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.)

After you've completed an initial test scan, the onscreen wizard guides you to find the Neat Mobile App for iOS or Android. The wizard even serves up QR codes to simplify the download. But don't get too attached to the app: It will only be useful to you if you sign up for the NeatCloud service.

As terrific as the initial setup wizard is, the one thing missing is a direct path to walk you through setting up additional destinations. While this is simple enough to do under the settings menu -- the option is easy to find -- it would have been nice to have this built into the setup process. SkyDrive (soon to be OneDrive), Box, Dropbox, Evernote and Google Drive are all presets, as are AOL, Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, so all you do is select the service and add your login info.

Scans are automatically named with the date, which is of limited help; I appreciate automation, but would have liked the option to add a name of my choice. (A Neat representative says this is coming later this quarter.)

After you've made the aforementioned scan choices, just choose your destination from the onscreen menu -- you computer, Neat's own NeatCloud service, or another cloud service such as Google Drive -- hit scan, then hit send once the page thumbnails appear (you can tap each to crop, rotate or delete a page). Scans sent wirelessly show up in the scanner's outbox, an onboard repository of your scan activities so you can verify they were sent successfully.

The device scans to NeatCloud as a PDF at a default of 300dpi; all other cloud services can be sent as JPG, TIFF, BMP, GIF or PNG files with scan densities at 150dpi, 200dpi or 600dpi.

Scan to the cloud or your computer

With NeatConnect, using the included USB cable to connect the scanner to your PC is purely optional. The scanner is designed to work via Wi-Fi with a variety of Web storage and email services such as Gmail or Yahoo. In fact, my favorite way to use NeatConnect was in this way -- the resistive touchscreen LCD was intuitive and responsive, and made it easy to scan documents to PDF files and send them to a service such as Google Drive or Dropbox.

When the scanner is connected to a computer via USB, scans default to being sent to the Neat Desktop software (if you want a PDF, you must manually export the document from the desktop). The software performs OCR on files, so you can easily search documents, but it doesn't make documents editable. Neat Desktop includes a TWAIN driver, so you can use the scanner with other software.

I was disappointed by the lack of additional bundled software beyond the Neat Desktop. Specifically, I found the lack of a full OCR engine annoying.

You can also send documents via Wi-Fi to Neat's own NeatCloud service, which offers OCR along with tagging and search capabilities. NeatCloud isn't free; it has a variety of payment plans, starting at $5.99 monthly after a 90-day free trial. The mid- and top-tier NeatCloud plans include mobile apps for Android and iOS, which give you access to scans and let you use your mobile device to feed content into NeatCloud (for example, snapping a photo of a receipt after a business dinner).

NeatCloud also recently introduced NeatLabs, an extension of its offerings that adds features such as additional "tags" -- Neat automatically assigns a tag such as Receipt, Document and Contact to each scanned document; the new tags include Reciptes, Checks, eReceipts and Invoices. It also hooks into Intuit's QuickBooks accounting software. However, while I liked aspects of the NeatCloud, the service is still a bit rough, and not enough of a differentiator to encourage me to spend additional money on another monthly fee.

At a Glance

NeatConnect

The Neat CompanyPrice:$500 direct, $470 - $551 retailPros: Stylish design for your desk; fast, accurate scanning; easy to use and scan to cloud, even without turning on your PCCons: High price

While NeatCloud is highly functional, and its design is similar to that of the Neat Desktop software, its interface requires more mouse clicks to accomplish tasks than I'd like, and it lacks drag-and-drop support for moving scanned items around. Neat Desktop offers better document previews, and you can move items around with drag-and-drop. And as with most traditional desktop software, Neat Desktop has a ton of options, particularly for adding metadata related to a given document (for example, you can add vendor, date, tax category, payment type, and more to a scanned receipt; and then you can later sort on that data or pull a report).

In tests, NeatConnect made quick work of any page I slipped through it; a single letter-size page took just four seconds to scan. I could use the LCD's onscreen apps to crop, rotate or delete the image. Pages scanned cleanly, with improved contrast and reasonable sharpness; wrinkles and folds were minimized, crooked pages were automatically straightened, and smaller items were automatically cropped to fit.

Bottom line

While the Neat desktop software could stand a redesign to more modern aesthetics, it certainly can do a lot to make your life easier once your stuff is digitized. More importantly, the NeatConnect scanner makes it as intuitive and expeditious as possible to get your documents digitized and into the cloud. Its logical workflow, accuracy and flexibility make NeatConnect a winner, but at $500, the cost of entry is steep.

SimpleScan DP

DCT's SimpleScan DP lives up to its name by keeping scanning, well, simple. If anything, that's where this scanner stumbles: As a sheet-fed scanner with limited editing and adjustments in its cloud software, it's easy to feel constrained by what SimpleScan lets you do. Then again, at $159, this cloud-connected mobile scanner may be the right choice for light scanning chores whether on-the-go or at your desk.

The big hook with SimpleScan is you can scan locally to your Mac or Windows computer or to any of a number of cloud services -- or to both at the same time. It supports Dropbox, Box, Evernote and Google Drive -- all also with an option to have it OCR'd in the cloud before the document is sent to the service. It also supports Certify, Expensify, eFax and Prizm Capture, business-oriented cloud offerings that differentiate this scanner from the competition -- and could make your working life much easier.

SimpleScan DP

The SimpleScan DP is compact, cylindrical and one of the more portable cloud-friendly page scanners I've seen. It measures 12.7 x 3.25 x 2.25 in. and weighs 1.3 lb., which means it's light enough to toss into your carry-on if you need to. It comes with two stands and three possible configurations: two horizontal variants (flat on the desk and propped up on the stand) and one upright.

A single-sheet feeder is at front, with a green status light at right; the paper path curves around the back of the scanner. The design means you have to feed sheets individually, which makes this a reasonable choice if you're scanning a few pages, but not if you have dozens of pages to digitize.

The scanner, as packaged, needs an interface to its cloud service to function -- even if your eventual destination is to your local hard drive. The scanner does support third-party software via a TWAIN driver and Windows Image Acquisition (WIA) support, but it doesn't include any additional software.

Although I experienced a major glitch when I first tried to use the scanner (it was an issue with the company's servers which has since been fixed), after that, I had no issues getting SimpleScan going. I signed in with the free SimpleScan account I'd created, was prompted for the latest software (which included the fix to the aforementioned server glitch, added features to the scan settings, and improved issues with pages scanning straight), downloaded the software, and followed the onscreen prompt to plug in the scanner via the included mini-USB cable and go through the hardware wizard installation. I was prompted to hit "continue," at which point the SimpleScan service synced my desktop with the cloud and displayed an image of a green scanner to indicate SimpleScan scanner was plugged in and ready to go.

The menus and design of the Web interface are clear and thoughtful. SimpleScan's natural language approach echoes what The Neat Company does with its NeatConnect, and is the opposite of the complex interface design of the Brother ADS-1500W.

SimpleScan's computer software offers four tabs at top: Capture, Route, Access and Support. After installation, SimpleScan drops new users into the Route tab to link up your choice of the aforementioned cloud services. Simply select the service you want and provide your login information. SimpleScan will then set up what it calls a "connector" (known in common parlance as a link) between the cloud service and the SimpleScan service.

After this initial visit to the Route tab, you'll log in directly to the Capture tab, a start page that's divided into four sections. At the top of the page are your destinations (by default, simply Local Docs and Mail, for use with local email clients only); to the right, a status display showing the scanner is connected; and beneath sits the document container, which holds the thumbnails of scanned pages for your review, before you send the pages off to your destination.

To start a scan, you just have to choose the destination. You'll next get the chance to use an auto-generated name (including the date) or to rename the file. The ability to easily and organically rename the file with something meaningful is very useful, and something that the NeatConnect can't do as of this writing, at least not when you initiate the scan directly from the scanner's LCD.

SimpleScan also offers iOS and Android apps that allow you to upload photos of documents to the SimpleScan Connect cloud service (or to one of several other cloud services).

Test results

It took eight seconds to scan a single page and see the image appear in the Web interface. As soon as the single sheet was done, I could continue to feed sheets to the scanner as needed; the scanner scans both sides simultaneously. The speed was adequate, but I had trouble making sure pages scanned straight.

I also found the scans were darker and not as sharp as my originals. If I changed the scan settings from the default "color" to black and white, a black and white page scanned lighter, and with better text clarity (and fuzzier image clarity). You can also adjust for paper size, auto-detect and remove a blank page (such as the flipside of a single-sided scan), and adjust the dpi setting; but you can't adjust contrast and brightness. And the calibration feature didn't work at all; it kept prompting to scan the blank paper, but wouldn't go beyond that step.

I found this scanner best at handling full-size pages. It will accept business cards and small receipts, but only if they're inserted flush to the right side, and you may have to deal with cropping or straightening after the fact (the auto-cropping did not work well in my experience). SimpleScan has a connector coming for business cards, but it wasn't ready as of this writing and the company couldn't confirm when to expect it.

Once scanned, the pages show as thumbnails waiting for approval. You can delete, rotate and reorder images before sending them to their appropriate destination.

While I appreciated the straightforward interface language and icons, I disliked some aspects of the software. Among my nits: the Web interface doesn't have the ability to edit or adjust the scans, and the interface doesn't scale to take full advantage of different display sizes. Most annoying: While tending to a phone call, my session expired and I was signed out of my SimpleScan account, with no visual cue or warning. That meant when I tried to send the images I scanned, the "send" button didn't respond, and I had no visual indication of what the problem was.

At a Glance

SimpleScan DP

DCT Corp.Price:$159 directPros: Lightweight, highly mobile scanner; easily connects to a variety of cloud services; low costCons: Average scan quality; single-sheet feeder not suitable for larger multi-page jobs

The SimpleScan cloud service can handle OCR, but you need to choose that specific destination for the document to become editable text. For example, all OCR-capable services also have a non-OCR destination; only the one labeled as "OCR" will get you editable end results.

The service has two tiers: a free service and Premium service that costs $5 per month (the scanner includes one year of Premium for free). Both allow you to add an unlimited number of cloud connectors. The free account limits you to 30 scan uploads per month, while the Premium allows 1,000. The free account also limits the number of OCR'd pages to 3 per month vs. 40 per month with the Premium account.

The Premium account supports invoice processing to Prizm Capture and Intuit's QuickBooks, and sending outgoing faxes to Efax -- a particularly handy feature. According to the company, document conversion to editable Word and Excel files is coming, as is converting business cards for use with contact management systems, but the company didn't confirm timing when asked.

Bottom line

The SimpleScan DP is reasonably priced and lives up to its goal of simplicity, but the limitations of its Web interface frustrate and are inefficient to use. It's light enough for road warriors to tote and could be useful when in the field, especially given some of the cloud connection options.

But those with high volume, or multiple paper sources (such as receipts and business cards in addition to documents) will be better served looking elsewhere. They may also want to consider the company's new SimpleScan ADF model, whose upright design is closer to that of the NeatConnect.

Conclusions

With these three scanners, you get three very different paths to the cloud. All have something to recommend them. SimpleScan DP has some of the best hooks into cloud services and is the most portable of the bunch. The NeatConnect thrives on the PC-free experience. And the Brother ImageCenter ADS-1500W has enough network and driver options that it will work in the largest variety of enterprise environments.

Of the three, I found NeatConnect's pleasing aesthetic design and efficient interface made it the most appealing and functional of the lot, although its high price and lack of included full-bore OCR software is somewhat frustrating. Meanwhile, those who want a flexible and configurable scanner (and who can deal with its complex interface) may want to check out the Brother, and travelers could do a lot worse than try the SimpleScan SP.

Melissa J. Perenson is a freelance writer and an avid user of the gadgets and mobile gear she writes about.

This article, Review: 3 new scanners store your documents in the cloud, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Read more about computer peripherals in Computerworld's Computer Peripherals Topic Center.

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