(12/15/2000) – If someone had told me five years ago that I’d be really impressed by the output from a $300 flatbed scanner, I would have been skeptical. But technology sometimes progresses much faster than we expect, and flatbed scanners are a case in point. Macworld Lab recently looked at nine flatbed scanners with prices ranging from $230 (for the Agfa Corp. SnapScan e40) to $391 (for the Microtek Lab Inc. ScanMaker X12USL ) and obtained impressive results across the board – at least for reflective scanning. Eight of the scanners capture 1,200 pixels per inch (ppi), while the ninth, the Epson America Inc. Perfection 1640 SU, boasts the highest resolution in its class at 1,600 ppi. All have USB ports (the Canon Inc. CanoScan N1220U is the only one that draws power from USB), and the Epson Perfection 1640 SU and the Microtek ScanMaker X12USL also offer SCSI connectivity.

Not Just for Photos

The scanners fall into two broad classes. One is intended for general office use, offering quick and convenient ways to scan to e-mail, the Web, faxes, an OCR (optical character recognition) application, or an image editor, via programmable buttons on the scanner. The Agfa SnapScan e50, the Hewlett-Packard Co. ScanJet 5300c and 5370c, and the Microtek ScanMaker 4700 all fall into this class. The more-traditional scanners include OCR software, and all except the Umax Technologies Inc. Astra 4000U feature software control panels for automatic scanning to a variety of destinations.

Three of the scanners – the SnapScan e50, the ScanJet 5370c, and the ScanMaker 4700 – include a transparency adapter for scanning 35mm slides and negatives, but we were much less impressed by these scans. Only the SnapScan e50’s transparency scans had reasonable color fidelity (the 5370c’s were oversaturated with blocked shadows, and the ScanMaker 4700’s had a strong green cast).

All three scanners are limited by their native resolution, which allows for an approximately 1,000-by-1,500-pixel scan from a 35mm original. This would do in a pinch for scanning film for the Web or for making small (3-by-5-inch) prints, but scanning 35mm film on these machines is clearly a marginal proposition.

Some of the scanners offer optional transparency adapters that can handle larger film formats. We didn’t test these, but the limited dynamic range of these scanners suggests that the results would be equally disappointing.

Great Color from ColorSync

As for reflective scans, we found that all the scanners are capable of producing excellent tone and color – if you’re prepared to do some work. But a few of the models we tested do so with almost no intervention, thanks to Apple Computer Inc.’s ColorSync color-matching technology (which some scanner vendors are finally beginning to support). The Hewlett-Packard and Umax scanners don’t use ColorSync, so it’s somewhat more difficult to get good color from them. Illustrating the power of ColorSync, the Canon scanner produced arguably the worst result when we didn’t use ColorSync and one of the best results when we did.

Scanners that do use ColorSync implement it in different ways: the Agfa scanners use ColorSync to scan to your monitor’s RGB and embed your monitor profile in the scan. The Canon scanner also scans to monitor RGB but doesn’t embed a profile. Scanning to monitor RGB works well if you’re dealing primarily with non-color-managed applications – those that simply send the RGB numbers in the file to the screen. The Epson and Microtek scanners embed the scanner profile in the image, a better approach if you use color-managed applications that recognize embedded profiles.

The Hewlett-Packard models, which lack color-management features, produced oversaturated scans with a pronounced red cast. Hewlett-Packard’s scanners are designed to produce sRGB output – the company is a major proponent of the sRGB color space, which is designed to represent the “average” uncalibrated Windows monitor. Unfortunately, since Windows displays generally have a higher gamma than Mac displays, sRGB images look dark on a Mac. Therefore, the sRGB option is turned off by default in the Mac driver and a different gamma curve applied, exacerbating one of sRGB’s less desirable properties – a tendency to shift blues toward purple.

The Astra 4000U’s VistaScan driver supports Umax’s proprietary MagicMatch, a color-management solution (based on old Kodak technology) that Umax has used for about five years. Frankly, we’ve never been able to get good results from MagicMatch even when we could get it to run.

If you want good color with no hassle, your best bet is one of the ColorSync-aware scanners. But if you’re a more sophisticated user who plans to do substantial image editing in a color-managed application, you may be better off with one of the scanners that delivers high-bit files to Adobe Photoshop. All the scanners capture at least 36 bits per pixel internally, and most capture 42, but only the Umax and Microtek scanners let you save all those bits on output. You get much better results editing images at the scanner’s full bit depth, with less chance of posterization or color banding. However, if you can access the high-bit data only through the scanner driver, you must do major editing in the driver rather than after the fact in an image editor.

The Sharper Image

Where sharpness is concerned, not all 1,200-ppi scanners are created equal. When we zoomed in on a fine detail of an image – the serrated edge of a knife blade – we saw that the scans from both Agfas were noticeably sharper than the others, followed by those of the Umax and the Microtek ScanMaker X12USL. The Agfa scans were so sharp, we suspect the scanner applies some sharpening automatically; they were also noisier than the others, reinforcing that theory. The Microtek ScanMaker 4700 output was the least sharp, though it wasn’t objectionably soft. Both Hewlett-Packard scanners were fuzzy in the red channel, producing some red color-fringing along the edge of the knife blade – a more difficult condition to correct than overall softness.

You might expect the 1,600-ppi Perfection 1640 SU to resolve more detail, but it doesn’t – it just produces a bigger file. In fact, the Epson lagged behind the others in terms of sharpness and displayed some color-fringing along high-contrast edges (in this case, due to misregistration between the three color channels – about two pixels at 1,600 ppi).

Advice:All the scanners we tested produce decent output, but three stand out from the pack. Both the Canon CanoScan N1220U and the Agfa SnapScan e50 deliver excellent scans with no hassles. The Canon is tiny – small enough to be portable – but draws its power from the USB port, and the Agfa offers easy integration with a variety of applications through its programmable buttons. (If you don’t need these functions, opt for the cheaper e40, which delivers scans of equal quality.) Sophisticated Photoshop users who want to work with high-bit scans – when restoring old prints, for example – will find that the Microtek ScanMaker X12USL delivers very good images along with the productivity features of the less-expensive scanners.

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