NeatDesk scanner turns receipts into organized data

— -- Reach into your pockets after a business trip. You've got business cards, crumpled receipts and perhaps other scraps of paper with information needed for databases, expense reports and tax time. Dealing with this mess of paper is as much fun as visiting the dentist.

The new NeatDesk desktop scanner I've been testing can help you through this drill. It combines a speedy sheet-fed scanner with digital filing-system software called NeatWorks 4.0 that neatly sorts and organizes the information. For now, the scanner works with Windows only; a Mac version is expected in 2009.

The machine arrives care of Philadelphia-based The Neat Co., which only recently changed its name from NeatReceipts. That's also the name of the clever mobile scanner that put the company on the map.

Alas, organization and clutter reduction are costly. The NeatDesk hardware-software combination commands $500, a shock to anyone who sees scanners these days advertised for as little as $100.

Of course, NeatDesk is a specialized scanner that should appeal mostly to small-business owners or folks like me who methodically track expenses with Quicken or Microsoft Money. You can also export data to Excel, Word, TurboTax or QuickBooks accounting software. You can sync contacts with Outlook or the Plaxo online address book.

Let's take a closer look.

•The basics.

The new scanner isn't designed to be easily portable like NeatReceipts. It weighs just over 4 pounds and is about the size of a bathroom scale. It's white, black and handsome propped up on a desktop.

Any scanner can convert paper into electronic images: The NeatDesk scanner makes it a breeze at the press of a single button. Actually, there are just two physical buttons on the front of the machine, either for a regular scan or to create a searchable Adobe PDF file from a scanned document. The on/off switch is in the rear.

Bit of advice: Heed the warning about closing all other programs before installing Neat's software. My initial setup failed when I did not do that.

For the most part, everything went fine from there, though I did have to call tech support to figure out why I was having a problem sharing data with Quicken. Neat provides a series of handy video tutorials on the Web to walk you through the product's capabilities.

The latest machine is designed with three dedicated slots for loading items you want to scan — one for feeding in business cards, one for receipts and one for standard-size documents. You can simultaneously load up to 10 of each type. Or by removing a paper-input tray, you can load and scan up to 50 letter-size documents.


After you feed through an item, the digital filing cabinet software kicks into action. It automatically crops and rotates scanned images so they appear right side up. It then extracts names, phone numbers, dollar amounts and other key info off cards and receipts and places amounts in appropriate data fields. It's smart enough to separate the sales tax on a cash register receipt.

Incidentally, the NeatReceipts scanner remains in the lineup for $200. The hardware is slower, and you have to scan documents one at a time. But it runs the same NeatWorks software as the NeatDesk. The software is a $30 upgrade if you have an older version.

The software also auto-detects the type of paper inserted. Files land in one of three bins in a central inbox: receipts, business cards and documents. You can move misclassified items from one bin to another.

You can also scan two sides of a document and scan in color or black-and-white.

As with other scanners, NeatDesk uses optical character-recognition (OCR) technology that's been around for eons. Though the technology has improved through the years, OCR mistakes are still common.

Scanning business cards is a particular challenge because of funky designs, colors and logos. And store receipts are challenging because of the low-quality printers often used to produce them. The software also failed to parse any details from a Holiday Inn hotel bill I scanned in.

Still, on balance, NeatDesk did a decent job of ferreting out data from scanned images and placing everything in the right fields inside the software.

You can verify and fix mistakes in the inbox, before filing receipts and such in a separate electronic filing cabinet. You can also create customizable folders for your scanned documents, arranged, say, by client, project, business trip and so on.

The scanner is well worth considering for anyone who hopes to reduce clutter. And maybe by keeping all those wayward receipts in order, it will even help you clean up come tax time.