My paperless office

by Gordon Meyer

The 43Folders piece Workflow for the Fujitsu ScanSnap reminds me that I haven't written about how I've been using my ScanSnap S500M. I got it about 5 months ago, and its easily the most useful electronic gizmo purchase of the year. (Since I bought it, the newer S510M has been released.)

I was hesitant to get a ScanSnap because of its price, but when I discovered that it was available through my credit card company, via Amazon, in exchange for "reward points" I dove right in. I already had a flatbed scanner, but the ScanSnap's document feeder and single-pass duplex scanning makes it a lot faster and less hassle to use compared to a flatbed. (It's not, however, a high-resolution photo scanner so if you're into that, you'll need to keep your flatbed.)

My second concern was about the size of the scanner. I really don't have room in my office for another piece of equipment, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ScanSnap is a lot more compact than it appears in a photograph. Its footprint is less than the size of standard US piece of paper, and its height, when closed, isn't much taller than a CD jewel case. You need a bit more room when it is open, but it is very portable and I keep mine tucked away behind my Cinema Display when I'm not using it.

I've been using DevonThink Pro Office to catalog and manage the PDFs that the SnapScan creates. So far, I've got about 1,000 documents spread between three DevonThink databases. (I have no idea how many pages that is total, maybe around 5000, see below for details.) Here are some notes about my workflow:

  • I wait until I have 10 or more things to scan, instead of scanning documents "on demand." This is because I don't keep the scanner hooked up all the time, due to space limitations and a paucity of unused USB ports on my iMac.

  • I've eliminated about 3 boxes of stored paper so far, and thrown away countless of magazines I was saving for just a few articles. Now, when I see something I want to save, I tear the pages out and put them in my "to be scanned" pile. Some might consider this a "marriage saver."

  • The three DevonThink databases I currently use are: one for conjuring literature, one for household/legal items (bank statements, credit card bills, pay stubs), and a general "this is cool" catch-all. My intention is to eventually use DevonThink's AI to categorize documents and my understanding is that specialized domains are better kept separate for this purpose. I haven't yet tried to train the AI, though.

  • I normally use Skim to view PDFs, but while scanning I prefer PDFPen instead. It's the perfect tool for this task because it lets me rearrange and delete pages within the finished PDF. SnapScan does a good job of automatically removing blank pages, but when scanning magazine articles I sometimes need to eliminate the back-side of the last scanned page. I only wish that DevonThink Pro allowed you to specify a preferred PDF application instead of using the system's setting.

Speaking of DevonThink Pro wishes, here are some additional items that would improve my satisfaction:

  • DevonThink shows the file size of a PDF, but you have to open it to see the number of pages it contains. To me, pages are the most important count, not bytes.

  • The integration between SnapScan and DevonThink basically boils down to SnapScan sending an open-event to DT after the PDF is initially created. It would be much better if the two could actually "talk" to each other. For example, in order to make a single-sided scan you have to use SnapScan's contextual Dock menu. A set of controls for this within DevonThink would eliminate this awkwardness.

  • While the OCR process that DevonThink uses is essential for finding things later, it's unfortunate that you can't easily postpone until after you've completed several scans. Your choice is to either wait while each document is recognized immediately after scanning, or to turn off the OCR and then tediously process each document later. If you do this, you end up with two copies of the document in your database, one that has been OCR'd and one that has not. This is probably my biggest "gripe" with DevonThink so far.

  • A similar, but more minor, nit. When DevonThink opens the scanned file it can prompt you for meta info to add to the PDF. Title, author, and so on. Unfortunately, the document info dialog is modal and the author's name defaults to your login name; which of course is rarely the right answer.

  • The folks at Devon Technologies are too generous with their trial period for DevonThink Pro Office. You can use it a very long time before it starts urging you to buy it. In fact, when it goes into "sales mode" it simply stops running the OCR process. Which, as I've discussed above, could be viewed as a timesaver.

So, all-in-all, I'm satisfied but there are plenty of opportunities for improving the workflow. I think the DevonThink Pro Office, PDFPen, and SnapScan combination is a real winner. There's no doubt that this is the first time that I've felt good about converting to a strictly digital storage method for paper files.

If I discover any more tips, I'll add them later. For now, just a quick note that SnapScan and DevonThink Pro Office are working just fine for me under Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. If going paperless appeals to you, now might be the time to dive in.


Annard Brouwer
2007-11-04 12:13:10
Thank you for the nice feedback. One point though: you can batch OCR documents. Just turn of the "Set attributes" switch in the preference pane for OCR. The drawback is that you will have to set your meta data later for each processed document.
2007-11-04 12:54:12
What you are missing for a true paperless office: an iLiad
2007-11-04 13:05:39
ScanHelper from Document/ReceiptWallet is really handy for redirecting scanned outputs to various destinations:

Gordon Meyer
2007-11-04 13:35:46
Kusmi - I've been looking at the Iliad, but decided to go with a Sony Reader instead.
2007-11-04 13:54:19
I have found, using MacOS 10.5 (developer), PDFs created with my Canon Pixma MP750 are OCR'd when viewing in Apple
I haven't ascertained whether this is in the Canon driver suite, or part of Apple's software.
Now that I have a SnapScan, I am saddened to find that the PDFs it creates are not also automatically OCR'd.
I hope and await this to change via a driver update or something.
2007-11-05 06:33:27
I'm doing something very similar. I have an Epson 1650 Photo Scanner that has been under-utilized for several years. Recently I attended a Laserfiche conference. I realized I could do the same thing on my Mac by utilizing my scanner and Spotlight. I installed ReadIris Pro 11 software for OCR. I now scan all my bills, save them as text PDF files and let Spotlight index them. ReadIris is only like $70 and works great. I'm also scanning my kids art work from school (they are in pre K) and plan on creating a photo book on Shutterfly from their art work.
2007-11-05 13:26:21
The ScanSnaps are a great series of scanners. I've been using my 5110EOX for several years now (before it was even officially available for the Mac in the US, it was discovered that this PC-only model works great with the Mac driver available from Fujitsu's Japan website).

One hint: I've been using my ScanSnap with a Keyspan USB server with great success. This allows me to scan stuff from any computer on the LAN without having to constantly plug/unplug USB cables. It also works great with my MBP over Airport.

Tim Goldenburg
2007-11-05 14:09:08
What resolution are you scanning the documents at? 300dpi? 600dpi? What have you found is the best quality/size balance?
Gordon Meyer
2007-11-05 14:18:59
I have ScanSnap Mgr set to "normal" compression and filesize. I think that's 300DPI and average compression. I have DevonThink Pro set to 300DPI and 50% quality.
2007-11-06 03:50:15
Can noone recommended a document scanner that doesn't cost so much? I just want it to take documents and make pdfs, nothing fancy.
2007-11-07 10:09:56
For the kind of job you describe, you don't need PDFPen any longer. Leopard's new preview lets you rearrange and delete pages in PDF-Documents as well.


2007-11-10 16:21:49
Victory - any tips for finding the driver on the Japanese Fujitsu site? It has always been annoying that there are Mac and PC models. My wife is switching to the Mac and I would love to use her PC SnapScan.
2007-11-13 07:59:34
Can you reaffirm with certainty that the S510 (standard, Windows version) works with 10.5? I am agonizing between the S510 and the S510M. I use Windows as well, and want a machine that will work on both Mac and Windows. I have found the ScanSnap software from the Fujitsu Japan is this all I need to get the S510 to work with my Mac? I don't want to limit myself with just a Mac version of the's a waste to me since I use both platforms.

Also, if it works with my Mac (using the Japan software) will I have to purchase any additional Mac software to use the scanner (Acrobat, etc?).

2007-11-13 15:08:33
When I tried an early beta of DevonThink Pro Office each scanned page after OCR ended up being about 900KB to 1MB. That's pretty large compared to 30KB to 50KB I am able to get out of Acrobat 7.0 Standard.

How big are your OCR'ed PDFs ?

Gordon Meyer
2007-11-13 16:40:53
Not sure how to make a meaningful comparison, both SnapScan and DevonThink have quality settings that impact the size. (I think earlier versions of DevonThink didn't have these settings.)
2007-11-13 19:30:45
So, Gordon, the S510 does work fine with OS X (Leopard)? I bought this version (non-Mac version) and will be plunging in this Thursday (thanks newegg!).

Just wanted to check one last time before I rip open the box...I do have the Japanese drivers...

Gordon Meyer
2007-11-14 00:12:15
I have the S500M, and the current ScanSnap software is working fine for me on Leopard. I know nothing about the Japanese drivers or getting the PC version to work cross-platform. Feel free to post your experiences with this here, though. Good luck!
2007-11-29 20:58:44
Eric - Can you tell us more about your experience of the S510 working on your Mac. Is it working well after you "took the plunge"? And can you post the link to where you get the software. I went to Fujitsu, but when you select the Japanese sight, you of course get it in well... Japanese. I can't navigate without a translator. Thanks for any help.
2007-11-30 10:01:56
Good conversation.
(1)Did anyone yet offer the Japanese site for ScanSnap software that will let my PC ScanSnap now work on my new iMac? Sure would be nice.
(2)Does anyone know how to get Spotlight to find/read Notes attached to PDFs. I used the Notes function extensively with PC and could search for content in them on my PC. Can't seem to on iMac.
Thanks New2Mac
2007-12-08 18:27:05
Have been able to get the PC version of the S510 on my iMac 24" (OS X 10.4.x) by following the instructions here
2007-12-09 21:20:42
Doesn't this scanner come with Acrobat version 8? Why don't you use that to perform some of the PDF functions? Not being critical, just considering a purchase and I was thinking that the bundled Acrobat would be a plus.

Thanks for this description

Mr. Paperless
2008-03-16 10:04:24
What do you do for backups? I find that one of the most important parts of any paperless office solution is backups, because digital media are very vulnerable... optical discs only store so many files, and tapes are difficult.
2008-07-07 16:17:50
Discuss Befriely how the use of computer can reduce the amount of papers used in an office, do you think that a paperless office is a real possibility.
some please help out
2008-07-10 09:49:12
An old joke (I heard it several years ago):
"The paperless office is just as likely as the paperless bathroom."

Now, like Sheryl Crow[0] recently advocated, you can use a lot less paper in anoffice, but I can't see ever forgoing paper in the bathroom *OR* office.

[0] (If you don't care to follow the link to the interview, it was a joke, she didn't really mean it ;^)

2008-07-14 14:03:51
That's an interesting system you've set up. There are many other cool paperless office and workstyle stuff on this site: