After a beta/preview period, Microsoft has publicly released Office Lens for Android devices. That means Lens is now available for Apple, Android and Windows devices. Search for ‘Office Lens’ in your app store to get it for free.
It’s a good opportunity for us to show how Office Lens works and what it can do for you.
What is Office Lens?
Lens is a slick way to take a photo on your device and insert it into various Microsoft Office apps, especially OneNote. The OneNote option is important because OneNote is what provides some of the features hyped in Lens, most importantly Optical Character Recognition.
Lens can take a photo of a document, receipt, whiteboard or anything else and lets you save it to OneNote, OneDrive and other Microsoft options.
If that’s all Lens did, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But Lens has many tricks up it’s sleeve.
You can crop and straighten the image in ways that aren’t normally available. Microsoft’s example is a whiteboard image taken from the side. After going through the Lens cropping, you can see the whiteboard ‘front on’ which is easier for humans and OneNote to read.
Microsoft demos are one thing, we thought we’d try it ourselves with a crumpled receipt taken at an odd angle. Click on the Crop button and select the relevant part of the image (not necessarily a square or rectangle) then click the ‘tick’ button.
This is where Lens gets clever because ‘Crop’ doesn’t just trim the photo. Lens reorients the selected area so it looks like you took the photo right in front of the object.
That’s a pretty neat trick on any computer, let alone a small device.
The image buttons across the top are Delete, Crop, Image Type (Document, Whiteboard, Photo). Under the dots icon: Recent History and Settings.
The Windows Phone version of Office Lens has a business card option. A photo of a business card converts to text in OneNote with a .VCF vCard version of the card into also created. The .vcf can be forwarded to other people or double-clicked to be added into Outlook’s contacts list.
Save to many places
Click on the Save icon to reveal your choices for saving the image. This is another bit of Office Lens cleverness because you can save the one image to multiple locations and in different formats.
The above example is from Office Lens for Android. The default save locations are OneNote, OneDrive and the Gallery on the device itself.
OneNote – inserts the image as a new page into your OneNote notebooks. That will then synchronize with OneDrive and to your other devices with OneNote. Saving to OneNote is important because that’s where the OCR or ‘image to text’ happens.
OneDrive – saves a JPG image to the OneDrive Camera Roll, just like any other image taken on a device with Camera Roll on for the OneDrive app.
Gallery – saves a JPG to the default folder for camera images. This will trigger any app with a ‘Camera Roll/Upload’ feature to copy automatically images saved to the Gallery, for example DropBox or BT Sync.
Word, PowerPoint, PDF – the image is inserted into a new document. That document is saved to OneDrive.
There’s no direct email option for the image, which is a strange omission. You have to save the image to the Gallery or maybe a PDF, then send via email from there.
Image to Text
Microsoft loves to hype about the ‘image to text’ feature of Office Lens but that’s really a little marketing trick. Office Lens does not convert an image to text – that’s what OneNote does.
For a long time, OneNote has been able to convert an image into text. It does this ‘behind the scenes’ and is mainly to make text in an image searchable, just like typed text on an OneNote page. You can see the text created by right clicking on an image in OneNote desktop and choosing ‘Alt Text’. OneNote converted text is has the prefix ‘Machine generated alternative text:’ as in this example.
As always, the quality of the OCR depends on a lot of factors. In the above example, you can see that there’s no columns in the converted text. Scrolling down we see that much of the text has been converted but not in a useable order. It’s searchable but that’s about all. Still, you can copy that text and rearrange it to recreate the original document or simply edit the ‘Alt Text’ so that future searches will be more accurate.
Office Lens has some handy features and is worth space on your smartphone, mostly for photos of documents, receipts and other text sources.
The enhanced ‘crop’ feature alone makes it worth having available. ‘Image to Text’ requires OneNote, but that’s now free to all comers. The ability to save to multiple locations is useful. It’s unclear how often people would use the Word or PowerPoint options; in most cases you’d want to insert an image into an existing document.