Who this is for
If you have stacks of documents and receipts filling up filing cabinets or cluttering your desk, using a document scanner to digitize your files not only frees up physical space, but it also makes your information much easier to find and backup. On both Windows computers and Macs you can do word searches that include the contents of searchable PDF files. Unlike desktop scanners, portable scanners are designed to fold down into an even more compact form when not in use.
If you already own a document scanner, even one that's a few years old, our general advice is to keep on using it. Scanners have a very long shelf life by tech standards, and software hasn't changed much either. And if you need to scan only on a very rare basis, there are several Android and iOS apps that can turn photos shot with your phone into PDFs.
How we picked and tested
A good document scanner can save scans as searchable PDFs, using OCR (optical character recognition) software to "read" the document and convert its text so you can search and copy/paste just as you would with any other PDF file. A great document scanner is duplex, meaning it can scan both sides of a page at the same time, and folds down into a more compact form when not in use.
To find the best document scanners, we started by looking through all of the models available on Amazon and other online retailers. This left us with a large list of scanners, which we narrowed to a handful of promising contenders by looking for key features like duplex scanning, portability, and compatibility with Mac computers.
While testing, we focused on text accuracy, speed, and software usability. We ran dozens of test pages, business documents, tax forms, a variety of receipts, business cards, and photographs through the scanners to see how the machines measured up, and tested the accuracy of each machine's OCR software. We also measured speed by loading a 20-page double-sided business document into each scanner and timing the process using various settings.
The Epson ES-300W offers just about everything we could want in a portable document scanner, making it an easy recommendation as the best choice for digitizing your analog paper trail. In our tests it (along with its sister model, the ES-200) delivered the fastest scans we've seen from a portable unit, with flawless text recognition with fonts as small as 6 points when using the bundled ABBYY software. All of the necessary drivers and software are included with the installer package, available for download from Epson's site, so you don't need a CD drive.
Scan speeds were virtually identical under both USB and AC power, making the included power brick largely unnecessary unless you have an older laptop fitted with USB 2 ports (USB 3 is required for supplying power). Even more impressively, there was no speed penalty when scanning over Wi-Fi versus a USB connection on computers, phones, and tablets (paired with a free iOS or Android app).
If you're always able to connect to a computer via USB, you'll find Wi-Fi support and battery power of little use. And if that's the case, you can save yourself about $50 (at the time of this writing) and buy the Epson ES-200. It lacks a battery and Wi-Fi support but is otherwise identical in features to our top pick. The units are so similar that they even share the same user manual. Our tests, however, revealed a notable shortcoming: Powered by only its USB port, the ES-200 slowed to scan speeds nearly three times as long as those of our top pick. To get the same impressively fast results we saw with the ES-300W on this model, you'll need to plug in the ES-200's AC adapter.
For photo scanning
If you're looking for a document scanner that can also scan photos without bending and crumpling them in the process, we recommend the Epson FastFoto FF-640. In addition to being a competent document scanner, it can accurately scan photos without damaging them thanks to a reconfigured scan head and roller design that doesn't bend documents as they pass through the scanner. With a maximum resolution of 600 dpi, it can convert a 4-by-6 photograph into a roughly 8.5-megapixel JPEG in 3 to 4 seconds. It can also detect notes written on the back of your photos. However, it costs more and is significantly larger than any document-only portable scanner.
The FF-640 isn't cheap. The average scan price of the services we researched in our photo scanning guide was 40¢ per photo. We estimate you'd have to scan about 1,500 photos with the FF-640 before it's more economical than outsourcing. But if those numbers work for you—and you value your money more than your time—the FF-640 is the closest thing we've seen yet to pain-free photo scanning.
This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
Note from Wirecutter: When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn affiliate commissions that support our work.