There's more than one way to scan a cat, but we don't recommend you try it. It can leave scratches and fur on the scanning surface. There's also more than one way to scan a document-but are you interested in using your scans for desktop or Web publishing? For desktop publishing, the quality of scans is the top priority. For Web publishing, ease of use is the most important factor. You might lean one way or the other, or you might want a scanner that can do it all . . . the cat's meow.
The two main branches of the scanning family are sheet-fed and flatbed. For images of all sizes and documents of odd sizes, a flatbed can't be beat, so we'll restrict our round-up to that common species. With prices ranging from $150 to $1,599, you're sure to find a flatbed to fit your budget and needs.
When you're perusing specifications, look first at bit color depth and resolution. The scanners in our "Shopping List" feature color depth from 36-bit to 48-bit and resolution output up to a whopping 2,400 x 4,800. Higher bit depth and resolution supposedly equate to better-quality scans. But chances are, you won't ever need to make a 48-bit scan or max out to 2,400 x 4,800 resolution. The huge files that result are slow to create and unwieldy to work with. Scanner settings of around 600 x 600 dpi are fine for uploading an image to the 72 dpi Web or adding a magazine image to a Word document. And remember, a 300 x 300 dpi text page from your laser printer looks great.
If you have slides, transparencies or film to digitize, you should get a scanner with a transparency adaptor. This feature adds to the price, but if you're going to use it, it's worth it. Compare the $699 (all prices street) Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 7450C with the $199 UMAX AstraNET e5470. The HP ScanJet accounts for the big price difference by including a 50-page automatic document feeder and dual-sensor technology that generates 2,400 x 2,400 dpi images for high-quality transparency scans.
For those of you hooked on digital cameras, consider the $150 Visioneer Photoport 7700 USB scanner. Its SmartMedia and CompactFlash readers transfer images directly from memory cards to PCs. This may not be important if you already have a way of transferring digital pictures, but it could be a nice plus.
The Epson GT-10000+ is a special case. At $1,599, you're probably wondering whether it's plated in gold. The scanner's real advantage is that it's PC-networkable via SCSI. It can save you the hassle of installing a space-hogging flatbed on every employee desktop.
When speed is of the essence, the $399 Microtek ScanMaker 5700 will heed the call. Its built-in firewire connection is the autobahn of peripheral ports. Otherwise, you'll get fast performance from a SCSI scanner like the Epson GT-10000+ and decent performance from any USB model, like the $499 Canon CanoScan D2400UF.
If quick and dirty Web scanning is your priority, consider the UMAX AstraNET e5470. It comes equipped with a slew of one-touch buttons that take scans directly to e-mail or the Web without any of those pesky in-between steps you're used to performing.
Specs, though, never tell the whole story. We'd like to tell you to try before you buy, but we know that's hard-especially shopping online. Check return policies before plunking down your cash. Inexpensive scanners do a good job for most applications, but a pricier one can turn your demanding desktop publishing work into a smooth operation.