Prizmo (for Mac) review

Prizmo is a terrific app for performing OCR on iPhone photos, but it has a far less effective OCR engine than ABBYY FineReader Express.
Photo of Prizmo (for Mac)

Prizmo is OCR  reinvented for the mobile era, and, like many reinventions, it’s a mixture of brilliant new ideas and details that aren’t fully worked out yet. Prizmo comes in two versions, one for OS X, which is the one I tested, and another for the iPhone and iPad, which I didn’t test but which has the same basic capabilities.

OCR Via Cameras
What makes Prizmo for OS X different is that it’s designed from the start to work with cameras as well as scanners. If you connect an iPhone or iPad to your Mac by a USB cable, you can snap a picture and Prizmo will instantly capture it and try to extract text from it. If you connect any other camera to your Mac, it lets you browse through the photos in the camera’s internal storage and select one or more pictures that you want to process with OCR.

Prizmo includes an optional menubar icon that lets you select a block of text anywhere on screen—including images—and perform OCR on it, with the resulting text copied the clipboard for pasting into any application. And, of course, like traditional OCR software, it can take images directly from a scanner, using OS X’s built-in scanner interface. Unlike our editor’s choice FineReader Express, Prizmo connected to the scanner in my HP all-in-one printer even when my Mac was running wirelessly. FineReader only recognized the scanner when I connected the scanner to my Mac with a USB cable.

Puzzling Prizmo
I was slightly puzzled when I launched Prizmo because it required me either to open an existing Prizmo document from iCloud or my Mac, but of course I didn’t have any Prizmo documents since I had never run it before. I finally figured out that I needed to click the “New Document” button at the foot of the window, which was also slightly puzzling since I didn’t realize I was creating a document—I thought I was perform OCR on an image. But after I clicked that button, Prizmo showed me a spacious window with the message “Drop a Picture of Text Here” and three further options: “Open Image File…”, “Import from Scanner or Camera…” and “Browse Image Library…” The first option works as you expect: select a PDF, PNG, JPG, or any other standard image format and open it in  Prizmo’s window. The second opens OS X’s scanner dialog and lets you work from a scanner. The third takes you to your iPhoto library and the Pictures folder in your user folder.

In Action
When I snapped a picture with an iPhone plugged into my Mac, the picture instantly appeared in Prizmo’s window. An optional preference automatically applied distortion correction to the image based on the geometry of the iPhone’s camera lens. Toolbar icons let me rotate, crop, or make brightness and other adjustments to the image before clicking the OCR button. When I clicked that button, the color image changed from color to black and white, showing the black text that the program would now recognize when I clicked yet another button, this one marked Recognize.

As you can guess from this report, there are plenty of underdocumented steps that you need to perform to get the best possible results, and we’re not through yet. After I clicked the Recognize button, the app overlaid the image with rectangles showing where it detected text, and opened a pane next to the image with the text that the app had extracted. I could use this pane to make manual corrections to the recognized text before exporting it—a feature not available in ABBYY FineReader Express.

Also, in this Recognition window, a new toolbar replaced the original one, with icons for adding, removing, and reordering the regions identified by the app. There’s also a button for reading the extracted text aloud, using OS X’s built-in speech feature, and for translating the extracted text into any of dozens of languages, though a built-in connection with Microsoft’s translation service. Finally, at the far right end of the toolbar—and what felt a bit like the end of a quest—I could click an Export button and save the recognized text to Evernote, Box.com, Dropbox, Google Drive, any other WebDAV drive, an e-mail recipient, or—as in traditional OCR—a file. Prizmo exports to text, RTF, searchable PDF, and image files, but not to spreadsheet or HTML format as FineReader Express does. One unique and nifty option is Prizmo’s feature that lets you specify that you’ve snapped a picture of a business card, and lets you send the output directly to OS X’s Contacts app.

I’d wish Prizmo had an “express” option like FineReader that simply took an image and output it to a file without all the manual steps that I had to go through, but I like the way Prizmo lets me work directly with an iPhone, something I’ve never seen before in an OCR app. When working with a conventional camera, Prizmo was less convenient, because I had to wait while the app imported thumbnails of almost all the photos stored in the camera before I could click on the one I wanted. With a scanner, Prizmo worked efficiently, although, again, with an “express” feature that automated the process. (A $50 option adds a “Pro Pack” that makes it possible to automate Prizmo via Automator or AppleScript, but you still have to do the scripting job yourself.)

It’s the OCR, Stupid
Unfortunately, Prizmo’s weakest link is the most important one: its OCR engine. It’s good enough, and at more or less the same level as the OCR built into Adobe Acrobat Pro, but it can’t match the superb, almost error-free results I got from ABBYY FineReader Express. When I tested Prizmo and FineReader with the same PDF and other image files, Prizmo made far more errors; FineReader sometimes made one or two, or none. Prizmo’s built-in editor let me hand-correct its errors by comparing the extracted text with the original image file, but I would far prefer not to need to make the corrections at all. If I were spending money on an OCR app because I needed high-quality OCR in my work, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose ABBYY FineReader Express, despite its inconveniences and limited feature set, over Prizmo with all its innovations and abilities.

Cool for Cameras
Prizmo is the only app to choose if you want to use OCR on images that you capture with your phone or where you want its extensive distortion-correction features—features similar to that that ABBYY includes in its top-of-the line Windows apps but not FineReader Express for the Mac. PCMag Editors’ Choice for Mac OCR. I like Prizmo, but I think you may want to let it mature a while before you buy it as your primary OCR app.

Specifications
Tech Support e-mail
OS Compatibility Mac OS
Type Business, Enterprise, Professional

Verdict
Prizmo is a terrific app for performing OCR on iPhone photos, but it has a far less effective OCR engine than ABBYY FineReader Express.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc