Flatbed scanners may be worth the headaches

Personal Computers

June 03, 1996|By Stephen Manes

IN 1981, SCANNERS WERE people in David Cronenberg's horror film of the same name who could blow up other people's heads. In 1996, scanners are electronic devices that can produce headaches almost as horrible as those.

Installing the Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 4P and the Epson ActionScanner II and their peculiar interface cards and software are almost enough to make your cranium burst from sheer frustration.

That is a shame because, viewed solely as hardware, these two color flatbed scanners are very good, indeed.

Long the devices of choice for turning material on paper into data in computers, flatbeds look and work much like familiar copy machines. They are particularly adept at handling books, magazines and other bound material, not to mention tiny items like taxi receipts that tend to jam in sheet-fed units.

And flatbeds typically offer high resolution and excellent scanning quality. The ScanJet claims 300 by 300 dots per inch of optical resolution, the ActionScanner 600 by 300. These resolutions are a good match for typical output devices and let optical character recognition (OCR) software work without compromise.

The two classic drawbacks of flatbed scanners have been price and size. Prices have dropped -- to about $500 for the ScanJet, $50 less for the ActionScanner -- but these units are not tiny. At 14 1/4 by 23 inches, the ScanJet takes up more space than many printers. The ActionScanner is only 12 by 17 1/2 inches, but its bed is too short to scan legal-size documents.

The SCSI interface built into every Macintosh computer lets you link devices in a daisy-chain arrangement that makes adding new ones relatively simple. But because most PCs are short on high-speed ports, installing a scanner means you must usually install some sort of interface card first. That should be simple enough for anyone who has grappled with a computer's innards. But the ScanJet's SCSI card and the ActionScanner's parallel card made the job so maddening that I recommend you have a dealer do the job for you, assuming it can be done at all.

The ScanJet presents incomplete installation instructions in both the quick-start brochure and the full manual. Although Windows 95 detected both the SCSI interface card and the scanner automatically on my machine, the instructions were silent about what to do next, turning an easy installation into a hard one. The Hewlett-Packard Co. warned me of an additional problem: you may not be able to install the card in multimedia-enabled machines without considerable grief.

The problem involves something called the Interrupt Request (IRQ) lines, represented as a number from 0 to 15. Many devices require unique IRQ numbers, and some even demand two. The result is that few go unused on a modern PC, which can make the open card slots in your machine utterly useless.

The ScanJet's interface needs a unique IRQ among the first nine, and on many machines those are all taken. Workarounds are available from the company, but they are not pretty.

If your head has not yet split, take this additional advice: Make sure your dealer will let you return the machine for a full refund. The Epson's parallel interface card is every bit as quirky and demands IRQ 5 or 7. Or seems to; since those were unavailable on my machine, I tried leaving the jumper that does the selecting in its original position, which selected nothing.

The unintuitive software, which required installing a printer port, disabling it and then turning it back on again, did make the scanner work, but the process disabled my printer until I reinstalled the printer port.

Both scanners require that you install Twain (Technology Without an Interesting Name) drivers, which typically let you scan material into existing programs from an "Acquire" option on the File menu or in other, more proprietary ways. The drivers also let you improve scanning results by choosing what kind of image is being scanned, what its ultimate use will be and how much of the image to include. But the ScanJet software is significantly easier to use than the ActionScanner's, and particularly good at doing things like finding a small photo and offering to scan only the area it includes. The ScanJet's software gives you less flexibility in technical matters such as changing the number of dots per inch in a scan. However, Epson's software disabled the other Twain drivers on my system.

The ScanJet also includes Visioneer's PaperPort software, which displays thumbnail versions of the things you scan and, when it works the way you expect, lets you transfer them almost effortlessly to other programs. But this software has some annoying rough edges and does not understand Windows 95's long file names, a major drawback.

Scanners are easy to use but can be hard to use well. Reading the manuals that come with these units should help, if your head does not explode from confusion.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 6/03/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.