Tame the Paper Tiger — Fast

Friday Apr 28th 2006 by Jamie Bsales

Fujitsu's quick, convenient ScanSnap S500 scanner makes short work of turning paper documents into usable electronic files.

We're about 15 years past the point where technologists first promised us a "paperless office," and the dead trees just keep on coming. Sure, there are a lot more electronic documents — Word files, PDFs, e-mails — but a too-big percentage of those wind up getting printed out and distributed. You need a way to mange the deluge, without starting a second career as a document archivist.

Enter the Fujitsu ScanSnap S500. This color document scanner lets you quickly turn paper documents into electronic files. And the outstanding bundled software is flexible, offering several ways to capture, organize, search and share the e-files you create. It'll even take care of capturing and organizing your business cards.

With its 5-inch by 11-inch footprint, the S500 doesn't take up a lot of desk space. It's light enough (six pounds with the AC adapter) to pack in a rolling case to take with you to a conference or other event if needed. It connects easily via USB, and the 50-page ADF (automatic document feeder) means you can put in a stack of originals, push Scan and walk away.

The S500 can serve one person or an entire small office. You can specify whether documents get saved to your local hard drive or to a network drive. It can create simple image PDFs, searchable PDFs or editable Word, Excel or PowerPoint files. The included cardboard "carrier sheet" holds odd-sized or flimsy items (such as clippings from a magazine or newspaper) so they slide safely through the scanner.

Getting Started
The documentation consists of a quick-start sheet, plus a more comprehensive 23-page guide. You start by installing the bundled software. The first CD contains Adobe Acrobat 7.0 Standard. This isn't just a PDF reader that you probably have already; it's Adobe's full $299 PDF-creation package. You'll find a wealth of features here (see our review of the Professional version), our favorite being the little "Convert to PDF" icons it adds to Microsoft Office and other applications, which make it a no-brainer to save and e-mail documents as PDFs.

A second CD contains a ScanSnap-specific version of ABBY Software's top-notch FineReader OCR (optical character recognition) software. While Acrobat lets you create PDFs of what you scan, FineReader will actually convert the words on the scanned pages to editable documents. In our experience, the program provides excellent recognition accuracy.

The third CD loads the setup wizard for the hardware. It also contains Fujitsu's ScanSnap Manager 4.0 (for setting your scanning preferences), ScanSnap Organizer 3.0 (to help you organize documents should you choose not to use Windows Explorer) and CardMinder 3.0 (which serves as the database for your scanned business cards).

Setup isn't difficult, but it can be time-consuming, what with three CDs worth of applications to install. It took us 20 minutes just to get Acrobat installed and squared away (since it had to check the Internet for updates and download and install those, with reboots along the way.). About 40 minutes after opening the box, we were ready to scan.

Fujitsu ScanSnap S500
Paper Pusher: The ScanSnap S500's great speed and outstanding software can help organize any office.

Document Management Made Easy
You'll first want to get acquainted with the ScanSnap Manager utility. There's a wealth of powerful configuration options lurking in its approachable, tabbed interface, and you can set up and save as many scanning profiles as you need.

The default setting (named Standard) saves documents to the ScanSnap Organizer document-management app. It saves documents to the My ScanSnap folder, which is created during the installation process and resides in your My Documents folder. Another predefined profile, Searchable PDF, stores files to the same location but as searchable PDFs (meaning Acrobat performs an OCR conversion so the text in a scanned document can be searched). We prefer the latter, since it lets you find documents containing given keywords without having to convert them manually at a later date. A third predefined profile scans to the CardMinder database.

Adding different profiles in ScanSnap Manager is easy. On the main screen, simply click on the Add Profile button, name it and select your desired settings. For example, we created a profile called "Scan to Word doc" and set it so documents captured via that profile are automatically turned into Word documents (via the ABBYY Scan2Word application choice) and stored in the My Documents folder. Setting up options like this lets you stick with an electronic filing system you already know (Windows Explorer) rather than committing to a new document-management app.

Using the ScanSnap Organizer to keep track of documents is a pleasure. You're presented with a large thumbnail view of the documents, with a caption showing the page you're viewing (and the total number of pages in that doc). Navigation arrows let you flip forward and back through a multi-page document quickly.

Clicking on a page in the thumbnail opens the document in a separate resizable window for easier viewing. To find a given keyword in your document collection, simply click on the search icon on ScanSnap Organizer's toolbar and input your search term. That launches Acrobat's search-results pane, showing the number of instances the word was found as well as hyperlinks to the proper documents.

Testing is Believing
Fujitsu claims a scanning speed of 18 pages per minute for the S500. More impressively, if you insert a two-sided original it will scan both sides at once. Slick. And true to its claim, an 18-page single-spaced document we scanned took about a minute to feed through (56 seconds, to be precise). The ScanSnap Manager program then needed an additional eight seconds or so per page to convert the PDF image to a searchable PDF file.

Similarly, scanning a stack of business cards took just seconds apiece. The S500 captured both sides in full color, oriented the images and then launched CardMinder. The program did a fairly good job of automatically figuring out which entry is a person's name, which is the company name (even from stylized logo type) and differentiating between the phone number and the e-mail address.

But the recognition wasn't perfect, so you'll need to spend a moment proofing each entry — especially if you opt to have the program export its results to your Outlook contact database, which you can do with a single click. Conveniently, CardMinder also presents you with the original captured image, so you can ignore its OCR rendition altogether if you prefer.

All told, the ScanSnap S500 delivers a lot for its $495 price. You can find cheaper document scanners, but none with the combination of speed and software that the S500 offers.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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