Finding the right scanner can be a challenge. Most can scan just about anything, but they come in a variety of types and sizes that are fine-tuned for different purposes. Here are the key questions to ask to help make sure you pick the right scanner for your needs.
What Do You Need to Scan?
Knowing what and how often you expect to scan will tell you everything you need to know about the features you'll need. The two most common choices are photos and documents (as unbound pages), but there are other possibilities, too, like books, business cards, film (slides and negatives), magazines, and easily damaged originals like stamps. Somewhat less common are 3D objects like coins or flowers. You should also consider details like the maximum size of the originals and whether you'll need to scan both sides of document pages.
Do You Need a Flatbed?
For photos or other easily damaged originals, bound material, and 3D objects, you need a flatbed. (Here we're talking about scanning 3D objects to two-dimensional images; 3D scanners—for scanning objects to 3D files for display or printing—are a different beast entirely.) Originals like photos and stamps can go through a sheet feeder, but you risk damaging them. If you need to scan this sort of original only rarely, you may be able to make do with a sheet-fed scanner that comes with a plastic carrier to protect the originals. Keep in mind, however, that even brand-new, unscratched plastic carriers can degrade scan quality.
Do You Need a Sheet Feeder?
If you plan to scan documents on a regular basis—particularly documents longer than one or two pages—you almost certainly want a sheet feeder. Having to open a flatbed lid and set a page in place is a minor chore. Having to repeat the process 10 times for a 10-page document is a tiresome annoyance. Some sheet-fed scanners can also handle thick originals, like health-insurance ID cards.
Do You Need an Automatic Document Feeder?
If you'll primarily be scanning one or two pages at a time, a manual sheet feeder is probably all you need. If you'll be scanning longer documents on a regular basis, however, you'll want an automatic document feeder (ADF) that will scan an entire stack of pages while you do something else. Pick an ADF capacity based on the number of pages in the typical document you expect to scan. If you occasionally have a longer document, you can add pages during the scan. Some ADFs can also handle stacks of business cards well.
Do You Need to Duplex?
Duplexing means scanning both sides of a page at once. If you need a sheet feeder or ADF, and if you expect to scan duplex documents (printed on both sides) on a regular basis, you'll want a duplexing scanner, duplexing ADF, or a scanner whose driver includes a manual duplex feature.
Duplexing scanners have two scan elements, so they can scan both sides of the page at once. They're faster than duplexing ADFs, but they also cost more. Duplexing ADFs scan one side, turn the page over, and then scan the other. Drivers with manual duplexing let you scan one side of a stack and then manually re-feed the stack to scan the other side, with the scanner driver automatically interfiling the pages. Manual duplexing in the driver is the most economical alternative, and is a good choice if you don't scan duplex documents very often, or are on a tight budget.
What Resolution Do You Need?
For most scanning, resolution isn't an issue. For documents, even a 200 pixel-per-inch (ppi) scan will give you good enough quality for most purposes, 300ppi is almost always sufficient, and it's hard to find a scanner today with less than 600ppi. Similarly for photos, unless you plan to crop in on a small part of the photo or print the photo at a larger size than the original, 600ppi is more than enough.
Some kinds of originals, however, require higher resolution. If you're scanning 35mm slides or negatives, for example, you'll probably want to print them at a much larger size than the original, which means you'll need to scan them at a high resolution. Similarly, if you want to see the fine detail in an original, like a stamp, you'll need to scan it at a high resolution. In these cases you'll want a scanner that claims at least a 4,800ppi optical resolution.
How Large Are Your Originals?
Picking a scanner that can handle the size of the originals you need to scan seems like an obvious point, but it's easy to overlook. For example, most flatbeds are letter size, which will be a problem if you occasionally need to scan legal-size pages. Most flatbeds with ADFs will scan legal-size pages with the ADF, but not all do, so be sure to check. You can also find scanners with larger flatbeds.
What Software Comes With the Scanner?
Most scanners will work with just about any scan-related program, but if the software you need already comes with the scanner, you won't have to pay extra for it. Depending on what you plan to scan, some of the software features you may want to look for include photo editing, optical character recognition (OCR), text indexing, the ability to create searchable PDF documents, and a business-card program.
Do You Need a Special-Purpose Scanner?
Finally, consider whether you need a special-purpose, rather than general-purpose, scanner. Among the most common special-purpose choices are scanners for business cards (small and highly portable), books (designed to let pages lie flat), and slides (smaller than flatbed scanners, but no better at scanning slides than flatbed scanners with equivalent features).
Multifunction printers (MFPs) have built-in scanners, nearly all with flatbeds and many with sheet feeders and with ADFs as well. To get the most out of your scanning, however, you'll probably want to get a single-function scanner.
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