In the old days, there were two types of scanner – professional and consumer. They were pretty easy to tell apart; usually just looking at the price tag would do it. Scanners that cost over £500 or going back far enough over £1,000, were professional models. Under £500 and it was a consumer scanner. Since those days scanner prices have tumbled – and specs have improved, so telling them apart is more difficult. We took a look at scanners across the spectrum to see how they compared.
The scanner market, like pre-press houses, has been in decline for some time. Digital imaging is the name of the game now, and scanning in slides seems as old fashioned as playing vinyl records. Many photographers – the ones that still insist that film is the only way to take a photograph – aren’t ready to move to the digital world. However, very few pictures are printed using photographic processes,
so that’s where scanners become important.
While scanners are important to photographers, they’re also important to a number of other users. Designers are often in need of a scanner, whether it’s to acquire images, or to scan fabrics or tree bark for more creative effects.
Colour accuracy can be important at some times, and less so at others. For example, whenever the final output of a scanner is destined for the printed page, it’s important to know as closely as possible what colour it will be. It’s important because the user has control of the final output. If the design is destined for the Web or TV, colour accuracy is less important. It’s nice to be in the ball park with colour, but you have no control over the final output. Any Web page you build will appear differently on a million uncalibrated monitors, so there’s little point in giving colour more than a cursory glance.
Scanning for the Web
It seems that there are less Web designers now than since before the bubble burst. Yet the number of people building Web sites has continued to boom. Today, home users that make the majority of Web sites now, using services like .Mac’s HomePage to create online photo albums.
Across the world millions of shoe boxes wait for a million home users to finally get around to scanning the squillions of old photos that are sitting there. Consumer-oriented scanners are being designed to take care of this worldwide enterprise, with a couple of novel approaches. It’s nice to see some innovation in scanner design after so many years of it being a mature technology with little change.
One of the biggest changes in scanner buying habits is the move to all-in-one printer scanner copiers. For under £100 you can buy a device that does so much more than just scanning. But can an all-in-one take the place of a good scanner?
Sticking scanners onto printers doesn’t mean that they have to be low quality. However, models under £100 are likely to use fairly cheap components. Being a jack-of-all-trades doesn’t mean they can’t be master of all too. But if you want a good-quality scanner and a decent-quality printer in the same device, you’ll pay a lot of money. A good example would be the HP PSC 2510, which adds a wireless connection to a decent scanner and a good printer. Less impressive was the Lexmark X2250 that pretty much failed as a scanner, though the printing was reasonable.
To figure out which scanner is best for you, the first thing you need to decide is what you need the scanner for. If you’re likely to be scanning for professional printing you will definitely need some powerful software. The best of the bunch at the moment is SilverFast, which is bundled with a number of the scanners tested. The SE version is a light version that lacks some of the more high-end features like batch scanning and job management. But the actual scan quality achievable from the SE version is still outstanding. What’s really good about SilverFast is that it is easy enough for novices to use. It will take a little effort to learn, but the user is stepped through the process. Those willing to delve a little deeper will find as many controls over the scanning process as they want. This is every bit a high-end application, but with normal users in mind. This is just as well because the days when you could make a living just as a scanner operator are pretty much over. It was once a dark art, but now it’s come out of the shadows, and anybody can do it.
When choosing a scanner you might be forgiven for thinking resolution is the best way to evaluate a scanner’s quality. This is emphatically not the case, especially when you look at interpolated resolution.
Resolution should be thought of as a quantity rather than a quality measure. Having a high resolution is only a good thing when you need it, which is most likely very rarely. Bit-depth is a better measure, given that that relates to the range of colour that the scanner can see. The best measure is colour density, which is a measure of how many shades a scanner can differentiate between.
Bigger is definitely better here, but of the scanners tested few actually quote a density. The reason for this is two fold. Density ranges are measured with transparencies, and some of the scanners tested have a transparency capability only via an adaptor. The second reason is that cheaper scanners quite likely don’t have a good density range, so why mention it. With this in mind, if you see a scanner that is claiming any density range at all it is probably better than average. Look for figures of 3.3D (which is decent) ranging up to 3.8D (which is excellent). More than that, and the scans will be outstanding. The Epson Perfection 4870 Photo claims an impressive 3.8D, and the 3170 Photo, 3.4D. Epson was the only company out of everyone in our roundup that quoted a figure.
The next thing to consider is whether you are ever likely to scan transparencies.
Most of the scanners include some capacity for scanning 35mm film, slides and other transparencies. Depending on
the frequency of your requirements you could consider anything from a single 35mm capacity up to 24 frames of 35mm film.
If transparencies are likely to be the main focus of your needs you might want to consider one of the A3 Umax models that aren’t included in our roundup. These have remained unchanged for many years, but only because they got about as good as scanners get.
For scanning photographs to put online, any of the scanners featured would be up to the job. A couple though are designed for just that task. HP has the dinky A5 PhotoSmart 1200. It runs off batteries and scans to a CompactFlash or SD/MMC media card (neither of which are supplied). If we were in PC land we would be able to plug it directly to the computer, but that misses the point of this scanner a bit.
What this scanner is great at is allowing the user to sit of the sofa watching TV while scanning piles of photographs for his Web site. When you’re done just pop the card into your card reader (no included) and the pictures will pop up in iPhoto. It’s a neat trick, although once you have scanned your pictures in the scanner may become a bit redundant. Still, there’s always eBay once your collection is scanned.
Another HP scanner with the same purpose in mind is the Scanjet 5530. This is a full-size flatbed scanner with an auto-feeder stack. Simply put your pictures in the hopper at one end, and it automatically scans them – they pop out into a tray at the other end. If you have a lot of pictures this is going to be the most painless way of getting them digitised.