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Finding the best iOS scanner app

We rate scanning apps for image quality, simplicity, and flexibility

After conducting my own personal war on paper, I've come to the grim conclusion that victory is unattainable--I'll never completely eliminate paper from my life. At the very least, though, I can achieve a truce and reduce the number of dead tree casualties that litter my desk. Most of these loose bits of paper include invoices, receipts, and the like--all stuff that I need to keep, but not necessarily in paper form.

I considered getting a flatbed scanner but I really don't want another piece of equipment cluttering up my desk. Plus, I don't need presentation-quality images for the type of scanning I'm planning to do. So, while watching a TV shopping channel not long ago--actually it was my wife who was watching, I was just walking by the TV--a nifty portable scanner came on the air, aimed squarely at other poor souls in my same predicament. I--uh, I mean, my wife--was this close to placing the order when I realized that my iPhone or iPad might do exactly what I need. So, off to the App Store I went looking for scanner apps. My search yielded several good prospects, all reasonably priced (or even free in some cases).

All of the iOS scanner apps I investigated work along the same lines. In short, here are the steps to scanning a document with your iOS device:

1. Take a photo of the document with your built-in camera or choose an existing photo from your camera roll or library.

2. Guides automatically appear around the area the app thinks you want to save. None of the apps I reviewed got this perfect the first time, and some were more accurate than others. However, you can drag those guides around to block of the exact area you want.

3. Tweak the photo in various ways, either converting it to black-and-white, choosing different levels of greyscale, and so forth. All the apps I looked at let you rotate the image as well.

4. Save the document and, if necessary, repeat the first three steps if you have a multiple page document that you need to keep together.

5. Optional: Get the document out of your device by emailing it, printing it, or uploading it to a cloud storage service, like Dropbox, Google Docs, or Evernote, for example. One app I tested even lets you fax the document straight from your device. Some of the apps I investigated offer free versions, and this is the area where those apps are limited, offering only a handful of ways of distributing your documents.

So, with all these similar features, how do you choose an iOS scanner app that's best for you? I came up with three criteria for my choice.

Image quality

For me, I intend to dispose of most of the documents after I've scanned them, so the results need to be legible and high quality in case I need to re-print any of them later. In this category, all of the apps I tried produced acceptable results. Genius Scan+--$3 from The Grizzly Labs--produced very legible scans, but I was put off by the size of the files it produces. The SureScan feature in TurboScan--$2 from Pixoft--uses three individual shots, designed to optimize scan quality, but I found the 2-second delay in Scanner Pro--$7 from Readdle--equally good at helping me keep a steady hand, which is important for getting clear results. The curved document handler in Doc Scan Pro and its iPad counterpart, Doc Scan Pro HD--$2 and $4, respectively from iFunplay--is a nice feature, especially if you plan to scan pages from books, but one that I doubt I'll need very often. So, in this category, I would give a slight edge to Scanner Pro, with the Doc Scan family of apps not far behind.

Simplicity and speed

I combined these criteria because a simple process should also be fast. In my case, I want to scan a document wherever I happen to be and finish the process as quickly as possible without having to make lots of adjustments to the image.

As far as correctly guessing the scan area, Scanner Pro was the least accurate, with TurboScan getting it closer than the others. However, none of them ever got it correct automatically, and the process of adjusting the border guides is almost identical among all the apps, so this particular feature was a wash.

In terms of adjusting image quality, though, Genius Scan (paid and free) and the Doc Scan family all let you optimize a document with only a couple of taps, but I rarely had to do anything to the scans produced by Scanner Pro. So, despite its spotty scan-area accuracy, I cede this category to Scanner Pro.

Flexibility

A good scanner app should support a variety ways of getting documents into and out of your device. On the input side, all the apps I reviewed let you either snap a picture with your device's camera or choose from an existing image in your photo library or camera roll. The latter option is useful if you have a device with a lower quality camera, such as the iPhone 3GS or iPad 2, or even no camera at all, such as the original iPad. Here you can take the photos with a higher quality camera, sync them to your device and then bring them into the app.

Also, all the apps I examined provide ways to save and manage the documents you've created. But if you plan to save them for posterity, then you need the ability to move them off your device. TurboScan and the free versions of Genius Scan and Doc Scan offer little beyond standard email and Open With features. Genius Scan+, Doc Scan Pro (and its HD version) and Scanner Pro all let you upload directly to Evernote, Dropbox, and the like. (Note: Many cloud storage providers--most notably Evernote and Dropbox--allow you to upload files via email attachment, so it is possible to send files to those services with the more limited apps, albeit less conveniently.) Scanner Pro's iCloud syncing and its unique ability to fax a document give it the advantage here, in my opinion.

Final verdict

So, the $7 Scanner Pro is my overall winner, but not by a huge margin. It provides some unique features and produces consistently good results with minimum fuss. If you plan to coordinate your scanning work between an iPhone and an iPad, then the universal app Scanner Pro with its ability to sync via iCloud makes it a natural choice.

However, the $2 Doc Scan Pro (along with its $4 iPad counterpart, Doc Scan Pro HD) and the $2 Genius Scan+ weren't far behind. Of those two apps, however, I give the edge to the Doc Scan Pro apps since they tend to produce smaller files than Genius Scan+; they also have a couple of extra features. The free Genius Scan, Doc Scan and Doc Scan HD came in next since they have all same features as their paid counterparts but just limit your output options. TurboScan ($2) is at the back of the pack, not because of poor performance per se, but because the free apps in this group are just as good. TurboScan's only advantage is its low barrier to entry; since all the other apps require iOS 5.0, the fact that the 2.5.1 version of TurboScan only requires iOS 3.0 makes it the only choice in this group for people using older devices like the original iPhone, iPhone 3G, and first- or second-generation iPod touch.

[Brian Beam is a software designer and partner with web development firm BOLD Internet Solutions, living somewhere near Kansas City.]


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