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Scanners Buying Guide


How many times have you wished you had an electronic copy of that special photo? How often have you had to laboriously type in an important business document that only existed on paper? A scanner can help you bridge the gap between the hard-copy and electronic worlds. Forget typing in documents by hand; with optical character recognition software, your scanner can convert hard-copy documents to text in the blink of an eye. You can also e-mail scanned photos to friends and create professional-quality newsletters, calendars, cards, and more. Scanners are now affordable enough for home users as well as business professionals.

Scanner types
Sensor types
Scanning area
Color depth
Gray levels
Paper handling
Transparencies and slides
Application software
Driver software

While the electronic-information age is approaching fast, we still live in a world filled with paper documents. A scanner provides the essential link between hard-copy information and your computer. With a scanner, you can send outgoing faxes, scan photos for Web sites, and translate paper documents into word-processing files using optical character recognition (OCR). In today's all-digital world, a scanner is essential to a complete computing system. Our guide will help you decide which scanner is right for your needs.

Scanner types
Which type of scanner you should choose depends on how you plan to use it. Three popular types of scanners are photo, flatbed, and sheetfed. As the name implies, a photo scanner aids in digitizing print photographs. These handy units tend to be smallsometimes only six inches wideand are optimized for scanning color photographs. They usually offer quick setup and come with software to help organize collections of photos.

Flatbed scanners make up the bulk of the general-purpose scanner market. These models usually deliver the best combination of quality and flexibility, and have only recently become available at affordable prices. To use a flatbed, you typically place your original under a flip-up cover; a moving scanner arm does the work while the document stays put. If your scanning needs involve a mix of photos, text documents and business graphics, a flatbed is the way to go.

Sheetfed scanners are most often used for desktop document-management tasks. Sometimes available in very compact and portable cases, sheetfed scanners can automatically feed one or more pages. Sheetfed scanners come in many styles, with some models offering functionality and quality similar to photo scanners. Sheetfed scanners also frequently come with document management softwareto manage digital versions of your documentsas well as outgoing fax drivers and optical character recognition (OCR) applications. Many sheetfed scanners detach from their feeders to become hand scanners that you can use to swipe book pages. If you're going to be mainly scanning text, a sheetfed scanner can offer you more portability and a lower price than a flatbed.

Sensor types
Advancements in image-reading ability are rapidly changing the size and complexity of flatbed scanners and forcing consumers to make a choice between two technologies CCD or CIS. CCD stands for "charge-coupled device" and is the image-scanning chip that most scanners have used until now. CIS (contact image sensor) technology is a relatively new approach that simplifies the scanning process and delivers smaller, lighter scanners. However, newer technology in this case doesn't necessarily mean a better buy.

CCD technology involves a precise arrangement of light source, mirrors, lenses, and the CCD chip itself. The light is bounced off the original document, directed through a lens, and focused on the CCD chip, which digitizes the image. When calibrated properly, this approach works wellit's still used in the vast majority of scanners on the market. However, its complexity adds bulk and requires significant power to drive the light source.

CIS technology eliminates some of these hassles by combining a series of closely placed LED light sources next to a row of tiny sensors. Unlike a CCD configuration, which focuses an entire line of the scanned image onto a small chip, the CIS models use sensors that run the width of the page. The bottom line on CIS is that it allows for smaller and lighter scanners that require less powermaking portable models more feasible. While CIS is a significant innovation, its scanning quality is still not quite up to par with CCD. For now, it's a choice between image excellence and design convenience. As CIS technology improves, however, look for it to compete head to head with CCD in the quality arena.

Scanning area
Scanners come in all shapes and sizes; when shopping for the right model, make sure it has enough scanning area to accommodate your needs. For example, you might ordinarily scan photos but occasionally need to scan a full page of text.

Scanning area usually differs according to the type of scanner. The most affordable flatbed scanners, for example, only handle originals up to 8.5 inch x 11.7 inches, though some models can accept legal-size documents. Sheetfed scanners, on the other hand, have a distinct advantage in that they feed the paper through and therefore aren't so limited when it comes to paper length (although the width is fixed). They usually handle at least legal-length originals. Photo scanners are a mixed bag in this regard. While most feed the originals like sheetfeds, some have more limited width.

Color depth
The color depth of a scanner determines the level of sensitivity it has to various colors it reads from an original. This specification is stated in bits, with common values ranging from 24 bits to 36 bits. Generally speaking, each bit represents a distinctive level of brightness and sensitivity to color. However, some vendors implement color depth differently, so a bigger number isn't necessarily better. Though this rating is similar to the rating on the number of colors your display driver or color printer provides, it isn't technically the same thing. In other words, don't limit yourself to a 24-bit scanner because your ink-jet printer only prints at 24 bits. While it may be hard to determine whether a scanner makes the most of its color depth, it's a good idea to shoot for a model that offers at least 30 bits.

Gray levels
Conceptually similar to color depth, the number of gray levels represents the sensitivity of a scanner to variations in black-and-white originals. If you're scanning a black-and-white photograph, for instance, the number of gray levels will determine how well the digitized image will reproduce the subtleties of shading. There is quite a range of gray levels among scanners, so consider how important this feature is for your particular applications. The standard is 256 levels of gray, although you can find other models that offer over 4,000 shades if monochrome scanning is very important to youif you're going to do a lot of black-and-white desktop publishing with photos, for example.

The resolution of a scanner determines how many distinct spots on the original can actually be scannedthe higher the resolution, the sharper the scanned image will be. This figure is expressed in dots per inch and frequently varies between the horizontal and vertical directions. The difference is a result of the technical limitations one dimension is limited by the accuracy of the optics and the sensor layout while the other dimension is bounded by how precisely either the scanner arm or the original can be moved.

There are two types of scanner-resolution ratings optical and interpolated. Optical resolution is the most important figure to compare while shopping, as it indicates the hardware-level resolutionthe actual scanning density. Interpolated resolution takes the results of the optical scanning and performs predictive software techniques to create estimated dot values between those that were actually scanned. While interpolation can improve the quality of many documents, the optical resolution of a scanner determines its true accuracy.

Look for an optical resolution of at least 600-by-600 dpi. Many units feature 600-by-1,200 dpi resolutions, which offer some additional image improvement. If you're going to be scanning mostly text and not photographs, you may want to opt for a 300-by-600-dpi model to save money.

You can attach scanners to your computer in a number of ways. The most common setup is to connect the scanner to your parallel port; this interface often provides a pass-through connector so you can keep your printer connected at the same time. Parallel-port connections are not the fastest but are often the most convenient and universal. If your computer supports universal serial bus (USB) connections, you can now find scanners with USB interfaces. Scanners aimed at the professional market often use SCSI to deliver better performance. These models usually come with their own controller card so your system doesn't need a built-in SCSI interface to accommodate the scanner. Choose the interface that makes sense for the way you workif you plan to move the scanner between systems, a USB or parallel connection may be the best option.

Paper handling
One of the important things to consider when buying a scanner is whether you'll be scanning multiple-page documents. While many sheetfed scanners can handle a modest number of pages at once, flatbed models generally require an optional automatic document feeder (ADF) to feed multiple sheets. ADFs can range in capacity from 10 pages to 100 pages and vary in price from $100 to $500. If you're purchasing a sheetfed or photo scanner, consider how many pages it can handle in its feeder; if you opt for a flatbed, check out the ADF optionand its price.

Transparencies and slides
The usual technique scanners use to digitize a page involves measuring the light reflected off the original document. This works fine for originals with opaque backgrounds, but transparencies and slides require special consideration. For these, light must be projected through the original and measured on the other side. Not all scanners support transparent originals, and those that do often require an optional transparency adapter. Bear in mind that you'll likely need a flatbed scanner for transparencies; sheetfed models generally do not support them.

Unfortunately, manufacturers' speed specification on scanners are essentially useless for s. Scan speeds run from seconds to several minutes depending on the type of document you're scanning and the resolution you're using. Vendors often quote speed in the terminology that best serves their product. The interface a scanner uses, however, makes a big difference when it comes to speedSCSI scanners are almost always faster than USB and parallel versions.

Application software
Scanners usually come bundled with software matched to their target market. Photo scanners, for instance, typically come with software to save and manage scanned photographs. Because they are often used by the entire family, they also have extremely easy-to-use interfaces. Some bundles even include printing and Internet-related software to help use scanned images to their fullest.

Sheetfed scanners cater to a different audience, mainly business users and home users looking for a way to fax documents from their computer. Sheetfeds typically come with fax and copying utilities, as well as document management and optical character recognition (OCR) software to help create a "paperless" desktop (OCR software converts a scanned image into a text document). Some sheetfed models include photo-management software as well. Flatbed scanners frequently offer a mix of all these types of software, as they're used for a wide range of photograph and text scanning.

All categories of scanners come with basic image-editing software. While scanners will work with other applications you may already have, it pays to do a little research into the software bundled with a scanner before you buy.

Driver software
The driver software bundled with your scanner is a critical component that will determine how easy scanning will be. Whether you're scanning into the scanner vendor's own software or a third-party package, the same driver interface will pop up. Fortunately, a widely accepted driver standard called TWAIN ensures your scanner will work with almost any scanner-ready application. TWAIN drivers vary in the complexity of their interfaces and features, howeverlook for a driver that is easy to use, yet offers enough flexibility for special tasks.

Most drivers offer a preview windowa picture of the scanning area that lets you specify the region to be scanned and preview a thumbnail version of the final image. This preview feature is often used to automatically adjust the scan size to avoid useless white spaceand wasted time. Good drivers also offer plenty of adjustment options, letting you set brightness, contrast, color levels, resolution, and color depth.

Scanners used to be an expensive add-on that only power users could afford. Today scanners are available at virtually all price ranges. Several units below $200 meet the needs of the casual home user looking for functionality over performance, while many of those costing between $350 and $400 are professional-quality models. If you're on a super-tight budget, there are now flatbeds for less than $100 that will perform basic scanning tasks. While more money won't always buy a better scanner, we suggest weighing your criteria carefully and purchasing the most powerful and flexible model your budget will allowyou'll be less likely to have to upgrade in the near future.


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