Midrange Flatbed Scanners
If you're willing to fork over more than $200 for a scanner -- for breathing new life into tired, old photos or for scanning slides or negatives -- you're likely looking for the exceptional image quality, speed, and flexibility associated with a midrange flatbed scanner.
We tested the Canon CanoScan 9900F, the Epson Perfection 4870 Photo, the Hewlett-Packard Scanjet 8200, the Microtek ScanMaker i900, and the Umax PowerLook 1000 on a 1GHz Power Mac G4 with 512MB of RAM, using OS X 10.3. All but the Umax are in the midlevel price range of $400 to $600; the Umax PowerLook 1000 base model (with an optional transparency-adapter lid) costs $598 and includes SilverFast SE. The unit we tested for this review included the transparency lid and the more expensive SilverFast Ai software package -- the only software at press time that supported high-bit scanning on the PowerLook 1000 in OS X 10.3. The Umax with this configuration costs $899.
Each scanner has different features, including sophisticated software with advanced controls, high optical resolutions, fast connections, and the ability to scan negatives and transparencies. And two of them include the Kodak Austin Development Center's Digital ICE technology, which lets you restore damaged photos and fix fading, dust, scratches, and tears.
While no single scanner left the others in the dust, we chose the Canon as the front-runner because it has the best image quality across both reflective and transparency categories. The Epson was a close second, but its transparencies came out too dark. The term reflective media refers to photographic and other paper-based scanning sources, and the term transparencies refers to negatives and slides.
All of these scanners connect to your computer via USB or FireWire, except for the HP, which has only a USB 2.0 connection. Each scanner in this roundup sports a variation of the new, stylish silver-and-black casing. The Umax is the only scanner that comes with a second lid, for scanning negatives and slides. We found that switching lids -- and keeping track of them -- was a pain. The Umax, HP, and Microtek scanners have legal-size (8.5-by-14-inch) scanning surfaces, which can be quite convenient. The rest have letter-size (8.5-by-11-inch) scanning beds. Every scanner in this roundup lets you scan multiple slides and transparencies simultaneously, and all except the Umax have an adapter built into the scanner lid.
Stacking Up the Specs
High resolution and bit-depth specifications are important considerations for people who want to enlarge a small image while maintaining the original's clarity and preserving enough data to edit in an image editor such as Adobe Photoshop. Hardware resolution, measured in pixels per inch (ppi), correlates with the level of sharpness and detail (data) that the scanner hardware can deliver without using software interpolation -- a software boost that can give scanned images too soft a focus. The hardware (optical) resolutions of these scanners varied: the Epson and the HP have 4,800 ppi; the Canon and the Microtek have 3,200 ppi; and the Umax trails at 2,400 ppi.
Bit depth refers to the number of colors (and shades of gray) that scanner hardware can produce. Of these five scanners, all but the Umax have 48-bit color; the Umax has 42-bit color. But all of these scanners can theoretically deliver billions of colors -- many more than the human eye can decipher. Our panel of experts judged how well these scanners reproduced images and transparencies.
Photos and Line Art
We rated all the scanners as Good or Very Good for reflective image quality, but none received an Excellent rating. We tested the Microtek using the pro-level SilverFast Ai software, because it produced better image quality and color.
Our test photo contains a variety of items designed to show how well scanners match colors and capture detail in both the highlights and the shadows. It pictures fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of surfaces such as wood, metal, and skin.
The Epson and the HP rose to the top for their ability to capture detail. We were able to make out clearly defined peppercorns in a dish, the texture of salsa in a bowl, and even handwriting on a menu card and lettering on a measuring spoon. The other scanners produced respectable results, with somewhat less overall detail. The Umax joined the Epson in having good detail in the shadows, while the others had blocky, indistinct shadows.
The HP and the Umax did the best job of reproducing black-and-white line art, a scan of shapes and fine lines. Both had better contrast than the others, which resulted in cleaner, more-distinct lines.
The Epson came the closest of all the scanners to matching the colors in the test image. The HP scored the lowest in color matching in that the images came out too red.
Negatives and Transparencies
Unlike dedicated slide scanners, the units we tested use the same hardware to reproduce reflective and transparent images. This is asking a lot, as these image types are vastly different. The results indicate that these scanners tend to specialize in reflective images, even though they are capable of somewhat imperfect transparency reproduction.
We used a 35mm slide of the same test photo we used in the reflective tests to find out how well the scanners reproduced detail and matched colors in transparencies. Overall, the Canon ranked the highest: it excelled in color matching and was among the best in capturing detail. The Epson's transparency scan came out too dark; the Umax's colors were light and undersaturated, and the image was too softly focused.
Most of the transparency adapters could accommodate 35mm slides and film, as well as medium and large format (4-by-5-inch) transparencies. The Microtek threw a few more transparency holders into the box, while the HP was able to handle only 35mm slides and negatives.
How fast were these scanners? The HP was the winner in all timed performance tests, with the Epson coming in second. The Umax was the slowest in both categories.
The HP completed a test scan in 1 minute and 39 seconds. The Epson completed a scan of the same image in 1 minute and 58 seconds. The rest trailed, taking anywhere from 2 minutes and 30 seconds to more than 3 minutes per scan.
The HP produced the swiftest scan of a 35mm slide, at 1 minute and 12 seconds, with the Epson in second place at 1 minute and 17 seconds. The rest took between 2 and 4 minutes.
Without good software, your scanner is just a big box of mirrors, glass, and moving parts. All scanners ship with some kind of software interface that lets you scan without an image editor. Each scanner comes with Adobe Photoshop Elements 2 in the box, in addition to its own proprietary software. The Umax, Microtek, and Epson scanners also include a version of LaserSoft's SilverFast -- either Ai or, with the Epson and the Umax, the lower-end SE, unless you get Umax's $899 package (see "Midrange Flatbed Scanners Compared").
SilverFast is powerful, full-featured software that is customized for each scanner hardware configuration. For novices, SilverFast's plethora of finely calibrated controls can be overwhelmingly complex. Pros, however, will appreciate how much image-editing time that scanning with the correct specifications saves.
Canon's Scan Gear Tool Box was slightly annoying in that it didn't allow you to save your settings. It will save the previous scan's settings, but it won't save specific settings for specific types of images.
The HP Photo and Imaging software package was the most frustrating. Its bare-bones interface -- a sparse and quirky collection of pull-down menus without many graphical elements -- was intrusive because it launched at startup and stayed open in the Dock even when the scanner wasn't hooked up. Furthermore, the Photoshop plug-in didn't install automatically from the included CD, and there was no documentation outlining how to install it manually. The scanner software showed up in the Photoshop Import menu but would not scan. After we installed the software manually, the scanner showed up twice in Photoshop. One menu item worked and the other didn't. This is totally unacceptable and may be a good reason not to purchase this scanner.
Macworld's Buying Advice
None of these scanners emerged as a slam-dunk winner. Each had strengths and weaknesses in different areas. The Canon CanoScan 9900F was our scanner of choice because of its all-around good image quality. Its moderate price and hassle-free software are also attractive.
Were it not for the darkness of its transparencies, the Epson Perfection 4870 Photo may have commandeered the top spot for its very good reflective image quality and general speediness. If you're going to concentrate on reflective image scanning, you might consider the Epson. Although the Hewlett-Packard Scanjet 8200 was the fastest scanner and scored fairly well in capturing photographic detail, its software was too frustrating to use for us to recommend it.
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