There was a great Huffington Post post a couple years ago: a Radio Shack ad from 1991, accompanied by the comment that every single product in it has now been replaced by the smartphone. You know: camera, radio, clock, calculator, camcorder, and so on.
One particular 1991-era appliance wasn’t in that Radio Shack ad, but should have been: a scanner.
Turns out your iPhone or Android phone is fantastic for “scanning” contracts, articles, book pages, receipts, sheet music, driving directions, recipes, and anything else on paper. All you need is the right free app.
Now, do me a favor: Don’t reply, “Why would I need a scanning app? I can just take a photo with my phone!”
It’s really not the same thing.
A good scanning app can recognize when a page is framed properly and snap the shot automatically. It can straighten, rotate, and un-warp the image to produce a tidy, perfectly rectangular page. It plays with the color, brightness, and contrast to eliminate shading and shadows, leaving you with a PDF that you can email or upload to Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, or another storage service.
Some of these apps can even perform OCR (optical character recognition) on the scan — meaning they can convert a picture of text into actual text, which you can then edit, copy, or paste into another app. This is fantastically useful if you’re a student, researcher, lawyer, or any other kind of literate person.
It’s hard to express how happy people are with their scanning apps; I mean, they rave about them. Look at these reviews on the iTunes app store:
What to look for
I’ve just spent several days testing no fewer than 18 of these scanning apps. (Correct: I have no life.) In the course of that testing, I came up with a master list of 14 features that I think those apps should have — and I discovered that it’s very hard to find one app that offers all of them. Ready?
Automatically finds the borders of the page.
Automatically straightens, rotates, and de-skews the page.
Lets you readjust the cropping later.
Lets you specify the page size for the result (letter, legal, A4, etc.).
Rapid-fire batch mode (snap one page after another without pausing to process each one).
Generates multipage PDFs.
Provides brightness/contrast adjustments.
Supports annotation (draw on or sign a document).
Exports to all the usual places (Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, etc.).
Faxes directly from the app.
Automatically saves each scan to a chosen location (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.).
Converts the picture to actual typed text (OCR).
Life is short, so I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow of my incredibly boring journey through Genius Scan, Genius Scan+, Google Drive, Scanner Mini, Scanner Pro, iScanner, iScanner Pro, Scannable, DocScan, DocScan Pro, TurboScan, CamScanner, CamScanner Premium, iScanner, ScanBot, ScanBot Pro, JotNot Pro, and Fast Scanner.
Instead, I’ll just share with you my findings:
There are lots of terrific scanning apps. Many come in both free and paid versions. Sometimes the differences are minor: For example, you can email scans from any of them, but often only the pro (paid) versions let you save your scans to Dropbox, Google Drive, and so on.
The more features it has, the more complicated it becomes. Just try figuring out how to add pages to a scan you made yesterday, for example.
Step count matters. Some of these apps do a lot, but you have to tap your way through them — and there are lots and lots of taps. And each of those taps is another decision point for you, another pause, another moment of having to think. Automated is better.
Compare here, for example, the manual, tap-when-you’re-ready apps (like Genius Scan) to the ones that automate the procedure (like Evernote Scannable):
That said, for the sake of simplicity, here are the apps that offer the best combination of simplicity and automation:
Best free app (iPhone, Android): ScanBot
This app can do finger-free scanning: Just aim and wait as ScanBot auto-detects, auto-straightens, and auto-snaps each page.
Further distinguishing this app is the fact that you can set up one-tap “workflows” such as Send by Email or Save to Dropbox. In fact, you can specify an auto-upload folder on those services (Dropbox, iCloud Drive, Google Drive, Evernote, OneDrive, OneNote, Box, WebDAV, FTP, and others.)
You can use the LED light on your phone to illuminate your page; there’s built-in Help; you can specify file size and resolution, and there are one-tap buttons for naming your scans (after the time and date, your location, and so on).
You can upgrade to two levels of Pro, each of which adds even more Holy Grail.
For $6, you get impressive OCR; annotations; a truly superb signing feature (for contracts); automatic file naming, and Quick Actions (tap a phone number in the scanned text to dial it, a URL to open that Web page, or an address to see it in your Maps app).
For $8, you get all that, plus auto-upload; the option to password-protect the app (or, on the iPhone, protect it with your TouchID fingerprint); and automatic smart file naming.
Two peculiarities to note: First, on the iTunes app store, if you search for the name ScanBot, the name of the app that comes up is different:
But yes, that’s the app you want.
Second, you won’t find Pro versions listed in the app stores. Just get the free one, and then use in-app purchases to upgrade.
ScanBot has more “Please Wait” messages between steps than some rivals, and it lacks the rapid-fire, uninterrupted batch shooting of CamScanner (described below). But overall, this is the smartest, most complete free scanning app you can install.
Most polished app (iPhone): Evernote Scannable
This is a beautiful, fast, idiot-proof scanning app. You point the phone at page after page — without ever touching the screen — and marvel as it auto-recognizes the page, snaps it, straightens and parses it, all by itself. You don’t have to tap at all until all your pages have been snapped. And even then, all you do is tap a little checkmark to finish.
Easy to use? That’s for sure. There are only two screens in this app: The one where you snap things, and the one where you look at the resulting documents:
Scannable gives you the option of turning on your phone’s LED for better lighting, or making your phone vibrate for scan confirmation.
You can send your scans to any app listed on the standard iOS Share sheet: Send by Mail, Messages, Notes, Dropbox, or iCloud Drive.
And, as you’d expect, every scan can be auto-saved to Evernote, the powerful free note-keeping app.
There is, however, one very weird limitation with this app: It auto-deletes every scan after 30 days. Because Scannable was designed to be a hungry, hungry hippo for feeding Evernote, that shouldn’t matter; everything you scan can be safely stashed the moment you take it — in Evernote.
But if you’re not an Evernote person, the 30-day thing means that you should export or email each scan while you’re thinking about it.
The most features (iOS, Android): CamScanner
If I were a spy, having to snap multiple pages of the enemy’s secret nuclear plans with only 30 seconds in their vault, this is the app I’d want. Its batch mode lets you snap page after page with no intermediate screens, no pause to save, and no “processing” cursor. It’s great at scanning lots of pages fast.
It doesn’t snap the pages automatically, though — you have to tap the shutter button for each capture.
Otherwise, though, this is an elaborate system, full of features that no other app offers. You can invite colleagues to comment on your scans, sync your scans across devices, send people a link to download your scan, add notes to a scan. There’s a full-blown drawing tool, so that you can sign or annotate a screen.
Incredibly, there’s even OCR. CamScanner can analyze the scan and turn it into typed text. In the free version, alas, all that gets you is the ability to search your scans for a certain phrase. To export or edit the OCR’d text, you have to upgrade to the Premium version.
Distressingly, that Premium is a subscription: $5 a month, or $50 a year. (Rival apps, like Scanner Pro, have a one-time cost of just $4.) In addition to the OCR export feature, CamScanner Premium gets you 10 GB of online storage, the option to auto-upload every scan to Box, Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, or OneDrive, and more.
The heartbreaker is that the free version stamps “Scanned by CamScanner” at the bottom of every page. If it weren’t for that, CamScanner would easily be the best free cross-platform scanning app.
Honorable mention (iPhone): Scanner Mini, Scanner Pro
Here’s another free app that stands out for its fully automatic snapping. It’s super cool to watch the app find the page you’re scanning and then auto-frame it:
The app is also easy to figure out, gives you the option of using flash, and the scan quality is great.
Unfortunately, the free version offers only two export options: send the resulting PDF or JPEG by email, or save it to your camera roll.
If you’re willing to pay $4 (ooh! scary!), though, you can upgrade to the new Scanner Pro 7, which gets you the whole enchilada: the ability to upload to Evernote, Box, OneDrive, Google Drive, or Dropbox, and very good OCR.
Free OCR through Google Drive (iPhone, Android)
If you use the Google Drive app on your phone, you already have a scanning app — with OCR! But you’ll never find it without some directions, so here we go:
In the app, tap the round red + button, then tap Scan. (On the iPhone, there’s no Scan button; try tapping Use Camera, which works almost as well.)
The scanning process is very basic: nothing is automated, and you can’t adjust the crop or perspective of the result.
But here’s the great part: Everything you scan automatically and instantly appears on your Google Drive, your free 15 GB “hard drive in the sky.”
And here’s the really great part: Once you’re looking at your Google Drive list, you can right-click the scanned document, choose Open with -> Google Docs — and read the interpreted, OCR’d text!
The words OCR never appear anywhere (probably because most people don’t know what that is). But yeah, that’s all you have to do: Open with -> Google Docs.
Now that you know about this trick, you know that you can, in effect, add OCR to any scanning app. Just direct the result to Google Drive, and boom: You can use Google’s online OCR feature for free.
Microsoft Office Lens
Here’s the world’s simplest scanning app — a perfect solution for the easily overwhelmed. It’s free and it’s available for iPhone, Android, and (of course) Windows Phone.
The app automatically finds and frames the page, with excellent precision and very cool animation. You tap the Snap button, then you tap Done. You can then send the scanned page to OneNote, or convert it to a Word or PowerPoint file. (If you scan a business card, there’s some basic OCR that extracts the contact info into a VCF file — which you can, with some effort, add to your contact list.)
But there’s no way to capture a multipage document, and there are no security features, no option to edit borders manually, no brightness or contrast adjustments, no annotation or signature features, and no additional export options.
Scan these options
If you’ve never tried a scanning app, you’re in for a real treat.
For occasional use only, grab Evernote Scannable (iPhone only); it’s so simple and fast, it doesn’t matter if you only use it once every couple of months.
Otherwise, check out ScanBot, Scanner Mini, or Cam Scanner, all free. You’re already carrying a camera, radio, alarm clock, calculator, and camcorder in your pocket; surely there’s room in there for a scanner.
David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.