How to eliminate paper documents and go digital

I’m still very old-school when it comes to note-taking and record-keeping. For the past few years, I’ve retained all of my notes from my college courses, keeping them in the original binders and notebooks that I used to take to class. Together with my college textbooks, these items filled three entire shelves of my bookcase. Alas, our lives are in a constant state of flux, and there came a time when I felt that I would rather do away with the paper. It’s difficult for me to imagine moving without the assistance of a corporate relocation package given the number of things that I have amassed over the years. I could clear the paper out from all of my binders and collect it for a monumental bonfire, but this wouldn’t help very much if I wanted to reference these materials later.

It all began here..

I started paying more attention to taking my paper documents digital after reading a post on LifeHacker (Source). The process involved in transitioning from hard copy to digital is quite.. involved to say the least. While tremendous gains have been made in so far as to the extent that software can simplify the process, the hardware aspect of digitizing documents requires some consideration. The author of the aforementioned LifeHacker article used a Doxie portable scanner. I found a listing on eBay for a Doxie One – Standalone Paper Scanner (buy it on Amazon.com) with some generous bundled items and began watching it, but acted too late. That listing ended up going for just under the retail price of a brand new Doxie One, a steal for whoever won the auction.

The process of taking hard copies and turning them into digital documents

There are myriad ways to approach the task of converting from hard copy to digital documents. At the most basic level, you’ll need a scanner. I have an HP Deskjet F4480 all-in-one with a flatbed scanner. It’s very spartan when it comes to meeting scanner needs. I combed through my binders and came across a sizable stack of loose papers to begin testing my process on. I started by scanning the hard copies using Mac OS X’s Print & Scan utility. I set scanning resolution to 200dpi to minimize scanning time while maintaining an acceptable level of quality. I previewed my scanned documents before selecting a portion of the workspace, and outputted to JPG. From here, I intended to use ABBYY FineReader Express to further process the documents into useful formats. Using this flatbed scanner turned out to be a non-trivial process. I had to get up from my desk, lift the scanner lid, align each document with the lip of the scanner bed, and preview the scan before committing it to my external hard drive. All told, I averaged about one scan per minute across 18 scans. This was not a very encouraging rate given the enormous volume of paper that I would have to deal with.

Managing your workflow

The elements universal to any process are:

  1. A document scanner
  2. A repository for scanned documents
  3. A means of cataloguing scanned documents

Document scanners are available in a wide range of form factors. Some feed sheets through a stationary scanner element while others move a scanner element across a document. Choose the document scanner that provides you with the greatest utility given your typical usage scenario.

Document scanners may come with internal or expandable memory used for storing digital images of hard copy. Some document scanners feature WiFi or ethernet connectivity, which provides the flexibility of not having to tether the document scanner to a computer.

It’s important to manage digital files in a way that makes them easy to retrieve later. I started by keeping my raw scanned images in an organized folder structure that would make them easy to navigate. At the moment, I am scanning hard copy directly to my external hard drive, which resides next to my home server machine. Moving from image to text is another step that will be detailed in a future post.

Portable scanners for Mac OS X compared

I took this as an opportunity to survey the current solutions available for digitizing large volumes of paper before settling on the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i Mobile Document Scanner, which got a very favorable (and detailed!) review from Wired GeekDad columnist James Floyd Kelly (Source). I went into this search with the following criteria:

  • Must be portable
  • Must have official driver support for Mac OS X

Of course scanning speed was an important consideration, as was a document feeder. Some of the portable scanners on my list have duplex scanning abilities, meaning that they will scan both sides of a double-sided document in a single pass. Talk about efficient! Here’s the shortlist of scanners that made it into my consideration set.

Scanner Scanning Quality (dpi) Scanning Speed Power Internal Memory Expansion Legal Size Duplex Scan Document Feeder Purchase Link
Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i Up to 600 dpi 12 images per minute (300 dpi color) AC adapter or USB power No N/A Yes Yes 10 sheets capacity (A4 20lb) Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i Instant PDF Sheet-Fed Mobile Document Scanner
Fujitsu ScanSnap S1100 Up to 600 dpi 7.5 seconds per page (300 dpi color) USB power No N/A No Yes No Fujitsu ScanSnap S1100 CLR 600DPI USB Mobile Scanner (PA03610-B005)
Doxie Go Up to 600 dpi 8 seconds per page (300 dpi color) Built in rechargeable battery, rated to 100 scans per charge
Optional power adapter
Yes SD + USB flash drive port Yes No No Doxie Go – Rechargeable Mobile Paper Scanner
Doxie One Up to 300 dpi 8 seconds per page (300 dpi color) AC adapter or 4 AAA batteries No SD (comes with 2GB card) No No No Doxie One – Standalone Paper & Photo Scanner