Want to scan something but don't have a scanner handy? A recently updated Mac app called Prizmo can help you make scans using your digital camera.
Josh LowensohnFormer Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Have you always wanted a scanner, but held back because of size and cost? Do you have a Mac and a digital camera? Then good news: Prizmo for Mac offers a good enough solution to let accomplish most of your scanning needs without the extra hardware.
The $40 software, made by Belgium-based Creaceed, has long been offered as an alternative to the pack-in software that often comes with flatbed scanners. Its latest version sports three handy features, one of which can turn your digital camera into a very powerful text-archiving tool.
The first new feature is camera tethering. This lets you attach a tether-ready SLR or point-and-shoot to your computer, then have the app automatically import the shot as you take it. There's not a whole lot of user dialogue here to let you know your camera is attached. In my test, I simply connected my Nikon D90 (which does not feature USB mass storage support) and began taking photos, and it did the rest.
Users can also grab photo files from their hard drives, or from a camera that's attached in USB mass storage mode, although I found the latter a little jittery when trying to browse for a single file on a crowded memory card. The app would only let me see the top 40 shots or so, and I couldn't scroll down--a problem I didn't have when browsing the same set of files from a USB-powered memory card reader.
To go along with the tethering feature is curviture correction; this lets you fix warping due to the natural bend of pages. The tool itself is simple to use, but lacks some much-needed automation. You can, for instance, only work on one page at a time, so if you've snapped both pages of an open book, you have to open each one individually. This isn't a huge dealbreaker unless you're trying to archive something large, but it does slow things down.
All that's needed in the way of tech know-how is how to click on the four corners of a page, as well as where to line up the top and bottom of each page curve. This whole process only takes a few seconds once you know what you're doing. The harder part, however, is making the minute adjustments, which can be hard to control.
Possibly the most irritating part of the process is that the tools you use to make the adjustments pop up over what you're working on cannot be moved elsewhere. Also, the preview showing what the document will look like when you're done cannot be zoomed in on while you're making changes, which in my tests meant I couldn't see a reasonably sized product until I had exported my work. What I'd really like to see in a future version is a layer of intelligence that can give a page a quick scan, figure out where the distortion is, and correct it automatically. Such a feature would take a lot of the guesswork out of the equation.
On top of the camera tethering and the curve fixing, better optical character recognition (OCR) is quietly one of the most important improvements to the software. Prizmo can cull through your scans for words, all of which are indexed within the document's metadata. This means anything you've scanned within the app can then be found within OS X's Spotlight search. Now, when it's done scanning, you now see what it's come up with, as it highlights sections that have been scanned, and shows you what it's come up with as you mouse over the text.
The software is quite fast at doing the OCR scan of a page. In the dozen or so pages I experimented with, it finished the job in just under five seconds. And the accuracy, while imperfect, was quite good on large chunks of clearly captured text.
Just for kicks I tried it on the photo I had taken of a page, versus a proper scan at 300dpi. The OCR job on the scan knocked the photo version out of the park. But if you have a sharp enough shot and you spend the time to correct any lens distortion or page curvature, the software can do an admirable job at pulling out the words.
So at $40, is it worth it to ditch a scanner for a piece of software that lets you use your camera, fix distortion on bent pages, and do a good job at hunting down words? If you have a good camera and some technical know-how, then the answer is yes. But a cautious yes.
Scanners are still invaluable pieces of technology, and do things even very high-end digital cameras can't, like spit out incredibly high-resolution scans or provide near-perfect color reproduction. However, if you're just looking for something that can do a good job of turning photos of open books and magazines into scans that can be archived and searched, then this is a very capable app.