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IrisPen Executive

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In theory, the IrisPen Executive USB pen scanner is a great tool for people who do research (even in non-English languages), database entry, and other tasks. It’s supposed to translate scans of text from the written page into editable electronic text, as well as scan barcodes.

In practice, the IrisPen Executive is only useful if you are very, very obsessive about detail, have more patience than the average person, and simply will not (or cannot) retype anything. Otherwise, this little device is just too hard to use, and its scans are often inaccurate. And because it costs a substantial $200 and needs coddling to produce even semi-accurate text, I can’t recommend it.

The Setup that Wouldn’t End

The IrisPen software is the product’s most significant problem. I installed and tested the IrisPen 5.0 software on three Macs (two Power Mac G4s and a PowerBook G4, all running Mac OS X 10.3.8). On one PowerBook and Power Mac, I experienced repeated system crashes and an unresponsive pen that had to be replaced. Also, after I installed the software on my PowerBook and disconnected it from its external display, part of the interface (the button palette) was gone without a trace. With help from IRIS tech support, I performed manual uninstalls of the software (the Uninstaller on the install CD didn’t work), and reinstalled it. I found I also needed to restart my Mac each time I wanted to use the pen. In addition, tech support told me that the pen must be connected directly to the Mac’s USB port, not a hub, despite what the manual says. (The manual also shows an older model of the pen that is very different from the current model.)

Surprisingly, I was able to set up the IrisPen Executive on a dual-800MHz Power Mac G4 with barely a problem—only a restart was required (the manual says a restart is not required).

How it (Sort Of) Worked

To use the IrisPen to scan directly into any application, you just launch the IrisPen software, switch to the destination application, and move the pen scanner (slowly, carefully) across the text you want to scan. The IrisPen software shows you what the pen scanner is scanning, so you can adjust the resulting image’s brightness or other attributes, and this was helpful when scanning text on darker backgrounds. The software also has a palette of 10 buttons that should make it easy to change settings, but the button icons are inscrutable, as are some of the settings. For example, the dialog for programming the pen buttons shows a tiny picture of the pen with an arrow pointing to the button the user is programming.

Three features differentiate this version from the other IrisPen product, the $130 IrisPen Express: It can scan small barcodes (that are not behind a reflective surface like acrylic or glass); it lets you scan multiple lines before sending the text out to an application (which worked well); and it can use Apple’s Text-to-Speech function to read aloud what you’re scanning so you don’t have to look at your display often (this was a great feature, when the scan was correct).

Scanning Accuracy

About 50 percent of my scans came through correctly, or correctly enough to clean up easily, on the first try. (You can expect to do some manual correction of the resulting editable text.) The other scans produced a gobbledy-gook of characters, or nothing at all. Often, I had to scan the same text a few times to have the software recognize it. As I used it longer and refined my technique, the accuracy got a bit better.

Properly aligning the intended scan in the pen’s sensor forces you into a hunched posture over the IrisPen, but sitting up straight can really decrease the accuracy. And the text must be no larger than the pen’s ½-inch sensor. To the pen’s credit, it scanned many different fonts with no decrease in accuracy.

Hand-printed numerals scanned properly at about 60 percent accuracy overall—nothing to write home about. And if you want to scan barcodes often, you’re better off with a dedicated barcode scanner.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

I can think of some applications where even 50 percent accuracy would save me a lot of time and effort. But besides accuracy problems, the IrisPen Executive’s troublesome software and out-of-date manual are tall barriers to overcome. This product needs an overhaul before it can work well for most users.

[ Jennifer Berger has been Macworld ‘s Senior Reviews Editor since 2001. ]

IrisPen ExecutiveYou can see what you’re scanning in the preview window while scanning text into another program such as Microsoft Word. This scan needed to be done very slowly and carefully, and the text looks all right except for a couple of small errors.
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