How the right business scanner can revolutionise your filing

Dave Mitchell explains why the right scanner, and software, can be an effective business tool - and puts four models to the test

Are stacks of paper records filling your office? You can make big savings in time and money by digitising statements, invoices and legal paperwork. Not only does this reduce wasted office space, it also makes documents much easier for staff to locate. Your original hard copies, meanwhile, can be sent off to secure archival storage.

Scan sensible

Before investing in scanning hardware, think carefully about your requirements. Some scanners are designed for fairly light use, while others can handle thousands of pages per day. Check the manufacturer's recommended daily usage numbers to ensure the scanner can handle your demands.

Speed is an important factor to consider, too. Some manufacturers quote performance in pages per minute (ppm), while others cite images per minute (ipm). An "image" is one side of a page, so a duplex scanner that scans both sides in one pass will have an image-per-minute rating that's exactly twice its ppm.

When it comes to resolution, don't become too obsessed comparing numbers. Today's business desktop scanners can all produce perfectly legible digital copies at 200dpi; stepping up to 300dpi provides slightly better readability, and may produce more accurate results if you want your documents converted into searchable PDFs. Resolutions of 600dpi upwards come into their own only when scanning artwork.

USB or network

At first glance, a USB scanner looks the best value. But you'll need a host PC to control it and, unless you only intend to scan very occasionally, this will probably have to be a dedicated workstation.

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Network scanners aren't much more expensive, and they offer significant advantages. Since you don't need a host PC, you have more flexibility in where to locate the hardware. Installing drivers and software only on the systems you want to connect to the scanner also provides a degree of access control.

Wireless network support is often a bonus, providing more freedom to put the scanner where convenient. Note, though, that most scanners can't run simultaneous wired and wireless connections. If you have a mixed environment, you may need to do some configuring to help wired clients talk to a wireless scanner.

Final destination

Choosing a destination for scanned documents may sound trivial, but it's something that should be standardised across the company - your digital documents will be impossible to locate and manage if they're scattered across a dozen folders or on different computers. While you can always scan to a local folder, all good scanners can also send scans directly to shared locations such as network drives.

Remember, now your documents are digital, they need to be treated like any other business data - and that means backing them up. This is especially important if you're dealing with company accounts, invoices and financial records, which must be retained for at least six years from the end of the last financial year. You should keep your originals in a safe facility anyway, but losing access to digital copies would be a headache.

The cloud is an ideal solution for centrally sharing documents, and it has the added bonus of providing off-site storage so they can be accessed from anywhere. Services such as Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive don't even need built-in support from the scanner: you can simply scan documents into synchronised folders and let the service automatically send them to the cloud.

All the same, it's easier if the scanner has integral support for cloud services. Check to see if your chosen services are on the list. Along with the three mentioned above, some offer direct support for Evernote, Microsoft SharePoint and SugarSync.

Plan to scan

The most popular format for scans is PDF - and for good reason, as Adobe's free Acrobat Reader makes them very accessible. The PDF specification also allows you to search the text within scanned documents - hugely useful when it comes to quickly locating relevant documents - and many scanners come with good OCR (optical character recognition) software to make this possible.

There are drawbacks, however. Searchable PDFs take up additional storage space. In our tests, we found a duplex mono scan of 50 bank statements at 200dpi produced a 6MB standard multipage PDF; producing a searchable PDF increased this to around 30MB.

Another option that consumes space is colour: a 600dpi duplex scan of our statements producing a 182MB searchable PDF. If you create many large files then it may impact on your storage and backup costs, especially if you're scanning to the cloud, so play with scan resolutions and colour or mono to see which works best for you.

It's also worth noting that the OCR conversion process is quite resource-intensive. We found that a 300dpi duplex colour statement took around five minutes to process on an old office PC, running on a 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo PC with 2GB of RAM. Moving up to a brand-new Core i7 with 16GB of RAM slashed the OCR time to 1min 8secs.

Digitise to survive

We've seen the benefits of transforming your paperwork mountain into an online archive of searchable digital documents: you can reduce costs, increase productivity and greatly improve response times to customer and supplier enquiries. If your filing cabinets are bursting at the seams, it's worth putting in the time to discover the scanner that's right for your business.

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This article originally appeared in PC Pro issue 263

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