Optical Scanners Whittle Down The Paper Mountain

For those slogging through a wasteland of paper mountains and cascades of files, the computer industry would like to offer this oasis: the scanner.

Scanners can turn office clutter into manageable computer files. And scanner prices have dropped so low that almost any computer user can afford one. But choose carefully. Each machine has its strengths and weaknesses.

Scanning works a little like photocopying. You put a sheet in the machine, it creates an image. Then (unlike the copier) it sends that image to your computer. There are two types of scanners: traditional flat-bed models (that even look like photocopiers) and newer sheet-fed scanners that are smaller than a bread loaf.

Graphic artists and people interested in capturing detailed images have the easiest choice to make. A high-end, flat-bed scanner is the only machine that will meet their needs. Prices of even these high-end machines are falling and should settle in the $800 to $1,000 range, says Eric Blakemore, a product manager for Hewlett-Packard, which makes scanners.

At the low end of the market, the choice gets murkier. Users can get a traditional flat-bed scanner for about $400, or a sheet-fed scanner for less than $150. To test out the two, I pitted the Umax Vista-S6E, a low-end $400 flat-bed scanner, against the $300 Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 4s.

The ScanJet has a lot going for it. It's small enough to fit between your computer monitor and keyboard. And it's ridiculously easy to operate. Feed in a sheet of paper and the scanning software starts up automatically.

Once the scan is finished, its simple Visioneer software pops up with a thumbnail sketch of the scan. Drag the scanned object to the printer icon and the image prints out; route it to the computer fax and it faxes. Pop it onto the logo of your word-processing program and the computer automatically turns the image into computerized text you can edit.

All this would be a dream come true, except that the quality of the machine's scans is poor. Converting a press release into text created dozens of mistakes, while the identical page scanned into the Umax flat-bed led to a nearly flawless conversion into computer text. Even high-grade conversion software couldn't make up for the ScanJet's inferior scan.

That's because the machine's optical resolution is 200 dots per inch (dpi), while the Vista-S6E is 300. The higher number means the scanner can capture more detail. (Manufacturers often add a second number, such as 300-by-600 dpi or 600-by-1200 dpi, but the most important resolution number is the first. It tells how much information the scanner can capture along its light bar.)

Admittedly, flat-bed scanners have several drawbacks. They take up loads of desk space. And, with IBM-compatible machines at least, they're much more challenging to install.

While the ScanJet 4s easily plugged into a serial port on the back of my computer, the Vista-S6E required opening up the computer and installing a card. (Macintosh users don't have this worry, even with flat-bed models, because their machines rely on exterior connections.) But the flat-bed scanner does retain distinct advantages. Unlike its sheet-fed cousins, it can capture images from uncut magazines and books. It also works in color, while most sheet-fed models are black-and-white.

Experts expect scanner sales to explode. Analyst Kristy Holch, the principal of InfoTrends Research Group, Inc., of Plymouth, Mass., forecasts that scanners will penetrate 30 percent of the computer market by 2001, up from 3 percent last year. Which scanner should you buy? Industry officials think most consumers will first try the low-end sheet-fed models. But if you're serious about taming the paper mountain, get a flat-bed scanner.

*Comment to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com

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