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mac.column.ted: DocuPen RC800: A handheld scanner misses the mark

mac.column.ted: DocuPen RC800: A handheld scanner misses the mark

[Friday, March 20th]

Ted Landau

March 2008

Planon's DocuPen RC800 ($299.00) is a handheld portable scanner. At about the length of a straw, the thickness of a cigar, and weighing less than 2 ounces, it's indeed very portable. It works on battery power, with its own built-in memory, completely untethered from any computer. This means you can scan items whenever and wherever you and your DocuPen may be, even if there is no computer in sight. Later, when you are back at your desk, you transfer the scans to your Mac (via a USB connection). Unlike most competing handheld scanners, DocuPen scans an entire page, including graphics, in color if desired, rather than line-by-line of text.

Put it all together and you have the potential for a great product. Unfortunately, DocuPen does not deliver on this potential.

The first problem is a conceptual one. I had trouble coming up with scenarios where I would actually use this scanner.

Unlike devices such as an iPhone, it's not small enough to fit in your pocket. Instead, you would typically carry it in a bag or briefcase. This significantly detracts from its "ever-ready" portability. More likely, you would only have the scanner with you when you planned to use it, meaning that it won't even be around when unexpected scanning opportunities pop up.

Further, even if you had the DocuPen with you all the time, I don't imagine it getting much use. If you are at home or in your office, you'd be better off using a flatbed or document scanner. But what if you are on the road, and see some article you want to scan? Isn't this where the DocuPen would shine? Not if the article is from most newspapers or magazines. In this case, it would be preferable to wait until you are back at your computer and locate the article on the Web. This gives you a complete and perfect copy. If what you want is something not on the Web, such as a page from a reference book in a library, making a photocopy would generally be preferable.

Yes, with enough effort, I can concoct a few examples where a DocuPen might come in handy. But it's not easy. That's why, before even considering purchasing a DocuPen, make sure you have a clear idea of how you will use it. Otherwise, the DocuPen will wind up spending more time in your drawer than anywhere else.

Of course, all of this assumes that, when you finally do get around to scanning with a DocuPen, the device is up to the task. The DocuPen isn't.

For starters, just getting the DocuPen to make an accurate scan requires considerable practice. You make a scan by sliding the DocuPen over the document with one hand while securely keeping the document in place with the other hand. If the document moves, your scan will be blurry. Move your hand too fast and you'll similarly get a poor scan even if the document stays in place. Move your hand too slowly and the DocuPen will abort and shut itself off, thinking you are done scanning before your really are. A moderate and consistent pace is the key. Scanning a page from a book can be impossible, even if you do everything correctly, if the book is too thick for the page to lie flat.

All of this might be barely tolerable if you could determine if and when a scan had failed?so you would know to try again. While there are status lights on the DocuPen, supposedly to warn if you are scanning too fast or running out of memory, I did not find them very helpful. For example, my DocuPen wound up in a state where it would only hold one scanned item at a time. When I attempted a second scan, the DocuPen's status lights indicated that all was going well. There were no low memory warnings or any other sign of trouble. Still, when I later connected the DocuPen to my Mac, the new scan was nowhere to be found.

This uncertainty was the deal-breaker for me. Even if you think you have an accurate scan, you have no way of knowing this for sure until you connect the device to your computer. If you then discover that your scan failed, you are out of luck. Assuming you are no longer at the location where you did the scan, it will be inconvenient or impossible to try again.

Erasing the contents of the DocuPen's memory can only be done while it is connected to a computer?and it is an irritatingly slow process, especially given how often I had to do it. As there is no way to clear out the device's memory while you are "on the road," you are stuck if you find that your DocuPen is filled with scans that you forgot to erase. You'll have to wait until you are back at your desk before you can delete them.

Speaking of connecting the DocuPen to your computer, the included software for transferring scans to your Mac is (and I am being generous here) primitive. It has very few options and even the ones it does have do not always work. For example, an Export Selection option claimed to save a scan to the Mac's drive, but no file was actually created. I eventually discovered that, if I instead double-clicked a scan icon, it would open as a TIFF file in Preview. From here, I could export and save the file. However, this was not mentioned in the DocuPen manual. In fact, as far as I could tell, there is no DocuPen manual for the Mac. The only documentation that came with the device was for Windows (which uses different software and is thus of little relevance).

If you want to use the DocuPen to scan text, you'll be disappointed to find that there is no included OCR software with the standard model. For an additional $50 ($349), you can get the "professional" version, which comes with ABBYY FineReader. In this regard, IRISPen 6 (a competing pen scanner for only $129) may be preferable. It is specifically designed to scan brief snippets (such as an address from an envelope) and save them as editable text. However, IRISPen does not work independently of a computer and does not do graphics (beyond small images such as a logo).

Finally, DocuPen includes an option to add more memory?via a slot for a microSD card (Planon states that the SanDisk brand is the only one that performs reliably for now). This should allow you to save more scans to the device. However, I don't have one of these cards, so I did not test this out. I can tell you that the picture of the memory slot, as shown the DocuPen manual, is wrong. A corrected image is posted on the Planon Web site.

Overall, the DocuPen's Mac software and documentation felt sloppy and incomplete. Taken together with the DocuPen's other more serious limitations, there is no way that I can recommend this device. The DocuPen may someday evolve into a laudable product. But it isn't there yet.

To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Take Control of Your iPhone, click the link.

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