You run a small business, freelance, or would like to keep your personal office organized. You own a Mac, an iPhone, or an iPad. Perhaps all three. You work from home, but whenever possible try to get out while still being able to manage your day-to-day operations. If any of this describes the way you work, this is for you! We will show you some some productive and fun ways to stay organized — even while you’re on the move.
The series will be broken down into four parts: “Going Paperless”, “Organizing Time”, “Keeping Track of Bills & Payments”, and “Accessing Screen/Files From Anywhere”. Each part will be a mix of workflow suggestions, as well as software & hardware review.
A fair warning: The series is written with a somewhat serious office warrior in mind. Hence, our focus isn’t as much on price but usability. If you’re running a business, however, these products will help you stay on top and you’ll be able to expense them at the end of the year. So keep your receipts!
For now, let’s dive right in. First up:
You’ve probably known for a while, that digitizing all the paperwork in your drawers would make life a lot easier. Still you’ve never come around to actually implement a paperless workflow. The challenge seems to big. It doesn’t have to be! With the right tools you can digitize your entire paper office without much pain or fuss.
That being said, a sensible solution should offer the following:
- Quick & easy scanning to PDF
- Broad file format support
- Preserving original documents
- OCR (Optical Character Recognition) engine
- Multiple database support
- Folder, subfolder, & smart-folder support
- Mobile access/syncing
- Easy exporting
- Active development & user community
Also: Only a solid workflow that seamlessly integrates hardware and software will keep you going throughout the year. Therefore, we’re going to review a combination of DEVONthink Pro and Fujitsu’s ScanSnap S1300.1
There are a few solutions for the Mac to organize your digital documents. DEVONthink, Paperless, and Evernote being just a few of the more well known contenders. In our opinion, however, all of them, beside DEVONthink Pro, fall short in one or more of our pre-requisites.
While Evernote can trump with a strong user interface, ease of use, OCR support, and syncing across all important devices (Mac, iPhone, iPad, Windows, and Android), it can’t replace a paper-workflow for anything but the smallest home-office. For one, Evernote doesn’t support sub-folders, which become crucial once your database grows. More serious, however, is the fact that Evernote imports all documents into its own proprietary file format making it almost impossible to migrate the documents to another solution in the future. Also, there may be privacy issues since all documents are saved on Evernote’s servers in the cloud. The basic version is free and easy to use, however, so I still recommend using it for quick documents on the go such as flight inteniaries and travel plans.
Which leads us to DEVONthink. The software from DEVONtechnologies comes in three flavors: Personal ($49.95), Professional ($79.95), and Pro Office ($149.95). We tested the Pro Office version which adds OCR engine, Fujitsu SnapScan Support, and a web server. Depending on your needs you may get away with using the cheaper, professional version, however. (For your OCR needs you could use the SnapScan engine for example — more on that later.)
At first sight, DEVONthink can appear a little overwhelming due to its broad usage scenarios. It can be applied to note-taking, research, bibliographies, and document organization. The initial time investment is well worth it, however, as it will pay off with great flexibility in the years to come.
First of all, DEVONthink lets you manage multiple databases so you can keep your personal office separate from your business(es). Secondly, it’s the only program we tested that supports folders, sub-folders, and smart-folders. Let me illustrate why this is so important:
You’re a freelance web designer. You need to organize your invoices for tax purposes but also need a quick way to separate paid from outstanding invoices. For your tax records you can simply set up a yearly subfolder structure within your “Invoice” folder. To keep track of unpaid invoices you tag them with a keyword such as “due”. A smart-folder can now collect all invoices independently from the folder structure they reside in. Once the invoices have been paid, you simply remove the keyword and the invoices disappear from the smart-folder. Your specific usage scenarios may vary, but the example illustrates why having these options is important.
DEVONthink Pro can also OCR your documents during import. This will create searchable PDF documents so you are not constraint to title or keyword search. If you prefer to have your scanner (or Adobe Acrobat Pro) do all the OCR work for you (more on that later) it’s possible to disable this option in the settings.
A genius little tool for your paperless workflow is the DEVONthink “Sorter”. Connect the Sorter to specific groups in your databases and drop documents or clippings to them even when DEVONthink is not running or hidden from view. Similarly, DEVONthink places a link to your main inbox into the Finder’s sidebar. Quickly drag and drop files onto this shortcut and sort the files into their specific folders whenever you have some time to spare.
Once you’re ready to take your paperless office to the next level, DEVONthink also allows almost each aspect of the workflow to be automated via integrated Apple Script support. While this may not be your cup of tea, it’s nice to know that you could expand in that direction. The active and well moderated (great experience, actually!) user forum will help you to get started.
DEVONthink isn’t perfect, however, and there are a few shortcomings that we’d like to see addressed in a future release.
While you can access all of your documents — on the go — through DEVONthink’s integrated web-server (any device running Safari, including iPhone and iPad, works), the experience isn’t nearly as slick as Evernote’s synchronization service. First of all, the computer running your DEVONthink database must be turned on at all times to access the files. Secondly, novice users may find it difficult to set-up port forwarding on their routers. A static IP or a free service such as DynDNS is also strongly recommended. Lastly, there is no offline access to your database.
Once the server is up and running, however, one can not only view and download, but also upload files from the easy-to-use web-interface. Still, it’s a far cry from optional cloud storage and native iPhone/iPad support. Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann, president of DEVONtechnologies assured us, however, that native iPhone/iPad support and some sort of MobileMe supported iDisk syncing will be forthcoming in a future update.
Another gripe with DEVONthink is the fact that there’s no easy way to change a document’s creation date once it has been imported into the database. This is a glaring shortcoming for anyone who needs to organize files by date and doesn’t always create PDF’s on the day the documents were issued or received. Only when you scan documents directly into DEVONthink do you get a chance to enter a custom date. Mr. Böhnisch-Volkmann states that this “omission” is actually a “feature” since some government agencies may not allow date-changes for paperless workflows.
Fortunately, there’s a nerdy workaround: Remember those action scripts? This is a perfect scenario for them. Download this small action script and place it into: YourUserFolder/Library/Application Support/DEVONthink Pro 2/Scripts/Dates/. Now highlight the document(s) you’d like to change and select Scripts/Date/Set Date from the DEVONthink menu bar. Enter a new date and you’re done.
Also, don’t rely on DEVONthink to password protect your database. Even though, you can enter a username and password for each database, this only takes effect through the DEVONthink user interface. A skilled individual could easily get to your documents through the finder with a simple “show package contents” command. According to Mr. Böhnisch-Volkmann the company is aware of this issue and they are working on an optional encryption solution. For now, important documents should be password protected through Adobe Acrobat Pro or Preview. Alternatively, one could create an encrypted DMG file (via Disk Utility) and place the database within this protected shell.
Even though DEVONthink isn’t perfect, it is among the best if you’re serious about eliminating every single piece of paper in your office. Fortunately, the team behind DEVONthink is very responsive to community concerns and seems to be working hard on improving an already strong solution.
DevonThink Professional Office can be purchased for $149.95 directly from the DEVONtechnologies website. A 30 day trial is available as well to get you started.
I can’t stress enough how much of the success of your paperless office will be based on an excellent document scanner. While you may be able to put up with a standard-mill “all-in-one” solution during your initial enthusiasm, you will catch yourself pushing paperwork to an ever growing “to-do” stack once daily routine kicks in. Unless the scanning and archiving process takes as little effort as possible, this WILL happen rather sooner than later.
And while we would love to receive all documents digitally, this unfortunately won’t be a reality for many years to come. Also: It’s probably a good idea to start archiving your existing paperwork. Hence, we need a quick and easy way to get all these pesky paper documents into our DEVONthink databases.
This is where the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300 comes into play.
The ScanSnap S1300 is a small, lightweight paper-feed scanner that takes up very little space on your desk; perfect for any small office setup. Furthermore, it can be powered via USB so you can take it with you on the road. The ScanSnap S1300 is also a breeze to set up. Simply install the provided software, connect the scanner, and you’re ready to get scanning.
DEVONthink Pro will automatically recognize the scanner and offer to set-up a custom tailored profile for your ScanSnap. Simply select this profile, insert a stack of papers, and press the blue button. ScanSnap will immediately start to scan all the pages into a single PDF document and hand it off to DEVONthink Pro where it will run through the OCR engine and ask you to title, date, and file the document. Done!
To take full advantage of the scanner, you can (and should) create additional custom profiles. A “receipt” profile which will turn every scanned page into its own PDF document turns out to be quite helpful for example. In addition, you can also set the software to omit empty pages (often the case with double sided scanning) automatically.
Another great option is to set the scanning resolution to “automatic” which will scan smaller documents at a higher resolution. This is important since the S1300 allows you to scan documents with different sizes in one batch.
The scanner’s best feature, however, is its incredible speed and reliability. Not only does the ScanSnap S1300 support double sided scanning, it also scans documents at an approximate speed of 8-16 pages per minute. Even long documents (ever gotten a receipt from Ikea?) are no problem for the ScanSnap S1300. Simply press the blue button for three seconds and even long documents are scanned with ease.
Take look at the short video below to see the ScanSnap S1300 and DEVONthink Pro in action:
It’s this effortless scanning experience that will keep you motivated to continuously digitize your paperwork.
And even though we were extremely impressed with the S1300 we did notice a few shortcomings worth mentioning:
You can’t scan Credit Cards, or similar plastic documents. These require a flatbed scanner. Also, the ScanSnap S1300 only supports 10 sheets at a time. Hardly enough if you’re running a large office, with rows of paper cabinets. If that’s an issue for you, you may want to take a look at Fujitsu’s ScanSnap S1500M which can process up to 50 sheets at a time. We weren’t able to test the unit at this time, however, so proceed on your own risk.
Also, slim paper receipts often “jumped” over the adjustable side-sliders during scanning. This either jammed the paper feed or resulted in diagonal scans. More often than not the auto-rotation feature of the ScanSnap Manager was able to put everything back into perspective during post-processing, however. Still, a more rugged pair of side-sliders would have been a nice addition.
The OCR engine for both the ScanSnap and DEVONthink seemed to perform equally well in our test, by the way. Still, I found that Adobe Acrobat Pro tended to do a slightly better job at smaller file sizes. Hence, if you already own Acrobat Pro you may want to include this handy little script in your workflow as well. Simply drag and drop multiple PDF files onto this script and Acrobat will not only OCR, but also compress the files automatically. This is an additional step, but may be well worth your time if file size and marginally higher OCR accuracy are important to you. For me the DEVONthink Pro engine was good enough, however.
In conclusion, the results of the quick and reliable ScanSnap S1300 in combination with the feature-laden DEVONthink Professional Office are hard to beat. Once set up and configured to your liking it is possible and — perhaps even more importantly — fun to maintain a paperless office with minimal effort.
Unlike paper documents, which are only accessible in one place at a time, you now have access to every single document right at your fingertips on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad, no matter when and where you may need them.
So, do yourself a favor and get rid of the paper!
The ScanSnap S1300 is available on Amazon for $264.99
Questions, thoughts, or comments? Contact me on Twitter @eierund and I’ll be in touch.
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