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Pen-size scanners built for the road

By LISA GUERNSEY, New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2000

So you face two choices: Transcribe the paragraph by hand or trot over to the photocopy machine, stand in line, fish around for change and make three copies the wrong size before getting one that captures what you want.

A new generation of handheld gadgets offers a third option: Scan in the 300 words with a wireless pen-size scanner, tuck the scanner into a pocket and transfer the data to your computer when you get home.

It sounds ideal. Simply holding one of these lightweight scanners, sometimes called digital highlighters, conjures up visions of superior organization skills.

Soon, you might think, you will be rolling these scanners over phone numbers from the Yellow Pages and over Web addresses too cumbersome to jot down. There will be no need to clip calendar information from magazines -- you will scan it in.

In reality, the scanners are not quite so easy to use, but they do show promise for researchers and mobile professionals.

The first step, running the digital highlighters over the desired text, takes practice before you can get a clean copy. And transferring that data to a computer can be difficult for people who are not accustomed to crawling under their desks or moving furniture to plug extra appliances into their PCs. As with any new technology, these scanners require patience and a willingness to tinker.

At least three of them are on the market: the C Pen from C Technologies, the Pocket Reader from Siemens and the QuickLink Pen from Wizcom Technologies. They are lightweight (about 3 ounces each), include batteries (two AAAs) and are comfortable enough to remind you of holding one of those chunky pencils in grade school.

Each pen has a tiny display screen and comes with software that lets you transfer text from the scanner to a computer.

The Pocket Reader is a good choice for people who want a no-frills version. The other two are laden with features such as address books and Web-link databases. (The makers of the C Pen, for example, are calling it a new kind of personal digital assistant.) That makes them simultaneously more flexible yet more complicated to use.

The Pocket Reader is being marketed as an inexpensive option for budget-conscious students. It sells for about $100 and is so easy to use that you won't need the manual to get started. But it does not let you organize your scanned data into files or edit the scanned text on the pen's display screen, as the other two do.

The C Pen comes in two versions, both packed with features. For $200, you can get the C Pen 200, which comes with an address book. The C Pen 600 costs $249 and, in addition to having an address book, translates words into different languages.

Both versions can write as well as read. (To write the letter A, for example, put the pen tip on a page and move the pen as if you were writing an oversize A. Then the letter A shows up on the display.)

But to transfer the data to a PC desktop or laptop, the C Pen requires an infrared port -- something that many computers, particularly desktops, do not have unless you have installed an infrared adapter.

The QuickLink Pen, which sells for $149, also includes an address book, but its display screen is cursed with a confusing interface, and its editing software makes users jump through hoops before seeing and editing the notes they have scanned.

Worse, when I tested the pen, I was plagued with technical glitches while trying to send data to my PC. On the brighter side, the pen can be adapted to scan data into tables, spreadsheets or customized databases. (It also comes with a pen cap that no doubt will be lost within a few days of use.)

Most critical, of course, is how accurately these scanners record text -- a capacity known as optical character recognition. To find out, I headed for my cookbook shelf, hoping to find a better way to accomplish a task I had tripped over a few weeks ago before a family vacation.

While preparing for the trip, I found that I needed to pack a soup recipe. I was not about to add the cookbook to my soon-to-be-overstuffed suitcase, but I did not have a handheld scanner. So I carried the cookbook to work, photocopied the recipe and then toted the book back home.

A few weeks later, with the digital highlighters in hand, I realized that copying recipes could become much less of a chore. I selected a recipe more suited to my immediate craving, Ben & Jerry's hot butterscotch sauce for coffee ice cream, and sat down to scan.

I immediately gained a new appreciation for old-fashioned highlighters. Those pens are forgiving. You can run that pastel streak across a line of text, waver a little, maybe even catch only half a word, and still get all you need. When you return to the text, you immediately see what you meant to highlight.

Digital highlighters, in contrast, require a steady hand and a meticulousness that does not quite fit with the notion of saving time. They also, by design, do not give you the advantage of context; when you look at the scanned text later, you are looking at it in isolation, so you cannot glance at the page to fill in any blanks.

The digital scanner lets you avoid carrying that page and the book that holds it, but there is a price for that convenience.

In other words, don't expect to zip over those references to cups of sugar and sticks of butter. That pinch of salt might come out as an inch of salt instead.

With the C Pen, I ended up repeating some of the recipe ("increase the heat," "increase the heat"), after I noticed that one line had not been scanned correctly. With QuickLink, unsalted butter became unsalted "bueeer." With the Pocket Reader, stirring became "stiwing."

Aside from those blips, however, all three pens performed relatively well. The three versions of the recipe were legible, and they took only a few minutes to scan and transfer to a PC. Quick editing on the computer mended any damage.

In another test, I glided the pens over a listing in the eye-straining weekly calendar in the New Yorker. (Bizarre body art was on display at the American Museum of Natural History.)

This time, the scanners faltered. They picked up the words "nose ornament" but garbled pertinent details such as the museum's hours and address and the dates of the exhibition. The tiny point size (and my struggles to align the tip of each pen exactly with the text) wreaked the havoc.

Developers of the digital highlighters acknowledge the limitations. For now, they say, the scanners may be mostly used by professionals who spend a lot of time transferring printed words to computers -- and who have the time to get used to the scanners' quirks.

QuickLink, for example, is talking to the European Community about using the pen to scan serial numbers from paper bills of the euro and then compare them with numbers in databases to track counterfeits.

Tom Tesluk, chief executive of Siemens' Pocket Reader division, said he expected that more people would find a need for the scanners as the devices' capabilities improved. The scanners also will become popular, he said, when more people see others using them -- whether for butterscotch recipes or for taking notes.

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