There are quite a few choices on iTunes for apps that can turn images of documents, book pages, business cards and more into digital, editable text. Our favourite is TextGrabber for its ease of use, accuracy and reasonable price.
- Converts images of text to actual text (of course)
- Does not require an internet connection to operate
- Browsable document history
- Use an existing photo or take one with your built-in camera
- Recognises text in many, many languages (although you have to tell it which language you want)
- Ability to crop photos so they only contain text and not, for example, your fingers
- Save recognised text to the clipboard, send it in an email message, or search for it on the web
TextGrabber pretty much just takes a photo of text (whether it comes from your built-in camera or elsewhere) and turns it into digital, editable text. It has a few other features (described above), but basically it has that one function and that’s about it. What makes it great is that it’s generally very accurate and achieves that accuracy very quickly. It’s not a complex app with a lot of features, but if your primary goal is turning a scanned document, book, or other source into text (or using your phone as the scanner) you’ll be well-served by TextGrabber.
Other apps have more features to try to improve the accuracy of the OCR process. While TextGrabber doesn’t seem to need these features to do a good job, sometimes the picture you end up with isn’t perfect and it would be useful to be able to adjust it. TextGrabber offers a cropping tool, but some other apps will let you set the perspective and contrast to try and create the best source image for OCR. While these features don’t seem to be necessary, they might be useful in certain situations. That said, there really isn’t anything to complain about. 100 per cent accuracy 100 per cent of the time would be nice, but we’re talking about OCR on your phone. The fact that it can even come close to 100 per cent is pretty amazing, seeing as desktop software has about the same level of accuracy. The important thing is that you provide the best source image possible. This generally means a flat page with clear text in sufficient, even lighting. If you can do your part and take a good picture, TextGrabber seems to have no trouble doing its job.
There are a lot of OCR apps, some of which use the same ABBYY mobile OCR engine as TextGrabber. Cost varies and so do feature sets. Many are only geared towards scanning business cards, for example, but here we’re dealing with apps that are simply geared towards recognising text in an image and converting it to digital form. Here are a few others we tested that are worth a look.
ImageToText is a free app and was also very accurate in our tests. What’s a little strange about it is that you seem to need to email your scan or send it to Evernote in order to get the text-based version. If that works for you, the app works quite well and doesn’t cost you anything.
Prizmo, on the other hand, is rather expensive ($10.49). What you get for your money is a very comprehensive OCR app that is also pretty accurate. We didn’t get results as accurate as TextGrabber or ImageToText, but it was by a small margin and could have easily been a result of a source photo that just wasn’t as good by the same margin. (We used the same page in tests but took new photos with each app as each app had varied requirements and preferences for the camera.) If you want something that can handle regular text as well as business cards, bills, and whiteboards, Prizmo is a really nice option. It will also read recognised text back to you, which certainly has its useful applications as well.
It’s also worth mentioning SmartScanner ($0.99) because it doesn’t appear to work at all. We’re not sure if this is a bug in the current version or what, exactly, but it failed to recognise any text we threw at it. It seems to know where text is, and provides a really nice overlay to demonstrate it recognises it when you’re taking a photo, but everything we photographed was converted into a garbled string of characters. You should avoid this one.
Lifehacker’s App Directory is a new and growing directory of recommendations for the best applications and tools in a number of given categories, each week with a different focus.