Computhink Inc.’s The Paperless Office 2.5


The struggle to remove desk clutter continues with Computhink Inc.’s The Paperless Office 2.5. The US$199 stand-alone version of the company’s document and image management package offers a single interface through which you can index and annotate documents–including scanned papers, e-mail, faxes, and digital images–and then file them in a searchable SQL database.

Clean Off Your Desk–Almost

Unfortunately, we found The Paperless Office complicated enough that ultimately the program may do little to help ease your paper burden, especially when compared with a less-expensive, easier-to-use, and lighter package such as ScanSoft’s PaperPort Deluxe. The Paperless Office 2.5 is based on the original enterprise edition intended for large corporations, and its convoluted interface and design reflects that. In large offices, you might expect that multiple users would be assigned separate document management tasks: image capture, indexing, quality checking, and so forth. TPO mimics that process, setting each of those management functions into a separate module, or “Desk.” But skipping between modules in a single-user setting turned the seemingly simple task of scanning and archiving documents into an unnecessarily cumbersome ordeal.

The interface wasn’t particularly friendly, either. We found no wizards to help us get started, and no drag-and-drop functions to ease our passage through the program. Deep in the Quick-Start Guide, we learned that first-time operators must use the Administration Desk–from which you can configure the program–to set the number of index levels, or subfolders, in the database. If you decide later that you need more or fewer levels, that’s too bad–you’ll have to uninstall and reinstall the program in order to change those settings. Furthermore, in another odd twist, you must store files only at the last index level in your hierarchy, which can be inconvenient when you’re filing a document.

TPO begins to show its better side in the Capture Desk, where you can acquire images from any TWAIN- or ISIS-compatible scanner; add “sticky note” annotations, text, and drawings; and perform touch-ups such as color and contrast adjustment. You can also attach OLE objects, including Web links, multimedia clips, and Microsoft Office files, to any document logged into TPO, without changing the original file. If an image is already on your hard drive, the Import button will add it to the database; however, if your document is in a nongraphic format–such as a Microsoft Word document or a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet–you must first convert it into a graphic via the TPO print driver. Of course, that means you won’t retain the ability to edit or change the file in its native format.

When you’re satisfied with an image and any annotations, you can save it, which routes the document to the Index Desk. There, you can assign it keywords and tracking numbers, and archive it to the proper folder in your database. With practice, the process of acquiring, converting, annotating, editing, and saving documents starts to make sense, especially if you follow the Quick-Start Guide. But for novices, the many steps through multiple screens will prove challenging.

The Retrieval Desk was effective at pulling documents from TPO’s database. However, the process was as convoluted as using the Index Desk. To locate a document, you can browse through your index hierarchy and pull up the contents of individual folders, or you can search for individual file characteristics, such as document number or keyword. That generates a “hit list” of matching documents, and selecting one will bring your file up in TPO’s viewer. Searches support wild-card characters. For instance, searching for compu* would generate hits for computer and Computhink. But other than that, the search function is very literal, and there’s no support for searching with fuzzy logic or Boolean operators. Fortunately, if you move a file within TPO’s hierarchy, the program monitors the move, so all links are updated.

Solid Foundation, but Room for Improvement

Interface issues and learning curve aside, TPO delivers a comprehensive filing solution suitable for small offices. The program is fast and stable, and it does an outstanding job linking your documents to related files on your system. An added bonus is the MiniViewer, a self-executable viewer that can be bundled with a collection of documents from the database (with annotations, but without any associated OLE files). You can export those files to any volume, including removable media such as Zip disks or CD-Recordables, and then launch the viewer to peruse the files–without having TPO on your system. We also liked TPO’s flexibility in supporting multipage TIFF files, particularly its ability to split large files into smaller ones, and to join smaller documents into a larger whole.

However, we did encounter several bugs while we put this package through its paces on our test system, an 800-MHz Pentium III with 256MB of RAM. For example, we had difficulty importing and exporting fax and e-mail documents using the integrated import filters. We were able to work around the import bug by “printing” the document to TPO’s printer driver and then using TPO’s integrated TextBridge OCR engine on the resulting image file–but that was a time-consuming fix at best.

Other bloopers: The sticky notes are black, and we couldn’t change their color, despite a 16-color palette intended to distinguish notes from different users. Also, TPO would scan only one page from our HP ScanJet 6250’s automatic document feeder–a rare glitch, according to Computhink, that users should not encounter with most other popular low-end and midrange flatbeds. The software’s implementation of Xerox’s latest TextBridge OCR engine does a fair job of recognizing text, but forget about trying to preserve page-formatting features.

One improvement that should be ready by the time you read this review: Computhink has overhauled its initially dense and impenetrable online manual. We saw an early draft of the new Quick-Start Guide, and it appears vastly more organized and intelligible. But you’ll probably need to take the company’s advice to digest the whole manual before you use the software.

The Paperless Office 2.5 has some pleasant surprises hidden in dark corners, though, and those features alone make the program worthy of consideration for a small-office environment, especially in document-heavy vertical markets such as the legal and medical professions and construction. TPO is a strong application waiting for a chance to show its true colors, but you’ll have to wait until version 3.0–which isn’t expected for another year or so–for this program to fully deliver on its potential.

Copyright 2000 PC (US), International Data Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Prices listed are in US currency.

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