Business card scanners for the iPhone: Which app is best?

Digital business cards may be the next big thing (see previous post) but until things shake down and some standard platforms bubble up, the hard copy printed business card is a fact of life.

That said, how do I meld the old-school business card with mobile platforms, smartphones and digital content?

If you've got an iPhone, you have a lot of options. A search on the App Store brings up more than a dozen card readers - some with free or "lite" versions that give you a taste of the app and, they hope, entice you to pop for somewhere between $3 and $10.

So where should you put your money?

First key: You need an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 with a higher megapixel camera and a zoom capability. Some apps say you can use an iPhone 3G with a camera accessory, other apps let you import photos taken with a digital camera or scanned. But for real ease of use, have a later version iPhone.

Second key: The quality of the photo YOU take is the single most important determinant of how good the character recognition will be. Good lighting is important (shadows definitely screw up the OCR).

Third key: Boring POCs (Plain Old Cards) work best. Fancy, highly designed glossy cards are more difficult to recognize. Information like the company name in a designed logo is hard to recognize and often doesn't come over. A white business card with clearly printed text (no pictures) on it will be recognized almost 100 percent.

To find out which is best, I downloaded the limited version of five applications and scanned two cards: a glossy card with reverse text and a photo and a plain white card with black text, a logo and clearly defined type. Most scanning applications today do more than just character recognition and exports to your contacts app. Some have online backup, some have card holder libraries, some let you make phone calls or send SMS from links from the business card itself, one can even automatically send your business card and a note to each new contact whose card you import.

But first and foremost you've got to have good character recognition and field organization.

World Card Mobile ($5.99) did a middling job on both cards. On a 1-5 scale based on number of fields recognized and number of characters corrected translated, I give them a 2.5. One puzzling error - it translated all the l's as f's, so Milltown came out Mifftown.

CamCard ($5.99) did slightly better with both cards and has an anti-shake function that waits until the image is stabilized to take the photo - a pretty nifty feature that none of the others had. On OCR alone, I give it a 3.5. Some other features like the card holder, multi-language support, ability to call, text or email directly from the stored business card were all nice touches.

ABBYY ($9.99) was perfect with the standard card and better than most with the glossy, highly designed card. OCR rating alone probably nets it a 4 rating on my scale. ABBYY lets you select what contact fields you want to use and add new contact fields on the fly. It also has multi-language support.

ScanBizCards ($6.99) had the ability to crop the business card to remove some of the extraneous areas and focus more tightly on the data you want recognized. There are also some nice touches like a link-up to LinkedIN, Skype integration, Web sync lets you create an account and backup your business cards online, and a rudimentary CRM function will even remind you to follow up with new contacts. But on the overall OCR test, it came up high (not perfect) on the plain card, but way off on the designed card. An overall rating of 3.5

Card2Contacts ($4.99). This is really a shame because they have some cool functions including a split frame that can let you drag and drop recognized text into the correct fields. But the OCR engine was the worst of them all, recognizing no fields on the glossy card and only a middling job on the plain white card. So overall on OCR alone I gave it a 2.

What's the bottom line? I am torn between the clarity of ABBYY (after all the other features are only helpful if you've got the card accurately read into your system) and the many more mobile features of ScanBizCards. As business gets more mobile, my iPhone and other linked devices like my future iPad, will become my main business tools.

In the final analysis, OCR is the reason why you get an OCR application. So I'm popping for the big bucks - $9.99 - for ABBYY. Have you got another app you like for business cards? We'd like to hear your opinions.