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Scanning PDFs is one of the most annoying things many of us have to deal with in our personal and professional lives. Be it mortgage documents, a car loan, or other sensitive paperwork you need to preserve and share in a secure digital format, Adobe's ubiquitous PDF is a reality of dealing in docs in the modern world. Fortunately, you don't need a hardware scanner or big, bulky multifunction printer to digitize your paper documents: all you need is a smartphone, an app, and a couple of minutes. In this post, we'll break down what you need to do to get your docs and photos converted to PDF using an Android phone.
There are plenty of ways you can generate PDFs in a pinch, and probably a hundred apps that claim to do it, but we'll be focusing on three good ways from three specific and well-known apps to generate PDFs from real-world documents: Google Drive, Adobe Scan, and Microsoft Office Lens.
Since each has its own advantages, you can decide for yourself. In general, I'd recommend Drive if you only need to scan a document once or twice, since it's probably already installed on your phone and will save you time. However, our readers' favorite is Office Lens, and if you're dealing with scanning documents frequently, it's definitely your best choice.
Microsoft Office Lens
Of the three options here, Microsoft Office Lens is probably the best. Whether you're deeply integrated into Microsoft's Office suite and services or not, it's pretty fast and easy with a dead-simple interface and all the tools you probably need.
If you're scanning documents regularly from your phone, this is the app you should be using. Its perks include:
- Integration into other Microsoft/Office services like OneNote, OneDrive, Word, and PowerPoint.
- OCR via Word if you use Microsoft Office.
- Dead simple, super-fast interface — you probably don't need my hand-holding to use it (but it's here if you do).
- Works with images/photos you already have.
Of all the apps on this list, it's the easiest to use:
Left: Firing up the app for the first time. Center: Viewfinder. Right: Selecting images from the camera roll.
Just download the app, fire it up, grant it the required permissions, and you're off. Apart from an interstitial screen that you'll see the very first time you launch it (above left), you'll always be dumped straight to the viewfinder (above center), as with Adobe's app.
The viewfinder has all the tools you need immediately accessible with just a few taps. Along the bottom of the viewfinder, below the shutter, are different modes you can switch between based on what you're scanning. You'll probably just use the default "document" mode, but you can quickly switch to scanning business cards, photos, and whiteboards as well, each of which triggers its own preset modes. Above the shutter is your camera roll, offering easy access to images you've already captured with your camera app — just tap the images you'd like to add to a document and then tap the orange arrow that appears to the right of the shutter button (above right). You can also tap the photograph/gallery icon to get to a file picker if you need to manually navigate to images outside the camera roll.
When you've got the document lined up in the viewfinder, an orange-red rectangle indicates that it has a solid lock on its perspective and dimensions (which it can automatically crop and correct for). Just note that if you take photos on a grid-like background like you see pictured above, it might bug out a bit with that automatic cropping. There is a manual crop tool if that happens, though, and only very specific circumstances like that triggered any misbehavior for me.
Tweaking images before you turn them into a document is very easy.
When you've captured a page for your document, the workflow to tweak it is simple. If you need to add another page to your document, tap the "Add New" button, and you are taken back to the viewfinder to add another image — repeat that process as necessary with each page of the document.
When multiple images are loaded in, you can swipe between pages by scrolling left and right. There are filters if you prefer to convert your documents to black and white, etc., easily accessible with a quick swipe up.
Along the top of the screen, you have most of the other, less frequently used options. You can delete images in the current document, change their crop, rotate images, change their document type (which adjusts pre-set filters), make a text overlay, or draw on the document. With pinch-to-zoom working, you can even add a signature or annotate, if you need to.
Simple export process.
When you're done, tap "Done," and you get options for how to save your document. If you save it to your Android phone's gallery, that saves it as a JPEG image, but there are options to save a PDF file to your phone's storage as well. You can also send the image to OneDrive, PowerPoint, or OneNote, and documents can be imported to Microsoft Word for OCR if you prefer to convert it into text.
When the document has been saved in a specific format, you're dumped to a list of files you've created in the app, from there you can share or delete them via the three-dot menu on each. If I had to come up with one complaint about this app, it's that a share option could be integrated into the export screen before this one, but that's a very minor concern.
We have two other, different ways of to create a PDF on your Android-powered phone listed below. Drive is likely the most convenient choice for users in a pinch, and Adobe Scan is a good tool if you live in the Acrobat ecosystem, but if you scan documents regularly, we still think you owe it to yourself to try Microsoft Office Lens, it's easily the best document scanning solution we've used.
The reasons to use Google Drive for your PDF needs are:
- It's simple and easy.
- You probably don't need to install anything, most phones come with it.
- It syncs PDFs that it creates to Google Drive, a boon to G Suite-based productivity and cloud storage.
- If you don't need a local PDF — it can only save to Google Drive.
Creating PDFs in Google Drive on Android is simple:
Left: The floating action button opens a menu (right) which includes the "Scan" option for creating PDFs.
Just open the app, tap the "+" floating action button in the corner, and in the resulting menu, select "scan."
Line up, review, and tweak the photos you take for PDFs in Drive.
Line up the document in the viewfinder, trying to make sure all four corners are visible and that your view is mostly flat, and take the photo. (Holding the document with your hands while scanning is possible, but you'll need to be careful.) After a bit of processing, Drive then gives you the option to review and accept or reject the photo before importing it into the PDF. Tap the big checkmark when you think the photo is good enough, and the app will correct for some distortion and import the document in black and white (by default) to the PDF.
Drive can automatically correct for perspective, too, so you don't need to worry too much if you can't snag the perfect shot, it will stretch and tweak things to compensate all on its own, though some content might end up a bit off-kilter.
More options are nested in other menus.
From this screen you can add more pages to the current document ("+" icon), re-capture any page that has already been added (the reload/redo icon), alter the crop/distortion correction (crop icon in the top right corner), change color settings (palette icon in the top right corner), and delete, rotate, or rename the scan (all through the overflow three-dot menu top right). Further options in the nested settings menu allow you to change paper size, orientation, and image quality, though the defaults should be fine for most of us.
Once you're happy with the results, just tap the checkmark in the bottom right. Drive will ask you where to save it in Google Drive and what to name it. After you tap "Save" in the bottom right corner, it should be there. Congrats, you've just made a PDF with your phone.
Google Drive can do OCR, but it's a separate function.
You can also get PDFs captured in this way to generate into text documents via OCR, but it's a multi-step process. You'll need to either open the PDF again later in Google Docs as a document or toggle a setting in Google Drive to change how uploaded documents are handled ("Convert uploaded files to Google Docs editor format" in Settings -> General from the desktop site). Google's OCR is pretty good with text, but strange formatting or unusual languages, symbols, or graphics can sometimes confuse it, so plan to review it later for errors.
If you need a different set of features than what Google Drive's app can provide, and you're willing to give up the deeper integration with G Suite's services, Adobe Scan may be more your style. Its advantages include:
- OCR (optical character recognition), which turns scanned documents into searchable, copyable text.
- Works with images/photos you already have.
- Auto-capture streamlines the photo-taking process.
- Works with the Adobe Acrobat app for built-in signing and filling out forms.
The process for Adobe Scan isn't much more complicated than it is on Drive, but I would say it is a little less user-friendly.
Adobe Scan can capture photos automatically and do perspective correction, too.
When you open the app (and grant it the permissions it requires to function), you'll be presented directly to a camera viewfinder. Scrolling left or right through the carousel at the bottom allows you to select between types of documents. The Aperture icon next to the shutter button controls Auto-Capture, which allows Adobe Scan to take photos of documents automatically once they're in frame, and I'd encourage you to have it on since it can save some time. Either way, you can still capture documents manually with the shutter button.
Adobe Scan isn't quite as good at picking up the edges of documents for perspective correction in my experience, but it offers the chance to correct the crop for each item as it is scanned (by default, after enough scans it will ask if you'd like to disable that).
The UI isn't quite as clear as Drive when it comes to advancing steps. The gallery icon is how you move forward once you've taken all your photos.
Once you have captured all of the documents you want to be included in a given PDF, tap the gallery icon to the bottom right and it takes you to a screen where you can review the contents.
Adobe Scan can make PDFs from images you've already taken or downloaded.
(If you'd prefer to make a PDF from images that were previously taken, the icon to the bottom left on the capture screen which looks like a stack of photos allows you to import them into the app to generate a document from.)
Options for tweaking PDFs are better labeled in Adobe Scan.
From the review screen, you can rename the PDF (text/pencil icon top center), or use the navigation bar at the bottom to do things like add more pages, reorder items, change the crop, rotate images, select color settings, or delete pages.
When you have the PDF and its contents in a place that you like it, tapping "Save PDF" in the top left corner saves it locally, dumping you to the default "recent" list of documents in Adobe Scan.
Several ways to open and share PDFs.
From here you can share existing documents, open them in Acrobat, and fill them out/sign them via the Adobe Acrobat app. After a short bit of processing, the files listed here also include OCR text. If you need to get them off of your device (which is probably the whole point of generating a PDF), you can share the files via that aptly-named "share" button. Options include shooting off a link to the file stored on Adobe's Document Cloud, sending the file via Email, or you can pass the file to another app via an intent with "Share a copy."
One word of warning: I have run into issues with non-link, standalone PDF files generated by Adobe Scan. It's clear that Adobe tries to push users into sharing PDFs via links over services it can charge for rather than the files directly (there's no option to just save/export the PDF as a file to a specific location, for example). However, some of the files it has generated for me have had issues and couldn't be opened, though the online links created at the same time worked fine. YMMV, in my experience, Drive does a better job handling PDFs as actual files.
Whatever you choose, you've got options — more than we even listed here. So the next time you think you'll have to find a scanner to put together a PDF, remember that the phone in your pocket is perfectly capable of handling it.