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TUAW Review: CardScan Executive for Mac

If you're one of those people who maintains a huge collection of business cards, you're going to love this product.

CardScan Executive for Mac (iPhone for scale)

CardScan has come out with a Mac version of their CardScan Executive scanner and software, and it looks like a winner. The US$259.99 package includes the small (3.5" x 6.4" x 1.6") scanner seen above, a CD-ROM with Mac and Windows versions of CardScan's contact management software, and a USB cable. What? No power brick? Nope -- it's bus-powered so you can eliminate one more power plug. The scanner worked fine for me plugged into a USB 2.0 hub.

Installation is simple -- put the CD-ROM into your drive, then drag the application file to the Applications folder. The final step? Plug the USB cable into the scanner and an available USB port on your Mac, and a light on the CardScan lets you know you're ready to start entering business cards. That light glows red when you first hook up the CardScan, then turns blue the first time you fire up the CardScan software. Read on to see how this all works.

Scanning

The scanning process is as easy as starting up the CardScan Executive application and then pushing a business card face-up into the slot on the scanner. It takes about 3 seconds for a business card to be scanned. Once that happens, a small window appears, telling you that the application is reading the text. This is an indication that the AABBY Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software used by CardScan is processing the image of the business card. When it does this, it makes a first guess on where the various pieces of information (name, address, phone number, email, etc...) are located on the card. It then puts that information into an included contacts database that works with Sync Services, so the contact info can be used by any application that also works with Sync Services. What you see below is a listing of the contacts, along with a detailed view of the card that has just been scanned as well as the data gleaned from the card.

CardScan Executive for Mac

As with all scanning / OCR software, this isn't perfect. However, given the huge number of variations in business card design, it's amazing how accurate the OCR actually is. The more "artistic" a card is, the less chance it has of being properly recognized. I noticed issues with the following design features:
  • Grey or light colored text on a white background
  • Any highly stylized typeface or script fonts (sans-serif seems to be recognized better)
  • Text at odd angles
  • Text with a graphic in the background
I found it was easiest for me to just feed a bunch of cards into the device one after another, then go back after the fact and clean up the errors. What do I mean by errors? There are two primary types of errors that occur with the CardScan software -- errors in recognition, where the name Steve Sande might be recognized as Sieve Sanoe, and errors in placement. The latter type of mistake happens when the software puts a name where a email ought to be or something similar.

To clean up the errors, you can go through the contact list one business card at a time, comparing the data on the card to the scanned image. This actually goes much faster than it sounds, although the process could be improved if it was possible to simply click on the recognized text on the card image and drag it to the properly contact database field. Remember, this is the first version of the Mac application, so it's only going to get better in the future.

Once the cards have been scanned and the data cleaned up, you can do a lot of things with the contact information. In order to have the information synced with Address Book, you'll need to set a preference telling CardScan which data file to sync with Address Book. You can also choose to export the information either as an Address Book file or as vCards, both of which allow you to import the contacts into Address Book and a number of other applications.

The CardScan software provides some helpful utilities to back up or restore the data files, and any contact list can be password-protected. There are several different views of the data available, including one that displays the card images in a surprisingly useful Cover Flow-like arrangement (see below), as well as another that provides a location to add time-stamped notes to the contact information.

CardScan's Cover Flow view

A few minor bugs

There were a couple of bugs that marred the otherwise pleasant experience of working with the CardScan. When I first received the review unit from CardScan, I loaded in the software and it wouldn't recognize the software license number, saying that it was already in use. They sent another number and the same thing happened. A quick call to Tech Support produced a link to a new build of the software that resolved that issue.

I also found that I usually had to start up the software twice before it would scan and read business cards properly. In other words, I'd launch the CardScan app, feed in a card, get to the "Reading text" prompt, and then after a short delay I'd see an error message. If I quit the application, then launched it a second time, it worked fine.

Conclusion

I'm usually not a fan of small devices that take up desk space and only perform one function. In this case, however, I can see just how useful the CardScan Executive for Mac can be. I was able to feed in most of the information found on 25 business cards in a matter of minutes, then went in and made corrections where needed by looking at the scanned image and editing the text.

If I were the CEO of a company, I could see giving this to my assistant, having him/her scan in all of my existing business cards, make the corrections, and then send me an exported Address Book file. For future business cards, I'd just feed the individual cards in as I received them (hey, I have to do SOME work to earn my CEO pay!).

The CardScan is small, unobtrusive, and even matches the exterior finish of a MacBook Pro or Mac Pro fairly well. It does one thing, and it does that thing very well. My only gripe about CardScan is the price -- $259.99 is somewhat pricey for a single-function device. I can buy an 8GB iPhone 3G for less than that! The $159.99 price for CardScan Personal, which is not available for Mac OS X, is a lot more in the ballpark of what I'd expect. I can see how the Windows version might be worth $259.99 since it includes syncing software for ACT!, GoldMine, Lotus Notes, and a number of handheld devices. But the Mac app only needs to sync with Apple's Sync Services to be able to synchronize with any other Sync Services-savvy application.

The final word? If you handle a lot of business cards in your daily life, CardScan Executive for Mac is a must-have. It speeds up entry of business card data into your electronic systems and works very welll for a first Mac release.

TUAW will be giving away a CardScan Executive for Mac in the near future, so stay tuned for more info.

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