Originally created 03/15/04

A wand that scans text, but magic it ain't

The DocuPen is one of those gadgets that both charms you and breaks your heart. You don't know you need it until you find it. Then, when you realize you need it, it leaves you unsatisfied.

OK, I'm being a bit dramatic, but here's the deal - the $199 DocuPen is not a pen at all but a scanner small enough to carry anywhere, if not in a shirt pocket then at least in a briefcase.

The 9-inch wand weighs just 2 ounces. If the magazine article you're reading in the doctor's office or library strikes your fancy and you're not too self-conscious to use something that looks like it was pilfered from the Star Trek prop room, pass the DocuPen over it.

The article stores in the gadget's rather limited memory. When you get to your computer, connect the scanner to a USB or serial port, and transfer the data.

Pen-shaped scanners of similar size, such as the C-Pen, have been available for a few years. But they have a narrow sensor that scans text character by character - you move it over the page as you would a highlighter. Do that page after page, and you could well develop "scanner elbow."

Portable scanners also exist that feed the paper through rollers. These are larger than the DocuPen, weigh about 6 times more, only work while hooked up to a computer and are limited to scanning sheets that can fit through the rollers.

The DocuPen fills an unmet need for researchers, students, journalists and lawyers and a lot of other users. It's a pity it doesn't do a great job.

One weakness is that it's quite difficult to pass the wand straight over a document. Twisting the scanner slightly while moving it means the text can end up as warped as a '70s psychedelic movie poster. Most scans are legible, though. The manufacturer, Planon Systems Solutions Inc. of Canada, said my scans would probably improve with practice.

Other problems with the design: Since you need to hold the page at the top while pulling the scanner toward you with the other hand, you can't scan the very top of the page.

Pocket-sized books are best scanned out from the gutter, but if the margin next to the gutter is too small, you'll miss some text. Of course, gutters can present problems for conventional flatbed scanners too.

Most vexingly, the DocuPen comes has just 2 megabytes of memory. I found it would store about 14 pages at high resolution. The manufacturer says 25 to 30 would be more typical, but that will vary depending on how detailed the pages are. There is a low resolution setting that uses half as much memory per page, but legibility suffers.

The DocuPen scans only in black and white, meanwhile, with no shades of gray. This is understandable, since any extra data would eat up more memory. It works fine for text.

Another problem is that it runs off four button cells. I didn't manage to exhaust them, but if I had, they would cost around $13 to replace. Planon says they should last for 200 scans. It is working on a rechargeable model.

The DocuPen is a good concept, but this first version can be improved in a number of ways. The manufacturer had better be quick about it, though.

I don't think it'll be long before cheap digital cameras, even the ones built into cell phones, will be able to do the same job.

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