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SCANNERS

 

STANDFIRST

A scanner is one of the most versatile PC peripherals you can get and they're invaluable for home office workers, they're no longer a luxury either, Rick Maybury has been looking at eight models costing between 50 and 180

 

COPY/INTRO

After a printer and modem a colour flatbed scanner has to be the most useful PC peripheral you can have. They are an essential tool for the home office worker, in addition to getting images into a PC, for incorporating into documents, presentations and web pages, etc., a scanner can also turn your computer into a colour copier, fax machine and document reader. The really good news is that the cost of scanners has plummeted over the past couple of years. It is possible to pick up quite competent models for less than 50, though it may be worth budgeting a little more for extra performance, easier connectivity and a wider range of bundled utilities. 

 

Scanner performance is governed by three factors, the most important one being optical resolution, measured in dots per inch or 'dpi'. This determines how much fine detail a scanner can resolve, typical resolutions are 300 x 600 and 600 x 1200, both of which are fine for most routine applications, in fact much of the time 200- 300dpi is more than adequate. Don't be misled by higher figures for 'interpolated' resolution, this is a software trick that fills in the gaps between the dots by guessing what might be there. Interpolation also slows the whole process down, consumes valuable memory resources and eats up hard disc space.

 

The second factor is colour bit depth; this is generally quoted as 24, 30 or 36-bit. The higher the number the better but in practice -- by the time an image has been through the PC mangle and back out on to paper -- the differences can be quite small. Quite honestly you needn't worry too much about it, unless you are going to use your scanner for serious colour-critical applications. The third factor is speed, though again it's less important than the manufacturers would have you believe in the real world. The time taken to scan an image, whether it's 30 seconds or three minutes, is likely to be a small fraction of the time you'll spend editing or manipulating the image afterwards.

 

Speed is determined by the way the scanner connects to your PC, there are three basic methods. Until recently the simplest, but slowest connection was via the parallel printer port, the printer remains connected to the PC by a 'through port' on the back of the scanner, though you can't scan and print at the same time. The second most common method is a SCSI or 'scuzzy' connection, which involves the use of a dedicated adaptor card slotted into the PC's motherboard. Scuzzy connections are faster but they have a reputation for being difficult to set-up though that's less of an issue on newer PCs using Windows 95 and 98. The simplest and most efficient type of connection is USB or Universal Serial Bus, now fitted as standard to almost all new Wintel PCs. USB scanners are usually fast and simple to set-up.    

 

Although the system requirements for most budget scanners appear quite modest you will need a fairly fast Pentium or Pentium class machine (233MHz and above) and plenty of RAM (32Mb minimum) to get the best results. Finally, the driver software that comes with a scanner can have a big influence on how easy (or otherwise) it is to use, there is a big variation in the way the main user interfaces work and how easily they integrate with other applications on your PC. If you are likely to be using your scanner to read text documents check out the OCR (optical character recognition) software supplied as some of the programs supplied with budget models can be a bit sluggish and make a lot of mistakes. 

 

THE TESTS

 

BLACK WIDOW 4830 PRO

The 4830 is the second smallest model in this roundup -- handy if you have limited desk space -- but it only just accommodates an A4 sheet of paper and the lid hasn't much leeway for thick books or documents. Resolution is at the lower end of the scale at 300 x 600 dpi, and it uses a parallel port connection so it's not going to break any performance records. The supplied software is adequate and reasonably straightforward to install though the supplied instruction booklet is minuscule, the main user manual is on a CD-ROM but it is only marginally more informative and not much help should you run into difficulties. Build quality is fair to middling but it's a little disconcerting to see all the guts exposed (wires and pulleys) underneath the glass platen.

 

The user interface is workmanlike and reasonably intuitive, with a decent set of tools for manipulating the image, before it is passed on to its destination application (printer, fax, e-mail program etc.,). Output quality is good and it can cope with screened images printed in magazines, but it is rather slow and the OCR stumbles over anything less clean crisp print. Worth considering for basic jobs, especially if you have a crowded desk, a very tight budget and a lot of patience. 

 

The Facts

Parallel port/PC, 300 x 600 dpi optical, 30-bit colour, Adobe PhotoDeluxe, Acrobat & TextBridge Classic OCR, Black Widow Twain driver, parallel cable, mains PSU

 

Street Price 47.58

Verdict 77%

 

BLACK WIDOW 9636 PRO

The 9396 is a big step up from the 4830, both in terms of specification and size, though the actual document area isn't any larger than its stablemate and the slightly depressed glass platen and lid make it difficult to scan books. Installation is more complicated, involving fitting a SCSI board in your PC; the driver software and applications load easily from CD-ROM Scanning operations are controlled from WidowView, the functions are simple to use with all of the key functions neatly laid out. It has a comprehensive assortment of image adjustments and tools, including a potentially useful multiple scan facility that will allow you scan a group of up to five images or documents in sequence.

 

OCR accuracy is quite good and image quality compares well with other models in the same price bracket, though you may have to fiddle around with the colour settings as light images can look a bit wishy-washy. Scan speed is fairly average, especially on large detailed colour images. Quite good value for money and worth thinking about if you don't mind opening up your PC.

 

The Facts

SCSI/PC/Mac, 600 x 1200 dpi optical, 36-bit, WidowView scan/image manager, Page Manager, SCSI interface card & cable, mains PSU

 

Street Price 128.08

Verdict 83%     

 

CANOSCAN FB620P

This is the smallest scanner we've looked at, measuring only 372 x 255 x 65mm. In spite of its size the platen will scan images a fair bit larger than A4 but the lid is hinged to the top of the unit and it can't easily cope with books or thick documents. The FB620 has a parallel port interface, so connection is a breeze, and the supplied driver and utility software loads without any problems. The user interface is called CanoCraft, it's presentable and works well enough for simple image scans  -- copying and file creation etc. -- but it lacks one or two other common functions, like de-screening and it is not well integrated with the other supplied applications in the supplied software bundle. OCR performance is fine and there's a facility to sharpen up fuzzy text, to improve accuracy.

 

Preview scans are quite fast but the actual scans are rather slow, even so it's worth the wait because images look sharp and detailed and there's no problems with colour accuracy. It's a real space saver, and it looks smart too, the software could be a bit more friendly and it is not going to suit those in a hurry but taking into account the price, size and build quality it's worth shortlisting. 

 

The Facts

Parallel port/PC, 600 x 600 dpi optical, 30-bit colour, CanoCraft scan manager/copy, iPhoto Express, OmniPage Limited Edition OCR, Adobe Acrobat, parallel cable, mains PSU

 

Street Price 112

Verdict 86%

 

 

EPSON GT-7000

This looks and feels like a heavy-duty product, designed for a busy office environment. It's mains powered, which adds to the weight and bulk but it simplifies installation since you don't have to mess around with mains adaptors. The GT-7000 has a SCSI interface and a dedicated adaptor card is included with the outfit. A film adaptor and document feeder are available as optional extras. The software bundle is particularly generous and comprises a good range of page management, image editing, copying and OCR utilities for both PCs and Macs. Operation is brilliantly simple, just load the document (the lid easily accommodates books), press the Start button on the front of the unit and select a function from the PageManager bar that appears on the screen (print, OCR and image edit etc). The Epson Twain scan controller is well-presented and easy to use.

 

It's fast, the second fastest in this group in fact, completing most tasks in less than a minute. Sharpness and colour accuracy are also well above average and the OCR software made fewer mistakes than most of the others. An all round winner for speed and quality, excellent upgrade options for serious users and the price is fair. Recommended. 

 

The Facts

SCSI/PC/Mac, 600 x 1200 dpi optical, 36-bit colour, Start Button, Epson Twain, Scan II, Photo Seet, Personal Copy, TextBridge Classic, OCR, Adobe PhotoDeluxe, PageMill, Presto PageManager, SCSI interface card & cable, mains cable

 

Street Price 172

Verdict 90%

 

HEWLETT PACKARD SCANJET 3200C

There are some remarkable similarities between this scanner and the Umax Astra 1200, the mechanisms are identical, and in fact we wouldn't mind betting they both originate from the same Taiwanese factory. There are however some fairly significant differences in the specification, software bundle and cost. The lower price for the Scanjet 3200 is reflected in reduced colour depth and fewer utilities but like the Umax it has a parallel port interface and is very easy to install and set up. Unlike most other scanners documents are oriented the right way around, as it were, and the user interface is uncluttered and simple to use, it also makes the finished scan straight away, there's no preview, you just make any changes and send or save the file.

 

For a parallel port scanner is it is quite rapid and leapfrogging the preview stage shaves a few seconds off the time taken to do a job. Colour accuracy and resolution are both good in fact it's hard to see any difference between scans made on the 3200 and those on the Umax 1220 which has a greater colour depth. The supplied software is unexciting but performance and value for money make it well worth considering.

 

The Facts

Parallel port/PC, 600 x 1200 dpi optical, 30-bit colour, HP PrecisionScan LT, Caere OCR, Adobe PhotoDeluxe, parallel cable, mains PSU

 

Street Price 74

Verdict 89%

 

 

HEWLETT PACKARD SCANJET 5200C

Words like kettles and fish spring immediately to mind when comparing the Scanjet 5200 with its humbler cousin the 3200. This is an industrial strength model, intended for demanding users and a heavy workload though for all of its impressive size the scan area is only just a little bigger than A4. It's very flexible with both parallel port connections and a USB interface; it can also be fitted with an optional automatic document feeder. The software package is a little fatter too and it includes PageKeeper OCR and document management program.

 

The Start button on the front of the unit initiates scanning, this brings up a number of options including fax, e-mail, printer OCR and specified software applications. The main user interface is PrecisionScan it is extremely simple to use, and like the 3200, bypasses the normal preview stage, so everything happens at a rate of knots indeed and this model came out on top for speed on most tasks. It also took top honours for colour accuracy and was a very close runner up to the Epson scanner for resolution and detail. A powerful high-performance scanner for demanding jobs, home users might find it a bit bland but this one is designed to work for a living.

 

The Facts

Parallel port & USB/PC, 600 x 1200 dpi optical, 36-bit colour, Start button, HP PrecisionScan, Caere PageKeeper, HP Scanjet copy utility, Adobe PhotoDeluxe Business Edition, parallel cable, USB cable, mains lead

 

Street Price 183

Verdict 93%

 

MICROTEK SCANMAKER X6

This is the smartest-looking of the eight models with its two tone-grey cosmetics; it is also unique in having a USB only interface. Other notable features are a front-mounted Start button and a big selection of bundled PC and Mac software. The glass platen is a little larger than an A4 sheet but the lid does rise up to accept thick books and documents. USB should make installation a doddle, though it's not unknown for the facility to be disabled on some PCs and this can cause problems, fortunately the manual includes a helpful troubleshooting section. However, if all's well and the test utility on the installation disc report no problems it can be up and running in double quick time.

 

Pressing the Start or 'Go' button launches the snazzy-looking ScanSuite control panel, from there it's possible to move or send a scanned image to any of the target applications (printer, fax, e-mail, image editing etc.). The supplied programs are seamlessly integrated and compared with some scanner front ends it is a joy to use. Although not quite the fastest scanner on test it came pretty close and the results look very good indeed with sharp, lifelike colours and lots of fine detail. The OCR struggles a bit with some tightly printed documents but accuracy is generally okay.  A slick performer, it looks good too, if you have USB connectivity check this one out.

 

The Facts

USB/PC/Mac, 600 x 1200 dpi, 36-bit colour, Start button, Microtek ScanSuite, Caere OmniPage Limited Edition OCR, ScanWizard, Ulead PhotoAssistant & PhotoImpact, Adobe PhotoDeluxe

 

Street Price 163

Verdict 90%

 

UMAX ASTRA 1220P

The Astra 1220P is built like a brick outhouse but the actual scanning area is only slightly larger than A4; on the plus side the lid lifts a full 2cm and it copes easily with books and multi-page documents. The connection to the PC is handled by a parallel port interface so it only takes a few minutes to wire up. The quick-start instructions aren't up to much but the bundled software includes a good selection of scan management and image manipulation programs plus a choice of two OCRs. Resolution is a healthy 600 x 1200 with 36-bit colour, so it's off to a pretty good start.

 

Scanning is controlled from a utility called Vista Scan, it integrates well with other bundled software plus fax and e-mail programs, and there's no need to stray from the defaults but if you want to make any adjustments to the image it has a useful assortment of tools. Scan speed is quite fast for a parallel port model, OCR operation is satisfactory but it really shines in the picture department. Images are very sharp with plenty of contrast; colours are bright clean and natural looking. A very good price and great performance.

 

The Facts

Parallel port/PC, 600 x 1200 dpi optical, 36-bit colour, Adobe PhotoDeluxe, OmniPage OCR, Presto Page & Photo managers, parallel cable, mains PSU

 

Street Price 100

Verdict 88%

 

---end---

R. Maybury 1999 1604

 


 

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