See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.
If you haven't looked into the benefits of using a scanner, it's possible you've overlooked an opportunity to save time and money by producing your own sales and marketing materials. Professional-looking brochures, mail order catalogs, fliers, letterhead, ads and newsletters that include color graphics and text you import from other sources can all be designed, edited and printed from your computer, thanks to scanning technology.
How do scanners work? Basically, they photograph illustrations or words and transfer them onto your computer so they can be incorporated into documents. The most popular scanners available are color flatbed and sheet-fed scanners. Flatbeds look and perform like small copy machines. They have glass plates on which you place the material you want to scan; some have removable lids so you can scan words or pictures from a book.
Flatbeds are pretty fast these days, needing just one pass of the scanning head over the document before importing it to a computer; earlier versions needed three passes to pick up and transfer the various colors. Some flatbeds offer an optional adaptor with a separate light source to scan slides and transparencies, while others digitize color transparencies and negatives to provide sharp images.
Sheet-fed scanners are compact, lightweight tubes set on a base into which documents are fed. The technology is the reverse of the flatbed, requiring the document to be passed through a roller and over the scanning head, similar to the technology behind fax machines. Sheet-fed scanners are popular because of their space-saving qualities; most can be placed on top of your monitor or behind your keyboard. Some have removable "heads" that detach from the base for scanning book pages and other documents that can't be fed into the scanner's opening.
Some scanners include software that allows you to fax and e-mail imported documents directly from a computer. Other scanners on the market are small, hand-held devices scarcely larger than a computer mouse, for scanning in business cards and portions of text or pictures smaller than four inches. While a hand-held scanner is convenient for road warriors, flatbed and sheet-fed scanners are the most suitable for general office needs.
Before shopping for a scanner, acquire a little technical knowledge so you can choose the scanner that best fits your requirements and budget. All scanners are sold with software, usually available only on a CD-ROM, from which to load applications into a computer, so you'll probably need a CD-ROM drive. These applications also take up space on your hard drive, and most require from 8MB to 16MB RAM. Make sure your computer has enough memory to accommodate the extra software.
If you want to produce brilliant, sharp color reproductions, you need to check out the scanner's imaging quality, or resolution. Typically, scanners have a resolution of 300 x 600 dpi, which provides perfectly adequate quality for almost anything printed from a desktop computer. If you're scanning black text, 100 dpi is usually sufficient. However, if you frequently produce slick, glossy brochures, you'll want a scanner with a higher resolution to give you the most detailed reproduction possible.
What size documents do you need to scan? Depending on their plate size, flatbeds can accommodate letter- to legal-sized documents, while most sheet-feds have no restriction on length. Both types of scanners can copy pages from books and magazines, although not all sheet-fed heads are detachable to pass over book pages, and not all flatbed lids, while height-adjustable, are removable.
Speed is difficult to predict, and few manufacturers are willing to provide estimates. How fast a scanner transfers images to a computer depends on several factors, including the density and variety of color and the number of details in the image. Some models may scan three black-and-white text pages per minute and a color page in less than two minutes, while other models may take as long as three minutes to reproduce a brilliantly colored image. Like anything else you buy, ask for a demonstration, and take along your own sample to be scanned.
While our chart shows some of the most popular models, each manufacturer listed has a full line of scanners on the market; some sell both flatbed and sheet-fed models, and a few manufacturers offer rebate programs.
Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.