you this way: I don't want to send it back, because I've come to rely heavily on it, but there's room for serious improvement in the software.
Figure 2: The scanner in action.
Let's start with the good news: the scanner is ridiculously fast. If, like me, you're used to typical flatbed scanners where 30 second warm-ups are common and an average 8.5 x 11" scan might take a full minute, the Neat scanner is a stunner: it can rip through a stack of ten pages, scanning both sides, in under 20 seconds. Scanning in colour slows it down considerably - it's about twice as fast when scanning in grayscale - but colour scanning is still fairly zippy.
To scan a double-sided, two page bill (four pages in total) in black and white took just 10 seconds; it was 23 seconds until the final PDF was generated and opened. There's almost no speed penalty for double-sided scanning; I measured 18 seconds for single-sided scan on one set of documents, and 19 seconds for double-sided scan.
The page feeder is a thing of beauty; I've used scanners that auto-feed documents before, and sometimes they can be a real headache. In all the scans I did with this, not once did I see it jam or mis-feed. That's impressive.
The hardware is incredibly fast, but the PDF creating engine they use isn't because it's not designed to scale to utilize modern hardware. It's not multi-core capable, or even multi-thread capable: it only used an average of 12.39% of total CPU power on my Core i7 CPU (four cores, four threads). When a program hits 12.5% on my system, that means it's using 100% of one core, but nothing more. This is a bit of a letdown, because for anything over a few pages, it means the scanner is the fastest part no matter how burly your computer CPU is. On the plus side, you can continue to scan documents and the PDFs will get generated in order - so you don't need to wait for the first PDF to be generated before starting on your next scan. This is critical and I'm thankful NeatCo enabled this. When you scan a 50 page document, however, be prepared for a long wait until you see the PDF created.
The Neat Quick Scan Center: Not a Shining Example of Software Design Excellence
The Neat Quick Scan Center is where you control the scanner settings. It's handy to have a little app that lets you control the settings rather than having the settings buried inside the larger software suite. You can one-click toggle from black & white (greyscale actually) to colour scans, and single-sided to double-sided. The Advanced Settings allow you to select between having every page scanned be a separate PDF file or combined into the same PDF file, automatically remove blank pages, and open the resulting PDF when it has been generated.
Figure 3: The Neat Quick Scan Center.
The Quick Scan Center sits in the system tray when running. Unfortunately, it's not running very often because it crashes frequently. This is, by far, my number one-with-a-bullet complaint about the software: it crashes. A lot. I worked with tech support at one point trying to figure out why it was crashing, but the software doesn't seem to log errors of what causes it to crash, so they were unable to explain why it was crashing. Sometimes it crashes, then when I start a new instance of the Quick Scan Center it locks up because the old instance is still running. Often I couldn't even end the running process via Windows Task Manager without physically turning off the scanner. These types of crashes/hangs are common when my system comes out of sleep.
Figure 4: A dialog box I've seen a lot of over the weeks.
The real problem is that when the Quick Scan Center crashes, it resets back to the default settings. For some bizarre reason, the developers at NeatCo decided that the default for multi-page scanning would be set to off. That means when the user puts a stack of ten pages into the document feeder, they'll get ten one-page PDF files. The scenarios where that would be desirable seem rare to me; I've never needed to do that in the months I've been using this product. It made for a very confusing first scanning experience - I put in a four page bill from my electrical company and ended up with four different PDF files sitting on my desktop. Default settings matter much more than most software developers realize, and NeatCo got this one wrong.
Figure 5: Perhaps the most irritating Windows error ever.
Another error I see fairly often is pictured above, and it's extremely irritating because clicking on Cancel, Try Again, or Continue does nothing. It takes around 12 clicks before the dialogue box goes away. It's a general Windows error related to drive letters, but I've never seen this error before on any computer I've ever owned until installing the Neat scanner. The NeatCo techs were aware of the error, but were unable to provide a fix. They suggested I look at support solutions from Microsoft, but the suggested resolutions weren't helpful.
NeatWorks: Getting Your Paperwork Organized
NeatWorks is the software suite that allows you to scan, sort, export and file your receipts, business cards, and documents. It's a very powerful tool that, frankly, I didn't spend much time with because my primary focus in using the Neat scanner was integrating it with Evernote. Below are some screen shots of what the software offers.
Figure 6: The software automatically sorts incoming scans based on what part of the ADF you used to scan the items. Smart!
Figure 7: If you use the Neat scanner to scan business cards, having them automatically sync into Outlook is a great idea.
I don't have Outlook installed on the computer I'm testing the Neat scanner on, but the software allows you to export contacts as VCF files, which mean drag-and-drop simplicity for importing contacts. This is a welcome addition to the software. It does a fairly good job with most business cards, though it struggles with some cards that have bold designs or inverted colours (black card with white text for instance).
Figure 8: The software makes an effort to pull as much data as possible from the receipt. It's not always accurate with what it tries to recognize, but it's a good start and much better than having to do it all manually.
I ended up dealing with my receipts in a different way; I've had to submit receipts for expense reports several times over the past two months, and the Neat scanner allowed me to do that in a very straight forward way. The receipt slot on the scanner worked perfectly for assorted sizes of receipts, and going through several stacks was a quick process. I then scanned an 8.5 x 11" receipt from a hotel and needed to use a separate tool to combine the resulting two PDFs.
I can't help but feel like something missing from this scanner solution is software along the lines of Nitro PDF. There have been several occasions when I've had to combine multiple PDFs into a single file, and the tools included inside the NeatWorks suite didn't allow me to do that. Given the $399 price tag, the software should allow full manipulation of PDF files.
Figure 9: I thought this was pretty hilarious. This is the image they show when you force the software to check for updates. An old Dell computer and...what is that on the right? I can't quite figure that out. Is this a hidden "Easter Egg" in the program, created by a developer with a sense of humour? Or an example of how old the core software is? I'll let you decide.
Based on the way Evernote promoted the Neat scanner, I was expecting some sort of integration. There's none. It would be great if Evernote had the ability to create a new note from a scan, and directly pull in the scan results, but ultimately when I scan PDFs to my desktop it's a quick drag and drop into Evernote and I'm done. I'm sure creative types could come up with smarter ways to integrate Evernote and the Neat scanner, but for me, the magic is in being able to simply and quickly take a stack of papers, turn them into a PDF, and put that PDF into Evernote.
The Neat scanner is a powerful tool for digitally capturing paperwork of all kinds. Despite my frustrations with the instability of the Quick Scan Center, this is a tool I've grown to rely on very much. It might be that on a Mac the software doesn't have these problems, or even on a different computer with Windows 7. Regardless, a key step for Neat Co. will be to squash the bugs in their software and deliver a software experience that matches up to the excellence of their hardware experience. I've seen a new version 5.0 that's supposed to be coming soon; hopefully that will improve upon 4.0 in key ways.
I'd also really like to see a less expensive version of the scanner with the ADF; perhaps one that lacks the full software suite and nixed the business card slot. I've told friends and family about this wonderful tool I've been using to digitize paperwork, but as soon as I mention the price they're no longer interested. If Neat Co. could get the price down to $199, I think they'd have a real winner on their hands for the larger consumer market.
Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys photography, mobile devices, blogging, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, his wonderful son Logan, and his sometimes obedient dog. He wishes he'd gotten his hands on a document scanner sooner.
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When I decided to go paperless this year I did a lot of research... being an Evernote apologist, Evernote integration was of tantamount importance. I looked into NeatDesk, but decided to go with this instead:
Awesome Evernote integration (creates new notes for each scan), VERY fast double sided scanning and uses Adobe for creating PDFs (and doing the OCR). It's awesome. It's so freeing to be able to search for any document using Evernote and it's great to have something that scans fast and accurately.
The computer to the right of the archaic Dell PC is some vintage of Sun Microsystems workstation.
Two make a very strange combination.
As for the scanner, it looks like something that reduce a lot of weight in paper bank statements and pay stubs that I've collected over the years. I may just visit The Source or London Drugs to check out these handy scanners.