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Can machines do your expenses?

Our fearless reviewer takes two new receipt scanners for a spin.

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The $499 NeatDesk scanner
The $200 NeatReceipts portable scanner.
NeatReceipts Portable Scanner NeatDesk Desktop Scanner
$200 $400
PROS Easy to take on business trips PROS Precise document slots for business cards and receipts large and small
CONS Takes up to three minutes to scan and "read" a long document CONS Extra cost isn't justified - can be just as slow as NeatReceipts

SEATTLE (Fortune Small Business) -- As CEO of a fast-growing internet ad network, WidgetBucks, I travel a lot. And I'm no stranger to expense reporting, having previously run the corporate travel division of Expedia (EXPE). I've long dreamed of a device that could generate my expense reports at the touch of a button.

The only manufacturer that comes close to realizing this vision is The Neat Company, which claims its scanners and patented software can pull data from your receipts and drop them into spreadsheets such as Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) Excel or Intuit's (INTU) QuickBooks. So, for my latest business trip I tested Neat's two most recent models.

My goal: Beat the time it takes me to submit my expense reports manually.

The NeatReceipts scanner ($200) is portable and resembles a wand. NeatDesk ($499) is the larger desktop version and looks more like a top-loading printer than a scanner. Installation took half an hour for both models, and the calibration process was simple. The optical character-recognition software puts everything you scan into one of three files: receipts, business cards and other documents. For receipts, the software assigns billing categories.

The first receipt I scanned was for airport parking. The system classified it as "transportation." I changed that to "parking," but it was a fair guess.

My second receipt, for lunch at Noah's Bagels, was more confusing. NeatDesk thought it was "general retail." Hotel and airline receipts, however, posed no categorization problems. Taking NeatReceipts on your trip means you don't have to worry about losing receipts. As I scanned and categorized each receipt, a digital copy appeared in my NeatDesk inbox. (The same goes for business cards, a particularly snazzy feature.)

The fatal flaw? Speed - or lack thereof. It took about a minute to scan each receipt. Longer documents such as hotel bills took up to three minutes using a NeatDesk scanner hooked up to my speedy Dell (DELL, Fortune 500) Latitude D830 laptop running Microsoft Vista. Total time to input five receipts from my trip, including classifying and editing: 22 minutes. By contrast, it took me only 10 minutes to input the same data by hand.

Bottom Line: This technology is impressive. The NeatReceipts handheld scanner, in particular, is versatile, elegant and lightweight. But neither device saved me any time. I would happily use these gadgets for business cards and general-purpose scanning. But when it comes to expense reports, man still beats machine. To top of page

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- Spate, Orange, Calif.

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