SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - How much difference is there between a $129 scanner and a $179 one? Does the extra $50 actually get you anything? When the scanners in question are the $129 CanoScan FB 630Ui, from Canon Inc., and the $179 Astra MX3, from Umax Technologies Inc., the answer is yes.
The two scanners have very similar specs: they scan at an optical resolution of 600 by 1,200 pixels per inch, capturing 36 bits per pixel internally, and they're clearly aimed at the SOHO market, offering easy image scanning, optical character recognition (OCR), and integration with at least some e-mail applications. Both scanners are also reasonably speedy, taking just over a minute to scan a 4-by-6-inch color print at 600 dpi, and we were pleasantly surprised by the image quality they produced. However, the Astra provides a more generous software bundle, more connectivity options, and a better scanning engine than the CanoScan.
Small Is Beautiful
The CanoScan is tiny-10.1 by 14.6 by 1.5 inches-and weighs only 3.3 pounds. It draws power through the USB bus, so no AC adapter is necessary. The downside is that you must attach the scanner to a USB port capable of supplying enough power (2.5w at 500mA). If you have several USB devices attached to your Mac, you may run into trouble.
The Astra is a more conventional CCD scanner. It offers a SCSI-2 interface in addition to USB and draws power through an AC adapter. At 18.4 by 12.2 by 3.9 inches and 8.5 pounds, it's larger and much heavier than the CanoScan. Unlike Canon's scanner, it offers an optional transparency adapter. While the CanoScan is limited to 24-bit output, the Astra can capture raw high-bit scans as 48-bit RGB files. Umax's proprietary bit-enhancement technology uses software magic to increase the raw bit depth to 42 bits, producing significantly better shadow detail and smoother gradations.
The Astra has three buttons (compared with the CanoScan's one). You can configure these buttons as you wish: for example, one button to scan to a graphics application, one to copy an image straight to a printer, and one to scan to an e-mail or OCR program. However, you can't use these buttons to set cropping or adjust an image, so they aren't as useful as they might be.
Scanning is controlled through the CanoScan's plug-in driver, which contains a reasonably comprehensive set of tools for setting cropping, resolution, and color mode and adjusting tone and color balance. One option uses ColorSync to match the original on your monitor, but it can't scan to other profiles.
In addition to its plug-in, the CanoScan's software bundle includes Canon Photo, CanoScan Toolbox, and Xerox's TextBridge Pro OCR. CanoScan Toolbox acts as command central for the scanner, letting you scan or fax a document or copy it directly to a printer. The program offers some basic postscan editing features, along with selection, drawing, and painting tools, but it's worth learning the plug-in's controls to optimize a scan before capturing it.
Canon Photo allows you to build collections of images, enhance individual images by using a wizardlike interface, and make electronic greeting cards that can contain audio annotations as well as images (any Mac user can read and hear the card, but cross-platform cards are limited to JPEG format with no audio).
Rounding out the bundle is Xerox's TextBridge Pro, an OCR application that can "learn" to read poor-quality documents but requires considerable training time to produce recognizable text.
Umax bundles Presto PageManager; Presto PhotoAlbum; Caere OmniPage Limited Edition; Adobe PhotoDeluxe; and the VistaScan scanner driver, which can function as either a plug-in or a stand-alone application. VistaScan offers a few features that the CanoScan's plug-in lacks, including the ability to output a raw 42-bit RGB file, more-comprehensive image-editing controls, and presets for fax and OCR scanning.
PageManager allows you to catalog images and OCR-recognized text files and fax them or send them to your e-mail program at the press of a button. (The e-mail integration works only with Lotus cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail, CE Software's QuickMail, and Apple's PowerTalk.) Presto PhotoAlbum lets you save collections of photos as albums in a variety of templates with borders, sound annotation, and special effects. You can share albums by exporting them with the player application or as HTML documents.
OmniPage LE is an industrial-strength OCR application that lacks some of the bells and whistles offered by OmniPage Pro.
Macworld's Buying Advice
If you simply want a general-purpose scanner for creating Web images and doing OCR, either the Canon CanoScan FB 630Ui or the Umax Astra MX3 will fill the bill nicely. But if your main concern is scanning color images for hard-copy output, the Astra is almost certainly worth the extra money.
RATING: 3.5 mice
PROS: USB and SCSI-2 interfaces; good automation features; excellent image quality for the price.
CONS: Limited e-mail integration.
COMPANY: Umax Technologies (510/651-4000, http://www.umax.com).
COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $179.
CanoScan FB 630Ui
RATING: 3.0 mice
PROS: Tiny footprint; easy-to-use controls; good price.
CONS: Limited connectivity options; basic image-editing features.
COMPANY: Canon Computer Systems (800/652-2666, http://www.ccsi.canon.com).
COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $129.