Hands on: Office Lens scanning app for Windows Phone now makes editable Word files

office lens translated intel graphic

If you own a Windows Phone, stop what you’re doing and make sure you've installed Microsoft's Office Lens scanning app. With Tuesday’s update, you now can scan documents as actual, editable Word and PowerPoint files, making it one of the best scanning apps, period.

Office Lens already did a nice job of identifying documents and saving them as images to Microsoft’s sister app, OneNote. And it still does. But the powerful update not only identifies text as text, but reads it and formats it for either Word or PowerPoint.

That’s a big step beyond the state of the art in mobile scanning apps. Chances are that if you own a Windows Phone, you’ve already downloaded CamScanner, a free scanning app for Windows Phone, iOS and Android. (CamScanner is already a good deal for Window Phone users, as its own optical character recognition capabilities are reserved for the paid Pro upgrade in iOS and Android. On Windows Phone, they’re free.)

But CamScanner only outputs its data to a text file, which you can open with Word or a third-party word processor. A number of scanning applications on all three platforms allow you to scan an document as either a JPEG image or a PDF, which can then be run through a separate app to scan the PDF for editable text. But none, to my knowledge, do it as simply and comprehensively as the new Office Lens.

office lens aidan before and after Mark Hachman

Office Lens isn't perfect, but it does a capable job.

It’s not perfect, however. I scanned a note to my child’s teacher—which my wife edited with handwritten notes—with both Office Lens and CamScanner. Neither was able to translate the printed text into text perfectly, and neither could come close to interpreting my wife’s scrawl as anything meaningful. I’d say that the quality was roughly comparable to what I’d expect from dictating the letter into my phone’s voice-to-text speech recognizer—at a fraction of the time, of course.

Ditto for PowerPoint. According to Yu Ukai, a program manager with the Microsoft  Office Lens team in Japan, all of the handwritten lines and strokes in a scanned document are transformed into PowerPoint drawing objects that can be recolored, resized, repositioned and edited.

office lens intel shot original

I took this picture of an old Intel presentation with Office Lens, which processed the results as the image at the top of the page.

In reality, however, a photo of a PowerPoint slide I had taken previously was translated into a fuzzy representation of the actual slide as a vector graphic. Granted, this was a photo of a photo. While the preview version of the slide looked great, the final version was a cartoony image. 

Microsoft's Office Lens is free for both Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 8.1. Using the app effectively will depend on one’s camera, the lighting and quality of the image, and other factors. Nevertheless, Office Lens is a must-have download—and for now, it offers capabilities you’ll find only on Windows Phone. 

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