Color scanners still tricky, but more affordable

Personal Computers

October 20, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

COLOR pictures are wonderful. Getting them into your computer is not. Particularly in the Windows world, color scanners can be tricky to install and trickier to master. But prices have been dropping, and decent models are available for less than $150.

For recent tests, I limited myself to units with optical resolution of 300 dots per inch, which is all most users need with today's best ink-jet printers. I also stuck to units that connect to a computer's printer port and offer a pass-through port for the printer. Until recently, color scanners required installing a SCSI card, a dreaded process that generally meant opening up the machine, poking around inside and attempting to master strange and mysterious software plumbing. Letting your printer and scanner share is simpler.

Alas, when I installed the sheet-fed Easy Photo Smart Page Pro (about $150 after manufacturer's rebate) from Storm Technology Inc., my Hewlett-Packard ink-jet printer went deaf to software commands. Storm's spokesmen insisted that the scanner and printer should have had no problems together, but the technical help line recommended a fix that disabled the printer's two-way communication. It works, but it will cause much unnecessary grief before users figure it out, and it keeps the printer from reporting things such as being out of paper.

Aside from that maddening flaw, the Smart Page Pro is not a bad scanner. It takes up about half the desk space of a magazine and produces color scans acceptable to the unfussy because the images' streaks and color errors are visible when enlarged. The software cleverly feeds the document part way in and pushes it back out so it can figure out how wide the scanned

image should be. The removable scanning head lets you scan thick documents such as books by hand, but that advantage turns out to be largely theoretical; hand scanning takes a deft touch and infinite patience and delivers uneven results.

The basic scanning software is somewhat unresponsive, and additional options can be irritating. After you use it five times, the limited-function optical character recognition program nags you to buy an upgrade. The Easy Photo editing software is adequate, but it automatically compresses all the images you scan into it. That makes them easier to use and store but compromises quality. The documentation does not explain that if you are willing to put up with bigger files, scanning directly into other programs might give you better images.

The Easy Photo Imagewave flatbed scanner (about $100 after rebate) offers similar software but throws in a version of Adobe Photodeluxe that does not let you make those higher-quality scans. The unit's output was inconsistent, at best slightly better than its similarly priced brand mate, but it did not give my printer any trouble. Like other flatbeds, it is built like a slim photocopier and takes up a lot of room on the desk in exchange for being able to handle bound volumes easily. But like other cheap flatbeds, it cannot handle legal-sized documents. And once the Imagewave goes to sleep after a few minutes of inactivity, it takes 45 agonizing seconds to wake up and get scanning again.

Visioneer Inc. pioneered tiny sheet-fed scanners. Their popularity seems to have been based on their diminutive size and clever software interface rather than their image quality. The new Paperport Strobe (about $200 after rebate) is about as small as a scanner can get and keep the interface, but the unit I tried produced scans consistent only in their inferior quality. Recalibrating merely changed the scans from soft and fuzzy to blocky and contrasty. Color noise and poor tonal sensitivity were far more evident than in the Storm units, in part because the scanner uses only 24 bits per pixel rather than the increasingly common 30.

The software wastes time and disk space by scanning the entire width of the scanner even when you feed it a small photo. Because there is no TWAIN driver, you must scan into Visioneer's desktop software and then drag an icon of the file to an icon of the application you want to use, and that feature sometimes works in unexpected and irritating ways. Although the program's insistence on storing files in its own directory in its own way helps preserve them, it can create confusion. Because image files are not automatically compressed for storage, it can also waste megabytes of hard-drive space. The OCR software is a variant of what Storm offers, and the rest of the package is no prize.

The flatbed Paperport 3000 (about $130 after rebate) is a much better bargain. Because it lets you scan directly into other programs, you can avoid Visioneer's software if you want to. The scanner cannot handle legal-sized documents, but it consistently delivered color scans that were low on color noise and high on accuracy. Its sharp black-and-white scans translated to excellent character recognition. It seemed slow on the job but started up quickly. Like its brand mate, it never gave my finicky printer so much as a hiccup.

Be warned: These scanners and their software can be confusing. Visioneer offers online help free, but its toll-free voice line exacts $14.95 per call unless you can persuade the service representative to waive the fee. Storm makes you pay the toll for the call but will talk to you free of charge. Try to describe your problem in colorful language.

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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