Fantastic Flatbeds

SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - You get what you pay for. At least that's what scanner vendors tell you when you belly up to the glass counter to buy one.

Over the past couple of years, scanners haven't dropped much in price, but they now include many capabilities and features that you once paid big bucks for.

So the question lingers: If you pay the same amount of money as before, are you buying more than you need? Scanner makers continue to promote higher optical resolution and enhanced color depth, even as they promise faster overall performance. We found, however, that resolutions greater than 600 dpi offer only minimal improvement over lower resolutions unless you are scanning from a negative or a filmstrip, or are greatly enlarging a small portion of an image.

And because many image-editing applications permit only minimal adjustments in anything beyond 24-bit mode, the greater color depth that new scanners promise remains largely unrealized. Moreover, since higher resolutions entail longer processing times and larger file sizes, you may find that one cost of reaping higher-quality images is an unusually large outlay of patience.

We rounded up 18 flatbed scanners, ranging in price from US$90 to nearly $900.

Though most of the manufacturers represented in last year's scanner roundup are back (see "A Scanner for All Reasons,", some companies, including Memorex Corp. and Storm Technology, have exited the highly competitive scanner market. We sorted scanners by price and function into two categories: SOHO scanners, which are intended for home and small office users who scan more photos than documents; and corporate models, which are designed for business users who scan multiple pages or filmstrips and require accuracy.

Unlike the typical SOHO scanner, many corporate units come bundled with optional accessories and tend to emphasize speed, sturdiness, and larger scan beds.

The PC World Test Center measured each scanner's speed and image quality on a 550-MHz Pentium III PC running Windows 98, with 128MB of SDRAM. To measure reproduction quality, our panel of judges examined four images from each scanner in blind taste tests. We scanned a color photo using the highest optical resolution available from each scanner. We also scanned the same photo image at 75 dpi (an appropriate resolution for Web posting), a gray-scale image at 600 dpi, and line art at 300 dpi. Our testers viewed the 75-dpi scans side by side on color-calibrated screens, and compared prints made by an HP 970Cxi ink jet printer for the maximum-dpi scan and by the HP Color LaserJet 8500N for the other scans. We also measured each unit's scanning speed and gauged its ease of use, features, and software, and its vendor's service and support.

We put together a chart of the top seven SOHO units and the top three corporate models, including one Best Buy for budget-conscious SOHO users and another for performance-driven corporate types.

For both image quality and speed, our SOHO Best Buy, the $299 Epson Perfection 1200S can't be beat. This 36-bit-color unit produces handsome scans and has great features like 1200-dpi resolution, a blazingly fast SCSI interface, and an ample bundle of useful software.

Another advantage: With the Perfection 1200S, you can add attachments to suit your particular work requirements: a $99 adapter for scanning transparent media such as 35mm slides and film negatives (up to 4 by 5 inches); and a $199 automatic document feeder for OCR scanning of multiple-page documents.

Our Best Buy corporate machine produces top-quality scans and handles a high volume of work. The $389 Microtek ScanMaker X12USL, a 1200-dpi, 42-bit color scanner, has a dual SCSI-2 and USB interface and a legal-size scan bed. The ScanMaker X12 bundles excellent scanning software, including two task-based control panels--one for novices, and one for advanced users. Microtek also sells add-ons: a $150 document feeder and a $79 transparency unit for scanning 35mm slides and film (up to 5 by 6 inches).

Scanning's Big Picture

A fresh crop of 1200-dpi, 42-bit models have superseded many of last year's 600- and 300-dpi, 36-bit color scanners. In our April 1999 roundup, none of the scanners we reviewed offered true optical resolution of more than 600 dpi. This year, seven units feature 1200 dpi, and one corporate chart maker goes as high as 1600 dpi. The higher the resolution, the more detail a scanner can capture, which is especially important when you want to enlarge small originals such as 35mm slides or scan line art.

Last year's cutting-edge models boasted 36-bit color depth, but they've given way to today's 42- and even 48-bit units. Color depth represents the ability of a scanner's imaging sensor (CCD or CIS) to capture accurate color; the more bits used for color depth, the higher the number of possible colors a scanner can read. To achieve higher depth, scanners use either more sophisticated (and more expensive) hardware-based analog-to-digital converters or cheaper software interpolation. With interpolation, the color depth of a typical 36-bit image will bump to 42 or 48 bits.

Of the scanners on our chart, only the Microtek ScanMaker X12USL uses hardware to generate higher color depth. In contrast, the Acer 640U and the Umax Astra 2200 and 4000U use software interpolation to create higher-bit images.

Unfortunately, scanners that use software interpolation in place of more-powerful hardware often produce inferior results--and more slowly at that--simply because interpolation adds middle-value information that did not exist in the original image. Note: For our scan quality tests, we decided not to include higher color-bit images because we wanted to use each scanner's default settings; these settings typically create 24-bit images.

To complicate matters, the jury remains undecided about the practical benefits offered by increased color depth. Most higher-color-bit models don't have bundled image editing software that can thoroughly edit anything beyond a 24-bit-color file (that is, 8 bits per color channel). And in most cases, only graphics pros and scanner vets will prefer working with space-hogging high-color-bit images anyway. Of course, if you store a high-color-bit scan, you can revert to the original--albeit large and uncorrected--image data for future work. The bottom line: a 36-bit scanner that ultimately outputs a 24-bit color file will handle most businesses' everyday scanning needs.

Scanning The Horizon

One of the most visible changes in scanners over the last year involves port architecture. Several units, including our corporate Best Buy, the Microtek ScanMaker X12USL, now come with dual interfaces; this arrangement gives users various connectivity options such as USB and SCSI or USB and parallel.

Currently, three of the eight scanners Microtek sells offer dual-port circuitry, and the company anticipates offering consumers USB and IEEE 1394 (also known as FireWire) duality soon. You can expect other vendors to follow suit before long. This type of integration allows users to graduate to faster technology without overhauling or replacing their equipment.

IEEE 1394 scanners first hit the market earlier this year as an interface option for high-end models. We didn't test any IEEE 1394 scanners for this review since they tend to be extremely expensive ($999 and higher); however, PC World did look at two IEEE 1394 models--Epson's Expression 1600 Pro FireWire and Umax's PowerLook 1100--in our April 2000 issue, and we reported mixed results when comparing their output to that of a SCSI-2 scanner (see "Two Ports in a Storm,"

Finally, don't plan on watching the prices of 1200- and 1600-dpi scanners drop any lower in the near future. According to IDC research, they've hit rock bottom, and the trend going forward will be for vendors to add features but stick to current price levels. Still, this could mean better prices on conventional, competitively priced 600-dpi scanners.

Best Buys

Our best buy in the SOHO category goes to the Epson Perfection 1200S (pictured left). At $299, Epson's champ produces sparkling scans; packs some great features, including an impressive 1200-dpi resolution; and provides a meaty software bundle.

For its highly competitive price, legal-size scan bed, and excellent color scans, the $389 Microtek ScanMaker X12USL earns our corporate Best Buy. Don't miss the optional automatic document feeder and transparency adapter, which Microtek sells for an additional $149 and $79, respectively.

Corporate Color Acer ScanPremio ST

ACER'S 640U wins the SOHO color test with fine color contrast, lettering, and range of red hues. Though the 640U delivers the best color performance, its black-and-white scans were somewhat disappointing. On the corporate side, Canon's CanoScan FB 1200S lettering lacks the Acer's detail, but the 1200S came through with splendid color range in both skin tones and red hues.

Bringing up the rear were Visioneer's $180 SOHO model, the OneTouch 8100; and Acer's $799 corporate contender, the ScanPremio ST. The OneTouch 8100's image looked washed out and grainy, while the ScanPremio ST displayed a dark, muted image. Furthermore, both images misrepresented the red spectrum, producing colors that appeared more brown than red.

Ease of Use

Best SOHO: Umax Astra 2200

Best Corporate: Microtek ScanMaker X12USLOf the 18 models we reviewed, 10 came with easy-to-install USB connections. The other eight carried SCSI connections, which are generally a little more labor-intensive to set up.

Many models bundle a card or fold-out chart that outlines the installation process at a glance. The best printed manuals came with Epson's Perfection 1200S and Expression 1600 Artist; but Acer, Canon, Microtek, and Umax all provide thorough written documentation and online manuals with their units. But some manufacturers now offer only electronic user manuals. Of those, HP provided the best electronic versions accompanying its ScanJets, including informative short videos that outline installation procedures.

If you're a small-business or home user and you like the idea of push-button scanning, we have good news. Nearly all the SOHO scanners on our Top 10 list provide at least one button to start the scanning process. Both the Agfa SnapScan Touch and the Umax Astra 2200 have buttons that launch an application or utility related to a specific task, while the seven-button Visioneer OneTouch 8600 adds a customizable button to the mix.

Another feature that makes matters easier is the TWAIN module, which allows a scanner to communicate with imaging software. All of the scanners include drivers that are capable of importing scans into such TWAIN-compliant software as Adobe PhotoDeluxe or Xerox TextBridge, where you can edit those scans.

Top-quality scanning software includes automated controls to expand configuration options for preview scans. These may allow you to adjust the size and speed of the preview window image, creating an auto exposure (which can give you a more accurate preview), and save your preview settings. The Canon CanoScan FB 1200S, the Epson Perfection 1200S and Expression 1600 Artist, the Microtek ScanMaker X12USL, and the Umax Astra 2200 and Astra 4000U all provide excellent software. They offer automated controls for quick color correction, plus manual controls for gamma correction, tone maps, histograms, batch scanning, and color management systems. Microtek's ScanMaker X12USL and Umax's Astra 2200 even offer drivers with beginner and advanced modes. Less effective drivers typically had poor task-oriented user interfaces (Acer 640U), or lacked breadth of controls (Visioneer OneTouch 8600).

Features and Software

Best SOHO: Umax Astra 2200

Best Corporate: Microtek ScanMaker X12USLAll of the scanners we reviewed include bundled image editing and OCR software, and some of them even pack document management utilities and applications for producing Web graphics, calendars, greeting cards, and other special extras.

One of the most attractive bundles accompanies the Umax Astra 2200; it features Adobe Photoshop 5 LE (see "A Pixel's Worth a Thousand Words," page 161) and full versions of two useful Web applications--Macromedia Fireworks 2 (for Web graphics) and NetObjects Fusion 4 (a graphical HTML editor). All three corporate scanners we reviewed include Adobe Photoshop 5 LE, but none has the more powerful full version of Photoshop.

Because it comes with a built-in transparency adapter, the Umax Astra 2200 is the only scanner here that can scan both reflective and transparent materials right out of the box. Five units--Umax's Astra 4000U, Canon's CanoScan FB 1200S, Microtek's ScanMaker X12USL, and Epson's Perfection 1200S and Expression 1600 Artist--are designed to work with an extra-cost transparency unit. Of the scanners on our SOHO chart, the Epson Perfection 1200S and Visioneer OneTouch 8600 are the only ones you can outfit with a document feeder. The Umax Astra 2200 lacked the option of a document feeder, but this is an uncommon feature on SOHO scanners. In fact, HP's corporate ScanJet 6350C was the only scanner of any type we received that ships with a built-in automatic document feeder.

The attachments for corporate scanners tend to be sturdier and more useful than their SOHO counterparts, and they're designed for high-volume work. The Astra 2200 accommodates only a 4-by-5-inch transparency, while the Canon CanoScan FB 1200S can handle an 8-by-10-inch overhead projector transparency. Likewise, the Epson Perfection 1200S has an optional small transparency module for scanning 4-by-5-inch negatives, whereas the Expression 1600's transparency adapter weighs several pounds, attaches as a large replacement lid, and permits batch scans of up to 15 slides.

Scan Quality

Best SOHO: Epson Perfection 1200S

Best Corporate: Canon CanoScan FB 1200S

in assessing the overall scan quality for a particular unit, we used that

scanner's default settings, excluding optical resolution.

Only the Acer 640U, the Canon CanoScan FB 630Ui, and the Epson Perfection 1200S earned the highest rating in any single test of scan quality, and none of these ranked Excellent across the board.

The Acer 640U and the Canon CanoScan FB 630Ui earned Excellent ratings on our maximum-resolution test by reproducing the most accurate color and sharpest details. Surprisingly, these two 600-dpi scanners outperformed all the higher-resolution (1200- and 1600-dpi) models. On this maximum-resolution test, the Visioneer OneTouch 8100--which did not make our list of ten--yielded the worst image: dark with slightly washed-out colors. On the corporate side, the Canon CanoScan FB 1200S outscored the others, with good color accuracy and contrast, but some details (such as the logo text in the model's shirt) lacked sharpness.

When we ran the 75-dpi color test on our color-calibrated monitor, only the Epson Perfection 1200S garnered an Excellent rating, with its dead-on color accuracy and well-honed details. Most of the other chart makers produced acceptable images, though less accurate in color and detail than the top-ranked Perfection. Among SOHO contestants, the Visioneer OneTouch 8600 performed slightly under par, with flat, washed-out colors; meanwhile, Umax's Astra 2200 and 4000U suffered from oversaturated, excessively dark coloration (especially in the red part of the spectrum). Among corporate units, the Canon CanoScan FB 1200S produced the best images, with better color reproduction and sharper details than its competitors.

Most units scanned our black-and-white continuous-tone photograph at 600 dpi fairly well, with proper contrast, abundant shades of gray, and decent--though hardly stunning--image detail. The weakest performers on this test were the Acer 640U, Epson Perfection 1200S, Canon CanoScan FB 630Ui, and Microtek ScanMaker X12USL. All four lacked fine detail, especially in shadowy areas, and failed to generate the full range of gray tones evident in our original image.

In our 300-dpi line-art test, the Agfa SnapScan Touch and Microtek ScanMaker X12USL earned ratings of Good, the best scores on this measure. Both units surpassed the others in capturing fine-line patterns and small fonts, despite missing some of the palest objects. All of the other scanners earned a Fair rating. Few scanners come close to matching the detail of the original piece of art. But for scanning everyday line-art items such as the black-and-white logo on a typical letterhead, virtually all of the scanners reviewed here can deliver what you need.

Scan Speed

Best SOHO: Epson Perfection 1200S

Best Corporate: Epson Expression 1600 Artistto measure scanner speed, we recorded the time each unit took to scan each test image. For dual-interface scanners, we tested the fastest port provided by the vendor.

In all of our time tests, we took scan preview times into account, since making a preview significantly prolongs the scanning process. Typically, a scanner generates a preview scan in a fast, low-resolution mode, allowing you to tweak settings prior to final scanning. Interestingly, the HP ScanJet 5300Cse (which failed to make our chart, as a result of the unit's disappointing scan quality and Hewlett-Packard's rather tepid support policies) took longer to produce a preview than a final scan in some tests. According to HP, the ScanJet 5300Cse captures more prescan data than many other scanners do, but it makes up the time with faster final scans.

To obtain equivalent speeds for scanners working at different maximum resolutions, we computed each scanner's throughput (in kilobytes per second) by dividing the file size the scanner created by the time the unit took to finish the job. Even scanners that offer the same resolution don't capture the same data at the same rate of speed. For example, the 600-dpi Agfa SnapScan Touch created a 36MB file in 78 seconds, while the 600-dpi Plustek OpticPro UT12 took almost three times as long (226 seconds) to produce a similar-size file (36.6MB). In some cases, this time disparity may be due to different scanner calibration techniques or to the quality of the stepper motors (which move the scanning sensor across the scan bed).

Typically, the fastest scanners use SCSI connections. On the SOHO chart, for example, Epson's SCSI-based Perfection 1200S pushed data through at 577 kbps when set to maximum resolution--that's almost 25 percent quicker throughput than the second-place model, Agfa's USB-based SnapScan Touch, managed. On the corporate side, the Expression 1600 Artist (running as a SCSI model) also moved data quickly at 529 kbps, trailing the Perfection 1200S by only 48 kbps. Not surprisingly (given its higher resolution), the Expression took longer to complete its task: Running at 1600 dpi, the unit produced a sumo-size 262MB final file.

The Expression 1600 scanned our line-art document at 300 dpi in a scant 18 seconds, while its closest corporate competitor, the Canon CanoScan FB 1200S, took approximately twice as long (30 seconds).

In scanning our color photo at 75 dpi, Epson's SCSI-based Perfection 1200S and the Expression 1600 took top honors, at 15 and 13 seconds, respectively. The Visioneer OneTouch 8600 finished a close third at 19 seconds, but most other units took a lot longer, with Umax's Astra 2200 strolling in dead last at 72 seconds.

The Epson Perfection 1200S was again the fastest SOHO model in scanning our gray-scale photo at 600 dpi, finishing in 38 seconds. In contrast, the CanoScan FB 630Ui took 1 minute, 35 seconds. Though the Perfection 1200S's SCSI connection played some part in this numbers game, the main difference involves the 630Ui's use of the same cable for both data transfer and power. In general, units that are not equipped with a dedicated power plug run considerably slower than units that have separate power and data cables. Among corporate models, the Canon CanoScan FB 1200S was faster than its two ranked competitors--the Epson Expression 1600 and the Microtek ScanMaker X12USL--finishing 13 and 26 seconds faster, respectively, ahead of them.

Service and Support

Best SOHO: Acer 640U

Best Corporate: Canon Canoscan FB 1200S

When you encounter problems, nothing beats live technical support. All the companies featured in this review offer live phone support during normal business hours, but only Acer, Canon, and Umax also provide weekend phone support. With the welcome exception of Acer and Agfa, the other scanner vendors impose a fee for all tech support calls.

To rate each company's ongoing service quality for our Top 10 Scanners reviews, we call tech support regularly. Posing as recent purchasers, we ask each vendor typical tech support questions. This month, we asked about proper cleaning and maintenance of the scanner, including whether we could clean the underside of the glass platen. In general, the service we got was on target, but the best advice came from Umax, whose reps e-mailed us a copy of the step-by-step cleaning procedure.

Unfortunately, some of the larger companies (such as Epson and HP) make you wade through a series of branching menus to reach their scanner support people.

Adding marketing to misery, during peak business hours, HP and Visioneer forced us to listen to irritating recordings for their express support programs.

Furthermore, during at least one call each to Visioneer and Epson, we experienced wait times of up to 15 minutes, which in our opinion was excessive.

That's not to say, however, that reaching live tech support was typically problematic. For the most part, technical representatives answered our test calls promptly.

Overall, Acer wins special praise for being the only scanner vendor that offers toll-free 24-hour live phone support, seven days a week. Canon gets a high five for maintaining the most extensive support hours in the corporate group, including 6 hours on Saturday.

Scanning by Task

Scanning photos for the Web or for fun? Look for:

* Good scanner output at 75 to 100 dots per inch, which are typical dot densities for on-screen viewing. For most printers, 300 dpi is more than enough.

* An image editor chock-full of creative tools and features.

Our picks: Acer 640U, Canon CanoScan FB 630Ui, Epson Perfection 1200SScanning documents at the office? Look for:

* A scan bed capable of handling legal-size scans, unless most of your documents are letter-size.

* Robust OCR software, such as Xerox/ScanSoft TextBridge Pro or Caere OmniPage, to ensure maximum character recognition.

* An optional automatic document feeder that provides the sheet capacity you need.

Our picks: Canon CanoScan FB 1200S, Epson Perfection 1200S, Microtek ScanMaker X12USLScanning graphics that contain subtle colors and lots of details? Look for:

* Resolution of 1200 dpi or higher to handle top-quality enlargements and scans.

* Maximum color depth of 36 bits or more.

* A transparency adapter capable of scanning 35mm slides or larger transparencies.

* Batch scanning trays, if you plan on performing high-volume slide scanning.

Our picks: Epson Expression 1600 Artist, Microtek ScanMaker X12USL, Umax Astra 4000U.

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