IN THE COMPUTER world, wonders and blunders never cease. The latest wonder is a photo scanner that can deliver quality previously unavailable at anything resembling a reasonable price. The latest blunder is peripheral hardware and software that can make getting the scanner installed and keeping it running about as easy as spinning a plate on the end of a very long stick. Unless luck is with you, this precision instrument can quickly become an instrument of torture.
The new Photosmart scanner from the Hewlett-Packard Co. (for TC Windows 95 only) can handle prints up to 5 by 7 inches, but its forte is dealing directly with negatives and slides. Scanning originals rather than prints can produce significantly better images, but until recently, the cheapest scanners that could directly handle film cost at least $1,000.
Seen in that light, the $500 Photosmart could have been a genuine bargain. It can scan slides and negatives at an optical resolution of up to 2,400 dots per inch and photos at up to 300 dots. It maintains excellent tonal gradation by using 30 data bits to represent each dot. Though fine specifications sometimes mask lackluster performance, the Photosmart's output was exceptional.
Scans of difficult slides with broad tonal range revealed sharp, clear detail in both shadows and highlights. Scanning a negative of an underwater scene automatically corrected colors that a standard photofinisher had rendered far too blue. And in none of the scans could I find a trace of the color streaks and "noise" that a cheaper photo scanner produced from the same prints.
Professionals may consider the scanning software oversimplified, but less experienced users should find it generally helpful. The program not only makes excellent automatic decisions about color correction, but also manages to help simplify the confusing issue of how big a scan should be for a particular size and device. You can override the settings, but that may require adjustments in two widely separate places.
The scanning software also has plenty of room for improvement. If you send a scan directly to a printer, all the careful adjustments you have made disappear without giving you a chance to save them. Although the software lets you rotate pictures and adjust their color, exposure and size, most of these functions are probably better left to more capable photo-manipulation programs.
Using the Photosmart software's cropping function to reduce the scanned area visibly degraded the picture quality; using Adobe Photodeluxe to do the same thing on a clearly scanned image worked fine.
The software insists on installing itself in a way that makes the program pop up automatically every time you insert a photo and disappear after you have finished each scan. You are probably more likely to want to invoke the program on your own and have it remain in place until you dismiss it, particularly since a bug that steals memory every time you open the program can eventually crash your system.
A Hewlett-Packard spokesman says a fix should be available soon. Unfortunately, no fix is in the immediate offing for the single thing that can keep this scanner from realizing its potential: an SCSI interface card that must be installed in an ISA slot inside the computer. Understanding how much of an obstacle this can be for many users, Hewlett-Packard provides a how-to CD-ROM video. You cannot watch while you try to install the card, since you must shut down the machine first, but the manual provides decent step-by-step instructions.
The real problem, however, is not getting the so-called plug-and-play card into the computer, but getting it to work.
It normally demands what is known as a free IRQ, or Interrupt Request Line, but like many multimedia computers, the Hewlett-Packard Pavilion machine I tried it in was fresh out of IRQs. The installation program came up with a work-around that installed something called a real-mode device driver. It took up a small but important portion of RAM, potentially degrading the performance of Windows 95 with some programs, but at least it worked, briefly.
Service bureaus can produce high-quality scans from slides and negatives and deliver them on CD-ROM in the PhotoCD format. If you prefer the theoretical convenience of doing it yourself with this schizoid device, arm yourself with patience and a money-back guarantee.
New York Times News Service
Pub Date: 5/19/97