ABBYY FineReader Review: The Best Way to OCR Paper Documents?

Review of: ABBYY FineReader

Use: Scan Paper Docs, Convert and Edit PDFs

Effectiveness

Accurate OCR and export

Price

One-off purchase starting from $119.99

Ease of Use

Easy-to-follow user interface

Support

Phone, email and online. Documentation is a bit lacking

What I like:

  • Excellent optical character recognition of scanned documents
  • Accurate reproduction of the layout and formatting of the original document
  • Intuitive interface that didn't have me looking for the manual

What I dislike:

  • The Mac version lags the Windows version
  • Documentation for the Mac version is a little lacking

Summary: ABBYY FineReader Pro is widely considered the best OCR app out there. It can recognize blocks of text in scanned documents, and accurately convert them to typed text. It can then export the resulting document to a range of popular file formats including PDF and Microsoft Word, retaining the original layout and formatting.

If the accurate conversion of scanned documents and books is most important to you, then you won't do better than FineReader Pro. However, the Mac version of the software lacks the ability to edit the text and collaborate with others and the app does not include any markup tools. If you are looking for a more rounded application that includes those features, one of the apps in the alternatives section of this review may be a better fit.

Why You Should Trust Me

My name is Adrian Try. I've been using computers since 1988, and Macs full time since 2009. In my quest to go paperless, I purchased a ScanSnap S1300 document scanner and converted thousands of pieces of paper into searchable PDFs.

That was possible because the scanner included ABBYY FineReader for ScanSnap, a built-in optical character recognition software application that can turn a scanned image into typed text. By setting up profiles in ScanSnap Manager, ABBYY is automatically able to kick in and OCR my documents as soon as they are scanned.

I've been very satisfied with the results, and now I'm able to find the exact document I'm looking for with a simple Spotlight search. I have been looking forward to trying the standalone version of ABBYY FineReader Pro for Mac. ABBYY supplied an NFR code so I could evaluate the full version of the program, and i have thoroughly tested all of its features over the last few days.

What did I discover? The content in the summary box above will give you a good idea of my findings and conclusions. Read on for the details about everything I liked and disliked about FineReader Pro.

What Is ABBYY FineReader?

ABBYY FineReader will take a scanned document, perform optical character recognition (OCR) on it to convert the picture of a page into actual text, and convert the result to a usable document type, including PDF, Microsoft Word, and more. ABBYY has their own OCR technology, which they have been developing since 1989, and is considered by many industry leaders as the best out there.

OCR is FineReader's strong point. If you have other priorities, such as creating, editing and annotating PDFs, check out the alternatives section of this review for a more suitable app.

FineReader is available for both Windows and Mac. The Mac version is a fairly recent addition to ABBYY's lineup, and lags the Windows version. While we Mac users are still on version 12 of FineReader, Windows users are enjoying version 14 which adds many useful features including:

  • editing of PDFs and scanned documents.
  • collaboration features including comments and track changes.
  • compare documents.
  • redaction.

Nevertheless, FineReader for Mac 12 is a strong app, and the best out there if you are looking for the highest quality OCR, and exported documents that closely match the format and layout of the original documents.

Is FineReader Free?

No, though they do have a 30 day trial version so you can thoroughly test the program before purchase. The trial version contains all of the features of the full version.

FineReader 14 for Windows costs $199.99 (Standard), it allows you to convert PDFs and scans, edit and comment PDF files. For SMBs (small-medium businesses) who need to compare documents and/or automate conversion, ABBYY also offers a Corporate license at $399.99.

FineReader Pro for Mac is available from ABBYY's website for $119.99 USD (and it costs a bit less if you upgrade from older version, $79.99), and the Mac App Store for ABBYY FineReader OCR Pro $119.99.

ABBYY FineReader Tutorials

The best place to find basic reference for the program is in the program's help files. Select Help / FineReader Help from the menu, and you'll find an introduction to the program, a getting started guide and other helpful information.

Other than a brief FAQ, ABBYY doesn't provide a manual or user guide for FineReader Pro for Mac. The FineReader Version 12 User Guide may be of some help, but is for the Windows version of the app, which has a number of significant differences.

Here are some helpful third party resources that will help you understand ABBYY's OCR, and how to use FineReader:

ABBYY FineReader: What's In It For You?

The software is all about turning scanned documents into searchable text. I'll cover its main features in the following three sections, first exploring what the app offers and then sharing my personal take.

Please note that my testing was based on the Mac version and the screenshots below are based on that version as well, but I'll reference the findings of the Windows version from other authoritative magazines in industry.

1. OCR Your Scanned Documents

FineReader Pro is able to transform paper documents, PDFs and digital photos of documents into editable and searchable text, and even fully formatted documents. The process of recognizing the characters in an image and turning them into actual text is called OCR, or optical character recognition. You can learn more from this Wikipedia page.

If you need to convert printed documents into digital files, or convert a printed book into an ebook, this can save a lot of typing time. Also, if your office is going paperless, applying OCR to scanned documents will make them searchable, which can be very useful when searching for the right document among hundreds of them.

When Edward Mendohlson of PC Magazine first reviewed FineReader 12 (for Windows) back in 2014, he was impressed — again. He had consistently found it the best OCR app out there. "OCR is a software category where there's one clear winner and everything else is an also-ran. Year after year, Abbyy FineReader gets our Editors' Choice for optical character recognition software, and year after year, it gets even better."

So I was keen to evaluate the program's ability to recognize text on paper. First I scanned a school note using my ScanSnap S1300 scanner, then imported the resulting JPG file into FineReader using the Import Images to New Document option on the New… dialogue box.

FineReader looks for blocks of text within the document, and OCRs them.

From what I can tell at this stage, the document looks perfect.

For a second test, I took some photos of four pages out of a travel book with my iPhone, and imported them into FineReader in the same way. Unfortunately the photos were a little unclear, as well as being quite skewed.

I selected all four images (using Command-click). Unfortunately they were imported in the wrong order, but that's something we can fix later. Alternatively I could have added the pages one at a time.

I'm sure that such a low-quality "scan" will present a much greater challenge. We'll find out when we come to export the document — the Mac version doesn't allow you to see it within the document.

My personal take:

FineReader's strength is its fast and accurate optical character recognition. This is widely recognized in most of the other reviews I have read, and ABBYY claims an accuracy of 99.8%. During my experiments I found FineReader was able to process and OCR a document in less than 30 seconds.

2. Rearrange the Pages and Areas of an Imported Document

While you can't edit the text of document using the Mac version of FineReader, we are able to make other changes, including reordering pages. That's fortunate, since our travel document has the pages in the wrong order. By dragging and dropping the page previews in the left panel, we can fix that.

The full-page image doesn't look quite right, due to the curvature of the book when I took the photo. I tried a few options, and cropping the page gave it the cleanest look.

The second page has some yellowing down the right margin. It's actually part of the original layout on paper, but I don't want it included in the exported version of the document. It doesn't have a green or pink border around it, so it hasn't been recognized as an image. So as long as we export without the background (scanned) image included, it isn't a concern.

The fourth page is the same, however the third page does include borders around some of the yellow design.

I can select them, and press delete to remove them.

I can draw a rectangle around the page number and change it to a Picture Area. Now it will be exported.

My personal take:

While the Windows version of FineReader has a range of editing and collaboration features, including redaction, commenting, track changes and document comparison, the Mac version currently lacks these. If those features are important to you, you'll need to look elsewhere. However, FineReader Pro for Mac will allow you to rearrange, rotate, add and delete pages, and make adjustments to areas where the program recognizes text, tables and images.

3. Convert Scanned Documents to PDFs and Editable Document Types

Besides excellent OCR, FineReader is also known for its ability to export to a range of formats, retaining the original layout and formatting. "Exporting as PDF is only the beginning. You can also export to Word (.docx), including four layout options (exact copy, editable copy, formatted text, plain text), plus options to retain page numbers, headers and footers; keep line breaks and hyphenation; keep page breaks; keep pictures; keep text and background colors; high line uncertain characters; and keep line numbers. (All of those options are also available for RTF and ODT/OpenOffice.)" (TJ Luoma, Engadget)

I started by exporting the school note to PDF.

There are a number of export modes. In his review, TJ Luoma describes the most popular two:

"‘Text under the page image' is what most people usually expect and want from an OCR app: the OCR'd document looks the same on the screen, but you can copy/paste from it into any other application. However, the option for ‘Text over the page image' will allow you to keep the formatting close to the original, but edit the results, if needed, and see it on the screen."

I wanted to see how close FineReader could get to layout and formatting to the original document, so I used the ‘Text and pictures only option", which will not include the original scanned image.

The exported PDF is perfect. The original scan was very clean and of high resolution. Quality input is the best way to ensure quality output. I highlighted some text to show that OCR has been applied, and the document contains actual text.

I also exported the document to an editable file type. I don't have Microsoft Office installed on this computer, to I exported to OpenOffice's ODT format instead.

Again, the results are perfect. Note that text boxes have been used wherever text was identified in FineReader with an "area".

Next I tried a lower quality scan—the four pages from the travel book.

Despite the low quality of the original scan, the results are very good.

But not perfect. Notice in the right margin: "The cycling through Tuscany is just hilly enough to justify cttOraftssaety mealk."

This should say "…justify extra hearty meals." It's not hard to see where the error came from. The original scan is very unclear here.

Similarly, on the final page, the title and much of the text is garbled.

Again, the original scan here is very poor.

There's a lesson here. If you are looking for maximum accuracy in optical character recognition, make sure scan the document with as much quality as possible.

My personal take:

FineReader Pro is able to export scanned and OCRed documents to a range of popular formats, including PDF, Microsoft and OpenOffice file types. These exports are able to maintain the original layout and formatting of the original document.

Reasons Behind My Reviews and Ratings

Effectiveness: 5/5

FineReader is widely considered the best OCR app out there. My tests confirmed that it is able to accurately recognize text in scanned documents, and reproduce the layout and format of those documents when exporting to a range of file types. If accurate conversion of scanned documents to text is your priority, this is the best app out there.

Price: 4.5/5

Its price compares favorably with other top-tier OCR products, including Adobe Acrobat Pro. Less expensive options are available, including PDFpen and PDFelement, but if you're after the best, ABBYY's product is worth the money.

Ease of Use: 4.5/5

I found FineReader's interface easy to follow, and was able to complete all tasks without referring to documentation. To get the most out of the program, additional research is worthwhile, and FineReader's help is fairly comprehensive and well laid out.

Support: 4/5

Besides the application's help documentation, a FAQ section is available on ABBYY's website. However, compared with the company's Windows apps, documentation is lacking. Phone, email and online support is available for FineReader during business hours, though I didn't have the need to contact support during my evaluation of the program.

Alternatives to ABBYY FineReader

FineReader may be the best OCR app out there, but it's not for everyone. For some people, it will be more than they need. TJ Luoma from Engadget explains:

"If you are just trying to clear off your physical desk of office office or household paperwork (mail, bills, memos, letters, etc.) then you probably just want to drop them all on your scanner and have them saved to the computer as fast as possible so you can shred/recycle the originals and then get on with the rest of your day. If that is what you want to do, don't buy FineReader Pro. Instead… buy PDFpen."

If it's not for you, here are some alternatives:

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC (Mac, Windows): Adobe Acrobat Pro was the first app for reading, editing and OCRing PDF documents, and is still one of the best options. However, it is quite expensive. An annual subscription costs $179.88. Read our Acrobat Pro review.

Smile PDFpen (Mac): PDFpen is a popular Mac PDF editor with optical character recognition, and costs $74.95, or $124.95 for the Pro version. Read our PDFpen review.

Wondershare PDFelement (Mac, Windows): PDFelement is another affordable OCR-capable PDF editor, costing $59.95 (Standard) or $99.95 (Professional). Read our PDFelement review.

DEVONthink Pro Office (Mac): DEVONthink ($149.95) is a full-featured solution for those who want to go paperless in their home or office. It uses ABBYY's OCR engine to convert scanned documents to text on the fly.

Conclusion

Do you want to accurately convert a paper book into an ebook? Do you have a pile of paper documents that you want to convert to searchable computer documents? Then ABBYY FineReader is for you. It is unsurpassed at performing optical character recognition and exporting the result to PDF, Microsoft Word, or other formats.

But if you are on a Mac machine and value features like the ability to edit and markup PDFs, the app may disappoint. One of the alternatives, like Smile PDFpen, will meet your needs more completely, and save you money at the same time.

Adrian Try
 

I'm an Aussie writer, musician, cyclist and tech geek. I love exploring new apps for my iMac and MacBook Air, iPad Pro and iPhone. In my spare time I'm intent on creating the perfect media center. I'm here to pass on my most useful software discoveries to you.

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