Two affordable all-in-one solutions for home and small offices

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, February 1996

Brother?s ImageCenter and Willowbrook?s E-Z Office:

ImageCenter 150 OCR
$499CDN list
Brother International Corporation (Canada)
7611 Alderbridge Way
Richmond, BC
604-273-8466 (voice)
604-273-5680 (fax)

E-Z Office
Price: $699 (CDN list), est. $620 street
Willowbrook Technologies Inc.
400 North Rivermede, Suite 100
Concord, Ontario L4K 3R5
905-660-8891 (voice)
416-660-8768 (fax)

Paper glut. If you?re like most people working in an office-context, you?re probably drowning in a sea of paper... paper you produce, paper you receive. Lots of it probably goes straight to the trash (or preferably, the recycle bin), but that still leaves lots that you need to keep, and file, and hope you?ll be able to find when you need it.

The computer press, creators of many buzz-words, has been predicting that computers would result in a ?paperless office?... but instead, it seems that computerized offices, if anything, produce more paper documents than previously. Twenty years ago, pre-computer and pre-photocopiers, offices often circulated memos-- a single copy that made its way around the office, with each reader initialing it.

Now, with photocopiers common, everyone gets a copy. Or with computer databases and mail merge, everyone can get a customized copy (?Alan Zisman-- you may already have won 10 million dollars!?).

Some big businesses have begun steps to take control of the deluge of paper. A few years ago, for example, VanCity Credit Union announced that they were going to be scanning all their back records, converting them to computer-accessible digital data. The technology to do this, however, was too expensive for most home or small office users.

Now, a new generation of hardware and software has emerged, making these capabilities easily within the reach of every office. And they provide extra capabilities as well-- as a bonus.

Brother ImageCenter 150

Japan?s Brother started out at the turn of the century, as the first company in Japan to manufacture sewing machines. More recently, they?ve produced a well-regarded line of laser printers and multi-function machines. The ImageCenter products are equally capable and affordable page scanners, aimed at the home and small office markets.

Looking like a small fax machine, the 2 kg (4.4 LB) unit plugs into your computer?s parallel port, allowing you to plug your printer into the back of the scanner. Up to 20 pages can be loaded into the paper tray, and can be scanned in either black and white mode or in 64 tone gray-scale for attractive photographic images, at resolutions up to 400x400 dpi (four times the resolution of a fax machine?s ?fine? mode).

If it?s plugged into an HP Laserjet, Deskjet, or Brother laser printer, it can send the image directly to the printer-- even if the computer is not turned on. (Other model printers can be used for copying, by sending images via the computer). Alternatively, working along with the computer and a fax-modem (not included), pages can be faxed to a remote recipient.

The ImageCenter 150 model includes two additional applications: Cognitive Business Card Reader software allows users to scan business cards, reading the information into a handy database. In addition, Xerox TextBridge OCR is a solid example of an optical character recognition program-- it allows users to read scans (or faxes received with the fax-modem), and convert them to text that can be saved or edited in most common word processors.

In text form, documents take up much less hard disk space than in graphical format. As well, data stored in this way can be edited, altered, added to page layout software, and is more easily filed and found. (The lower priced ImageCenter 100 model ($399 list) omits these applications, but is otherwise similar. The Model 150 ships with the ?standard? edition of TextBridge; users can upgrade to the Professional version for $159. This version adds the ability to preserve the page layout of the scanned documents, along with being able to scan right into your word processor).

The ImageCenter software installs TWAIN drivers, letting the scanner be run right from the menus of any Windows program that supports the TWAIN standard-- most graphics programs, as well as many page layout and word processors. As well, the ImageCenter Manager makes it easy for users to use the scanner for scanning, copying, fax, or OCR. ImageCenter Editor provides basic image editing capabilities. Unlike some competing products, however, Brother is not including any document management software-- this software allows users to file scanned documents along with searchable keywords, or in some cases, even an index of the contents-- making the scanner and OCR software a capable replacement for paper documents and banks of filing cabinets.

Despite this lack, with its small size and affordable price, the ImageCenter provides a welcome collection of features for many home offices and small businesses.

Willowbrook E-Z Office

The E-Z Office, from Ontario?s Willowbrook, is in some respects, a more ambitious product. It includes the E-Z Page Scanner (also available from Microtek), about half the size and weight of Brother?s model. At 1.1 kgs (2.4 lbs) it could be a possible addition to a portable computer, however, it gives up some capabilities-- it scans at a maximum of 300 dpi and 16 gray-scales. The lower resolution is not a big loss for scanned text, but appearance of scanned photos is clearly inferior to the Brother product. As well, only a single page can be fed through it at a time, making it more awkward to scan multi-page documents.

While also benefiting from easy set up to the PC?s parallel port, and shipping with basic OCR software (in this case, Caere?s OmniPage Limited Edition), the real strength of this product is the inclusion of PageSuite software. This allows users to annotate documents, for easy organization in PageSuite?s Cabinet. This provides a virtual file cabinet, allowing users to store documents in folders, for easy organization and retrieval. A Quick Panel provides instant access to copying, faxing, E-mail, and scanning functions.

As well, however, the E-Z Office package includes a 28.8 kbs internal fax modem (using the standard Rockwell chipset) and software. This allows the full range of electronic data and fax capabilities, including voice capabilities. It can be set to answer phone calls, automatically recognizing voice, data, or fax calls. Along with the accompanying software, (Cheyenne Bitware ver 3.30 for Windows) it provides answering machine functions, including  multiple mailboxes and speakerphone. Faxes and voice messages can be forwarded to another location when you are traveling. Windows 95 modem drivers are included.

Since many would-be customers already have fax-modems, it might seem like this would limit the potential market-- Willowbrook, however, believes that most users have 14.4 or slower modems, and that the inclusion of a 28.8 high speed modem, along with microphone and voice capabilities will prove a real draw. Certainly, this combination of features will allow users to simply add computer and printer to get a full-functioned small digital office.

While producing somewhat lower-quality scans than the Brother products, the PageSuite software and modem features could prove a valuable addition to many users. As well, while the included modem can only be used in a desktop computer, the scanner could easily be taken on the road. Combining the telephony hardware and software with the scan/copy/fax/file capabilities, this package meets a large number of small office needs in a single box.

Neither of these products will replace a higher quality flatbed scanner for anyone needing to often scan graphics-- look elsewhere, perhaps at HP's new grey-scale ScanJet 4P or colour 4C models. But for home offices or small businesses looking to add basic scanning/fax/ocr, either is worth a look, with Brother providing more grey-scales, higher resolution, and multi-page support, and the E-Z Office providing better portability, document management software, and an included 28.8 modem with a wide range of functions.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan