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How to Buy a Scanner

Post #1567 • August 13, 2012, 3:36 PM • 4 Comments

If you're like me, you've been putting off buying a scanner for ages because doing a proper job of it requires copious research, and instead you've been having fruitless political arguments on Facebook with people who think that stridency makes up for a lack of supporting evidence. No more, dear reader—follow along as I bite down and get this done.

Where to Begin

The following is a distillation of the Newegg Learning Center guide to scanners. Newegg deserves your business. I have dealt with them many times, including the two times I built a computer from parts, and have come away a happy customer in each case. Newegg shall be my vendor.

My priority is scanning flat artwork for digital representation and print reproduction. So to be clear, I am in the market for a flatbed scanner, as opposed to a sheet-fed or slide scanner, which are other sorts of creatures. Sheet-feeding is great if you have to scan a lot of 8 1/2 x 11 documents on a regular basis, but not what I need. Some flatbeds claim to be able to scan film and slides using special attachments and settings. Do not believe them. It will end in tragedy.

Another option to consider is an all-in-one device, which combines a flatbed scanner with a sheet-feeder, printer, copier, fax machine, and toaster oven. A couple of these have served me well in the past but the current one, an HP 7280, has developed an interesting problem in which a vertical shadow appears on the output file when I scan in color. And only when I scan in color. Also, I'm limited to an 8 1/2 x 11 bed and would like to go larger. Furthermore, anyone who asks me to send them a fax in 2012 is an idiot. So I have decided on a flatbed, one-in-one-device scanner.

The Joy of Specs

There are two kinds of common image sensors, the CCD (Charge Coupled Device) and the CIS (Contact Image Sensor). CCDs use more power and cost more but they provide better image quality, so I'll favor a CCD scanner.

Resolution is measured in dots per inch, dpi for short. Dpi tells us that a given scanner can translate an inch of your artwork into a certain number of pixels, and higher is better. We need 1200 dpi or higher. You will hardly ever need output at that resolution, but as explained in the guide,

A 600 dpi scan from a 1200 dpi scanner may be better than a scan at the same resolution from a 600 dpi scanner (all else being equal).

Your typical printed output, such as a postcard, is 300 dpi, so we're way ahead of the game here. I probably don't need to go too far above 1200 dpi. I've made 3200 dpi scans on a university-owned machine, which gives you details that you can't see with the naked eye. That's a lot of fun, but the scanner costs more than the trade-in value of my car.

Also note that we're only looking at optical resolution, not interpolated. Interpolated resolution is generated by algorithms passed over the digital input magic, and we want to evaluate the hardware itself, especially when comparing devices. One more thing to note is that dpi is often presented as a square, say 1200 x 1200 dpi, which gives you a better idea of how the scanner is looking at your artwork. It happens sometimes that interpolation is more effective across one axis than another, giving you a resolution of 1200 x 1600 dpi, for example. This is another reason to stick to thinking about optical resolution, which is constant in both directions.

Bit depth is the amount of information recorded per pixel, and higher is better, as it means that each pixel will have more descriptive data associated with it. Quoth the guide, "24-bit is sufficient under most circumstances and 36-bit is usually more than enough." I'll go with that.

If I wanted to sell my car to buy a scanner, I would consider a measure referred to as Dynamic Range, which is measured in units that correspond to a logarithmic scale from 0 (white) to 4 (black) magic. On my budget it won't be an issue, and may not even be easy information to come by if I made it one. To simplify further, scanner speed is of no importance.

The Newegg guide upbraids users who don't consider the software that comes with the scanner, but as a Linux user I usually can't run it anyway. My concern is that the scanner is supported by the SANE interface (Scanner Access Now Easy). The SANE Project maintains a list of supported devices. If you're a Windows or Mac user you don't have to think about this.

Research is Hard, Let's Go Shopping

Newegg has a Power Search into which I can plug the above choices. I leave the default choice, "any," for product type, manufacturer, series, color depth (the three choices are 24, 48, and 96, and 24 is probably enough), and interface. I select flatbed model, CCD image sensor, optical resolution of 1200 dpi or higher, and maximum document size of 8.5 x 14 or larger. The results are two versions of the Epson Expression10000, at $2500 and $2700 respectively. Time to make some tradeoffs.

My first is to give up on the CCD sensor. That adds one more result, the Mustek ScanExpress A3 USB 2400 at $223. SANE describes its support as "basic," which isn't great, but the rest of the specs are impressive: 48-bit depth, 2400 x 2400 dpi, and a mighty scanning area of 11.7" x 16.5". Newegg's users have given it a solid rating of four eggs out of five, with eight reviews.

I'll probably go with this, but just for grins, I'll put back the CCD requirement and give up some ground on scanning area, making it 8.5 x 12.3 or higher. That turns up the HP Scanjet G4050 at $189, but Newegg users have given it rating of three eggs, which is a firing offense. When I remove the CCD requirement and take down the scanning area to 8.5 x 11.7, I have sixteen products to choose from ranging from $55 to $2700. The only reason to prefer one of these to the Mustek would be a better rating than the Mustek's four eggs and a lower price. One of them has both: the EPSON Perfection V30 at $70 and five eggs (calculated across 81 reviews, which is fantastic). It has a CCD sensor, 48-bit depth, 4800 dpi, and a USB 2.0 connector, which is faster than vanilla USB. Tempting, but we're back to the document-sized scanning area, and SANE doesn't support it for beans.

So the Mustek it is. I ignore the mental image of a Russian gangster saying the word "mistake" and put in my order with Newegg.



Chris Rywalt

August 13, 2012, 3:58 PM

"...instead you've been having fruitless political arguments on Facebook with people who think that stridency makes up for a lack of supporting evidence."

I'm just happy to be included.

Incidentally I can say from personal experience and general expertise that HP's standard scanner software blows comatose bonobos.



August 13, 2012, 6:03 PM

David Marshall has alerted me reagarding another A3 Mustek for $300, but the only gain seems to be USB 2.0. I'm curious in any case why this doesn't show up at Newegg.


Ron LeBrasseur

August 13, 2012, 6:27 PM

Good choice. I've had a Mustek for years and have been very happy with it.


John Link

August 25, 2012, 7:02 PM

I must comment. I buy a lot of stuff from Newegg, but am tending to do my research there and buy from Amazon.

1. Newegg, in its "Standard" return deal charges a hefty restocking fee. I just purchased a high dollar Asus Republic of Gamers Maximus Extreme V motherboard. Even though it sported 8 Sata ports, 6 turn out to be disabled if you use just 2 to create a RAID 1 (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) set of disks to protect you from the inevitable day when one of them dies. The remaining two ports cannot be set up as RAID anything nor can you boot up from them, so when your data disk dies, you had better have backed it up. They don't tell you this, despite the cornucopia of stuff they do tell you, despite the 22 minute video with the Asus expert discussing the wonders of the board. They just say the board supports RAID and leave the rest to the purchaser's imagination. I falsely concluded that, with 8 SATA ports and RAID prominently advertised, there could be two simple RAID 1 sets, as there are on my previous Asus mobo, and the other 4 ports would be fully functional. Only after the board arrived and I read the manual did I find out there could be just one RAID set and that it would kill 6 ports in the process of using just 2. It cost me $16 to ship the board back, and they will reduce my refund by $58.00 for restocking a perfectly good board with no unopened packages. (Manual floated free in the box.) For the non-geeks who might be reading this, Republic Of Gamers qualified boards are expensive and typically outfitted with every feature one could want. AND, this was the most feature full of the three ROGs that Asus makes for Intel's new chips. It is so large that it will not fit into a standard case.

2. There are too many complaints posted about motherboards that arrive with a bent pin. Newegg automatically assumes the purchaser bent the pin and will not take the board back, period, unless the purchaser can furnish "proof" it arrived damaged, where "proof" is not defined. I cannot find one review where a purchaser was able to return a board with a bent pin, so that deepens the mystery of what constitutes "proof" that much more. I am sure some purchasers do bend pins and then claim the board arrived that way. That's life in retail sales. But I make it a point to never cheat anyone, not even the US government, so if I should receive the 1 in 100 boards with a bent pin, the one who will get screwed is me. I don't like that. Amazon, on the other hand, and according to one of their reviewers, does accept returns of boards with bent pins on the word of the purchaser. And they don't charge a restocking fee.

3. Newegg has several even more draconian "return" deals, including one that is no return whatsoever allowed.

4. In the case of a very expensive Nikon 9000 scanner (does medium format as well as 35mm film) that was DOA, Amazon paid the return shipping and because they did not have any more in stock to replace it with, refunded my original price plus original shipping. So I bought it from another source.

5. Newegg is a geek store. It even says so on their boxes. Yet, they make it clear in several places on their site you cannot ask a technical question about a product either on live chat, by email, or over the telephone. Thus I cannot be blamed for not asking for more info about the meaning of "RAID" as it pertained to this super-duper board, because they won't answer such a question. I don't know if Amazon would either, but they do not explicitly rule it out.

On a positive note, at Newegg it is not hard to find stuff. Amazon can be challenging if you do not know pretty much exactly what you want. And even though they won't talk to you one on one about technical matters, Newegg offers a lot of text and video information on their site.



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