The 3 Best Free OCR Tools To Convert Your Files Back Into Editable Documents

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ocr softwareBelieve it or not, some people still print documents to physical pieces of paper. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software takes those printed documents and converts them right back into machine-readable text. We’ve found some of the best free OCR tools and compared them for you here.

No OCR program is perfect, so you’ll have to double check the results and fix a few problems. Still, it’s a lot faster than typing the entire document back into the computer. Each of these free OCR software tools has its own strengths, and all of them will get the job done.

The Methodology

To compare these tools, I printed out MakeUseOf’s About page and scanned it back into the computer. With multiple columns and imperfections, this is not an ideal document to OCR. But that’s a good thing – real-life OCR operations will often be with imperfect documents.

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Google Docs

Google Docs has integrated OCR support. It uses the same OCR engine that Google uses to scan books and understand text in PDF files.

To get started, open the Google Docs website and start uploading a file. You can’t scan directly from your scanner into Google Docs; you’ll have to scan the document as an image or PDF file first. If you don’t have a scanner, you can try scanning a document with your smartphone’s camera.

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Enable the “Convert text from PDF and image files to Google documents” check box when you upload the file.

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After you upload the file, it will appear as a new text document in Google Docs.

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Google Docs did a pretty good job here. It struggled to understand the web addresses, but all these tools did.

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Unlike many free online OCR tools, like Free OCR (which is different from the FreeOCR below), Google Docs doesn’t have any limits on the amount of pages you can upload.


Editor’s Note: users have reported malware bundled with recent versions of FreeOCR; we recommend you not download the software at this time. Links have been removed, article content remains for reference.

FreeOCR is a simple, easy-to-use frontend for the open-source Tesseract OCR engine, originally developed by HP Labs. FreeOCR comes bundled with Tesseract, so you don’t have to install anything extra.

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Use the Scan button to scan a page directly from your scanner or use the Open option to open an image or PDF file.

Click the red X button to clear the pre-filled text before continuing. After opening the file, click the OCR button on the toolbar and FreeOCR will start crunching away.

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FreeOCR gave good results on the main block of text, but it was confused by the columns. To fix this, I selected the block of text I wanted and used the “Crop image to selected area” option.

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The results were much better after running the OCR operation on a specific section of the document.

Cuneiform OpenOCR

Cognitive Technologies developed Cuneiform as a commercial OCR solution, but eventually released it as freeware. Cuneiform OpenOCR has an unpolished interface, but there’s an excellent OCR engine underneath.

The download page is in Russian — scroll down and click the “english version” setup link to download and install Cuneiform.

After you install it, you’ll find that it didn’t create appropriate Start menu entries. The “NewShortcut6” shortcut will launch OpenOCR.

From the File menu, use the Open option to open a file or the Scan option to scan a document.

After it’s in OpenOCR, use the Recognize option in the Recognition menu to OCR the text. Cuneiform OpenOCR will save it as a file.

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Cuneiform OpenOCR provided good text recognition. It also preserved the formatting and text size differences – unlike the other programs here.

The Verdict

Each of these programs has its strengths.

  • Google Docs can OCR documents without downloading anything to your computer.
  • FreeOCR offers a very easy-to-use interface, but requires some fiddling if a document contains columns.
  • Cuneiform OpenOCR preserves much of the original document’s formatting, but its interface lacks polish.

Once you’re done with the OCR process, you may want to spell-check your document. Depending on your use, you may not even have to OCR documents at all – you can convert a paper book to an ebook without OCRing it.

Which OCR software works best for you? Do you have a different favorite OCR program that we didn’t mention here? Leave a comment and let us know.

Image Credit: Woman’s Hand With Working Copier via Shutterstock

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Comments (37)
  • Steven Hodgin

    Hello Chris,

    Thanks you for sharing a great online tool in this post. Free tools have their own features, but that are negative points too. Free online converter store your PDF file on their sever (your pdf file could be have some personal information).

    Personally I would like to share a tool here i.e. “PDFWARE Image to PDF Converter”. This software has many options to add Images in a PDF document. It convert all types of Images into pdf document. I will recommend it to other user.

    Best Regards

  • Pedro

    Hi, Chris!

    Could you tell me the name of the best freeware for printing searchable PDFs?


  • Mr Silly

    Tesseract via for the win.

  • Jacob Eeckhout

    Thanks for the ‘Google Doc’-tip. It took me a lot of time to find the best solution. Google Docs keeps the formatting of the document, which saves me a lot of time. Thanks!

  • dave

    Hey bro – as a reviewer you should take the time to review the product EULA and data / security policies.
    These are at least as important as the features offered.

    I did not appreciate the spyware packaged with your recommendation (FreeOCR), or the agreement that would allow collection and use of personal data.

    You should have mentioned these negatives. No prize for this review.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.