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KELLNER: Mac users can keep receipts Neat, mostly

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

There may be a few dour souls who actually enjoy gathering up the receipts from their trips, pasting or taping them to paper, and assembling the package for the legions in accounting. I'm not one of them.

And you might not be one, either, which makes a product called Neat Receipts all the more interesting: The scanner-and-software combo is now available for Mac users, at $179, which is $30 more than the list price of the Windows version.

This is one of those rare instances when the hardware component is as appealing as the software. Usually, a piece of hardware is just that: utilitarian. Here, the scanner is small (large enough to let a letter or legal-sized sheet of paper pass through) and compact and powered through a computer's USB port. I can take this puppy on the road, carrying case included, and not have to worry about yet another power adapter.

Beyond the hardware, though, is the software. Neat Receipts has long been available for Windows users, with Mac-heads (now up to 10 percent of U.S. notebook buyers) on the outside looking in. The new version changes this.

The Mac version of Neat Receipts is still in its early stages. The idea is to scan, "read," or, actually, perform optical character recognition" of a receipt, and then take the receipt data and fill in categories then used for creating a report: vendor, item, cost, sales tax, method of payment, etc. You then can print out the whole thing and, if it all works, have something resembling the old paste-pot exercise, but legible and with numbers that add up correctly.

Once you install the software, connecting the Neat Receipts scanner to the computer brings up the opportunity to calibrate the device. This involves passing a glossy sheet of white paper with one line of printed words through the device, to make sure it gets the proper balance for scanning. Once calibrated, you're ready to go.

I had mixed results with the scanning process. Just about every receipt created an image, but only about half the receipts were read. I'll admit, I'd put some very old ones through, receipts printed using a tiny thermal printer like you get from a gas pump. But even a rather bold-faced receipt from the Delaware Turnpike offered a challenge.

For now, I'm going to chalk this up to this being early days for the Mac software; as the product matures, it'll refine features and add some. Moreover, if I can get a scan and have to annotate it manually, I figure I'm still ahead of the game. The resulting spreadsheet-like report has running totals, I can categorize expenses, and have report components that are legible. Again, I have hopes for a positive evolution here, just as has happened on the Windows side. There, scanned receipt records contain more information such as the participants and purpose of a business lunch, and there are more categories to select. Also, the latest version of the Neat Receipts Windows software lets you scan business cards and export the information to a contact manager such as Microsoft Outlook, something else that road warriors will appreciate.

By Mark Kellner.