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Scanners are handy ways to get information from paper into your computer. However spreadsheets are highly structured which makes things very difficult.

Can you recommend a good software program for scanning (I have an Epson 1650) and converting documents to Excel 2007? My Epson software will not do this.

No, I can't. And it's not because I don't want to. What you're asking for is very very difficult to do well, if at all. It all has to do with exactly what it means to scan something, and what it means to be an Excel spreadsheet.

The most important thing to realize is that a scan of a document is almost exactly the same as taking a picture of the document. So what you end up with is the equivalent of a ".jpg" picture of the document - even if the scanning software doesn't actually save it before performing other tasks.

A representation of a 'picture' of the letter 'A'
A representation of a 'picture' of a light green letter 'A'

A digital picture of a letter is just a collection of individual pixels that are turned on in the appropriate color in the pattern of the original letter.

The second most important thing to realize is that applications such as Word or Excel don't operate on pictures. They operate on documents in specific formats and with data arranged in specific ways. So rather than operating on a picture of the letters ABCD, Word operates on an internal representation of the letter A, the letter B and so on. This way Word, and applications like it, make it easy to edit - say replacing or deleting one of the letters, and reformatting the entire document if needed to reflect the effects of that change.

In Word and Excel and countless other applications, the letter "A" is represented by the number 65.

So the first problem is converting those pictures of letters into the computer's internal representation of the equivalent letter.

Software to solve this problem exists, and is called "optical character recognition" or OCR software. These programs, when given a picture of a page with text, will analyze the image and produce a document with the program's best guess as to what those letters are and how they were organized. Many scanners nowadays actually come with basic OCR software included.

"... understanding just how that data should be placed into which cells on a spreadsheet is beyond the ability of most OCR software."

The problem with OCR is that it's never 100% accurate. In fact, it's often far less than that meaning that any OCR'd document will still required a fair amount of cleanup once it's been converted. OCR also has a particularly difficult time with formatting, which can confuse it, or can just be lost.

And, of course, the quality of OCR is also dependent on the quality of the original document scan.

But, after all's said and done, OCR is often a good first step to converting a scanned document back into some kind of editable form.

But what about spreadsheets like Excel?

The problem with spreadsheets is that they contain more than just text. The rows and columns represent structure. OCR software is typically not able to determine the structure of a document from just a scanned image. Some do try, as in the case of trying to determine paragraphs in a more traditional text document.

Unfortunately, scanning and converting the letters and numbers is one thing, but understanding just how that data should be placed into which cells on a spreadsheet is beyond the ability of most OCR software. In fact, I'm not currently aware of any that can do so. (Check the comments to this article, as I'm sure readers will add suggestions.)

Even as OCR technology continues to improve, I'd fully expect there to be spreadsheet based documents that even the best software would never be able to "understand".

My recommendation today is to OCR the document into a the software's best guess at a regular word processing document, and then spend the time to create your new spreadsheet by hand, copy/pasting the data in the ways that you know the spreadsheet should be organized. It is work, but you'll get the spreadsheet you expect.

Article C2966 - March 19, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

March 23, 2007 10:38 PM

ABBYY Finereader Professional Edition (I have used v8) makes a good job of scanning and converting columnar data automatically into Excel format where the rows and columns are well defined (ie with horizontal/vertical lines in the original document). If they are not well defined the software enables you to put in "separators" yourself - something that can be done quite quickly. You can also load .pdf documents into it, OCR them and also output to Excel format. However, regardless of the source, once loaded in Excel all numbers are treated as text and use of one of Excel's text to number features is necessary to convert the numerical information into numbers.

Hope this helps

Robert Sorem
August 1, 2008 11:53 AM

I am interested in David's comment on3/23/07. I want to scan an Excel document with vert. and horiz. data that is calculated by formulae in the document. Will the scanned in document include the fomulae?

January 22, 2009 10:53 AM

Robert, man that takes the cake. and the pie too. thanks for making my day. And will send you a new cupholder for your terminal.

roland m
February 12, 2009 6:19 AM

now i have to check if my scanner came with ocr, thanks for the tip..

February 14, 2009 2:49 PM

I had a Excel spreadsheet that I had printed out years ago but I couldn't find the file on my computer. I did have a copy of the printout and I just tried using ABBYY "Scan to Office" program and it worked great! It's a lot cheaper than the ABBYY Finereader Professional, too!

October 19, 2009 10:49 PM

Another tip I have used successfully is to draw the vertical lines with a ruler and a pen in the document (the original or a copy). Then, after scanning it into word it is easily recognizable as a table, and then you can paste it into excel.

Alva Lichtenstein
January 5, 2010 12:51 PM

how do i scan a document into my computer?

March 31, 2010 12:03 PM

Abbyy Scan to Office is a great little program but you are not able to buy it anywhere. Abbyy in their wisdom have discontinued a perfectly usable program for everyday people and have replaced it with another program that does not have a trial period and cost $50 more..

August 22, 2010 7:58 PM

OCR softwares are everywhere nowadays. I prefer online ones they don't need installation and most of them are free, like this one: Free OCR.

January 21, 2011 6:44 AM

i have tiff image and fonts are in French script Mt and i tried so many software. can u help me.

April 11, 2011 2:55 AM

i have tiff image and fonts are in French script Mt and i tried so many software. can u help me.

August 30, 2012 6:07 AM

Progress has been made here, but it's not cheap.
ReadIRIS Pro is about $140, but it has a "table" function. (not affiliated, just found it, tried the free trial - it works!) After scanning, it gives you an image with everything it 'thinks' you want - you can change that by deleting its selections, choosing the table icon (pink) and re-scanning, and saving in Excel. Rows and columns, baby !!!

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