Flatbed scanners do a great job on prints and other paper-based art and a decent job on medium- or large-format film. But if you want to scan 35mm or APS film (and wind up with a print that's bigger than a postage stamp), you need a film scanner. The good news is that film scanners have never been more affordable.
Macworld Lab rounded up seven 35mm film scanners, all priced below $2,000, and put them through their paces. Although we were impressed by the scanners' quality, we found significant differences in cost, resolution, dynamic range, speed, and the usability of their accompanying software.
The scanners fall into two classes: the Canon CanoScan FS4000US, the Microtek ArtixScan 4000t, the Nikon Super Coolscan 4000ED, and the Polaroid SprintScan 4000 all offer 4,000-pixels-per-inch (ppi) resolution; the others--the 2,438-ppi Minolta Dimage Scan Dual II AF-282OU, the 2,820-ppi Minolta Dimage Scan Elite F-2900, and the 2,900-ppi Nikon Coolscan IV ED--capture fewer pixels. All the high-resolution scanners have SCSI interfaces except the Super Coolscan, which is FireWire-only; the CanoScan has both SCSI and USB. Alone among the lower-resolution scanners, the Dimage Scan Elite has a SCSI interface; the Dimage Scan Dual and the Coolscan are USB-only.
Just two of the scanners we tested were compatible with Mac OS X. The Dimage Scan Dual did fine in OS X's Classic mode, as did the CanoScan (when we selected its USB port).
The Sharper Image
We found that the 4,000-ppi scanners captured more detail than the lower-resolution models rather than simply creating a larger file, but we also found that they were merciless regarding flaws in the original images--chromatic aberrations in lenses and softness due to camera shake are much more obvious at high resolutions. The Super Coolscan produced sharper scans than the ArtixScan and SprintScan, and the CanoScan was the least sharp (though the differences were slight).
We found surprisingly little difference in the amount of detail revealed by the 2,438-ppi Dimage Scan Dual and the 2,900-ppi Coolscan. The Dimage Scan Elite produced scans that were slightly sharper than those from the other lower-resolution scanners, but we had to look very hard to find the differences here, too.
Vendor claims about dynamic range-- the range of tones a scanner can capture, from light to dark--can be hard to judge, because there's no universally accepted method of measurement. Most specifications give a maximum density (dMax), but they don't quantify the amount of noise present.
We found that the Super Coolscan, for which Nikon claims a dMax of 4.2, did a somewhat poorer job of pulling detail out of shadow areas than the more conservatively rated scanners when used in single-pass mode. The only way we could get the Super Coolscan to live up to its dMax claim was to enable the 16 multiscanning option (which averages 16 separate scans and hence takes 16 times longer than a single pass) and to turn off both autoexposure and color management.
The ArtixScan pulled the most detail from the shadows, but it also introduced a lot of noise. The SprintScan produced the best detail with the least noise, and both Minolta scanners yielded decent shadow detail despite their more conservative ratings. The Coolscan and the CanoScan both lost detail in the darkest areas, rendering them as almost solid black.
We were a little surprised that the Minolta scanners did by far the best job with color negative film. The Nikon scanners blew out the highlights to solid white, as did the CanoScan. The SprintScan and ArtixScan preserved both highlights and shadows but got grainier results than the Minoltas.
We still haven't seen a scanner that can produce good results from color negatives automatically. If you're prepared to do some fine-tuning, you can get decent results from color negatives using any of the scanners except the CanoScan. However, you'll find that you have a lot less work to do with the Minolta scanners than with the others.
Comparing scanner speeds is tricky, both because the scanners don't all capture the same number of pixels and because speed depends on the scanning options you choose. Of the high-resolution scanners, the CanoScan was considerably slower than the others when connected via SCSI and even slower when connected through USB. The SprintScan was consistently the fastest when we enabled color management in all the scanners, but the Super Coolscan took the lead when we disabled color management.
Of the lower-resolution scanners, the Nikon Coolscan was the fastest on 24-bit scans, while the Dimage Scan Elite was the fastest on high-bit scans. The Dimage Scan Dual lagged behind both, despite capturing fewer pixels.
All the scanners we tested have decent drivers, but Nikon and Polaroid get the award for most-improved software. NikonScan 3.0, which drives both Nikon scanners, is so much better than its predecessor that it's barely recognizable. Polaroid still bundles the idiosyncratic PolaColor Insight, but now it also includes the very capable Silverfast plug-in from Lasersoft. Microtek has also improved its plug-in driver to fully support ColorSync, and it offers a complete set of tools for tweaking scans. The software from Minolta and Canon is more rudimentary.
Both Nikon scanners include Digital ICE3, a system for detecting and removing surface defects. The software does an amazing job of eliminating dust and scratches, though it lengthens scanning times considerably and softens the image somewhat. If you always scan pristine film in a clean room, ICE3 has little to offer you. If you deal with a lot of old, damaged originals, it's a lifesaver.
Macworld's Buying Advice
It's difficult to pick a clear winner from this very capable bunch, but we declare the Polaroid SprintScan 4000 the all-around champ--it's fast, produces excellent results from positives and decent results from negatives, comes with excellent software, and is reasonably priced. Our runner-up is the Nikon Super Coolscan 4000ED; it produces excellent scans, even with damaged originals--but only when you use the multipass scanning feature, which slows scanning to a crawl. Finally, if you scan negatives rather than positives, the Minolta Dimage Scan Elite F-2900 does a great job without making you jump through hoops. The price of the ArtixScan--the most expensive of the bunch--will have dropped to $1,000 by the time you read this, making it a much more attractive option.