Updated October 29, 2020 by Fred Naumann

The 6 Best Pen Scanners

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This wiki has been updated 27 times since it was first published in February of 2017. If note taking has got you down, a pen scanner is a portable must-have that will change your studies forever. Not only can it travel with you just about anywhere, but it has the capability to scan any type of flat document for immediate storage to a computer, mobile device or memory card. Some will even read back text. Check out our top picks to see how they stack up for your exact needs. When users buy our independently chosen editorial selections, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.

1. C-Pen Reader

2. Scanmarker Air OCR

3. Ectaco Handheld C-Pen 3.0

Editor's Notes

October 27, 2020:

Since they belong to a relatively niche category, pen scanners aren't updated at the same breakneck pace as more widely-used handheld devices. As such, the set of top-quality options hasn't changed much since this list was reviewed last. That said, we did make one new addition: the Irispen Air 7, which can scan a similar range of languages and graphics as its competitors, but is available at a slightly better price point. We had to place it lower on the list due to reports of difficulty with setting up the software, but once you've got it up and running, it's a strong contender for the top of its class.

The other change we made was to bump the C-Pen Reader up to the top of the list. Though it lacks the translation ability of the Scanmarker Air OCR, our former number one pick, we felt that its eight gigabytes of built-in memory and its voice memo functionality made it much more convenient for portable note-taking. To record text, the Scanmarker has to be paired with another device and scan into an open application in real time, while the C-Pen gives you the option to store text on the fly and download it later. Translation is a handy add-on, but user reviews suggest that most people employ these devices to facilitate note-taking or as a form of assistive technology to help with disabilities like dyslexia; most of the time, this won't require switching into a foreign language.

If you value the ability to store your memos electronically, you might also want to check out our overviews of the best smart notebooks and digital pens. Or, if you want to be able to quickly capture high-resolution images of documents or photos, our list of wand scanners might have what you need.

August 08, 2019:

In the last update we removed a few selections that would technically fall under the wand scanner category.

The market for pen scanners is relatively thin, and although the technology does not pick up every passage perfectly, there are definite standouts in terms of accuracy, functionality and ease of use. The Scanmarker Air OCR sits atop our list because it makes few errors and packs a lot into a small package. For example, this model, along with the more inaccurate PenPower WorldPenScan X, can translate text, making it a great tool for travelers, researchers or anyone learning another language.

The C-Pen Reader deserves special mention for having a voice recorder that can be used to capture ancillary notes to the passages that have been scanned. Along with the Scanmarker Air OCR, it has a read-back capability that uses a natural-sounding voice and can act as a learning aid for those who struggle with dyslexia.

Recently added to the list was the Unitech MS100, which cannot read text, only barcodes, and must remain connected to a computer.

4. Irispen Air 7

5. PenPower WorldPenScan X

6. Unitech MS100

A Brief History Of The Scanners

Widely considered the precursor to the modern day fax machine, the pantelegraph could transmit images over a standard telegraph wire.

It's a little hard to believe, but the first image scanner technically dates back to the 1860s. The freestanding device known as the panetelegraph was invented by Italian physicist Giovani Caselli in the latter half of the 19th century, with the first prototype presented to the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1856. It came into popular commercial use in the following decade after additional development under the guidance of a few French inventors. Widely considered the precursor to the modern day fax machine, the pantelegraph could transmit images over a standard telegraph wire. On the receiving end, an inked stylus would produce a copy of the transmitted image.

The next great advancement in scanning technology arrived in 1913. Édouard Belin's Belinograph used a device called a photocell to record images and transmit them over standard phone lines, a technology that was eventually picked up by news media organizations including the Associated Press. While the first prototypes worked quite slowly, by the 1930s, the latest versions could ingest and transmit a full letter-sized page in just one minute. That same decade, the first portable iterations of these devices were developed. This was a major advancement for field reporting, as photographers could transmit images from anywhere with a phone line. Commercially, this technology came to be known as "wirephoto," and was actually in wide use until the early 1990s.

These early scanning technologies were focused more on transmission than on digitizing images, as they predate computer storage. The flatbed scanner, which uses the same technology found in pen scanners and other handheld and portable scanning devices, was invented in the 1970s by American computer scientist Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil's invention was initially intended as a reading machine for the blind, and it relied on optical character recognition technology to turn printed text into something that could be read aloud by a computer.

While Kurzweil's inventions laid the groundwork for most of today's commercial scanners, it took several decades for the technology to find its way into portable machines. By the early 1990s, the first handheld scanners reached the market. Users could drag the devices across images or passages of text, and a computer would stitch the resulting images together to re-create the full page.

Today, flatbed scanners can be found in many homes and are often built into printers. Portable scanners, though less popular, have come a long way, as well, and, for the most part, don't require an external computer to stitch together composite images of the media they capture.

How Scanning Technology Works

Most modern scanners rely on a lens, a series of mirrors, or a CCD, in order to create digital versions of printed media. Though the method of capture changes slightly depending on what style of scanner you're using, these basic components remain the same.

Each one measures the intensity of the light that strikes it, and emits an electric charge of corresponding strength.

In a flatbed scanner, a beam of light moves across the surface of the object to be scanned, which is usually protected by a pane of glass. The light reflects off of the object and onto the first of several mirrors that work in tandem to send that reflection into the lens. While the light appears to move continuously, the lens is actually capturing a series of tiny images, one after another. Each of these images is only one small part of the whole, but, because they are collected in rapid succession, the process of scanning an entire letter-sized document can happen in as little as a few seconds, depending on the level of detail being captured.

The lens directs each tiny image onto the CCD, which is comprised of a group of light sensitive diodes called photosites. Each one measures the intensity of the light that strikes it, and emits an electric charge of corresponding strength. For color scans, this process happens three times over, with separate passes for red, blue, and green light. This collection of charges of varying intensities is then converted to a digital map of sorts, which is in turn interpreted by imaging software as pixels. Each of these small groups of pixels is stitched together to form a composite image when the scan is complete using a set of standards established in 1992 called TWAIN.

Pen scanners work virtually this exact same way, except that instead of the light moving across the surface of the object mechanically, the entire scanning device is moved manually by the user. Since handheld movement is inherently inconsistent, pen scans are subject to some level of distortion, though most contemporary models come with software to mitigate that issue.

Some Good Uses For Your Newest Gadget

Depending on what type of pen scanner you're in the market for, there are a host of opportunities to put your new gadget to work, some more obvious than others.

Perhaps the most common need for pen scanners comes from those in research-based fields who need to search through printed material like books, magazines, and archives that can't be removed from where they're kept on file. A pen scanner allows you to easily save excerpts or even full pages of text, so you can take them with you and keep them organized for citation purposes.

Depending on what type of pen scanner you're in the market for, there are a host of opportunities to put your new gadget to work, some more obvious than others.

Many of today's pen scanners come with built-in character recognition software, which allows them to ingest printed images of text and output a version that's editable in any word processor. This is great alternative to smart notebooks for those looking to turn handwritten pages into text that can be formatted on a computer and shared digitally.

Some portable scanners are not limited to text-based application. These tend to be wand-style models, with sensors that span the length of the devices. Scanners of this nature are perfect for digitizing full-page images or pages with images and text side-by-side. If you're an academic or frequent library-goer, this can save you a great deal of time over making photocopies or using flatbed scanners, which can be slow and may come with fees for use. They're also great for oversized books and other media that are too large for most flatbeds or those with tight bindings that can be damaged in the process.

Fred Naumann
Last updated on October 29, 2020 by Fred Naumann

Fred is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, and a lifelong bookworm with a love of genre fiction. Since receiving his degree in Biology from the University of Vermont, he’s worked as a student loan counselor, a remittance processor for an industrial supply firm, and a traveling farmhand. A passion for the laughter of strangers has given him several years of experience performing and teaching improv comedy, and much of his free time is spent inventing absurd scenarios on stage. Fred also hikes, skis, and records a weekly Dungeons and Dragons podcast with a group of longtime friends. His areas of expertise include gaming, gardening, outdoor gear, literature, and pop culture

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