As little as six or seven years ago, scanners were genuine luxury items for computer users. With entry level prices kicking off around the £300 mark (and that really didn’t get you a fat lot, either), the cost was simply too much for the majority of us.
Now? Hunting round local computer fairs can get you change from £30 for a basic unit, and more significantly, if you’re willing to edge closer to the £100 mark, you can easily get your hands on a really quite adept piece of kit. The core job of whatever unit you buy, of course, is to turn your physical images and text into a digital equivalent.
So where to start? Well the basics are as follows. Scanners are judged on a series of measures, of which the first tends to be the optical resolution, which is measured in dots per inch (dpi). As you’d expect, the more dots the scanner can handle in any one inch the better, as this increases the quality of the image that is being scanned in.
The bare minimum you should really accept is a scanner with 1200dpi capabilities. Note that sometimes, manufacturers will quote both the optical and interpolated resolutions. It’s the optical one that matters, as interpolation (reading between the dots, effectively, to increase the resolution of a scanned image) can be done by software if you need it.
Next thing to watch for is the colour depth. Also known as the bit depth, this refers to how much information can be captured in each individual pixel when scanning. In practice, the higher the bit depth, the better the unit is at determining subtle differences in colour. A minimum figure to aim for is 24-bit, although you may want to push that higher if you’re looking to deal with transparencies and such like.
While not critical, also on the list should be the kind of sensor within the scanner. The oldest technology currently at work is CCD, or charge coupled device. Also present in cameras, they produce the best quality images.
Not far behind though is the new kid on the block, the contact image sensor (CIS). While not quite up to the standards of CCD, this is making inroads due to its very low power consumption. This often means that a scanner can work through a USB port with no need to hook it up to the mains.
Talking of USB, this is by far the most common way of linking a scanner up to a PC. Check whether the unit you’re after is USB 2.0 compatible should you have the technology in place. And don’t worry too much about FireWire connections. These are generally only used on very high end, professional scanning solutions.
It’s easy to gloss over the software that you get in the box, but as every scanner has some, it’s worth consideration. Many manufacturers bundle in the basics under their own brand, but also include third party software that tends to specifically address photo manipulation and OCR (optical character recognition).
Packages worth looking out for include Adobe Photoshop Elements and Ulead’s PhotoImpact, but note that you will probably get ‘LE’ or ‘SE’ editions. In effect, these are cut-down versions, but ones that still have decent functionality (and can handle basics such as red eye reduction and general tinkering).
OCR software, which allows you to scan in text and turn it into a word processing file, isn’t always bundled in, but some units give you a limited version of the excellent Abbyy Finereader or OmniPage.
Finally, it’s worth looking at one or two optional extras. For instance, if you want to scan in transparencies or negatives, then you need to be sure that your scanner of choice comes with a transparency adapter.
On the design side, if space is tight there are units that can live happily and compactly on their side when not in use. And then don’t forget that the scanning capability of many All-In-One units is generally fine for everyday use, and you get the added bonus of a printer and copier in with it too.
A wide range of manufacturers produce scanners, and unless you’re looking for a very high performance model, then the majority of those on the market will happily suit the casual home user. Spend more if you’re looking to scan in transparencies and such like, though.
Check out the ranges offered by Epson, Hewlett Packard, Canon, Agfa and MicroTek for starters, and be willing to read up on the unit you’re interested in.