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Gadget Review

C-Pen Text Scanner and Translator

By Kailas Narendran
COLUMNIST

The CPen is an innovative product that literally puts the power of optical character recognition (OCR) at your fingertips. It’s a compact device, about the size of a cigar that can scan, translate, and store text. It even talks to your computer over the serial or infrared port, so you can use it as a hand held scanner when you’re at home or store stuff for later download when you’re on the move.

The CPen has a feature that allows you to install dictionaries though you have to purchase those separately. Two dictionaries can fit on the device at a time so you can do word-by-word translation to or from a language. The device is capable of being an address book that synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook. The CPen also has a sketchy ancillary function that allows you to write with it as if it was a pen, and it will translate the strokes to letters.

First thing’s first, and impressive

I love the CPen’s compact and stylish design. It is comfortable to hold and use for an extended period of time. The interface is easy to use and understand, letting you hit the ground running right after you take it out of the box. The computer interface is clean and functional. Even though it communicates over the serial port, it’s pretty fast since you’re only transmitting text.

The CPen’s adeptness at its primary function -- scanning text -- is impressive. With a little practice, you can quickly scan in pages and pages of printed, black and white text. 1500 pages can be stored in the memory of the 600c model. If you’re next to your computer, you can also scan it directly in via the serial interface. You can move the pen very quickly and still pick up text with no problems. The text needs to be around the size of standard newspaper or book print for the pen to pick it up with optimal accuracy.

When in the dictionary mode, the pen allows you to scan a word and look up its definition. The device is fast and lookup takes a minimal amount of time. You get a free English dictionary with the pen, and can buy more dictionaries online. The supported languages are limited to those of Europe (mostly Western European, but there are also some Eastern European languages).

The pen doesn’t work very well on colored text. There are settings that improve the accuracy on inverted text, but it’s still a far cry from the accuracy on black and white. The CPen isn’t designed to recognize handwriting.

Auxiliary Fancies

The CPen comes with a couple of features that seem to be thrown in just because the designers felt they could. There’s support for an address book of up to 150 entries. I found this feature pretty hard to use, as the interface for the pen is designed for a scanner, not a PDA. The device also allows you to “write” with it as if it was a pen, and it recognizes the motion and translates it to a letter on screen.

The writing process is slow, and it’s often easier to just delete and re-scan rather than trying to fix OCR mistakes with the writing functionality. While these extra programs don’t detract from functionality, I don’t think they add a whole lot.

$.02

If you spend a lot of time taking notes from printed text, this could be the device for you. It gives you quite a bit of functionality for the size. You can get the 600C, the cheapest model that’s portable, and the one reviewed for this article, for $180.

If you are looking for a tethered scanner, you can get the CPen 10 for $120. Since the company is in Europe, they don’t really sell much in the United States, and it’s hard to price shop this side of the pond. If you’re not in a hurry, you should check eBay first, as I found some good deals there. You can find out more information, including product distributors, at http://www.cpen.com/.