What's Neat About NeatDesk

The Neat Company recently released NeatDesk for Mac. This new desktop document scanner (available at Amazon for $400) partners up with NeatReceipts for Mac, giving you a choice of desktop or portable models.

Neat's main competition comes from Fujitsu, which similarly makes desktop and portable versions of its popular ScanSnap scanners. The latest version of its desktop scanner is the S1500M (also available for approximately $400 at Amazon). I have the previous S510M model, which is overall quite similar and is what I used in my comparisons here.

All of this funnels down to the following question: Given a choice between the NeatDesk vs. ScanSnap, which one should you get?

NeatDesk vs. ScanSnap hardware. Both NeatDesk and ScanSnap are attractively designed units and perform well.

NeatDesk features a feeder with three separate slots for full page documents, receipts and business cards. This helps keep the different sized paper properly aligned as it scans.

The ScanSnap takes up significantly less desktop space when closed than NeatDesk. It conveniently powers on as soon as you "unfold" it, eliminating the need for a separate on/off switch. ScanSnap also has several autodetect features, such as the ability to detect blank pages and different sized documents, that NeatDesk lacks.

While the listed specs for both scanners are overall similar, I found that the ScanSnap was faster at comparable settings for similar tasks. ScanSnap's output was consistently cleaner and sharper than the NeatDesk's. NeatDesk scans, however, generally had more accurate color.

NeatWorks Software. By far, the best and most distinguishing feature of any Neat scanner is the included NeatWorks software (now up to version 2.1.x). After scanning a document, NeatWorks kicks into gear, converting the scan into a PDF file, performing OCR (so the text is editable) and placing the resulting text into the appropriate fields of its database.

For example, suppose you're having lunch with a new business associate. At the end of the meal, you get a receipt and exchange business cards. Back at your desk, you can now scan the restaurant receipt and the business card; the relevant data from each are extracted and placed in the database.

Once in the database, the text can be edited, searched, and organized in exactly the same way as if you had typed in the data from your keyboard. Want to find all your Apple contacts? Just search on "Apple." You can also organize items into Collections, which is conceptually similar to the Albums feature in iTunes.

Of course, the PDF files of your scans remain and can be called up at any time. As a result, you'll generally have an easier time locating a PDF than if you had to depend on Spotlight to do the searching.

NeatWorks imports electronic documents as well as physical ones. If you have email or Web receipts, for example, NeatWorks can extract their data in the same was as it does from scanned documents. NeatWorks even lists your Mac's Address Book contacts, eliminating the need to separately add them to the NeatWorks database.

This hardly exhausts all of NeatWorks features, but it it's enough to give you a good idea.

As you probably suspect, the scanning-to-database conversion is not always perfect. Far from it. Depending on the complexity of a document's layout and the clarity of the type, various fields may not transfer. Still, NeatWorks doesn't give up at this point. After processing a document, text in the scanned image is isolated into separate fields. If NeatWorks was unable to decide what text represented a phone number, for example, you can usually click on the phone number in the scanned image and drag it to the phone field, avoiding the need to type the number. There are also popup menus for many fields, offering yet another chance to fill in a field without having to type.

Ultimately, there will be cases (such as when text is misspelled), that will require manual fixing. At this point, NeatWorks performs just like any standard database: you can enter or edit any text via the keyboard.

As for generic OCR, such as a Macworld page I scanned, NeatWorks did fairly well. When it was done, I could copy the text and paste it into a word processor for further editing. However, NeatWorks was unable to recognize the column format. Thus, it incorrectly read horizontally across columns rather than down each one separately.

Overall, NeatWorks teeters on being one of those cases where I am more impressed that it works at all rather than by how well it works. In a perfect world, what I'd like to be able to do is load NeatDesk up with stack of 20 business cards and receipts, hit the scan button and walk away. When I return, I find that all the documents have been scanned, with all the data accurately extracted and put into their correct fields. In reality, that's not gonna happen. Too often, there are so many empty or incorrectly entered fields that, by the time I'm done fixing everything, it's not clear whether I've actually saved time by scanning vs. doing it all via the keyboard.

ScanSnap software. The ScanSnap S1500M comes with Adobe Acrobat 8.0 Professional, for working directly with PDF files. As for OCR, you get both ABBYY FineReader (which can convert a PDF into editable Word or Excel documents) and Cardiris (for converting business cards to a text database). Note: My S510M came with Readiris instead of FineReader. These worked about as well as expected, which is to say they made numerous errors. My anecdotal impression is that NeatWorks did a better job with business cards than Cardiris.

Aside from these third-party programs, you get the basic ScanSnap Manager software. If all you want to do is create PDFs from your scans, without any OCR, I actually prefer ScanSnap Manager to NeatWorks, as the software is simpler to use and sits unobtrusively in the background when not needed. However, it can't compare to the full feature set and integration available with NeatWorks.

Bottom line. The main attraction of NeatDesk for Mac is NeatWorks. I'm tempted to say that if you expect to use NeatWorks' unique features, get NeatDesk for Mac. Otherwise, go with ScanSnap. However, there's a third option (as I've covered elsewhere): You can purchase the NeatWorks software (for $80) and use it with ScanSnap. This makes the ScanSnap more expensive than NeatWorks, but it offers the best of both worlds.

Unless your budget or your travel needs require that you get a portable model, I recommend sticking with the desktop models. They are faster, can handle stacks of paper, and are generally easier to work with. For my more detailed look at the portable ScanSnap, see this article.

Even if you have a flatbed scanner, it's worth considering getting one of these devices. While they are not well-suited for scanning photographs at top quality or for scanning a book (assuming you don't want to tear out the pages), they are much faster and more convenient for just about everything else.