Many consumers still hold onto the frustrating dream of going paperless at home. We'd be happy to at least reduce the clutter in our mailboxes, desks, and file cabinets.
The first step is switching to electronic statements from banks and credit cards, utilities, and investment accounts. Consumers are being pushed that way as companies, looking to save on paper and mailing costs, encourage customers to accept electronic statements. Sprint, for one, pays its wireless customers $5 to go paperless. Others have suggested they might start charging a monthly fee for hard-copy bills.
As it is now, paper carries about 90 percent of the billions of transactional documents sent each year in the United States, say executives at tech startup Doxo. The company says it's too hard for households to go electronic; They have to make the arrangements with each company individually. Doxo announced earlier this month that it is working with billers to consolidate that process onto one website. But Doxo won't launch until later this year, and it's unclear how many companies will sign on. Even then, it's unlikely that the local florist or handyman will deal entirely in electronic docs anytime soon. That means reducing paper piles will still require scanners that can convert physical documents into handy PC files.
The good news is that scanners are getting faster, cheaper, and smarter as technology improves. Many homes already have a multi-function printer that includes a scanner good enough to get them started. But those who are serious about eliminating paper should consider specialized models that come with smart software and services. Here are some of the most innovative:
Cloud cabinet. Doxie ($130 at www.getdoxie.com) is a scanner with an added twist: It will scan documents directly to storage sites on the Web. The Doxie software is easy to use, with a chatty style that's friendly and informal. The program works seamlessly with desktop software that might store or preview scans, such as Evernote or Adobe Acrobat Reader, and works with Macs or Windows PCs.
But it's online integration that makes Doxie stand out. The scanner can send documents or photos directly to Google Docs, Evernote, and Flickr—or to a Doxie site that comes with free storage. The scanner itself is unremarkable except that it's small, at about one foot long by 2 inches wide and it only needs a PC's USB port for power. It's slow by today's standards, taking about 12 seconds to scan one side of a document, and doesn't have an automatic feeder. Also, the whole package may be too cutesy for some with the scanner's pink hearts and the manual's walking, talking scanners. But Doxie does make scanning easier and friendlier.
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Fast and portable. The Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300 (about $250 online) will quickly eat its way through a pile of documents at home or on the road. The S1300 can grab eight pages in a minute while scanning both sides in one pass. While not as small as the Doxie, the S1300 is still portable at about 11 inches by 3 inches. It weighs only three pounds and can get its power from the USB ports on a PC, or can plug into the wall while not taking up much desk space.
The Fujitsu also comes with a document feeder than can hold 10 pages at a time. The ScanSnap software helps organize what's scanned—adding a keyword to a document can automatically send it to the right folder on PC, either Mac or Windows. The included software also turns those scans into editable text that can be used in a word processor or easily searched, making it easier to find documents that are misfiled. Fujitsu, however, doesn't include drivers that would make the scanner's features fully available to other software.
Hand scanner. A full-page scanner can't get much smaller than PlanOn's DocuPens (starting at about $150 online), which look and feel like large pens. They're just long enough to capture an 8.5-inch piece of paper and are only a half-inch thick.
We tested the DocuPen Xtreme X05 (about $300 online) that has added features such as a small screen for checking battery life and memory capacity. It can take tiny microSD cards for extra memory and can scan directly to BlackBerry or Windows Mobile smartphones or printers that have Bluetooth connections.
The DocuPens are about ultraportability, not speed or flexibility. Properly manipulating the device takes a bit of practice; Two hands are better than one. Scanning a page can take half a minute, plus a pause before the pen is ready for the next. But the images themselves are sharp, either in black and white or color, and the device's size makes it convenient for scans that mean carrying home less paper.
Scanning system. The NeatDesk (about $360 online) is not only a fast and convenient model, but it also comes with ambitious software for organizing life's papers. The scanner itself is attractive enough to grace any desktop and can scan 25 pages per minute on one side, or both sides of a page at a slower pace. It's also unique for removable slots that guide large, medium-size, and small documents.
The NeatWorks software converts scanned images to text and goes a step further, usually recognizing national vendors automatically and other companies with training. The software then makes quick work of filing and organizing the documents and capturing data, such as a receipt's totals, for quick export to financial software.
While the software doesn't always live up to its ambitions, its intelligence is an added benefit to anyone trying to dig themselves out from under paper. It's a proprietary system, though, so adopting NeatWorks is a commitment. It's a hassle to export the NeatWorks files to other software. But the scanner itself will work cooperatively with other programs if a user is squeamish to adopt the NeatWorks system.