Tools Of The Trade: You need never lose track of a contact again

The specialised scanners that allow you to put business cards on your PC

Few of us enjoy typing details of new contacts into our computers. Business card scanners are designed to handle this boring but necessary chore.

Two companies dominate the market for personal business card scanners: Iris from Belgium and US company Corex. They set out to solve the same problem, but approach it in slightly different ways.

Corex's CardScan Executive 600cx is the slicker of the two. It is sturdy and heavier than it looks, but small enough to sit on a deskwithout taking up too much space. The Iris Business Card Reader II is lighter and feels more flimsy. On the plus side, it is so light that you would hardly notice if you packed it with a laptop for a business trip. Both scanners draw power from a computer's USB port, so they don't need a bulky external power adapter.

But aesthetics are far less important than performance. They only have to do one job, but they must do it well. It is here that the differences matter most.

The CardScan has better software, with an index designed to mimic a card index. Install the software, hook up the scanner, and pop in a business card: within a few seconds, the contact details appear on the screen.

The CardScan has a good batch function for inputting groups of cards, and it scans quickly. The software can share information with a desktop computer's email program or with a handheld PC, or store contacts on the web. In short, it covers most bases.

In use, however, it had some problems. The CardScan lost its connection to the host computer twice during a 15-minute test, though this irritation could be a problem with the test unit. And, although the CardScan's bundled software is easy to use, it was less flexible than it could be when it came to sharing information with other programs.

Although the software supports Microsoft's VCF format for exchanging contact details, you cannot just drag and drop a record - or a group of records - on to the desktop to make copies and then use them wherever you want.

The Business Card Scanner II is not as slick, but we preferred it. The installation software throws up a Windows incompatibility warning with the XP operating system (it's OK to ignore this) and the layout - based on a card wallet - is not as neat as the CardScan's.

But in our tests, the Iris scanner was better at recognising information on business cards, and it was far easier to adjust the settings to cope with hard-to-read characters or unusual card designs. Its batch working was not as good as the CardScan's, and for best results you have to tell the scanner your contact's country. But sharing contact details with other software was quite easy.

Neither scanner is perfect, but nor are they expensive. The lighter weight, lower cost and Mac option of the Iris gave it the edge for us, but it was a close race. Using either device is hugely preferable to typing in contact details.


Iris Business Card Scanner II

Rating: 4 out of 5

Corex CardScan Executive 600cx

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Prices: CardScan Executive 600cx, approx £180; IRIS Business Card Scanner II, approx £140. Both available from computer retailers.