Scanners are cheap, efficient

January 18, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

While the price of all computer equipment has plummeted over the last year, I've never seen anything quite like the bargains available in desktop scanners today.

For $100, or even less, you can buy remarkable equipment with capabilities that would have made graphics professionals drool just a few years ago. Bundled with easy-to-use photo editing software and other graphics programs, these scanners make it a snap to import your snapshots into newsletters and flyers, post them on a Web site, make reprints with a color printer, or send them as e-mail attachments to friends.

One of the best of this new breed is the Canon CanoScan FB 620P, which lists for $99 but performs as well as a much more expensive machine.

Before I get into the details, though, it's a good idea to discuss some scanner basics. If you've never used or seen one before, a scanner is like a digital camera -- it records an image of a photo, drawing or page of text, breaks it up into digital ones and zeros, and transmits that information to your computer.

How you use that information depends on your software. With a photo editing program, you can crop and rotate an image, adjust the color balance, brightness contrast and focus, or apply special effects. If you're scanning a text document, you can store it as an image, fax it to someone else with your modem, or use optical character recognition (OCR) software to turn it into text that can be edited in your word processor.

There are two basic types of scanners, flatbed and sheet-fed. A flatbed scanner looks and works a lot like a copier. You put a document on a glass surface and a scanning wand passes underneath it to record the image. A sheet-fed unit uses rollers to pass your document over a stationary scanning head. Sheet-fed scanners are more convenient for multipage documents and OCR conversion, but otherwise flatbeds are more accurate and versatile.

Scanners are generally judged by their resolution and bit-depth. Resolution is the number of dots, or pixels, that a scanner can record, measured in dots per inch (dpi). A 600-dot-per inch scanner can record much better detail than a 300-dpi model -- four times as much detail, in fact. But you may not need that much detail if you're reproducing images for Web sites, and the higher the resolution, the more space your images will occupy on your disk drive.

Bit depth refers to the number of bits (digital ones and zeros) a scanner uses to record color information about each pixel. The minimum for scanners today is 24 bits per pixel, enough information to reproduce 16 million colors -- the limit of human vision. However, some models use 30 or 36 bits per pixel to store additional information about shadow areas that would otherwise lose detail.

The CanoScan is a sleek, 600-dpi flatbed unit with a modest 10-by-15-inch footprint that's not much bigger than a sheet of paper. At 4.5 pounds, it feels almost flimsy, but the stylish, rounded case proves computer equipment doesn't have to be ugly. Like most scanners designed for home or office use use, it connects to your computer through your printer port. You plug your printer into a pass-through port on the scanner.

Today's scanners are usually controlled by software drivers that conform to an industry standard called TWAIN. When a TWAIN driver is installed under Microsoft Windows, your photo editor, desktop publishing program or word processor will display an "Acquire" menu that calls up the scanning software. Once you've scanned in your image, it's automatically transferred to whatever program you're running.

Canon's ScanGear driver is easy to use but chock full of features. You can preview an image and crop it ahead of time, so you scan only the area you want. Unlike many other drivers, ScanGear allows you to enlarge or reduce the image while it's being scanned, instead of waiting to use your photo editing software. This saves time and can improve image quality.

Likewise, you can adjust brightness, contrast color balance and other image attributes before the actual scan, which is good if you're working in desktop publisher, word processor or some other program that doesn't have full photo editing capability.

Scanning a 4x6 color photograph at 300 dpi (enough resolution for anything short of magazine publishing) took just over a minute, which is slow by the standards of professional scanners but not enough to be bothersome.

The results were outstanding, particularly when I printed the scanned images on photo-quality paper using a Lexmark 5700 with a photo cartridge. The color fidelity was excellent and the printed images were almost as sharp as the originals. I had less luck scanning in grayscale images of color photos, which turned out a bit dark and muddy. If you want black-and-white images, scan them in color and use your photo editing software to make the conversion.

The CanoScan FB620P ships with Adobe PhotoDeluxe, a good beginner's image editing program, and Xerox TextBridge, a well-regarded OCR package. I had no trouble using the ScanGear driver with other programs, including Ulead PhotoImpact and Microsoft Publisher.

In short, the quality of this little scanner belies its size and weight. It's a good choice for home or small business use. For information, call 800-OK-CANNON or surf to www.ccsi.canon.com.

Pub Date: 01/18/99

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