Digitizing paper documents has a lot of benefits for individuals and businesses alike, clearing up huge swathes of space where filing cabinets once stood, and meaning documents are protected against theft, fire and flood.
For this paperless process to make sense though, you really need to add OCR (Optical Character Recognition) into the mix. OCR software scans digital documents to make the text inside them readable by a computer, so you can search them just as you would anything you'd created in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.
Here are our picks for the best five OCR apps we've come across, all combining an intuitive interface with a stack of useful features.
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Whether you use Google Drive as an individual or as a business (as part of G Suite), you can tap into its OCR capabilities. In fact, everything is switched on automatically: any PDF or indeed any image you upload to Google Drive is scanned for text.
That text can then be easily searched from inside Google Drive or inside the specific document itself. You can try it for yourself right now – just search for a line of text that you know is inside an image in your Google Drive, and up it pops. It all works as if by magic.
Of course Google has plenty of training data and cloud processing power to work on this, so you would expect the results to be impressive, as indeed they are. Having a few more advanced search functions and features would be welcome, but it's hard to fault this as an integrated feature.
If you're using the Google Drive app for Android, you can scan documents straight in from the app, using the camera on your smartphone. Otherwise, get your documents uploaded via a scanner attached to a computer, or any other method you like, to start the OCR processing in Google Drive.
If you take your OCR scanning seriously – if it's a crucial cog in the machinery of your business – then give Nuance OmniPage Ultimate a look. It's packed with features above and beyond what you might expect, and while the price is relatively high, it still falls in the affordable bracket for most small businesses.
Put down your cash and you can convert paper documents from virtually any scanner source into just about any kind of digital file you like – and everything works super-fast too. If you've got stacks of paper to get through, the time saved by OmniPage Ultimate can really start to add up.
Known for its accuracy in conversion, this Nuance software is trusted by some of the biggest names in business – including PWC and Rolls-Royce – and lets you build up custom workflows so your documents get automatically delivered to the right place in the right format, depending on your needs.
If the Ultimate edition is a bit too rich for your blood, try the cheaper OmniPage Standard, which doesn't include as many input, output and workflow options, but is going to offer more than enough in the way of features for most users needing an OCR solution.
Abbyy has been helping companies manage documents for a long, long time now, and it shows in the latest version of its FineReader software – it's just about as comprehensive a solution as you would want for a small businesses, though casual users might prefer something a little more lightweight.
You get all the tools you need for taking paper documents from a scanner and making them fully readable, neatly organized, digitized documents. As well as recognizing text and converting it to PDF, Microsoft Office or other formats, the program can also compare documents, add annotations and comments, and more.
If you need to convert bundles of documents in batches then FineReader can do that too. It can handle a host of output formats and 192 different languages without breaking a sweat, and there are companion mobile apps as well if you need to do some quick scanning from a phone.
The software isn't the most modern we've ever seen but it's clean, functional and does the job perfectly well. Abbyy FineReader has built up a strong reputation for being one of the best options in the OCR field, and you can take advantage of a free trial to see if all the hype is on the money.
Want to go with a well-known brand name you can trust? Adobe Acrobat DC fits the bill, and brings along with it an impressive list of features and options, even if the price is a little steeper than some of its rivals. For all the OCR features, you need to opt for the Pro version of the Adobe Acrobat software.
That DC stands for 'Document Cloud' by the way, and everything integrates rather neatly with Adobe's cloud solution, should you need to get at your files from any computer. Of course there's also slick and seamless integration with everything else Adobe makes, so you might consider this if you already use a lot of Adobe apps like Photoshop.
If you do decide to pay up for the Pro version of Adobe Acrobat DC, you get all the OCR basics plus the ability to add comments and feedback on documents, a specialized tool for scanning tables, the option to quickly compare two documents together, and much more. Documents can be edited right on the screen just seconds after scanning them in.
The Adobe badge guarantees a certain level of quality, and we're impressed by the intuitiveness and the scope of Adobe Acrobat DC. If you don't mind adding yet another subscription to your life, then this is well worth considering.
Readiris blends a polished interface with a host of useful features and functions to really earn its place on our list. If you're running a small business or need a serious amount of paper digitized – and you're prepared to pay for it – then you'll find this program one of the most comprehensive out there.
From a host of supported file formats (including Microsoft Office formats and the option to have text read aloud), to signatures and security protection on your finished digital documents, it's difficult to think of anything that the developers of Readiris have missed out. Watermarks, comments and annotations are all supported.
It's also one of the fastest and slickest OCR programs out there, putting some older applications we've seen to shame. Documents are processed and filed rapidly, and you'll soon be jumping quickly between the various Readiris screens, with no need to consult a manual or embedded help file. Like all the best apps, it combines a lot of powerful features with a simple and accessible interface.
Some features, such as support for a maximum of 138 languages and PDF password protection, require a Corporate level package. The one below that level is Pro, and then the basic product is just the standard Readiris – and it's still very good, so many of you will be able to get by with the lowest priced package.