Electronic Filing

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted October 01, 2000
by Carol S. Holzberg

Every time i walk into my doctor's office I'm amazed that they can actually find my medical records. Rows upon rows of color coded folders are stuffed into ceiling-high cabinets. One day, I am going to march in to that office with a scanner under one arm and some document management software in the other.

If, for some reason, you're still using that rusty metal filling cabinet for storing important documents, this is your wake-up call. It's time to move into the electronic age and convert your paper files into a document management system. A business' success depends not only on how much you know but how quickly you can get your hands on information when you need it.

The document management applications reviewed in this Buyer's Guide vary significantly in scalability and price, but all have tools to scan, index, and store images of documents electronically. The inexpensive packages, like PaperPort Deluxe 7.0, typically work on stand-alone computers. The more costly products, LaserFiche Executive 5.0 and The Paperless Office 2.5, are workgroup-oriented, allowing users to capture, store, retrieve, and share paper-based or electronic documents in a network environment. All products include support for Optical Character Recognition (OCR) so you can convert scanned images into editable text or perform "full text" searches on the actual text data rather than "keyword" searches on a limited set of words or phrases stored in searchable fields. Some document managers, like PageKeeper Pro 3.0 and Pagis Pro 3.0 come as part of packaged suite with other document handling tools.

Only LaserFiche, The Paperless Office, and Pagis Pro support a batch capture system, allowing you to defer document processing until all papers have been scanned, rather than doing one at a time. This makes them appropriate for use with high-speed document scanners (see second Buyer's Guide). They are ideal for businesses that must scan, process, and archive large quantities of paper.

HOW WE TESTED

We tested applications on a stand-alone Dell Dimension Pentium II XPS R450 system running at 450MHz, with 128MB of RAM and a 15.7GB hard drive. An inexpensive, parallel-port flatbed scanner was used for imaging. We substituted an inexpensive sheet-fed color scanner with ISIS driver to work with LaserFiche when the program would not recognize the flatbed. We tested each product by scanning a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Vehicle Inspection Report (8.5" x 11"), containing numerous fields (some shaded) and a logo. We also tested products to see if they could index and perform a full-text search on existing Microsoft Word documents.

Versions of LaserFiche 5 and The Paperless Office 2.5 will work on a network, but we could test only the client portion of this software on our stand-alone workstation. Network versions allow users to save to a central server. Imaging, indexing, and other program functions do not change.

The first feature we examined was ease of use, taking into consideration how much training would be involved in learning to use the software and whether the interface followed typical Windows conventions. We looked at how context-sensitive the Help files were and if wizards were available to simplify the learning process.

We also examined the steps involved in processing and filing a scanned document. This included the customizability of the filing process, how many (user-defined) search fields it supported, full-text search capabilities, OCR accuracy, and search capabilities.

Products scored higher if they supported a variety of query techniques. Typically, all applications but PaperPort Deluxe 7 allow for Boolean values AND, OR, and NOT to expand or narrow a database search. Some products support relevance ranking (a system that organizes search matches by how well they matched the search criteria), and proximity searches, enabling users to look for terms within a specified word distance from one another. Some can also handle "fuzzy" search queries, maximizing the probability that search matches would be found because outcome is expressed as a probability rather than a certainty (i.e., "possibly" or "probably" a match, rather than "definitely" a match).


LaserFiche Executive 5.0 - Rating: 92


LaserFiche Executive 5.0 (LF5) is designed for high-volume digital archival and retrieval over a network or on a stand-alone (single-user) system. The latest version includes support for scanned paper documents as well as importing documents created in other applications, including HTML files, email messages, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, sound files, and video clips.

At startup, a friendly automatic wizard stepped us through the process of creating a new database. While Computhink's The Paperless Office (TPO), reviewed below, requires a User ID and password for program access, LF5's greater flexibility allowed us to customize setup for use with or without a password. An administrator can set up the program for access by specific users having particular Feature and Access Rights.

Unlike TPO, LF5 ships with a printed User Guide. However, LF5 is much more unforgiving regarding scanner support. ISIS scanners that work with LF5 typically require an Adaptec SCSI card (except for the Avision parallel port scanner loaned to us for review), plus special Kofax ACE software which costs extra. LF was the only product in this Buyer's Guide that did not work with my low-end TWAIN-compliant flatbed scanner.

LF's default workspace consists of Explorer-like folder and document windows. A telltale application icon beside each file name lets you know which application created the folder document. Double-clicking a document created in another application launches that application and opens the document. Double-clicking a document that's been indexed by LF opens it in LF's two-pane Document window, showing you the scanned image in one pane and the text version in the other.

Electronic files stored in LF are searchable by folder/file location and by index fields, which can be easily modified. Index card templates can also be created with different sets of fields that are applied to documents imported into the system. Each index card can have a maximum of 30 fields.

Jim Bonomo, vice president of Caduceus, Inc., a 30-person health care management organization in New York City, uses LaserFiche's robust document management capabilities to care for patient medical records in Emergency. The product is used with a charting system developed by a third-party vendor to document patient symptoms and hospital treatment. Combining LaserFiche's flexibility with Toshiba high-speed duplex scanners, the Caduceus on-site coders batch process hundreds of pieces of paper. "We can do 150 double-sided pages in a matter of five minutes," says Bonomo. "Physicians and nurses can retrieve a document using a vast set of criteria. Our templates capture the patient's medical record number, last name, social security number, and their ER [Emergency Room] number. We don't sort by content because medical records are primarily graphic and handwritten."

For a full text searching on documents LF uses the ExperVision 4.5 OCR engine, which wasn't as accurate in recognizing text as OmniPage Pro 10 (the OCR engine bundled with PageKeeper Pro). Users can control clean-up options for a scanned image via ScanFix. The program can also be configured to perform indexing and OCR automatically on each imported document. Indexed documents can be annotated by applying sticky notes, stamps, electronic highlighter, and blackout as needed.

LF's basic and advanced search options give users plenty of freedom for document retrieval. The program looks for words or phrases, index fields, and document name. It cannot perform full content searches on electronic documents imported into the system unless they are converted to ASCII text (plain text). It performs OCR only on documents scanned into the system. Once a document has been indexed, it will locate all matches for a search word or phrase and highlight all instances in the text. LF supports Fuzzy Search, wild cards, Boolean operators, proximity searches, and complex searches using operators and parentheses.

Overall, LF is a product worthy of consideration. Bonomo elaborates: "We have basically trained new staff on it in a matter of hours. Anyone who is familiar with Windows-based products picks it up immediately. LaserFiche allows us to recreate the same file structure that our clients might have used for their paper records for 30 years." However, the product does have two drawbacks, in addition to limited scanner support. First, it lacks a backup utility to safeguard program data. Second, while you can export databases and associated files in an electronic briefcase, you can import those briefcases only on another computer running LF. Export capabilities combined with run-time support are available as an expensive option only.

LaserFiche Document Imaging; 800-985-8533; www.laserfiche.com; $1,955


OmniPage Pro 10 Scan Suite Plus - Rating: 88


Along with PageKeeper Pro 3.0 (PKP) for document management, this suite boasts five other tools. It includes OmniPage Pro 10 for OCR, MGI PhotoSuite III SE to edit and organize scanned photos, OmniPage Web Personal Edition to convert scanned documents into Web-compatible pages, and NetObjects Fusion to create a Web site and organize its content. Installing PageKeeper Pro 3.0 also automatically installs Post-It Software Notes 1.5, an annotation tool that adds electronic Post-It notes to documents.

While intuitive and user friendly, PKP is not as visually appealing as PaperPort Deluxe 7. It offers a "Folder Watch" option that tracks, indexes, and links documents added to the specified folder. You can use it on a stand-alone system to track scanned documents. It will also track and manage electronic documents created in other applications if you drag them onto the PKP desktop. Like LaserFiche, Pagis Pro, and PaperPort Deluxe, PKP's desktop consists of two windowpanes with a tree-like folder window on the left and a document window at the right. Graphic thumbnails make it easy to identify documents. It's simple to drag documents into PKP's folder system from other folders on your computer.

PKP is more robust than PaperPort Deluxe in terms of OCR and other capabilities, but not quite as feature-rich as Pagis. An optional Scan Wizard provides step-by-step scanning assistance, letting you scan one or more single- or multi-sided pages during a scan session. However, it doesn't preview the scan.

Smart Folder and Folder Watch options automate document management. Marco Varela, President of CITI, LLC, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based systems integrator that engineers and manufactures water and waste treatment control systems for the municipal market explains: "[Our] engineers require some pretty extensive documentation." Before PageKeeper, "It took a lot of time to put this material together. We decided to use PageKeeper Pro to bring in that information digitally. We now scan the manuals and keep a database," says Varela. "When we assemble an Operations and Maintenance manual for a specific owner, we simply take it out of one of the Smart Folders. The manuals essentially assemble themselves for us."

CITI employs 20 people and has been using PKP for a year to prepare extensive documentation for engineering firms that design the plants. Thanks to PageKeeper, says Varela, "It takes very little time to assemble the manuals." PKP automatically indexes scanned documents, saving them to a user-specified folder or Smart Folder. PKP will also automatically index documents stored in user-specified folders. However, processing occurs immediately after each scan, reducing PKP's viability in high-speed, high-volume scanning situations.

Strong search options retrieve documents based on text or phrase content, wildcards, Boolean (AND, OR) operators, proximity searches, and keyword searches. A word matching scale determines whether PKP uses Exact or Fuzzy word matching. PageKeeper View will highlight all search words in a document so you can easily locate the requested information. Unlike LaserFiche, you can't create your own searchable fields, but you can save specified search criteria in a search file for future reuse. PKP can display search hits in order of how closely they match the search criteria.

Lack of support for deferred processing limits the advantages gained by using PKP with an automatic sheet feeder. In addition, it doesn't let you preview a document before scanning. Of all the products, reviewed here, it was the one that crashed most often. Nevertheless, for low volume scanning needs, its ease of use and automation prowess make it a valuable paperwork reduction tool.

ScanSoft, Inc.; 800-654-1187;
www.scansoft.com; $499.95


Pagis Pro Millennium Scanning Suite: Rating: 93


Pagis Pro Millennium Scanning Suite (PPM) combines five products in one package. It includes Pagis Pro 3.0 for handling document management; TextBridge Pro for OCR; Kai's PhotoSoap 2.0 for image editing; Copier, a utility that prints copies of color documents right from the desktop' Forms Fill-in, an application that lets you scan a form and fill it in electronically.

Completely integrated with the Windows Explorer desktop, the Pagis Inbox is actually just another folder on the desktop. You can easily create folders within the Inbox to store and organize documents. You can also delete and/or rename folders as necessary. When dragging an item into a Pagis Inbox folder, you actually move it from its original folder location. This is unlike the drag and drop of PageKeeper Pro, which merely creates a link to the original file. When you click a folder, thumbnails of the items within appear in the windowpane on the right. Thumbnail images aren't as rich in detail as those in PageKeeper Pro.

Right-clicking a regular folder gives you the option of converting it into a Pagis folder. Once converted, you can select a file, then click the Keywords button on the Pagis toolbar to enter search information about the document (i.e., Title, Author, and Keywords). If you select multiple files at one time, you can enter keyword information that applies to all of them. However, unlike LaserFiche, PPM offers no support for keyword templates. Pagis will save documents created in other applications.

Pagis has powerful search capabilities, although it doesn't offer much automation support. You can perform a full-text search on scanned and electronic documents, or search on keywords, author, or document title. Pagis will perform a search on any document included in its search database -- a feature unmatched by any other product included in the Buyer's Guide -- and it will index documents not included in the Pagis Inbox. On documents that you've scanned, Pagis enlists the support of TextBridge OCR to convert the image to text and enable full-text searches. The TextBridge engine did not do as accurate a job as OmniPage Pro when indexing the text on the test Vehicle Inspection Report form.

Other search options enable you to search for an exact word or phrase. Advanced search options include support for Boolean, stemming, (i.e. searching for "bit," also returns "bite," "bitter," "bitten," and "bituminous"), and fuzzy searches. Search results are ranked by relevance. Each search hit has a link allowing you to view the "hit" in context via the Pagis Document Viewer. You can also rest the cursor over a match's document icon to see a pop-up thumbnail of the document, or double-click the file name to open the file in the application that created it.

Pagis would benefit from beefed up automation tools (e.g. indexing templates that you can create and save) and a backup feature to safeguard the search database. It lacks password security options. Nevertheless, the product delivers excellent value for the price. It can even index existing electronic documents for full-text search, something the higher-priced products cannot do.

ScanSoft, Inc.; 800-654-1187;
www.scansoft.com; $99


The Paperless Office v2.5: Rating: 90


Like other products in this Buyer's Guide, The Paperless Office v2.5 (TPO) scans in documents and graphics, annotates files, indexes scanned information, then archives the material in compressed format. You can store the images in a particular directory, hard drive, optical jukebox, or other designated location. Support for batch scanning makes it possible to scan several documents at once and defer processing to a more convenient time. Built-in OCR (TextBridge engine) allows you to convert a stored document into text or perform a full-text search. Thanks to tight security options you can password protect program access, files and folders, and specific functions for individuals or groups. A convenient Backup wizard, accessed as a separate utility from the Windows Start folder, safeguards document images and the index against loss or damage.

Despite its rich collection of document management tools, TPO's non-intuitive interface made the program difficult to use. Initial setup was a bit unnerving, as the product ships without a printed Getting Started Guide. Setup did not install a TPO shortcut on the desktop. While the first screen is keyed for Context Sensitive online help providing an overview of program functions, most dialog boxes lacked context-sensitive Help.

TPO uses a desktop metaphor consisting of five separate desks: Capture, Office View, Administration, Retrieval, and Index. It requires you to close out of one area to work in another, but preferences can be set to automatically start the desktop of your choice each time you start the program.

The Administration Desk is where you first add users, and set up the filing and indexing system. Administration also handles user privileges. But starting out at the Administration Desk was not specified by the program at startup.

TPO's Capture desk handles scanning. Much to TPO's credit (and unlike LaserFiche 5.0), you can use virtually any TWAIN or ISIS scanner (even if it's a low-end model that doesn't support an Automatic Document Feeder attachment). You can instruct TPO to save, index, and store multi-page documents as a single document and stamp a scan with a time, date, or particular text.

Robust search capabilities allow you to retrieve a document using partial names with wildcards (e.g., Mon* finds Monday and Money), keywords, location rules, full text, and index keys. You can employ more than one search criterion when conducting a search and specify a n image file format (the program supports 44 formats).

Flexibility is TPO's major strength, but may also be its biggest drawback. Virtually everything is customizable, but options are not always clear. New to this release is a MiniViewer, which enables users to select a set of documents and write the collection with all of the search and view capabilities to any media (e.g. CD). This is a terrific freebie for which LF charges big bucks. Unfortunately the program's awkward interface and shortage of context sensitive help makes the learning curve a bit steep.

Computhink, Inc.; 800-988-4465; www.computhink.com; $1,600


PaperPort Deluxe 7.0 - Rating: 86


Complete with built-in user-controlled image compression to conserve disk space after scanning, PaperPort Deluxe 7 (PD7) has the friendliest interface of any product reviewed. To manage a document, simply scan to a ScanSoft Document folder that you've created, or to a "link" icon representing installed applications and functions that work with the program.

Tom Phillips, owner of A1A Yacht Sales, a three-person yacht brokerage company selling used power and sail boats in St. Augustine, Florida has been using PaperPort Deluxe for two years. With PaperPort and a scanner, he can digitize and file photographs of the boats, then email these images with boat details to interested clients. "Rather than send this information via fax," he explains, "I can send out color photographs." The program is "relatively easy to use," he notes.

A Windows Explorer-like tree directory of the ScanSoft Documents folder and user-named folders appear in the "Folder" window at the left. Thumbnail images of items stored in a particular ScanSoft Documents folder appear in the "Document" window at the right. If you right-click a document, then choose Summary Info from the context menu, you can fill in the fields for Page Title, Creator, Keywords, and Comments information that the application will use as it conducts a search.

Drag a document to a link icon on the Link Bar at the bottom of the screen to send the item to that application without leaving PaperPort, or zoom in on an item for a full-screen look by double-clicking its thumbnail. PD7 will switch to Page View, providing tools for annotation, adding comments, highlighting items, or circling information. Page View's simple image-editing tools allow you to make adjustments to the picture, or remove "red-eye" effects. Both views can be viewed simultaneously.

PD7 converts a PaperPort item to text using built-in TextBridge OCR functions, which automatically create an index of all the content for performing full-text searches on the document. The program doesn't provide much control over TextBridge settings. While it had little trouble reading the typed Vehicle Inspection test document, OCR accuracy decreased significantly when it tried to convert text in shaded fields. A very convenient FormTyper companion application allows you to scan in a blank form, then have FormTyper find the fields so you can complete the form electronically.

PPD's friendly SimpleSearch function lets you look for items by title, date, keyword, comment, annotation, author, and content (for document images converted to text through TextBridge OCR). You can add this summary information to a file by choosing Summary Info (File menu) or selecting Summary Info from the context menu that appears when you right-click a thumbnail. If you've captured a page from the Web, you can find it by entering its URL. You can have the program look for exact matches or an "approximate" (fuzzy search). Find Item Options determine how exact the fuzzy match will be, but the program doesn't specify the rules it uses to determine them. Searches are confined to items residing in the ScanSoft Documents folder and its sub-folders. There's no support for Boolean searches, but the product displays search results in sorted order with items that best match the search criteria appearing at the top of the list.

While PD7 indexes very quickly, it limits indexing to ScanSoft documents. Moreover, it won't let you schedule a database update for a particular day and time. You can, however, configure it to update the database in the background when the system is idle for a user-specified period of time.

PD7 lacks support for automated document management. You tell it when to scan. You drag items to folders to organize them. The Summary Information dialog doesn't pop up on screen automatically, but failure to fill in its fields drastically limits PD7's search capabilities. Lack of automation makes it a poor choice for offices with hefty document management requirements.

ScanSoft, Inc.; 800-654-1187; www.scansoft.com; $59

WHAT WE THINK

No one product has it all and the choice will also depend on individual needs. For ease of use, ScanSoft's intuitive PaperPort Deluxe 7 is a winner. Unfortunately it's also the product with the fewest search capabilities, offering no support for Boolean searches, user-defined fields, or processing automation. Pagis Pro Scanning Suite (incorporating Pagis Pro 3.0) and Omni Page Pro 10 Scan Suite Plus (incorporating PageKeeper Pro), provide more robust search capabilities, but they can't beat PaperPort's elegant visual interface.

Pagis Pro 3 does a better job of integrating with Windows Explorer. You can use it to fill out forms (a facility it shares with PaperPort Deluxe 7). PageKeeper Pro is better at rendering thumbnails, but we experienced system crashes on several occasions. Neither product is designed for workgroups.

Businesses that need high-volume scanning capabilities in either a single-user or multi-user network environment should purchase The Paperless Office or LaserFiche 5.0. LaserFiche is much easier to use, but you may have to purchase a new scanner. Both LaserFiche and The Paperless Office are highly scalable products. Overall, however, LaserFiche provides more control over searchable fields, incorporates Help options in every dialog box to simplify operation, and offers several friendly ways to automate the document management process.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

DO YOU NEED HIGH VOLUME OR LOW VOLUME DOCUMENT MANAGEMENT? A document manager works in tandem with a scanner to image, sort, and file electronic documents. Does the product support deferred processing, enabling you to scan several documents at one time, then process (i.e., index) those documents later? If the product supports batch or deferred processing, you may also want to invest in a high-speed scanner.

 

IS THE SYSTEM FLEXIBLE? Does the product provide an easy and flexible way to file, organize, and locate scanned paper documents and photographs, as well as existing electronic documents like word processing files, spreadsheets, digital camera photos, and web pages?

 

WHAT ELSE CAN IT DO? What can you do with the product in addition to organizing and archiving scanned documents? How easily can you email, fax, or print stored documents, photos, and web pages?

 

WILL IT RUN ON A STAND-ALONE MACHINE OR OVER A NETWORK? Would your office benefit from a document manager offering multi-user network support, where a common database is set up for easy access by multiple members of a workgroup?

 

WHAT'S THE RETURN ON INVESTMENT? How much are you currently spending on your paper filing system? When considering the cost of a document management system, you must factor in the cost of wasted time, the frustration of missing documents, and expensive off-site storage, plus the benefits of simplified file sharing and easy file access, even when you're away from the office.

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