A steppingstone to the paperless office

There is no Easter bunny, taxes are still due every April, and the paperless office is about as real as the tooth fairy.

Although they're not able to change the facts about the Easter bunny or taxes, technology companies have been doing what they can to make it easier to cope with the flood of paper that continues to burden agencies and departments. Specifically, improvements in department-level document scanners have made it easier — and less expensive — to tame the flow of paper.

Compared to the devices available at comparable prices only a couple of years ago, today's scanners are faster and more durable and offer better integration with office applications.

Evolutionary Changes

All document scanners employ the same basic technology: The page being scanned is illuminated by a light source while a sensor "reads" the page, recording it as a pattern of dots.

Most scanners currently on the market use CCD sensors. Contact CCDs have the light source built in, and paper is moved over the sensor. Most flatbed scanners, however, use a different design. The paper is held stationary on a glass platen, and a lens projects the image onto the CCD, which moves across the platen. Either way, the sensor detects the values of the individual points of reflected light from the page and records them as electrical charges.

Neither design is inherently more accurate or durable than the other. Contact CCDs are somewhat faster, though they are generally more expensive to engineer. Some higher-end scanners employ both technologies, allowing both sides of a document to be scanned in a single pass through the scanner.

Most personal and departmental document scanners — including the two we tested for this article — use a bright white fluorescent light source to illuminate the page so that it can be read by the CCD. But this technology has limitations. First, if the paper you're scanning is thin and printed on both sides, you may experience bleed-through. If you run into this problem frequently, you may want to look into using a black background.

Other drawbacks to white fluorescent lights are that they tend to lose brightness faster than some other light sources, including the green phosphor lamps used in many high-speed production scanners. Also, fluorescent lamps tend be brighter toward the center and dimmer toward the edges; a good scanner will have lamps that extend beyond the size of the maximum paper width. Some vendors have turned to more expensive tungsten or LCD light sources to fix this problem.

If you're employing a scanner that uses any color but white for a light source, be aware that some colors on the page may not be picked up by the CCD. Accordingly, some vendors of high-speed document scanners offer optional lights of different colors.

How Fine is Fine Enough?

Resolution is no longer a major issue for departmental scanners, and even lower-cost models offer true optical resolutions of up to 2,400 dots per inch. When shopping for a scanner, however, be aware that vendors report two kinds of resolution: true optical resolution and software- enhanced resolution.

Generally, when vendors report optical resolution, they are referring to how many sensors are available in the CCD to scan each line. If the scanner is reputed to have an optical resolution of 2,400 dpi, for example, it means that the CCD has 2,400 sensors. But this is a measure only of the scanner's horizontal resolution. The unit's vertical resolution is determined by how fast the CCD moves across the paper. Some scanners, for example, offer 2,400 x 2,400 optical resolution, which will deliver better results than one that offers 2,400 x 600 optical resolution.

When a vendor reports higher resolutions using "interpolation," or software enhancement, it means that software is used to analyze the scanned image and "guess" at the values that lie between the dots that were actually scanned.

A scanner with 2,400 dpi optical resolution will deliver better results than a scanner with 2,400 dpi achieved through digital enhancement, especially if you need to enlarge images after scanning. For the most part, however, document scanning generally requires resolutions of only 200 dpi to 300 dpi.

A Delicate Hand

Of far greater significance for most agencies will be the speed with which the scanner can process a page. Time, after all, is money. For most departments, speeds slower than 10 pages per minute (at 200 dpi in black and white) just won't do. But if you're willing to spend more money, you can buy a unit that can scan 20 pages to 45 pages per minute. If speed is really critical, and your budget is accommodating, you can buy a production scanner that is capable of processing 50 pages to 120 pages per minute.

Even if your agency doesn't require a high-speed scanner, it's likely that you will at least want a scanner with a good automatic document feeder (ADF) so employees don't have to stand at the scanner manually placing pages on the glass.

ADF units generally employ rollers to pull pages from the feeder tray one at a time, place them on the glass for scanning and then remove them to make room for the next sheet. But roller transports cannot handle a wide range of paper thicknesses. Also, they bend the paper to move it through the process, making them unsuitable for scanning brittle or damaged pages. Fortunately, most departmental scanners with ADFs still offer the option of manually placing pages on the glass.

Higher-end production scanners offer other paper-feeding methods, but they cost more. A belt transport, for example, moves pages along by pressing them between two belts. Other high-speed scanners employ drum transports, and some even use vacuums to hold pages against belts while moving them.

High-end production scanners generally can handle large format documents, but desktop and departmental scanners are often limited to documents of 8.5 inches by 14 inches or, at best, 11 inches by 17 inches. Scanners capable of the latter format usually carry a significantly higher price tag, but before concluding that you don't need to scan pages that large, consider that an 11-inch-by-17-inch scanner allows you to scan two pages of most books side by side in a single pass.

Connectivity and Durability

Another factor to consider is network connectivity. Most low-cost scanners cannot be networked. If you have a number of people in your department who need scanning capabilities, however, it may be more economical to pay the extra dollars for a midrange scanner with network connectivity rather than buy multiple scanners.

Expensive production scanners, of course, offer built-in network interfaces and are able to queue jobs from multiple locations. But if you need less expensive network connectivity, midrange departmental scanners like the ones we tested offer functional (though a tad less robust) connectivity by using the workstation to which the scanner is attached as a host.

This solution, though less expensive than a dedicated network connection, has several limitations. First, it taps the resources of the host computer each time another computer on the network accesses the scanner. Second, only one computer at a time can access the scanner.

Finally, durability can be a major concern. Scanners designed for individual users are simply not up to the wear and tear of scanning hundreds or thousands of pages each week. Of course, a more durable scanner will generally carry a higher price tag. Another sign of a durable scanner is the weight of the unit. Such scanners contain more parts made of metal and heavier-grade plastics. Also, check the warranty provided by the manufacturer for clues to the unit's durability.

Of course, there are dozens of scanners at each level — including personal, workgroup, departmental and enterprise-level production scanners — to choose from. For this article, we took a hands-on look at two market leaders that delineate the range of options available for workgroups and departments.

These units — Epson America Inc.'s GT-10000+ and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Scanjet 7450c — are not ideal for very heavy scanning chores that require high-speed processing. But they do offer options for workgroups and departments that deal with lighter loads.

The GT-10000+ not only has more numbers in its name, it costs more than twice as much as the Scanjet 7450c. What you get in return for that extra investment is a heavy-duty scanner that's sturdy enough to handle the daily wear and tear of busy workgroups and departments.

Scanjet 7450c: Priced to Move

The Scanjet 7450c is an attractive compromise with an attractive price tag.

The 7450c is actually two scanners in one. The unit carries a 2,400 dpi CCD for high-resolution scanning and a 600 dpi CCD that delivers faster scanning speeds when you don't need the higher resolution. As a result, the unit can return a preview scan of a page in about four seconds — after the lamp has warmed up, of course, which takes about a minute.

We were very impressed with the results using both CCD sensors. The high-resolution color scans were crisp and sharp and offered plenty of depth for zooming in without losing detail. And the fast black-and-white scans were very effective for optical character recognition (OCR).

We found the scan speeds to be acceptable for a unit that costs less than $1,000, but users should be aware that higher-resolution scans can take quite some time: A 2,400 dpi scan of a 1-inch square color photo, for example, required a tad longer than three minutes to perform and produced a file nearly 50M in size.

Apart from the quality of its scans and its low price tag of only $699, the 7450c's strongest feature is its ease of use, especially for the casual user. Indeed, thanks to a set of buttons on the front of the unit, users can access many functions without even touching a mouse.

The 10 buttons on the front panel enable users to initiate such chores as copying a page, e-mailing, faxing and initiating OCR. You can specify the number of copies to make — from one to 99 — using a rocker button. A small LCD panel tells you what mode and options are selected.

It was a snap to set up the 7450c, which weighs less than 10 pounds. And the document feeder was just as easy to get up and running. The only problem we encountered was that the ADF plug and the interface plugs all go into a recessed panel in the back, so it can be difficult to see the appropriate receptacles.

The ADF, which is limited to only 50 sheets of paper at a time, worked well, but we found it rather touchy about the condition of paper we inserted. When we removed a staple from a document, for example, the 7450c refused to feed the stack until we actually trimmed off the corner where the staple had been. Using the ADF, the 7450c can process pages at an acceptable 15 pages per minute when scanning in black-and-white mode.

In addition to the 50-page limit on the ADF, the 7450c has another limitation that departmental buyers will want to take into account: The largest page the unit can scan is 11 inches by 14 inches.

Although the 7450c, like the Epson GT-10000+, does not include a dedicated network interface, it does allow workgroups to share the device through the computer to which it is attached using either TCP/IP or the NetBEUI protocol. HP has bundled an attractive assortment of software, including its own PrecisionScan Pro, which is a very capable scanning application, and its Remote Scanning software, the application that allows the scanner to be shared via a network.

As noted above, the 7450c we tested carries a list price of $699. The 7490c, which offers a higher-speed SCSI interface and Corel Corp.'s CorelDraw image-editing software, has a list price of $899. If you don't need the ADF and the bundled IRIS Readiris Pro 6.0 OCR software that come with the 7450c, you can buy the same unit in the form of the 7400c for $499. All models carry a one-year warranty that can be upgraded to three years for $34.99.

GT-10000+: Ready to Churn

You can get a sense of the durability of the GT-10000+ before you even plug it in. Without the document feeder, the unit weighs in at a hefty 46 pounds. And the solid feel when you lift the top of the unit indicates that the GT-10000+ can manage thousands of operations without strain.

The GT-10000+'s "footprint" is also much larger than the HP 7450c's, measuring 25.9 inches by 18 inches by 6.95 inches. In part, that's to accommodate the heavier-duty construction of the unit. It also accommodates the larger platen. The GT-10000+ can scan pages as large as 11 inches by 17 inches.

The GT-10000+ also differs in that the top is hinged on its long side, making it easier to position documents, especially open books and periodicals.

The GT-10000+ does not offer quite the same optical resolution as the HP 7450c. With its single 600 dpi CCD, the unit offers a maximum optical resolution of 600 x 2,400 dpi, which can be boosted via software to 9,600 x 9,600 dpi. In practice, however, we found the highest-resolution scans of the GT-10000+ to be virtually indistinguishable from those of the HP 7450c, even after enlarging the resulting scans repeatedly.

The GT-10000+ didn't deliver preview scans quite as fast, but we found it quicker on the draw when it came to making final scans at higher resolutions.

The unit's optional ADF is as solidly built as the rest of the unit and more forgiving than many other ADF units when processing paper that has been slightly damaged. The ADF can also accommodate 100 pages, though the maximum processing speed is a less than sprightly 10 pages per minute.

We like the software that is bundled with the GT-10000+. The primary scanning interface, Presto Page Manager, is one of the most intuitive packages we've seen. When you scan a page, it automatically appears as a thumbnail image on the desktop. To move it to another application — such as an image editor or an OCR program — you simply drag the document over the appropriate application icon at the bottom of the screen.

The unit also includes ScanSoft Inc.'s TextBridge Pro OCR software and a TWAIN driver for sharing the scanner across the network.

Yes, the Epson GT-10000+ lacks the HP 7450c's user-friendly buttons for quick processing. And, yes, the GT-10000+ is relatively pricey at more than $2,000 once you include the ADF.

But if you're looking for a reliable scanner that's built to stand up under heavy workloads, the GT-10000+ is a solid buy. Given its solid construction, in fact, we don't know why the unit carries only a one-year standard warranty.

REPORT CARDS

Scanjet 7450c

Score: B+

Hewlett-Packard Co.

(800) 613-2222

www.hp.com

The list price for the Scanjet 7450c is $699.

The Scanjet 7450c offers excellent resolution and ease of use. Its lightweight construction makes it easy to move, but we're concerned about how well it will hold up with extensive use over time. Also, the unit's automatic document feeder can hold only 50 sheets. The scanner works with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 98, 4.0, 2000 Professional, XP and Me; and Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh OS 8.5 and above. We tested the Scanjet 7450c using a Gateway Inc. 700 series computer with a 2.4 GHz Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processor and 1G of RAM.

***

GT-10000+

Score: B+

Epson America Inc.

(800) 463-7766

www.epson.com

The price for the GT-10000+ scanner on the General Services Administration schedule is $1,097. The automatic document feeder is an additional $1,060.

The GT-10000+, which works with Microsoft Corp. Windows 95, 98 and NT, is a heavy-duty scanner that should stand up to all the work you can throw at it. The device has an automatic document feeder that can accommodate 100 sheets at a time and a scanning bed that can handle pages of up to 11 inches by 17 inches. We tested the GT-10000+ using a Gateway Inc. 700 series computer with a 2.4 GHz Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processor and 1G of RAM.

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