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Microsoft's Office Lens is a snazzy scanner app

People who are fully locked into the Microsoft (MSFT) ecosystem are used to peering over the fence at nifty and innovative features available elsewhere.

Apple (AAPL) iPhone users have apps that Windows Phone owners can only dream about. Until just a few weeks ago, Google's (GOOG) Google Docs could (for all its other shortcomings) out-collaborate Office with real-time editing that looked like science fiction to Office 365 drones. And OneNote, for all of its strengths, couldn't match Evernote's ability to scan documents and store them in the cloud.

But now, regarding that last feature, Microsoft has beefed up Office Lens, and it has become an app all mobile Office users should take notice of.

Office Lens is a document scanner for Windows Phone, iOS, and Android. To use it, just choose what you're about to photograph -- a business card, photo, document or whiteboard. The app automatically recognizes what you're shooting and captures it with a little photo processing magic.

Whiteboard captures come out excellent, for example. The board is white rather than a dull grey, and the captured drawings and writing look crisp and readable.

Likewise, you can grab a snapshot of a document that's sitting on your desk and trust that it'll look excellent -- like it was run through a flatbed scanner -- with no tweaking. The best part: You don't need to worry about squaring up with whatever you're shooting: You can take the picture from virtually any angle, and Office Lens accommodates.

I was able to shoot whiteboards from the corner of the room and documents from 45-degree angles, and they rendered on-screen just fine.

A recent update to Office Lens means the app is now completely integrated with Office, so you can export scanned documents to OneNote or other Office apps. I was amazed, in fact, when I snapped a photo of a fairly complex document -- with images, multiple columns and various sized headings -- and it imported into Word in editable form.

To be sure, the formatting wasn't perfect. But it was plenty good enough that I could make simple changes to what moments before had been a piece of paper on my desk, and share it with co-workers.

Office Lens isn't perfect. You need to tell it what kind of document you're shooting, for example, because the app isn't smart enough to automatically detect the difference between a business card and a white board, for example.

And business cards seem the most problematic right now. It stumbled on formatting a few sample cards, and getting them into your phone's address book is a clumsy affair. I counted no fewer than 10 taps to go from business card to address book. But the workflow is far from obvious, and it's possible a simpler path exists that I simply didn't see. Microsoft needs a one-click solution that easily exports scanned cards to the phone's address book.

Nonetheless, Office Lens is an impressive app. It's easy to see how it could become the most commonly used app on your phone at work every day. Not bad, considering it's free and integrates effortlessly with the mobile version of Office.

Photo courtesy Microsoft

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