What can't you do with a cell phone these days? The latest models allow you to take pictures, record movies, watch TV, play music, browse the Internet, send e-mails and even make the occasional phone call.
But what if you want to use your cell phone's multimedia technology for more than just entertainment? What if you actually need to get some work done? No problem. With a simple camera phone and some new software, you can turn any mobile phone into a scanner, fax machine and copier.
Camera phones are everywhere. According to 2007 statistics, 79 percent of cell phones sold in the United States had a built-in digital camera [source: RCR Wireless News]. An estimated 1 billion camera phones are in use around the world [source: ComputerWorld]. The picture quality of these phones is improving quickly. Some cell phone manufacturers have already released five-megapixel camera phones and there are rumors about a 10-megapixel model hitting the shelves any day now [source: AsiaMedia].
Scanning and faxing from a cell phone works through the same technology as Internet faxing. A document, in this case a digital photograph, is e-mailed to an Internet fax service that converts the digital photo into fax data. The fax service then sends the fax to the recipient over a phone line. For more information, read How Internet Fax Works.
The cool thing about these new cell phone "scan and fax" services is that they can optimize and compress camera phone images into clear, readable PDF documents. Using special imaging algorithms, the cell phone scanning software can take a photo of an open book -- with shadows in the crease and curved pages -- and turn it into a flat image with uniform background color and sharp text. The software also simplifies the image, getting rid of unnecessary digital noise to make the file smaller and easier to send over a cellular data network.
What exactly do you need to scan and fax documents with your cell phone? Does it work on all camera phones? Is it expensive? Read on to find out how to get started scanning and faxing from your cell phone.
Getting Started Faxing and Scanning
The first thing you need is the right kind of phone with the right kind of camera. You need to check with the specific scan and fax service to see if your phone qualifies. The most widely accepted phones are 3G phones made by Nokia and Sony Ericsson. Most importantly, your phone will need to have at least a two-megapixel camera. Currently, there are about 300 different phones on the market that meet this requirement [source: scanR].
Also, you'll need to have a data plan in addition to a voice plan with your cellular provider. Data plans allow you to browse the Internet and send multimedia text messages (MMS) and e-mails. Data plans cost extra money and vary depending on the carrier. Some carriers limit the size of data files you can send across the network. So you might want to check with your cellular provider before signing up for a scan/fax service.
You have two options when using a scan and fax service: software or no software. With the software option, you download a program onto your phone that compresses and optimizes your image files before sending them to the Internet fax service. If you don't use the software, then you send the raw image files directly to the scan and fax service via e-mail or MMS.
The advantage of using the software method is that the file is compressed before sending it over your cellular data network. If you pay by the megabyte for data transfers, then it'll be considerably cheaper to send a compressed file. Even if you pay for unlimited data transfers, a smaller file is easier on a slow mobile Internet connection.
To download the software, you can either download it onto your computer or directly onto your cell phone. To download it onto your computer, visit the Web site of the service you want to use. Once downloaded, you can connect to your cell phone using a USB cable and follow the instructions to transfer the software to your phone. To download the program directly to your cell phone, use your phone's Web browser to visit the special version of the service's Web site.
We're going to talk more about how each scan and fax service works in a minute. Right now, let's go over some tips for making the highest quality scans with a camera phone.
Camera Phone Tips
To successfully scan and fax with a cell phone, you need to know the best way to photograph different types of documents. Here are tips for taking pictures with a camera phone:
- Check your camera phone settings. If possible, select the "macro" or "document" mode. Also make sure that the camera's autofocus setting is on. Macro/document mode is particularly important for scanning smaller documents like letter-size pieces of paper or business cards.
- If you don't have macro/document mode, make sure the camera is set to its highest resolution. This'll generate the largest image.
- Turn off your flash. Flashes tend to reflect harshly off of white surfaces like paper. The result is a washed-out image.
- Find the best lighting. Since you can't use a flash, the document needs to have ample natural light. Position the document near a window or directly under a lamp.
- Try to fill the camera frame with as much of the document as possible. If you're photographing a business card, you'll need to get in nice and close so that the card fills almost the entire screen.
- For letter-size pieces of paper and business cards, you may want to rotate your camera 90 degrees so that the document fills even more of the screen.
- Hold the camera phone with both hands to keep it steady. Slight movements can produce a blurry image, especially in low-light situations.
If you're unsure about the quality of your cell phone's camera, go to checkmycameraphone.com. A scan-and-fax service called scanR set up this site to rank the quality of most current camera phones on a scale of 100. If you can't find your particular model, you can run a test yourself:
- Take a photo of this page.
- Send your pic to scanR via e-mail or MMS.
- Log into the scanR site to see the quality rating of your image.
Now let's talk specifically about how to use the two most popular scan and fax services, Comombo and scanR.
Camera Phone Fax and Scan Services
The two most popular scan and fax services are Comombo and scanR. They both operate under the same basic idea: taking a photo of a document with a camera phone, compressing it with software and sharing it via e-mail or fax or both.
Let's talk about Comombo first. Comombo requires that you first download its software. You can either do this directly to your phone or to your PC first. The Comombo software is free and turns your camera phone into a scanner. You can use the free software, or freeware, to photograph documents and turn those photos into optimized, compressed PDF files.
Comombo lets you send 10 fax pages for free, but after that you have to pay for the Internet faxing service. Comombo uses a prepaid system that doesn't require a monthly contract. The current price is ten euros (U.S. $14.40) for 50 fax pages to just about anywhere in the world. Under the Comombo pricing system, however, one fax page doesn't always equal one fax page. If you send a fax to Brazil, for example, one fax page is charged as two pages. And if you send a fax to Afghanistan, one page is charged as four.
Here's how you use Comombo to scan and fax a document with your camera phone:
- Take a picture of the document you want to scan, remembering the camera phone tips from the previous page.
- Open the Comombo software and select the picture you want to fax.
- The software then compresses the image file down to 20 to 80 KB, optimizing the image for maximum clarity.
- Enter the e-mail address and/or fax numbers of the people with whom you want to share the document. The software also has a built-in address book.
- Check the fax status from your phone.
The scanR service is very similar to Comombo, except that you can use it without software if you choose. ScanR's software package is called scanR Mobile and works very much like the Comombo software. If you want to bypass the software, here's how it works:
- Take a photo of the document you want to scan or fax with your camera phone.
- E-mail or MMS the photo to one of three different scanR addresses: one for documents, one for whiteboards and one for business cards.
- ScanR compresses and optimizes the image, creating a PDF. The PDF can either be e-mailed back to you or saved on the scanR Web site.
- To fax the document, include the fax number of the recipient in your original message or go to the scanR Web site and choose which PDF you want to fax.
- The same goes for e-mail. Include the e-mail address of the recipient in the original message to scanR or send it later through the scanR Web site.
The scanR billing system is a little different than Comombo. The software and basic scanning service is free. To send more than five faxes a month, you have to sign up for a scanR Pro account. For $2.99 a month, you can send unlimited faxes to over 200 countries.
These services are sure to change in the future as new improvements are continuously being made to phones.
For more information on camera phones and related topics, check out the links on the next page.