OCR or Optical Character Recognition is an advanced software technique that allows a computer to extract text from images. In the early days, OCR software was quite crude and unreliable. Now, with tons of computing power at your fingertips, this is often the fastest way to convert text in an image into something you can edit with a word processor.
These ten applications offer different perspectives on the task of OCR, without a price tag and on multiple platforms. If you’re looking for a way to turn images into words, then you’ll almost certainly find the best free OCR software you need below.
FreeOCR is a standard free OCR software that offers all the core functionality you would expect from this type of software. For starters, if you have a TWAIN scanner (which is basically all of them), you can directly scan and extract text from paper. Importing images also works as you would expect. This includes multi-page documents in TIFF and PDF format too.
FreeOCR uses a open source engine originally developed by Hewlett Packard and eventually released by Google for everyone to use. It is known as “Tesseract”. Tesseract has some useful features, but one of the most interesting is its automatic layout detection system. This means you don’t have to spend time laboriously drawing rectangles around discrete blocks of text.
SimpleOCR is a basic OCR package that can convert typed documents to text directly from your scanner. The name, SimpleOCR, is quite literal in this case. If you have documents that show any kind of complexity, such as columns or that don’t have perfectly sharp scans, SimpleOCR can’t get the job done.
Sure, Simple Software will happily sell you a more advanced solution for a few bucks, but if you just want to OCR some basic blocks of text, this is an option that won’t cost you a cent and is just as easy to use as the name suggests. As a bonus, it supports handwriting recognition!
Easy Screen OCR is a small, best free OCR software that relies on a cloud-based, Google-powered recognition engine. As you would expect, this means that you need an active internet connection for the software to work. If that’s not a problem, here’s a really handy tool.
This OCR application aims to extract text from screenshots so that you can copy text from websites or other text on the screen. The special thing about this is the support for more than 100 languages. If you want to translate (for example) Japanese text, you can simply take a screenshot and have Easy Screen OCR do it for you. If this is something you have to do often, it also helps that you have the option to set custom keyboard shortcuts.
While not a traditional OCR application, there are plenty of workflows today that extract text from the images you work with. Easy Screen OCR makes that task as easy as a few keystrokes.
Unfortunately, the latest version of the software (1.4.2 and above) requires a subscription fee after 20 uses. However, older versions of the software are still free to use.
Capture2Text is an interesting little application with a narrow, but very useful function. It is used for OCR text of what is currently on your screen. You press a hotkey, select the area of the screen you want to OCR and send the result directly to the clipboard so you can paste it into a word processor.
Capture2Text is a portable application, so you don’t need to install it. Just run the executable and you can use it on any Windows system from version 7 and above. The software is also Open Source, so you can copy and modify it as you please, as long as you follow the terms of the GNU license.
It’s not fancy by any means, but if you want to quickly extract text from images you use, this is a great piece of software to do it.
A9t9 (Windows 10)
If you have never ventured into the Windows Store, you may be surprised to find that there are many free and open source applications. The a9t9 app is such a gem and comes with no strings attached. There are no ads and it promises quite robust OCR performance.
A9t9 supports quite a long list of languages, although not as comprehensive as some of the other options on this list. If you are a Windows 8.1 (or later) user who now needs OCR and don’t want to spend money, just click a single button in the Windows Store app and seconds later, a9t9 will process your images into documents you can edit.
Adobe definitely has a ton of mobile apps out there in the wild. Some are quite good, while many seem to be little more than experiments. Adobe Scan falls into the first category. It is a polished camera scanning and OCR application that can run on Android or iOS. There is no charge and no subscription to Adobe services.
The final document is, of course, a PDF, which you can only edit directly with a paid version of Acrobat, but copying the text into a word processor of your choice isn’t a problem, if we’re honest.
One of the best features of the Adobe OCR software is its ability to recognize handwriting. Good quality handwriting is of course better recognized. Don’t expect it to decipher something you can’t read yourself. Like your doctor’s notes.
There are a few other reasons to try Adobe Scan. The ability to automatically scan, OCR and contacts from a business card is really cool. If you spend a lot of time meeting people, it can actually save you a lot of time.
The app also has, as you would expect from the makers of PhotoShop, a small set of retouching tools. So you can clean up the images before trying to extract text from them.
When the first phones with built-in digital cameras hit the market, the quality on offer was truly appalling. The resulting images weren’t really useful for anything and you certainly couldn’t make out fine details like text.
Today, the advanced cameras found even on budget models offer high-resolution images that are good enough to use as a replacement for a document scanner. For example, the Google Drive app lets you do some pretty good scans using just your phone camera.
With Microsoft’s Office Lens app, you can not only scan documents, but you can also OCR them on the fly. So you can take a picture of someone’s business card and have the text ready to copy to your contact list right away.
Office Lens is a standalone application, but its functionality is built into other MS Office apps too, so if you’re already using it, you may not need to download this standalone app. Then again, sometimes a focused, lightweight app is just what the doctor ordered.
English OCR is a free OCR app for iPhone and iPad that makes it quite easy to quickly take a photo of a document and convert the text in the photo into a digital format. It is released under an Open Source license, but the developers use advertisements to support the costs of developing and supporting the application.
There is a paid “Pro” version that has exactly the same functionality as the free version. The only difference is that the Pro version removes all ads. So if you like a few ads, you don’t have to put down any money at all.
Read between the lines
The promise of a paperless world has so far not been fulfilled. That means OCR technology will continue to be an important part of the bridge between the digital and analog worlds.
Armed with the above OCR apps, you should never have to painstakingly retype a document and, best of all, they won’t cost you a cent.