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article imageDigital Photos For All: Scanners Enter The Mainstream

By Dirk Zeitler     Oct 24, 2000 in Technology
Berlin (dpa) - It's no secret that computer prices have fallen steadily over the past decade. The cost of scanners, though - one of the most sought-after computer peripherals - has remained relatively high - until recently, that is.
Now, it's safe to say that a "golden age" for fans of scanners has begun. Scanners are now available for under 100 dollars, making them compelling add-ons for all PC owners.
So what can you do with a scanner? Plenty. You can turn photos into computer-editable images, make photocopies, send faxes, turn paper documents into text on-screen, and lots more.
Scanners operate like copy machines. A photo or a page of text is placed on a pane of glass and is read using a special light that passes over the material. The scanned image is then digitalized and stored in the computer.
Years ago, the advent of scanners led to widespread predictions of paperless offices. The idea was that entire mountains of paperwork could suddenly be stored on hard drives. That never happened, of course - as the ease with which users can print out multiple copies and drafts of documents has only increased theuse of paper. But for millions, scanners have nevertheless become indispensible for millions.
If you're thinking of buying a scanner, the main question will be: Do you want to spend a lot for extra features and resolution, or is an inexpensive scanner sufficient for your needs?
Low-end scanners, costing anywhere from 100 to 200 dollars, generally scan at a resolution of 600 dots per inch (dpi). The higher the resolution, the clearer the image that is scanned in. According to Wolfgang Stieler of the computer magazine c't, that resolution is sufficient for scanning photos and most texts. For scanning negatives or slides, however, it is advisable to use scanners operating at 1,200 dpi, which generally cost more.
Gerd Hartung of the German consumer protection agency Stiftung Warentest in Berlin largely agrees with Stieler's assessment. Hartung recently examined a range of scanners operating at 600 dpi all the way up to 1,200 dpi. The scanners he tested were priced between 100 and 350 dollars.
The cheaper scanners, Hartung says, are adequate for home use. The Acer Scan Prisa 640, for example, is priced at around 100 dollars and is ideal for applications such as scanning images for publication on a Web site or doing low-volume optical character recognition (OCR) - turning paper-based text into editable on-screen documents.
The Epson Perfection 1200 Photo, on the other hand, was the most expensive scanner tested. It costs about 350 dollars, including a slide adapter, and operates at 1,200 dpi. Surprisingly, though, Hartung's testing revealed that the extra resolution isn't always worth the extra cost.
Although the Epson Perfection produced outstanding results, the other 1,200 dpi scanners got worse marks than the Acer at 600 dpi.
"A manufacturer's emphasis on resolution may be no more than a play on numbers," warns Hartung.
In rendering colors, scanners produce mixed results. Automatic brightness and color controls rarely yielded satisfactory results. However, these problems could be remedied by configuring the scanners manually. Hartung was surprised by the ability of most scanners to make blurred images clearer. "They could even make images clear that were wrinkled," he says.
Hartung found problems with the OCR software bundled with many scanners. Wolfgang Stieler also believes that the quality of the software can vary widely. Most programs can easily convert printed documents to plain text, such as a business letter.
But when it came to scanning a newspaper page containing graphics, most programs failed. They only recognized the text adequately. Stieler also points out that the documentation is often poor, typically explaining only how to install the program. "There is no information about how to edit images, for example," he said.
If you're serious about using a scanner for optical character recognition, consider purchasing a higher-end commercial OCR package, such as Caere's OmniPage Pro (www.caere.com).
Among the general conclusions that Hartung came away from was that better software can drastically improve the performance of even mediocre scanners.
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