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Do you need to digitize handwritten notes to edit or index them? Or would you like to copy text from the picture of a handwritten quote? What you need is something called an optical character recognition (OCR) tool.
OCR tools analyze the handwritten or typed text in images and convert it into editable text. Some tools even have spell checkers that give additional help in the case of unrecognizable words.
We’ve tested six of the best OCR tools to convert handwriting to text.
Availability: Windows, Mac, Web, iOS, and Android
Microsoft OneNote is a digital note-taking program that doubles up as a pretty good handwriting OCR app.
Right-click on an imported picture and you’ll see the option to Copy Text From Picture. Use this command to extract letters from the image and convert them to text you can edit.
This option works in seconds, and Microsoft OneNote is a free, cloud-based program that you can use across various devices, including smartphones, tablets, and computers.
As with all handwriting OCR apps the results can be patchy at times. On the whole, though, it works pretty well even with harder to read writing. Write your notes in uppercase and you’ll find it to be a more than a serviceable tool.
OneNote is an amazing app. OCR is one of the many lesser known features of OneNote that are well worth trying out.
2. Google Drive and Google Docs
Google has a few tools that can turn handwriting into text, and chances are you’ve already got them.
The first is Google Drive. Open the app on your phone, hit the + icon in the bottom corner and select Scan.
The PDFs it saves aren’t editable in Drive itself, but they are searchable. If you’ve got handwritten notes that you just need to index, this is the ideal solution.
But when you do need to turn handwritten notes to editable text as well, a combination of Drive with Google Docs is what you need.
First up, scan your note to create a PDF doc, as before. Then jump over to your desktop and open drive.google.com. Locate the scanned file, right click, and select Open with > Google Docs.
This opens the PDF as a text file in Docs, and you can edit, or copy and paste the text into another document. It also automatically saves the editable version into Drive.
There’s a third option. The Google Lens app (it’s part of Google Photos on iOS) lets you do search for real-world objects by pointing your camera at them. It works with text, too. Hover your phone’s camera over some printed or handwritten text and wait a few seconds while it gets decoded. Then tap to complete the search.
With the power of machine learning behind it, Google has some of the best OCR for handwriting tools.
3. Simple OCR
Availability: Desktop only
This freeware tool recognizes approximately 120,000 words and allows you to add more words to its dictionary. Boasting up to 99 percent accuracy, SimpleOCR even identifies formatted text, and it’s possible to set it to ignore formatting, too.
Use the despeckle or noisy document feature if the handwriting you’re converting is messy.
SimpleOCR is a speedy tool, especially since you can set it to decipher whole documents, portions, or multiple documents in batches.
However, the aforementioned accuracy rating is clearly for printed text in pictures and less so for handwritten media. When comparing SimpleOCR with the Microsoft or Google tools, you’ll probably find the latter work better.
Download: SimpleOCR for desktop (Free)
4. Online OCR
This straightforward website allows you to go through the process of uploading an image, choosing an output format, and downloading the completed file in less than a minute.
Registration is not required for basic use of this free site. You’ll just have to complete a captcha.
However, during a test of a PNG photograph of handwriting to TXT format, Online OCR spit out random gibberish that failed to match the handwriting at all, so use this tool with a grain of salt.
Because it’s cheap and easy to use, there’s no harm in seeing if you get better results. One possible perk of Online OCR is it recognizes many languages.
Try: Online OCR (Free)
Availability: Windows only
TopOCR is one of the best pieces of handwriting recognition software.
Using a sourced image captured by a scanner or digital camera, TopOCR offers a dual pane format that displays the original image on the left and the conversion on the right. Expect it to work reasonably well if your handwritten text appears from left to right. If it features columns, the program will likely not be accurate.
TopOCR is efficient, supports 11 languages, and has a PDF export feature. The free trial version is capable enough to enable you to easily verify whether or not it will work for your needs and make a decision about buying the full, feature-unlocked program. One possible limitation of TopOCR is it only works on Windows computers.
Download: TopOCR (Free trial or $4.99 for full program)
Availability: Windows only
Made for the Windows platform, FreeOCR works with images and PDFs. Conversion time is very fast, but accuracy is dismal.
The original technology that runs FreeOCR was never designed to convert scanned handwriting to text. However, some users say after they used the program for that purpose repeatedly and carefully followed instructions in users’ guides and forums, accuracy got better.
Download: FreeOCR (Free)
Free vs. Paid OCR Apps
When you need to scan handwriting to text, it’s hard to look beyond what Google has to offer. It isn’t flawless and depends to a great extent on how clear your writing is in the first place, but is capable of producing some very good results.
One surefire way to get better results is to make sure your writing is easy to read. Check out these resources for improving your handwriting for tips on that.
We’ve focussed on free tools in this guide. Would you be better off with a paid app instead? Take a look at our OneNote vs. OmniPage comparison to see if professional OCR software is worth investing in.