first looks - scanalyzer, by neatreceipts (part 1)


A creative software concept marred by inconsistent Scanning performance

Based on nearly 1 year's product testing, I have changed my overall impression of this unit from Potentially Buy, to DO NOT BUY.

Scanners are nothing new.  You can find them for as little as $50 and they will scan your photos, slides, magazine articles, slides, and when combined with an All-In-One (AIO) printer, they can copy and fax.  A company called Neatreceipts has carved out an interesting and highly useful niche - the business of Scanning receipts and invoices.

What sets this unit apart from general purpose scanners is this product is built for record keeping.   Records from grocery store to gas station receipts all the way to 8.5 x 11 can be scanned in the single sheet feed unit.  If you buy $300 worth of groceries from one of the big "Super" grocery stores, the NeatReceipts Scanner can accommodate lengthy receipts up to 30".  Note, this is a single sheet feed scanner, it is not a flatbed. The illustration above shows the size of the scanner unit, relative to a sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper.   It would be impractical to make a sheet feeding scanner that can take multiple receipts in a pile, because reciepts and other paper differ greatly in size.

The software is what makes this unit stand out.  Instead of a typical scan manager, Neatreceipts uses a Microsoft MSDE Desktop Database engine, and utilizes patented technology to "read" the receipt and transpose the Date, Vendor, Tax, Total, and method of payment (cash, check, or credit card) into real numbers.  The software will export to popular applications, such as Microsoft Excel, Intuit Quickbooks, Turbo Tax, and PDF files (to name a few).  You categorize receipts in free form, in a single level folder hierarchy (just like a paper file cabinet). Thus, you can have categories such as:

  Gas Receipts (folder)
      RaceTrak (receipts)
      QTrip (receipts)
      Shell (receipts)

  Tolls/Parking (folder)
      NTTA Receipt (receipts)
      Downtown Parking (receipts)
      Airport Parking (receipts)

  Personal Expenses (folder)
      Meals (receipts)
      Groceries (receipts)
      Misc Expenses (receipts)

The theory being, you can use Neatreceipts to read and categorize your receipts, and export them to Quickbooks, without having to manually transpose the information (by typing).  As you scan hundreds (if not thousands of receipts), you'll build a considerable collection of receipts, which remains forever.  The information can be searched electronically, which is much faster than sifting through file cabinets.  In addition, the IRS allows electronically scanned images of relevant documents as proof of business expenses and deductions.

Unpack/Installation

I installed Neatreceipts a 2.6 Ghz Celeron Emachines PC with 768 Megs Ram, 80 gig hard drive, with a clean install of Windows XP Home Edition (Sp2).  The unit has only one cord, the USB cable.  The Usb cable derives power from the USB bus.  Installation from the CD-Rom was faultless.  You should go to www.neatreceipts.com after installing the CD-Rom software and download the latest update to their software scan manager.  The update will look for the original program installed on the hard drive and automatically update it.  It has faster performance and additional Tax Categories, useful if your primary use it to scan and classify tax related expenses.  After three weeks worth of testing, I find a 2.6 Ghz Celeron to be adequate.  However for better performance, I recommend at least a 2.8 Ghz Pentium 4 processor, and 1 gig ram.  While it was sufficient, a 1024 x 768 screen was just enough, however a higher resolution such as 1280 x 1024 would mean less side scrolling.  The main screen shows quite a bit of information.

Scanning

Before you begin scanning, you have to calibrate the scanner.  While calibration worked flawlessly, I had some issues with getting a scan to appear in something other than white with black random streaks.  At first nothing showed up, but after two more tries at calibration, it started scanning as expected.  Note, the website and box shows receipts being scanned face up.  In practice, receipts should be face down.  Receipts are scanned in greyscale (which tends to eat more disk space than black and white scanning), business cards are scanned in color.

Speed:  Scanning speed is pedestrian.  If speed is your criteria, note that the NeatReceipts software can interface with other scanners, such as the Fujitsu Snap Scan S-510, however these capabilities were not tested.  If you have 5,000 receipts sitting in a file cabinet, then this may not be the fastest scanner to use and you might want to seek a more professional business solution.  If however, you keep up with scanning, and scan paper every week then, you should be happy with the scanner.

Scanner Likes

If you don't quite insert receipts straight, the software can square and center receipts electronically, in the view window (on screen).   The OCR ability is very good.  The more receipts you scan, the more accurate it gets.  Tom Thumb and Albertson's receipts, it classified as Safeway and Albertsons automatically, and scanned with 100% accuracy, capturing the Total, tax paid, store name, and date.  Gas station credit card receipts did very well.   Once you trained one receipt for RaceTrac, it recognized subsequent RaceTrac receipts.  Other gas stations, once you trained them (Shell, Chevron, QuickTrip), it recognized the vendor and had no difficulties.

Business Card Scanning

It did very well, depending on the business card.  Some cards fared terribly, and required manual corrections, especially those with scripted fonts and large text or logos.   For best performance insert the card perpendicular to the text on the card.   For example, since most business cards are "landscape", insert the card (face down), don't turn it 90 degrees and insert narrow edge first.  Zoom in on the photo above to see the proper orientation.  Business card scanning is a separate section of the software.   Business cards can be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook 2000 to 2003.

Problems encountered

Update - May 2, 2008: PCNS is making a change from buy to HOLD.  With version 2.75 of the Scanning software there are simply too many inconsistencies for me to recommend this product.  Scanning bank deposit receipts for example - sometimes they scan in full screen, sometimes they scan vertically, sometimes they scan in a reduced size with a large black bar on the side.  Although these are different receipts they are the same sized paper, and it should produce different results.   Continued scanner calibrations restores full size scanning for some receipts, but not others.

Version 3.0 Upgrade:  Version 3.0 of NeatReceipts software is available - there's a flash presentation which explains the new features.  However as of May 2, 2008 this is not a free upgrade, and many users are experiencing trouble with this upgrade.  PCNS has not tested version 3.0.   Furthermore, the Download links on their Customer Support page on the Neatreceipt.com website is broken.  This is troubling - could this company be in trouble?

Update - Aug 28, 2007: As described here I was experiencing the same problem; whereby a receipt scan artificially zoomed out and was augmented with a large black area equal to the length of the scan.  After recalibration and cleaning (with a special page provided with the unit) the problem did not resolve.  Going to the calibration and clicking Scan, Calibrate NeatReceipts Scanner, Restore Default Calibration Values (lower left corner of the dialog box), as described in the forum his resolved this issue.  As in my Aug 7 entry, below, I believe multi-page scanning tripped up the unit.

Update - Aug 7, 2007: Have scanned over 166 pieces of paper.  A new problem has cropped up (literally).   I am finding some receipts I scan have a reduced image of the receipt but to the right of it black border, about as wide of the receipt alongside the right.  I recalibrated the Scanner, and it helped it - evidently periodic re-calibration is necessary - I didn't notice this becoming a problem until I started using the multi-page scan function.  In any event, it seems to be returning to its normal self.

Wrinkled receipts gave the scanner feeder mechanism fits.  For example if you wadded a receipt and decided later to scan it, the feeder wouldn't always pickup the receipt.   Setting the receipt too close to the right edge sometimes caused the scanner to grab the paper and start skewing it sideways.  With a little practice I was able to feed it the way it liked, so it didn't do this.   The trick seems to be not inserting the receipt so it touches the right paper guide.  If the receipt was folded on the edge, or not torn straight (jagged) the scanner generally didn't like it and balked at pulling it through the unit.

Extremely faded receipts gave the scanner problems.  I found some badly faded thermal receipts from three years ago, and it didn't do well.  Now there are some manual controls to help it with the exposure, but my intent was to scan "as is."  If you have several hundred scans to accomplish, it'd be a real chore to manually adjust the exposure to hundreds of light receipts.  To the naked eye these receipts were almost close to being blind.  NeatReceipts Scanner did better with "light" receipts.   That's somewhere between normal and faded.  I had receipts from a dot matrix printed NTTA (Toll Road) and while they were light Neat Receipts didn't have a problem with them.

Neat Receipts Find Feature

The powerful feature is the Find function, though it really should be called "Filter."  The are numerous find features for locating information.  Once the find is in place, that's the permanent setting.  I seemed at a loss how to "unfilter" a particular view.  After visiting the tech support forums, I have to go to Tools, Find Fast Receipts, and select Find All Receipts.  When creating a folder, the folder appears at the top of the list, the software will not shift focus to the top of the list, and it will inherit the folder name of the topmost folder.  You then have to scroll up to the new folder just created and rename it.  Here's a better idea, do it like Windows Explorer, the new folder is highlighted and highlighted with cursor focus, allowing you to enter a name.  You cannot create subfolders, i.e. a folder within a folder.

Neat Receipts Forum Caveats and Limitations

Neat Receipts has many user comments on their website, relating to product issues, both good and bad.   The buyer should check this forum to make sure none of the limitations may interfere with how the buyer will use the Scanalyzer.  Information here is as of Aug 1, 2007:

Neat Receipts has problems scanning 30 page documents into one scan record, one user reported a software crash, and was unable to scan this number documents into a single record.

Be careful with setting a folder's Period End date.  One user who set it 100 years into the future crashed the software, significantly damaging his database, where he had to do a full restore.

One user commented that the Quickbooks export facility needed fine tuning.

Windows Vista and NeatReceipts are on the rough edge.  PCNS advice is don't try it.

Neatreceipts is only able to work on One Database.  If you have several businesses, or want to separate business from personal, you'd have to install NeatReceipts onto a second PC.

Neatreceipts can scan receipts up to 30", but the software reportedly chokes and kilters over.  A patch is available for long receipts, and a formal patch will be ready by October 2007.

Although the purpose of Neatreceipts is to allow you to dispose of paper and become paperless, PCNS feels it is prudent to continue filing manually, as NeatReceipts has forthcoming software updates.   Although the latest 2.75 version seems stable, and never crashed during my 3 week test, different users operate software differently, and in ways the software writers may have not expected.

Backup

From some user comments, they recommend backup often, preferably after each time you add receipts.  The database is very robust, however the software appears to be undergoing features enhancements and bug fixes.   It's possible you may input something in a way Neatreceipts doesn't expect it, which may result in a program error.   The chance of a program glitch wouldn't prevent me from buying Neatreceipts, however it would serve as a reminder to backup every day.  In a perfect world, you can shred and throw out the receipts you scan.   Due to the newness of the product, PCNS recommends keeping and filing the most critical, important receipts.   You should check with your Tax Professional about shredding paper documents and relying completely on electronic scans as proof of business or tax related expenses.

Overall Rating (so far): 2 out of 4 stars, from buy to DO NOT BUY!

I will not be testing Neatreceipts Export capabilities, as I no longer recommend or endorse this product.

Estimated Street Price: $199

Manufacturer's Web Site