Carry the Scan

Introduction

When the desktop publishing revolution began, the most sought-after item was always a scanner. Today, scanners remain a high priority even for home and small-business users. The reason for this is their versatility - plus their relatively low cost. Here, we take a look at a number of low-cost models (priced under £300). You'd have thought such a low price threshold would restrict us to consumer scanners, yet one semi-professional model still crept in. Most of the scanners tested are available for between £100-£150. Scanners have become smaller and lighter in recent years, meaning you no longer have to give up swaths of desk space to accommodate one. The advent of SCSI-less Macs and USB scanners means it's time to move away from SCSI as a scanner connection. With one exception, the scanners tested are USB devices. If you're a SCSI user, don't flip to the next section of the magazine just yet, because most of these models have equally good SCSI versions available too. Alternatively, you can add a USB card to your PCI Mac to ensure future compatibility when upgrading your machine. The £300-plus price-range puts you firmly in the semi-professional scanner market. These are usually defined not so much by their high resolutions as their professional features, such as batch scanning and transparency capability. Professional designers may think they need to shell out an extra £300 or so for a model that will meet their requirements, but the reality is that a low-end scanner may be all you needed. For positional work a screen resolution of 72dpi is all that's required. If you require positional scans from transparencies, a number of the models tested can be upgraded with adaptors. While you won't be able to use the scans for glossy publications, the results are easily good enough for place-holding duty. Going back to the days when such scanners cost £1,200 and upwards, some manufacturers designed lower-cost hand-held scanners. These typically managed a maximum resolution of 150dpi and often in 16 shades of grey. They were useful in some circumstances, but because you can now get a 1,200dpi, 36-bit scanner for half the price, they are now obsolete. Your options with even a low-end scanner are numerous. One such use is scanning images for use on a Web site. Now that most ISPs offer free Web space, I'm assuming the majority of our readers have access to the Net. The secret to any decent Web site is, of course content - and to this end images contribute a great deal. Because Web sites are viewed on monitors, screen resolution is the same the world over. This means that, whether you're authoring Disney's new Web site or one meant solely for the eyes of your pals, a simple £99 scanner is all you need. Even if the scan is not colour-perfect, many models come with bundled software that can correct imperfections. You don't even need to splash out on a digital camera: if you already have a quality film camera, you have little to gain by splashing out on a digital version. Of course, you'll miss out on the instant gratification factor of digital photography - but there still a lot to be said for a quality glossy print from real film. And remember, if you have a good quality printer, you can even duplicate pictures at a fraction of the cost of reprints. A scanner and printer could even pay for themselves in no time if you want to duplicate your wedding shots. The results would be practically indistinguishable from the real thing. Something I discovered when looking for suitable snaps to scan for testing purposes was that the majority of holiday pictures are taken with cheap or disposable cameras. The resulting prints are almost universally blurry. Scanning these into your Mac may not make them into masterpieces, but you can improve them. A common problem is badly framed pictures. In this instance, scan them in and re-crop them. If your scanner has Adobe PhotoDeluxe - or something similar - you can tweak the colour balance or even turn it into a birthday card. There's a ton of fun to be had with scanners. If it is the immediacy of digital cameras that you want, you can always buy a Polaroid instant camera for less than £30. Its pictures may not be top quality, but they have a certain charm. You can scan them in for reprints, enhancements or Web work. Their quality will be no worse than the cheapest digital cameras. Of course, scanners can be put to more sophisticated uses, particularly in the small office environment. For example, if your scanner has OCR (Optical Character Recognition) you need never re-type anything again. Simply scan the relevant document using TextBridge or OmniPage (both are regularly bundled with scanners). The OCR package reads the letters and turns them into an editable text document. The software even copes with copying formatted documents. It's not totally accurate, but does save hours of typing. Scanning is already a mature technology although resolution and speed are both likely to improve. However, ever-increasing resolution is not a compelling reason to buy any of the scanners in the price bracket we are examining. And while speed increases are always nice, scanning an A4 page at 72dpi in a little over 30 seconds is plenty fast enough for most low-end users. The real variable in the consumer-scanner bracket is price. A price war is already underway - and sub-£100 scanners are now common. Back to resolution. This is one of the most often quoted specifications when it comes to scanners - because the higher the resolution, the sharper the image. However, the resolution quoted by many manufacturers has little to do with image-quality - because they often quote the machine's interpolated resolution. At first, interpolation was a hardware trick to increase the possible resolution. When using interpolation, the scanner would scan at its highest resolution, then offset the scanning head by half a pixel and scan again. This would give twice the information of a single scan but, as it was not collected in one pass, it was not the same as an authentic high-resolution scan. It was a good work-around and, when 300dpi scanners were more than £1,000, it was also a cheap work-around. Unfortunately, the marketing moguls - with their love of ever-brasher statistics, turned to interpolation to get them ahead in the numbers game. The word 'interpolation' has now come to mean something different. Rather than being a hardware trick, it's software interpolation that is more common. Instead of offsetting the scanning head, resolution is increased via software. The result is the same as when increasing resolution in Photoshop. No extra information is involved, making the image blocky - and no better for the higher resolution. All the scanners we tested are capable of some kind of interpolation, but we never quote interpolated resolution, because the information is worthless. Always go by optical resolution. There really has never been a better time to buy an entry-level scanner - but how do you tell them apart? In testing, a number of features contributed to our Star Ratings. Quality is the key factor. If you're scanning at 46,000 dpi but your colours are wrong it's no use to anybody. We scanned a number of pictures, photographs, magazine clippings, text and ink-jet-printed images. Each tested the models' varying abilities. Our second test was for speed. Because the scanners have varying high resolutions, we chose 72dpi as the acid test, because they were all capable of it. We used an A4 image and timed the results from the moment the scan button was clicked to the image appearing on screen. Ease-of-use was another important factor. Scanners can be difficult to set up, especially for novices. As their USB capability means new iMac users are likely buyers, we have assumed little or no knowledge of peripherals. These scanners should be as easy as plugging in a mouse. Another factor crucial to home and small-office users is size. Small is very much beautiful, while price - as ever - also rears its ugly head. Our aim is always to prevent you from splashing out unnecessarily. Let's start with size. Like a veritable cuckoo in a wren's nest, the Jade 2 dwarfs the competition. The Jade shouldn't really be in this feature, but its amazingly low price demanded its inclusion. It has all the features you would expect of a mid-range scanner and is ideal for studio work. For a little extra you can attach a transparency adaptor. The reason for its low price is down to its age. When the Jade 2 first shipped, it was more than twice the price of the current model. Now though, it's affordable for the home user. One drawback with the Jade is that it doesn't have a USB option. Even high-end Macs no longer ship with SCSI as standard - so SCSI scanners need SCSI cards to work with modern Macs. There are USB-to-SCSI adaptors in the pipeline, but none have so far shipped, so their usefulness is unknown. The danger of fitting a SCSI card in a new G3 Macintosh is that, with just three vacant PCI slots, you can run out of room very quickly. If you've opted for the fast SCSI option to get speedy drives in your new Mac, attaching a scanner to the SCSI bus will slow it down dramatically. Although Ultra 2 SCSI - or any fast SCSI - is backwards-compatible, attaching a slow SCSI device always means everything runs at the slowest speed. Until the suitability of the USB-to-SCSI adaptors is known, be aware of anything that relies on SCSI. It may represent a good deal now, but you may live to regret it. From an outsized veteran we move to a compact newcomer. The Artec is tiny, made possible by its lack of power supply cables. Power is drawn from the Mac's USB port. The scanner is only a couple of inches bigger than its A4 top-size capability. It's also cast in translucent blue, which adds to its charm. This is a cute scanner. Cute and effective. Its portability spurred us on to run a number of extra tests. Imagine you're on the road with your new USB equipped PowerBook (shh... it's still a secret). You need to scan a document and you have your Artec plugged into the PowerBook, which is balanced precariously at an angle on your car seat. Even though the Artec has access to only 500 milliamps it can still perform the scan, even at a 35-degree angle. The Artec performs above and beyond the call of duty: it can go where you go; it makes an attractive partner for your iMac or new Power Mac G3; and it scans well. There is just one problem: because of its PC-manufacturer background, its software installation is inelegant. Although not exactly rocket science, rookies may fall foul of its manual installation demands. Next up in size is the Microtek Phantom 336CX. Only slightly larger than the Artec, the Phantom uses an external power adaptor. It is small and neat but is easily the noisiest scanner on test, which was something of a distraction. Undoubtedly, the three big guns in the scanner industry are Epson, Agfa and Umax. For those not in the know, Umax manu-factures many of the high-end scanners re-badged by Heidelberg. The pedigree of Epson and Agfa, I'm sure, you'll be more familiar with. Epson faired well in the tests, after performing poorly in recent years. The older Epson scanners had a characteristic yellow cast on scans, something I'm glad to say is a thing of the past. Epson engineers always said the different colours seen by older scanners were, in fact, more accurate - but it's what the eye sees that's important. Now Epson scans compare favourably with the rest. In fact, scan-quality all-round was extremely good - and it's difficult to say if any is best (good news for scanner punters). For the purposes of singling out a model, this shifts the emphasis on to the other considerations. The Agfa scanner was the first to appear in a truly iMac-like translucent case. It makes a striking addition to the iMac peripheral collection. It may clash with the fruitier iMac flavours but Bondi and Blueberry should be fine. If you just can't stand all this frivolous nonsense, there's a grey SCSI version of the 1212U also available. There's a SCSI model of the Umax 1220U - but bear in mind the USB upgrading factor. The USB version is one of the larger scanners on test, but not noticeably better than any of the others. If you're an older-Mac owner and are concerned about buying a non-USB scanner, there's a solution. There are a PCI cards available that add two USB ports to older Macs. The KeySpan USB costs £59, but USB Direct has one at half that price. Software is another variable. The Phantom, for example, presented me with Scan Wizard 1.0, which I've been staring at since 1995. It could use an upgrade. But it's not worst software around - at least you can get to the controls when you need them. The Agfa software, though, makes everything so simple that you can't tell what resolution you're scanning at. I know novices may become confused when offered choices of resolution, but over-simplification makes life unrewarding for more experienced users. Epson's software is also a tad shy about resolution, choosing standard settings to match the Epson printers' output-resolution. At least Epson scanners allow you to set scanning resolution if you wish to. Microtek, has been making Mac scanners for at least ten years - but any head-start it may have had has become a deficit.
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