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NeatConnect Cloud Scanner: Computerless scanning and digital filing

You've probably seen Neat's TV ads touting their new NeatConnect Cloud Scanner (US$499.95). They show someone with a desk somewhat neater than mine quickly scanning in receipts, bills, and business cards with nary a desktop computer in sight. The company sent one to TUAW for a review, so read how this latest scanner from Neat might just change your thinking about scanning ... and keeping a desktop computer around.

I have a love/hate relationship with scanners and the entire "paperless office" concept. While I'd love to get rid of every piece of paper that comes into my home and office by scanning everything and storing it in the cloud, every solution I've tried so far has at least one failing. Take, for example, my great idea of using my Epson WF-3540 all-in-one printer/scanner (it has a sheet feeder!) to grab handfuls of bills, receipts, and other paper detritus and bump them up to either Dropbox or Evernote ... or both. That sheet feeder works a lot better in theory than in practice -- it often jams if I scan documents that were folded into envelopes or if I try scanning sheets of different sizes. The software included with the Epson scanner wasn't that great, so I tried PDFScanner for Mac ($14.99). The app helped a lot in terms of turning the scans into PDFs that I could send to Dropbox and Evernote, but lacks a way to automate a lot of the process.

The NeatConnect Cloud Scanner is designed to remove the personal computer from the loop, allowing direct wireless scanning to a number of cloud services. It does this by putting a small color touchscreen onto the front of the scanner not only for entering commands, but for cropping scans if needed.

Neat's business plan appears to be oriented towards selling the Neat services rather than the scanners, but if you're averse to spending anywhere from $60 to $240 a year for their cloud storage, you can still use Dropbox, Evernote, Box.com, Google Drive or even Microsoft SkyDrive.

The scanner features 802.11b/g/n compatibility, and also has a USB port if -- for some reason -- you want to scan to your Mac. An SD card slot makes scanning directly to removable storage a possibility, perfect for situations where you may want to do scanning off-network. The scanner can do single- or double-sided scanning with a maximum resolution of 600 dpi, while scans of up to 8.5" x 30" can be done at the lower resolution of 300 dpi.

The sheet feeder on the device can take up to 15 business cards, 15 receipts, and 15 letter-size documents at one time. Take out the paper tray, and you can slam in up to 50 letter-size docs. Dimensions-wise, the scanner fills a volume of 11" width x 8.7" depth x 7.5" height, and it weighs in a 5.3 pounds.

Test Drive

For me, the proof of how good (or bad) a scanner is lies in how it works in real life, so I unboxed the review device and set it up. My first complaint? The way that the prongs are set up on the power brick insures that unless you plug it in on the end of a power strip, it will cover up three other outlets...

That aside, setup is dead simple -- plug it in, turn it on, and follow a tutorial that appears on the screen. That color touchscreen, which measures about 2" wide by 3" tall, takes you through accepting the terms and conditions of use connecting to your Wi-Fi network, connecting to NeatCloud (a subscription is included), and then using the device.

Entering the password for the network is made easy through the use of a tiny on-screen keyboard, which is smaller than what you may be used to on an iPhone. Next, the device lets new users of NeatCloud sign up for the service or existing users sign in. A few more steps, and the scanner lets you do a sample scan.

Pages and/or cards are put into the three slots on the Cloud Scanner, you are prompted for whether you'd prefer a grayscale or color scan, if the pages are single or double sided, and if you'd like scans combined into one document, and then you press a large orange button on the display. I was quite surprised at how fast the scanner whipped through a few double-sided pages, as I'm used to watching my existing scanner try to (and usually failing) pull the paper back through. Not so with the Cloud Scanner, which did both sides of the pages at once.

The scanner is even smart enough to realize if you've accidentally turned on double-sided scanning for single-sided documents, and eliminates the blank pages. That's quite impressive.

So what happens once your scans are done? They're stored on the device in an "outbox" and you just tap a "Send" button on the touchscreen to send them to the cloud. Once the documents are happily spending their time in the cloud, you can choose to do any number of things with them from either the website, the Neat desktop software, or a free iOS app.

I consider business card scanning to be the litmus test of scanners, as they usually jam or the text isn't recognized properly. I took nine different cards -- some "traditional" and some that were just plain odd -- and plopped them into the card slot. Scanning took just 12 seconds for all of those cards, with the cards being properly oriented on the touchscreen once they had been scanned. Within seconds and without any prompting on my part, those cards started appearing in the NeatCloud inbox -- not only the image, but where possible, with the data extracted into the proper fields of a contact page.

How accurate was the recognition? As you'd expect, business cards that had a traditional portrait or landscape layout worked quite well, especially those with dark type on a white background. One card (from Apple co-founder Ron Wayne!) had a photograph in the background, but still picked up important information like street address and name. Three of the cards could not be processed -- a look at them showed that they either had very odd layouts or typefaces.

Receipts scanned amazingly well and moved data into the proper fields of an expense form. The only receipt I had an issue with was one from a thermal printer that was from February -- it was faded quite a bit, but the recognition still picked up the card type, the charge date, and the type of charge (it was for a restaurant).

Next, I connected to two other cloud services: Dropbox and Evernote. Once the Dropbox connection was made, I was informed that scans would appear in the root folder... not exactly where I would have put them. I have a folder specifically for scans, and it would be nice if it was possible to direct the Cloud Scanner to drop my scans in that place. It was the same for Evernote -- scans go straight into the top level of that service.

To select between NeatCloud, Dropbox, and Evernote, you simply swipe across the touchscreen until you see the destination you desire. It's fast and easy to change destinations between scans. As you'd expect, the documents appeared in their proper cloud within seconds.

Did I ever have issues with sheet feeding? Yes -- one set of documents had been folded, and I found that I had to "counter-fold" the pages to get them to feed properly. But considering how fast the NeatConnect Cloud Scanner is, it wasn't a hassle to tweak the pages to try again -- successfully. Seriously, six pages of double-sided documents from scan to Dropbox in less than 30 seconds? Nice.

If my testing of the NeatConnect Cloud Scanner has done anything, it's made me regret buying an all-in-one device. For the type of scanning I need to do -- in other words, getting from under the avalanche of paperwork that shows up on a regular basis -- this device rocks. Side note: As I tested the scanner, I ended up clearing up a lot of paperwork that I was dreading sending through the scanner on my Epson all-in-one.

Large businesses and even small businesses with a lot of paperwork would probably be best served with a document management system that can handle a large amount of incoming paper, but for those who are self-employed or small businesses with a couple of employees, this is an almost perfect solution.

Conclusion

For small businesses or individuals and families that want to digitize their lives by turning bills, receipts, and business cards into their electronic equivalents, I can't think of a better solution than the NeatConnect Cloud Scanner. It's fast, amazingly easy to set up and use, and works seamlessly with the major cloud services. If you require the ability to have business cards and receipts entered automatically into a contact list or expense report, then the ability of the Neat services to extract that information will be well worth the cost.

Pros

  • Bright color touchscreen makes setup of network and cloud accounts fast and easy
  • Scans business cards, receipts, and documents (single- or double-sided) in seconds
  • Doesn't require a Mac or PC
  • Works with all major cloud services plus NeatCloud
  • Small footprint ensures that it won't take up a lot of room in your home or office
  • Generous return policy if you decide it's not for you

Cons

  • NeatCloud has issues recognizing some business cards or poorly printed receipt
  • Price puts it out of reach of most consumers; small businesses could expense the hardware

Who is it for?

  • Anyone who wants to digitize quantities of printed material quickly for storage in a variety of cloud services

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