Neat Receipts Scanner
At the CES show last January, I ran across a company that had a new concept in scanners and working with those boxes full of receipts and expense slips that a business person has to deal with all the time. It was called NeatReceipts, www.neatreceipts.com, and it was both a hardware and software solution to the problem of scanning and managing those receipts. What they tell me is that it will take the paper out of paperwork in that if I scan the receipts using this unit, it can automate both my data entry for accounting for them as well as to make it easier to create expense reports.
The package consists of a compact sized travel scanner with a thin leatherette travel pouch, standard USB A-B device cable, calibration sheet, cleaning pad, a software CD, and a small instruction manual. The package I got also came with a unique stand and a wall mount for the scanner to keep it out of the way.
Installation is pretty straightforward in that you install the CD software before plugging in the scanner. This is getting to be the norm for nearly all devices so that Windows will have the driver available when you plug in the unit. It also installs the Microsoft .Net Framework before finishing the software installation but it goes quickly. Plug in the scanner and it is found and set up for you. One thing to watch here is that it sets up the files and folders for your scanned images and receipts in its own folder and does not use My Documents. The scanner is pretty simple and is a full 8.5 inch width so you can scan a variety of items including a full size page. The power comes from the USB cable so there are no other cables to worry about.
What comes up next is the demo tutorial about the scanner and the software. It is a nice and simple tutorial to follow but sometimes it does go too fast as you are reading what is on the screen. It gives you an excellent overview of the program and how you will manage your receipts. I do wish that they would have had a getting started section after you go through the tutorial. This is an interesting concept in managing your expenses as it contains a vendor database of over 500 companies to help you categorize your expenses, unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to get into that database and update it. Once collected, your receipts can also be exported into Quicken, Money, or spreadsheet formats. My favorite is the PDF file maker built in. Unlike most other programs that create pdf documents, here you don't print to a pdf file but you export the report to the pdf file. The scanner is in a very slim and compact format and yet has a lot of capability with a 600x1200 dpi color scanner and is twain compliant so that I could also use my graphics program like Paint Shop Pro to scan images into it. In testing it with PSP, I found it to be an acceptable substitute for a flat bed scanner in a pinch so it is handy to have on your desktop. In fact, take a look at this included picture I scanned. It was quite impressive. NeatReceipts also has a scan manager part of the program just for doing non receipt related scans of important documents.
The first impressions of this program are not good though. You need to go through the tutorial several times to make sure you are heading in the right direction and I think they would have done better by having a quick start guide to creating your first expense report.
Gathering information is pretty simple. You put the receipt in the scanner, hit scan on the software, and then it scans it and attempts to go through and recognize the amounts, date, vendor, and credit card type. You then fill in the expense, and category and you are ready to go. Unfortunately in my testing, rarely did it catch all the fields of the receipt and it is not surprising considering the condition of the text that you get. You do see the images right next to the fields so you can easily refer to them. So when you do fill in what is missing, it is easy to pick out. This means that the scanner does do a good job but the recognition software probably needs some improvement. I think the software could be a little better at telling you what to insert where because if you look at the Vendor column, for example, all you see is a drop down arrow. It doesn't tell you to just type in the vendor name and it will add it to the database. That database can be as extensive as you like it and can include addresses and contact information but interestingly enough, no contact names.
What you can do then is to scan all of your receipts at one time no matter the project or event associated with them into the program. There is a drag and drop feature that will allow you to then go in, create an expense report for an event or trip, and then select the receipts that belong to it. You need to assign a project id to each item otherwise you can run into the problem of the same receipt being used several times. There are other quirks in the software that need to be upgraded and one being the fact it is not easy to tell what expense report you are working on. Items in the master list of receipts should be flagged if they are used in an expense report.
I mentioned output exporting but the printing feature also creates a PDF file for you for submitting and that is a handy feature. You have lots of options to selecting the formatting and what is included in your documents which naturally will include images of your receipts. The printed report will show you the detail of the receipts in a single line, and will total it for you. It will also break out totals by those amounts you had marked as Personal or Reimbursable. It would be nice if it added up the categories as well for instance, when I go to these great trade fairs, I have a lot of meals or cab fares to expense.
There are other quirky things about this program, one was that I unplugged the scanner and when I went back to use it again, plugged it into the other USB port. It refused to see that a scanner was attached even though device manager shows it there. There are buttons on the scanner though they don't work. There is also a document manager for just keeping track of other documents. You can't attach them to an expense report unless you rescan them so you wonder what purpose it serves.
I am getting used to this program the more I use it and am left to think that the next release hopefully will address some of these issues and make it a little more smoothly operating program. You have to go through a couple of trial runs before you get the feeling of how this system is set up. For instance, the thinking is that you scan all your receipts into the Receipt Manager section, create your expense report, and then drag and drop the needed receipts into that expense report you just created. The problem is that if you make a mistake an change a receipt after it has been dragged over to a report, you need to drag it again as a change in one place is not reflected in the other. The Project ID field is where you need to identify each receipt you scan in otherwise you can't tell what expense report the receipt is associated with. It would be nice that the program would flag each receipt as it is used in an expense report. I can easily see getting too many receipts in the system to get confused as to what is where. I think better tracking controls of the receipts should be in place.
There are of course other options for dealing with business expenses and receipts but the concept they offer here is quite promising. I like the portable scanner that just uses the USB port and have used it for a number of other things so I am looking forward to seeing the upgraded software release coming soon according to the web site. NeatReceipts is available from the company at http://www.neatreceipts.com/ for $249.
Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at firstname.lastname@example.org
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