Pass Masters

Introduction

Last month we took a look at consumer scanners. Here, we move up a notch to the high-end flatbed scanners. The main difference between a consumer scanner and a pro scanner is the ability to scan transparencies. Of course, the quality of scan should be noticeably higher too, but that’s not always the case. Software used in high-end scanning is considerably different to consumer-level software. Although pro software makes top-end scanners harder to use, it also gives greater control over the scanning process. Prices for professional flatbed scanners have taken a tumble recently. Like consumer scanners, you will pay barely half the price being asked last year. If you need scanners with greater bit-depth, resolution and batch-scanning capabilities you can find more expensive scanners than featured here. None of the scanners tested cost more than £3,000. Beyond this, you’re looking at drum-scanners for considerably more money. There are flatbed scanners, such as the Topaz, that offer true drum-scanner quality – but at drum-scanner prices. It’s more than possible you won’t need to spend as much as you’d planned on a scanner. Traditionally, designers have used low-cost scanners for positional scans, when high-resolution images were produced by pre-press bureaus. Usually, the positional scans were done on sub-£500 scanners, but if you take a look at last month’s scanner round-up, you’ll see that you can achieve the same results on a sub-£100 scanner. If you need to scan transparencies you might have to spend £300 on the Heidelberg Jade II, but that’s still far less than the models we have tested this month. The models we did test can scan transparencies – and to a high-enough quality to give drum scanners a run for their money. When making a scanner purchase for the first time, it’s important to know what it is you expect to achieve. If you’re looking to cut the cost of repro-house work, you may very well be able to. You may imagine that repro houses all use drum scanners, but many use flatbed scanners similar to those we have tested. What you’re paying for isn’t just the equipment a repro house uses, but for for their experience and expertise with colour. If you aren’t getting that from your repro house, you may as well consider the DIY approach. Much of the software used with these scanners is designed for colour pros, but a little time spent with a good manual and you can turn out great looking scans too. However, be ready to spend some time as a student of scanning, as none of the models tested are straightforward to use. The direction of scanner technology isn’t altogether clear at the moment, as the basic requirements for a good scan are available to most of the scanners tested. Technology has now reached a point at which increases in resolution are less important because levels are already adequate for the majority of users. In fact, super-high resolution can reduce print quality. Colour sensitivity is still improving gradually, but technology in this area is levelling out. One area, though, that is ripe for improvement is software. Demands on scanning software usually come second to those required of hardware capability. Scanning software isn’t as sophisticated as you’d wish, with its clunky interfaces and cryptic controls being the norm rather than the exception. Now that scanner hardware is approaching excellence, maybe scanner manufacturers should focus on making their software easier to use. Scanning is a mature technology and manufacturers should be falling over themselves to get the edge on their competitors. Better software, it seems, is the obvious answer, but as yet nobody has taken the lead. Maybe next year will see this particular battle won or lost. There is one change in the world of Macintosh computing that’s going to alter scanners considerably. USB has already become the interface of choice for the entry-level scanners. This is because of the iMac, which preceded the USB-equipped Power Mac by about five months. Scanner manufacturers should have anticipated the move to USB at the high-end, and it still isn’t clear how they intend to deal with it. There’s one school of thought that says USB isn’t fast enough to keep up with pro scanners and that they require a SCSI-compatible Mac. There are, though, good reasons for avoiding this. The problem with SCSI isn’t only that it’s no longer a standard item on a Mac. Even if you go for the optional Ultra 2 SCSI card in your new G3, you should be careful how you plug your scanner into it. This is because that, while SCSI is good at being backwards-compatible, it can be at the cost of speed. If you have Ultra 2 SCSI with a super-fast hard-drive – and then plug in a scanner – the SCSI bus will drop in speed to meet the scanner’s slower SCSI speed. My suggested solution is to take advantage of the undervalued FireWire port that’s now standard on the G3 models. Perhaps if a pro scanner had SCSI and FireWire it could bridge the gap between old and new, but scanner manufacturers have said nothing to make me think this will happen. SCSI is cheap but FireWire is expensive from a manufacturers point of view. By this time next year, I’m sure the industry will have presented a solution: the problem must be affecting sales already. Whatever the answer, it’s likely to make scanners more expensive – at least initially. Measuring quality
Judging a scanner is a tricky business; there are plenty of tricks both to squeeze more performance out of a scanner, and to make the scanner appear better than it is. Companies quote myriad stats when you ask them how good their scanner is. Manufacturers assume people want to see ever-higher performance numbers. In the consumer market, the most often (mis)quoted number relates to resolution. Interpolated resolution is commonly quoted, but has little to do with the final quality of the scan, because using interpolation lowers quality. The only figure relating to resolution you should take notice of is optical resolution. This is the real maximum sampling rate of the scanner, and it tells you how many CCDs (Charge Couple Devices) are used to each inch. Some scanners have two different resolutions, achieved by using different lenses. At first glance, this may seem as if companies are cheating in their bid to quote ever-higher resolutions. In fact, they are just using a clever technique to increase real resolution. The only downside to this method is that the scanning area is reduced – but it’s a small price to pay. (This technology is used in some DuoScan and Microtek scanners). Colour-depth refers to the number of colours a scanner can recognize. When we talk about full-colour images on a computer, we mean 24-bit colour, which is around 17 million colours. It’s enough that the human eye cannot tell the difference between similar colours. Fortunately, scanners are better at seeing colour, and depths of up to 42-bit are achievable. Even though the end output from your scanning software may be 24-bit, having a 42-bit colour gamut to work with means more accurate colour. Even if your scanner can see lots of colours, it also needs to be able to differentiate between shade density. The density range is a figure to describe how good a scanner is at this job. In a cheap scanner, you’ll see that scans with detail in the shadow and highlight area of an image are often lost. The ability to recognize a broad range of densities makes for better scans: the higher the number, the more shadow detail you’ll get. Speed is an easy number to quote with most peripherals, but scanners are a little different. The speed depends on a number of factors: size of the scan; the software being used; and the scanner itself. Scanner speed is less important than scan quality, so it is unfair to compare scanners simply on speed. If a scanner can scan twice as fast as its competition, but at a lower quality, it is of little worth. After the tangible measurements of a scanner’s prowess comes software. Software is the one thing that can make or break a scanner: it can make a bad scanner good, or a good scanner bad. The only problem is that software is so esoteric that it’s difficult to compare. Whichever scanner you choose, it’s worth spending some time getting to grips with its software. If you don’t, you’ll not get the best out of you scanner and may as well buy a £70 model. Often, you will only need to spend time setting up your scanner to your requirements just once. Then the rest becomes almost automatic. As I mentioned earlier, some software can be quite unintuitive and clunky, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not powerful. If you’re not familiar with high-end scanning it may be worth asking your scanner dealer if training is available. This will ensure you will get the best from your scanner: most scanning problems stem from people rather than the hardware. Soft options
There are two main software packages used in the scanners we tested. LinoColor Elite This ships with the Heidelberg scanners and is the latest version of the long-used LinoColor scanning software. All the tools are available to get accurate colour and it’s fully compatible with ColorSync. It uses ColorAssistant to automate image processing, meaning it sets highlight and shadow and adjusts the chromatic curve and contrast for optimum results. This feature makes it possible to get professional results almost out of the box. LinoColor Elite is included with all the Heidelberg scanners we tested. Binuscan Comes with Umax scanners and adopts a different approach to colour-management. Instead of aiming for faithful accuracy, which will reproduce the flaws of an original, Binuscan aims to fix even bad photography. This is no small task, yet it does do an amazing job, making badly exposed film or inconsistent results perfect every time. The only time Binuscan was too clever for its own good was when it was presented with a picture with a deliberate blue tint. Even Binuscan cannot tell if a colour tint was on purpose or by accident. If changes are numerous, though, it will bring this to your attention. The way Binuscan works is similar to the how interpolation works with regard to resolution. When resolution is interpolated, two neighbouring pixels are used to guess what colour a pixel would be if there was an additional one between them, which increases resolution. Binuscan takes the Histogram of an image and spreads the information out to increase the steps of colour that’s used. You can do this by opening a picture in Adobe Photoshop and looking at the levels (under the Image/Adjust menu). You should see a smooth and solid histogram. Now use the auto-adjust command and go back to see what it has done to the levels histogram. You should see the histogram has now become fragmented, like a comb with broken teeth. What Binuscan does is use artificial intelligence to fill in the missing information between the teeth of the comb. Agfa has both versions of the DuoScan scanner included in this test. When the DuoScan appeared it was the first scanner to use a twin-bed approach to scanning. This means that rather than having a transparency adaptor in the hood, which is traditional, there is a separate tray for transparencies. This makes for a less cluttered scanning area, as the tray can be loaded with transparencies while you scan reflective art. The DuoScan now has a more basic version that has a reduced resolution and other lower specifications. The DuoScan T1200 may seem under-powered, but at just £549 it offers transparency capabilities and other pro features that takes some beating at the price. The T1200 competes with the Jade from Heidelberg, which offers similar specs at just £428, including transparency adaptor. It lacks the elegance of the twin beds but it makes up for that with its powerful bundled software. The Saphir Ultra 2 shares many of its features with the Umax PowerLook III Pro and, in the past, there have been big differences in price. Now, costs are closer – and any choice comes down to software. LinoColor Elite and Binuscan are both capable and professional pieces of software. A similar comparison can be made between the A3 scanners Opal Ultra 2 and the Mirage II – and this time the price is identical. If you prefer, you can buy the Mirage II SE for £1,000 less and forgo the Binuscan software, although it will seriously limit the capabilities of the scanner. The Epson GT-1200 is also an A3 scanner, with an 800-x-1,600-dpi resolution, which is quite enough for professional work. There are two options available – one for graphics and one for document scanning. We examined the graphics bundle but, for the record, the document bundle includes OCR software and a duplex sheet feeder for scanning lots of text unattended. The graphics bundle includes a transparency adaptor, which is a must for top-quality scanning. The software is in the form of a TWAIN driver, but, despite this, is very capable, even if it does lack the high-end features of some of the other scanner software packages. The A4 Epson GT-9600 has similar options for document or graphic scanning. What it lacks in scanning area it makes up for a resolution of 800-x-3,200 dpi – made possible by its Epson MicroStep drive moving the scanning head by tiny increments. Microtek’s range of scanners runs from the low-spec ScanMaker 9600 XL to the ScanMaker 5, which is functionally very similar to the DuoScan, with its media tray for transparencies. The software is different, but just as able in terms of the control it offers and its ability in batch scanning. Many of the scanners we tested are similar and it was hard to place one ahead of the other. Prices too have become more in line with each other, which makes the choice still harder. You need to decide whether you need an A4 or A3 model and then it’s more a matter of software choice. The Linotype Elite and Binuscan packages offer the best professional solutions, but each works in a different way – so try to check both out. It becomes a matter of personal choice, but both are good enough. The other software packages are not too far behind either, so for a budget solution they will definitely be good enough. Wherever possible, try to get a showroom dealer to give you a demonstration: this will offer the best way to determine which model best suits your needs. At around £2,500, impulse buying could prove to be a costly mistake. Keep your eyes open for special offers.
Find the best price