A Guide to the Best Scanners

If you do your research and understand your options, you can ensure that you are buying the best scanners for your needs.

With the casual consumer focus on multifunction models, standalone scanner technology has gotten better, but that doesn't mean you're limited to pricey, high-end models. A general-use scanner may not be the speediest scanner, but it will come with resolutions and bit depths high enough to produce quality digital images. These scanners are viable options for the home or casual user.

For business users or digital graphics/photography enthusiasts, you may want to consider a more specialized scanner. What determines which end of the range of scanners you should purchase from? The overall ease of use of the scanner, of course, along with the variety of materials you'll be scanning and additional features and/or software applications the scanner may or may not come with. If you'll be scanning slides and film, for example, you'll need one that comes with a transparency adapter built in or that can connect to a separate adapter unit. If you'll be scanning documents that you'll later need to edit with a word processor, you'll want a scanner with optical character recognition (OCR) that converts the image to actual text. One warning: not all scanners are compatible with both PC and Mac platforms, so be sure the one you choose is compatible with your machine.

Flatbed and Sheet Fed
The majority of scanners are flatbed scanners, and if you're going to be scanning a variety of items, a flatbed is what you want. Flatbed scanners are capable of scanning bulky items that can't go through a sheet feeder (e.g., books, magazines, artwork or other three-dimensional objects). Flatbed scanners also feature the highest optical resolutions, but lower-priced models may have a maximum image size of 8 ½ x 11. If you need to scan documents larger than that, look for a flatbed scanner with dimensions that meet your needs.

A sheet-fed scanner can't accommodate bulky items, making it less versatile than its flatbed counterparts, but a sheet-fed scanner is smaller and takes up less desk space. Some models are small enough to travel with you if need be. If you're on the fence about which of these is best for you, it comes to image quality: a flatbed scanner produces sharper scans because the scanning head moves past the item you're scanning, which is why these types have the highest optical resolutions available. Unless size or portability is a top concern, you should choose a flatbed scanner.

Resolution and Bit Depth
True scanner resolution is optical resolution, not interpolated resolution. Interpolated resolution will read higher than optical because it's been enhanced by the software bundled with the scanner. Always base your decision on the scanner's optical resolution capabilities. As with printers, the higher the resolution, the sharper the image created. If you're scanning images for Web use or looking only to print small photographs (4 x 6 and smaller), you can get away with 100 to 200 dpi. For larger works, purchase the highest optical resolution you can afford, just make sure that your printer's resolution is as high or higher, and you have enough hard-disk space to store and print the images. Higher-resolution scanners produce larger files. Look for a minimum of 2400 dpi, even if you think you don't need it. You can't add resolution later. For documents only, 600 dpi should be enough.

Resolution, however, has nothing to do with color. A scanner remembers color from the original when it scans, and how much color it remembers is measured in bit depth. A minimum bit depth of 24 will be enough for most users, but some have bit depth as high as 96.

Image Sensors
A scanner uses one of two sensor methods: contact image sensor (CIS) or charge-coupled device (CCD). Scanners with CCD employ bright light that lights up the image and rows of pixels capture the image. CIS scanners create images by capturing the light from beneath the object being scanned. What does this mean to you? CIS technology is newer, smaller (making a CIS scanner smaller) and uses less power than CCD technology, but it can't match the sharpness of a CCD scanner. Think about what you'll be scanning and for what use. Home users will do fine with a CIS scanner, while professionals or sticklers for detail will want to stick with CCD.

Software Bundles
A scanner will come with the software needed to scan an item and transfer it to your computer, but most people want to do something with those images once they're created. Some software bundles include features that can erase flaws from the original. If you don't already have photo-editing software, look for a scanner that includes these kinds of tools. Ditto for documents: if you're scanning now to edit later, you'll need optical character recognition (OCR) capabilities that can turn the image into actual text.

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Scan your photos with ease by using our helpful scanner guide with great tips on everything from understanding different types of scanners to selecting the right scanner for your needs to tips and tricks when using your scanner.

Scan your photos with ease by using our helpful scanner guide with great tips on everything from understanding different types of scanners to selecting the right scanner for your needs to tips and tricks when using your scanner.

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