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A scanner may already be part of your office equipment, but if you're thinking of upgrading to a more sophisticated model--or if you're buying your first one--you couldn't have picked a better time. Scanner prices keep dropping, technology continues to improve, and these low-profile machines are faster and easier to use than ever before.
Fortunately, low prices don't translate into outdated technology. The increasing demand for digitized images (capable of being transferred to computers for use on Web sites and in advertising and sales materials) is inspiring leading scanner manufacturers to develop highly productive business tools.
Manufacturers are designing scanners that are easier and less time-consuming for users to operate. Visioneer was the first to introduce a new scanner architecture, called one-touch button technology, which lets you automatically crop to the exact size of the image scanned. (Other scanners require you to scan the image first, then take it to an image editor and crop it there.) Visioneer's OneTouch 8600 offers seven one-touch buttons: Scan, Copy/Print, Fax, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), E-mail, Custom and Stop/Cancel. The buttons are preconfigured to scan items at various settings and send them to pre-selected software applications. Simply push the button (and go get a cup of coffee). The machine automatically does all the work, from starting up the editing software to sending the file to your e-mail program. The scanner comes bundled with PaperPort Deluxe, the industry's leading application.
Some scanners feature removable lids, so you can copy pictures from books and magazines; other models are able to copy slides and transparencies.
Hate the thought of trying to connect yet another peripheral to your computer? Or perhaps you've procrastinated in buying a CD-ROM drive (which is necessary for loading most scanning software into your computer)? Good news: Microtek Lab's ImageDeck doesn't need a computer, connectors or software to function as a full-scale color scanner. It operates totally independent of a PC or Mac; all you have to do is plug it in to an electrical outlet.
Jill Amado is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, California, who has covered technology for 10 years.
These days, there isn't much that sets one scanner apart from another, aside from ease of use and software. They all perform more or less the same functions and feature similar specs.
"Unfortunately, consumers are using specifications as a key factor in buying scanners," says Kristy Holch, an analyst with InfoTrends Research Group Inc. "But the resolution and bit depth are the same in most models. Claims of higher resolution and bit depth don't necessarily translate into a better scanner for the user. Even comparing speeds can be difficult. It's very subjective because it depends on what is being scanned--its density, details and colors. Brand names, [bundled] software and support services are the most important criteria [when purchasing a scanner]."
Many of the scanners sold in retail stores cost less than $150, and some, with rebates, sell for as little as $50. But many stores report a pretty high return rate for these models--not because of faulty hardware but because the lowest-priced scanners often use third-party software incompatible with other applications. If you buy such a scanner, be prepared to buy extra software, which can cost anywhere from $49 to $199.
Connection requirements could well decide your choice and the price you pay for a scanner. Some scanners require Windows 98 and a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port (which hikes the price as much as $50 above scanners that hook up to a standard parallel port). Other models work with Windows 95, 98 and NT 4.0 through both a USB and a parallel port. Some older PCs aren't equipped with USBs, so check your outlets before shopping for a scanner--or be prepared to pay extra to have a new port or card installed. Also consider your electrical outlets; transparency adaptors require a separate power outlet in addition to your PC.
Speed is another issue to consider. Several scanners come with free, high-speed SCSI connector cards. Mustek's fastest scanner is the Paragon 1200 FS. It has a fast SCSI-II connector and a sensor in its lid that, when raised, automatically activates the scanning software. After 20 minutes of nonuse, the scanner will automatically shut itself off.
Think you're ready to shop for a scanner? Don't do anything until you review these tips:
- Analyze your most frequently used applications, then compare models in the same price range that meet those needs.
- Know which ports your computer already has, and decide whether you're willing to spend more money to make room for extra ports.
- Determine how important ease of use is to you. If your new scanner is too complicated, you and your staff probably won't take advantage of all its functions.
- Don't be drawn in by price alone; you may have to add expensive software later.
- Check out the lid. Some are height-adjustable but not removable.
- Always ask for a demonstration. Take along a sample image that the salesperson can scan.
- Opt for a recognized brand name to ensure reliable service and support.
It's also a good idea to understand the following terms before you buy:
Batch scan: Allows multiple jobs to be performed simultaneously.
Bit depth: A bit is the unit of data that makes up the pixels, and in scanners, the bits contain colors. The greater the bit depth, the greater the variety of colors reproduced.
OCR: Identifies the numeric digits and alphabetic letters in scanned images and converts them into text characters so they can be changed and edited.
SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) card: The card is usually provided free with a SCSI scanner and slips into one of your PC's expansion slots. Macs have built-in SCSI connectors, but the iMac has a dedicated USB port. Most PCs using Windows programs require the card.
Single-pass/dual-pass: Single-pass scanning means the scanner only needs to take one look at the image before importing it to your PC. Some scanners require two or even three passes of a document in order to transfer primary colors. While a single pass seems like it may save more time, the density and detail of the image you're scanning may require additional time to be copied accurately.
TWAIN: A driver, or software, interface standard for acquiring graphics. Nearly all scanners come with TWAIN, making them compatible with those software programs that support TWAIN-compliant devices.
InfoTrends Research, http://www.infotrends-rgi.com