How To Use Your Camera Phone To Scan and Fax Documents

Have you ever needed to send a document to a colleague but only had a paper copy and no scanner or fax machine? A new breed of programs and services aim to turn your digital camera or camera-equipped cell phone into a mobile document-sending workhorse.
Published: Jan 6, 2008
Author: Jordan Running

My office is about as virtual as it can get, and for a long time I didn't even have a printer or scanner. Once in awhile, though, somebody would need some document signed and faxed or scanned and emailed right away. In those cases a service like Qipit would have been invaluable. Qipit is a free, web-based service that takes photos you send to it, cleans them up, and then emails or faxes them to whomever you want. That may sound benign, but the "cleans them up" part is what's significant: Qipit specializes in taking grainy, off-center, inconsistently-lit, tinted-by-artifical-light photos of 2D documents or whiteboard and turning them into clean, legible scans before sending them on to their intended recipient. And by virtue of its design you can use Qipit entirely from any cell phone equipped with a camera and picture messaging or email.

Getting started is easy. Just head over to Qipit.com and click on the Sign-Up! button. Enter your information to create your account. You'll have to confirm your email address by clicking on the link in the email they send you. Once you're signed up you can send emails or SMS messages to copy@qipit.com or (for color documents) color@qipit.com and attached photos will automatically be converted into PDF documents, added to your Qipit account, and emailed to you. If you want to send Qipit photos from another email address, you'll need to add that address to your account as well, which can be done on the Email Settings tab of your My Account page on Qipit.com.

Qipit original document Qipit scanned document

It's really just that simple, but there's more you can do with Qipit. In addition to scanning, I promised you that Qipit could email and fax documents to your colleagues, and it can. To email a document to someone, just include their email address in the body of your message to Qipit. You can enter multiple recipients if you wish. To send a fax, put the recipient's fax number in the body of the message. Whatever you put in the message's subject will become the title of the document, and if your document has multiple pages you can snap pictures of them and attach them to the message in order and Qipit will roll them up into one multi-page PDF. And there are a few more things you can do at the Qipit web site, including upload photos from your computer, merge separate documents into single PDFs, rotate documents, make them public so you can share them with just a link, and get a code snippet to link to them with a thumbnail on your blog.

I'm sure you're asking, though: How's the quality? Well, naturally that depends on a number of factors, but let me put it this way: Your Qipit-enhanced documents won't be anywhere near as pretty as the output from your average 1200 dpi desk scanner, but they'll look at least as good as your average fax. There are, of course, a few things you can do to improve your results:

  1. Good light. If you have a good flash on your camera, use it. If not, place your document in the most well-lit area you can find. Daylight is the best, but obviously not always convenient, so just turn on as many lights as you can, and try not to cast any shadows on your document.

  2. Cut down on clutter. Holding your document up with one hand and snapping a photo with the other probably won't yield the best results. Qipit works best when it can easily detect the edges of your document, so lay it on a uniformly-colored and -lit surface or stick it to a blank wall or bulletin board. While you're at it, try to smooth out the paper--Qipit can compensate for curves and folds, but only to a certain point.

  3. Tweak your camera settings.If you're using a camera phone, check its settings to make sure you're sending the highest-quality photo to Qipit you can. Many phones will automatically shrink or otherwise reduce the quality of photos before it sends them to save bandwidth, and if you can you should prevent it from doing so. Qipit prefers photos that are between 1 and 3 megapixels.

Qipit is, like I said, a great, free service, but there are two small caveats: First, if you send pictures to Qipit from your mobile phone, you'll be billed by your mobile carrier the same as you would for any picture message or email. Second, a free Qipit account will only accomodate 100 documents, so if you've reached your limit and want to scan more, you'll have to delete some old ones first.

Other options

While Qipit is most novel and useful, it's far from the only player in its field. If you don't find that Qipit meets your needs here's a few more services and products to check out:

  • ScanR, much like Qipit, accepts photos from mobile phones and turns them into documents. ScanR has a Java-based program that can be installed on many phones and also has specialized business card scanning capability. At the time of this writing, ScanR is down for maintenance.

  • Comombo is a program that runs on Nokia and SonyEricsson phones that does the work of Qipit without the need to send photos to an intermediary web server. The software is free, but the fax service is not--it comes with 10 free faxes after which more must be purchased.

  • Snapter is a program for Windows that gives you a few more options. It's free to use for 14 days, after which it will put a small Snapter watermark on your documents, after which you can buy the Lite version, which will remove the watermarks from documents and business cards, for $20, or the Full version, which gets rid of all the watermarks, for $49. It also has a special book-scanning mode that compensates for the curvature of an open book.

About Jordan Running

Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.

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