Scanners: A popular, affordable new trend

A convergence of trends has made desktop scanners more popular and affordable than ever, and federal agencies are snapping them up for the same reasons as their commercial counterparts.

For one thing, color desktop flatbed scanners are available for as little as $40 from discount stores, and higher-quality, name-brand devices deliver photo scanning capability for a few hundred dollars. Today's desktop PCs pack the

processing wallop needed to manipulate large image files and have the storage space to hold them, so users don't need any other special equipment.

In addition, color ink-jet printers have enjoyed an increase in quality and a decrease in price parallel with that of scanners. The availability of those printers has increased the demand for scanners to record photos and other images that exploit color printers' capabilities.

Finally, the increase in public and private Internet use has created interest in recording images digitally for use on World Wide Web sites, spurring more interest in scanners.

The competition for buyers in this hot market has led vendors to engage in "specsmanship" - the one-upping of each other's technical specifications without regard for the actual overall capability. The problem is that while the claims are "legally accurate," impressive specifications for some components in the system may not be supported by all the other parts. This makes it harder for customers to comparison shop because they aren't sure which claims to take at face value.

Federal customers prefer scanners that claim 30- to 36-bit color depth and resolution of 600 dots per inch (dpi) or higher, said Mark Thoreson, inside sales manager for Government Technology Services Inc. Because they typically scan a few documents at a time, about one-third of federal buyers choose an available page feeder for their scanners, he said.

Price competition also has caused most scanner manufacturers to shift production to non-Trade Agreements Act-compliant countries, Thoreson said. This means few scanners are available on contracts, he said, and of the three models we looked at (Hewlett-Packard Co.'s ScanJet 6250Cxi, Microtek Lab Inc.'s ImageDeck and Epson America Inc.'s Perfection 636U), only the HP unit is on the General Services Administration schedule.

Scanners have long suffered from abysmal setup, ease of use and compatibility with other peripherals. The emergence of Universal Serial Bus ports and built-in support for USB in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 98 have combined to make scanners more friendly for users who aren't highly technical. USB also happens to be the only interface for users of Apple's popular iMac computer, so those users must use scanners that are USB-compatible.

The SCSI interface, on the other hand, churns out fast performance but is often hard to install and sometimes simply won't work with existing peripherals.

The popular parallel interface is simpler to install, but it is slower and can compete with other peripherals for available interrupts.

Because USB simplifies setup and provides good performance, it is an ideal solution until FireWire-compatible scanners appear. FireWire is an interface that will be even faster than USB but still will enjoy a simple USB-style installation.

**

HP's ScanJet 6250Cxi

Unlike the other two scanners we looked at, the HP ScanJet 6250Cxi ships with an automatic document feeder and a 35 mm slide/transparency adapter. Its $436 price may look a lot more expensive than the Epson's at first glance, but when you add the cost of Epson's optional document feeder and transparency adapter, the two prices are quite similar. HP claims resolution of 1,200-by-1,200 dpi and 36-bit color depth for the 6250Cxi.

As buyers might expect from a machine that comes fully equipped and that features a price an order of magnitude higher than the least-expensive generic scanners, the 6250Cxi targets serious business customers. It even features a utility that lets users share the scanner over a local-area network.

But the most obvious feature of the HP in testing was its speed, and that was HP's goal with the device. The company targeted productivity, and it claims that in independent testing, the 6250Cxi was four times faster in scanning documents and transferring them to users' applications than competitive models.

We didn't conduct such rigorous testing, but the HP was noticeably quicker in going about its business, and file sizes were more manageable, so applications ran faster, and documents printed faster.

Testing the 6250Cxi with a 4-by-6-inch color photo and a color letter-size document showed good results. The photograph looked the best and had the truest colors of the scanners tested, and the document copy came the closest to duplicating the original, although the text was not as black as it should have been.

Still, faster doesn't necessarily mean fast. A 20-page text document took nearly 15 minutes to scan.

Thanks to its USB interface, installing the 6250Cxi was a simple matter of unlocking the scanner, connecting it and following the prompts to install the drivers from the CD-ROM. Installing the applications was similarly easy.

The documentation is more complex than that for the other scanners because it covers the use of both the tested USB configuration of the 6250Cxi as well as the available SCSI port. The USB installation portion of the guide spans two pages; the SCSI portion covers 10 pages and is followed by a trouble-shooting guide that focuses on SCSI-related problems. This difference illustrates the huge improvement in the ease of use that USB provides. Nevertheless, experts who plan to share the scanner with a workgroup over a LAN may need the extra speed of the SCSI interface, so it's nice to have that as an option.

HP includes an excellent array of professional-grade software with the 6250Cxi. The company's own PrecisionScan Pro launches automatically with a touch of the scan button to capture images. FaxSav and Fax-Launcher Internet fax software from NetMoves Corp. (which just recently changed its name from FaxSav Inc.) let users easily fax scanned documents or save them to disk as faxes.

HP provides Adobe Systems Inc.'s PhotoDeluxe, but this is Version 1.0 of the Business Edition, which provides more professional controls and a slightly different interface than the home edition. Caere Corp.'s PageKeeper document management utility lets users keep track of their scanned images, and a trial version of Caere's popular optical character recognition (OCR) product, OmniPage Pro, also is included.

Overall, this scanner is very well-suited for office use. The price includes commercial-grade software, an automatic document feeder and a slide/transparency adapter. This unit also produced excellent image quality.

REPORT CARD--------------------ScanJet 6250CxiHewlett-Packard Co.(800) 722-6538 www.hp.com

Price and Availability: Available on Government Technology Services Inc.'s General Services Administration schedule for $436. For more information, call (800) 999-4874.

Remarks: This is the best-suited scanner tested for office-type use. The price includes commercial-grade software, an automatic document feeder and a slide/transparency adapter. The ScanJet 6250Cxi produced the best image quality of the scanners evaluated.

Final Score: Very Good

**

Microtek's ImageDeck

Microtek has devised a surprising solution to installation hassles with its ImageDeck: It skips connecting to the PC completely. Microtek calls the ImageDeck a stand-alone "imaging appliance."

The $499 ImageDeck scanner stores its scans on either standard 1.44M floppy disks or 100M Iomega Corp. Zip disks. It also can print directly to an attached printer. Microtek lists a resolution of 600-by-600 dpi and 36-bit color depth.

The ImageDeck does not need to be connected to a PC to scan photos. Much like Sony Electronics Inc.'s popular digital cameras, the ImageDeck relies on sneakernet to move images from the scanner to PCs. It has a standard floppy disk drive and a Zip drive to store and transfer images recorded by the scanner. It also features a printer port that enables users to plug a printer directly into the ImageDeck for use as a copier.

Setup of the ImageDeck is even easier than the other scanners tested. Essentially, buyers only need to unlock the scanner, plug it in and turn it on.

The ImageDeck has no provision for letting users connect it to a PC even if they want to, and the company says that such a connection option has been widely requested, so future models probably will include one. But a spokeswoman said the company felt that omitting the connection would make a stronger statement about the intended use and simplicity of the ImageDeck.

Because the ImageDeck stands alone, it doesn't affect the user's ability to work on the host PC at the same time - unlike most scanners, which monopolize the PC to which they're connected while in use. Buyers may want to consider purchasing the optional automatic document feeder ($149) because the ImageDeck is slow to scan each page, and waiting to change pages to be scanned would waste a lot of time. (Microtek does not offer a transparency adapter option with this model.) Even in basic copy mode at low resolution and in black and white, the ImageDeck needed more than a minute to scan and print a copy of a page of text on a laser printer.

The ImageDeck's control panel is similar to that of a copier, so users should find it familiar. The user's guide provides clear instructions for the use of the control panel and the meaning of error codes and flashing LEDs when things go wrong.

Microtek includes a CD-ROM loaded with software so that customers can use their scanned images when they arrive at their PC, files on disk in hand. The company provides Ulead Systems Inc.'s PhotoImpact 4.2 for photo editing. Ulead lacks the market reputation that Adobe enjoys, but PhotoImpact provides simple color adjustment, contrast and brightness tools for modifying images as needed. Like HP, Microtek also provides Caere PageKeeper document management software and the limited edition of OmniPage OCR software.

Images scanned from the ImageDeck fell short of those from the other two scanners. Even at maximum resolution and minimum compression, color images and text were fuzzy when scanned on the ImageDeck. The color photo scan boasted truer color than the Epson, but it was grainier. A black-and-white text page copied to a laser printer didn't reproduce the lighter touch of italicized letters accurately, and it cut off the very top or bottom of the document, depending on the orientation of the page.

The stand-alone ImageDeck is a great idea, but it falls short of greatness in execution. The included software is good, but image quality is only fair, and the scanner is slow.

It will be interesting to see whether the PC-free design catches on thanks to the simplicity of setup and the ease of use.

REPORT CARD--------------------ImageDeckMicroTek Lab Inc.(310) 297-5000www.microtek.com

Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $499.

Remarks: The ImageDeck is a great idea, but it falls short of greatness in execution. The included software is good, but image quality is only fair, and the scanner is slow. It will be interesting to see whether the PC-free design catches on thanks to the simplicity of setup and the ease of use.

Final Score: Good

**

Epson's Perfection 636U

Although the Epson's $229 price seems extremely low, keep in mind that the document feeder ($199) and transparency adapter ($99) are sold separately, while the HP includes these options in its price.

However, Epson told us that it does not comment on GSA pricing or schedules, so GSA prices may actually be lower than these.

The performance specification that gets immediate attention for the 636U is a claim of 600-by-2,400 dpi resolution. While the true resolution of the scans from this device is probably debatable, Epson uses an interesting technology to accomplish this feat.

The 636U uses 600 dpi optics, but when set for higher resolution, the scanner mechanism advances in quarter-size baby steps, collecting four times as much information in the "height" dimension of scanned images. Epson calls this Micro Step Drive technology, and while it makes scanning very slow, it also improves the quality of documents scanned. It is limited to a 4-inch wide strip over the 11.7-inch length of the scanning bed, but most photos are 4 inches or less in one dimension. For letter-size documents, a lower resolution is needed, but that resolution is probably all that is necessary for those documents.

Installing and setting up the 636U is pretty much as simple as promised by USB evangelists. The machine comes out of its box needing only to have the scanner mechanism unlocked and to be plugged into the computer's USB port for Windows 98 to recognize it. Then users must install drivers from the included CD-ROM.

Fortunately, this process is painless and automated, so users need only to click OK on a few dialog boxes, use a brief calibration utility and then reboot the PC. So while it's not quite as simple as USB promoters promise, it's still easy to do.

This machine is so simple that users probably won't even need to use the documentation, but the manual is clear and well-illustrated.

Epson includes some good software with the scanner. The included CD-ROM features a program that quickly installs Adobe's PhotoDeluxe Home Edition 3.0, NewSoft Inc.'s Presto! PageManager, Broderbund Software's The Print Shop Press Writer and Epson's own TWAIN imaging software.

Adobe's PhotoDeluxe is a stripped-down photo editing and management application that provides a few of the tools used in the company's industry-standard Photoshop application. NewSoft's Presto! PageManager enables users to save images, paste them into other applications or perform OCR to convert them to text. Broderbund is a force in games and consumer software, and The Print Shop has long been popular with home users for creating newsletters and the like. Epson's TWAIN driver is a scanning utility for producing professional results. It includes "text-enhancement technology" for more accurate OCR scanning and "auto-area segmentation" to help separate text from background colors.

Documentation for the included applications is on the CD-ROM in Portable Document Format, and Adobe's Acrobat Reader is included in case customers don't have that software.

The Epson's peculiar mix of high-grade professional TWAIN software and consumer applications is puzzling, but the packages are simple to use. However, the speed of scanning and processing documents leaves something to be desired, especially at high resolutions. High resolution is not supposed to be required, but copying a color document with a photo image showed significant improvement at the higher setting.

It was, however, still inferior to the image produced by the HP and the Microtek scanners, adding a shaded background to the document that was not on the original.

Scanning a photo at maximum resolution yielded better quality than the Microtek scanner, but the colors did not match the original as closely as the HP scanner. Printing the huge high-resolution files also was time-consuming. Scanning a page at maximum resolution and printing it could take 10 minutes, which was much slower than the other scanners tested.

REPORT CARD--------------------Perfection 636UEpson America Inc.(800) 463-7766www.epson.com

Price and Availability: Available on the open market for $229.

Remarks: The Perfection 636U is a good, easy-to-use scanner that includes very good software for a price that is low when compared to other name brand products. But the quality of scanned images was only fair, which kept this unit from earning a very good score.

Final Score: Good

**

Conclusion

All three scanners proved to be simple enough to install, set up and use, so end users should be able to do this without assistance from technical support staff. All of the bundled software was satisfactory, although some of it was oriented more toward home customers than commercial-type federal agencies. Photo scanning quality varied among the scanners tested, but agencies doing a lot of photo scanning should either start using digital cameras or buy a dedicated photo scanner. The HP scanner includes a standard automatic document feeder, and Epson and Microtek offer that as an option. Because scanning is slow, the document feeder is a necessity for customers planning to scan documents of more than one page.

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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