How to Buy the Right Scanner
Settling on a scanner that meets your specific needs can be challenging. Most scanners on the market today can handle everyday office tasks, but they come in a wide variety of types and sizes that are fine-tuned for different purposes. Here are the key questions to ask before you buy. We’ll also take a look at the different kinds of scanners and their features.
What Kind of Media Will You 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 classes of things that get scanned are photos and documents (that is, unbound pages), but plenty of other media are common scan targets, such as bound books, business cards, film (slides and negatives), magazines, and easily damaged originals like postage stamps. Somewhat less common are 3D objects, such as coins or flowers. You should also consider details like the maximum size of the originals (more on that in a moment) 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 scanner, which has a large glass platen on which you place the documents, books, or items. (When we talk about scanning objects, here we’re talking about scanning 3D objects to two-dimensional images; 3D scanners—for scanning objects to 3D files for display or printing on a 3D printer—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 once in a while, you may be able to get by 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.
Scanner models tend to stay on the market for a long time between iterations, and this is especially true of flatbed photo scanners. Not only do they often remain on sale for years, but also, few new models are introduced. We regularly update our Best Scanners roundup, so should you encounter an “oldie but goodie,” it simply means that no similar model that we’ve reviewed has yet surpassed it.
Do You Need a Sheet Feeder?
If you plan to scan documents on a regular basis—particularly those 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, but 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, such as health-insurance ID cards.
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 unattended. Pick an ADF capacity based on the number of pages in the typical document you expect to scan. If you occasionally have a document that is more pages than the ADF capacity, you can add more pages during the scan as the feeder processes them. Some ADFs can also handle stacks of business cards well.
How About Duplexing?
“Duplex scanning” means scanning both sides of a page at once. If you need a sheet feeder or ADF, and if on a regular basis you expect to scan documents that are printed on both sides, you’ll want a duplexing scanner, a duplexing ADF, or a scanner with a driver that includes a manual-duplex feature.
The best, swiftest duplexing scanners have two scan elements, so that they can scan both sides of a page at the same time. A design like this will be faster than a scanner with a simple duplexing ADF, but it will likely also cost more. A duplexing ADF will just scan one side, turn the page over, and only then scan the other.
In contrast, a scanner with a driver that supports manual duplexing will let you scan one side of a stack and then prompt you to flip and 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 it is a good choice if you don’t scan two-sided documents very often, or you are on a tight budget.
What Resolution Do You Need?
For most scanning, resolution isn’t an issue. For, say, tax 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 that supports 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 an optical resolution of at least 4,800ppi.
How Big 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 have a letter-size platen, which will be a problem if you occasionally need to scan legal-size pages. Most flatbeds with ADFs will scan legal-size pages via the ADF, but not all do, so be sure to check. You can also find scanners with larger flatbeds, but they will, of course, take up more desk space.
What Software Will You Need?
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 archiving or management 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).
Two other possibilities are portable scanners (general-purpose sheet-fed scanners small enough to fit in your laptop bag) and pen scanners (which you hold and trace over text). Some of the latest portable models can operate without a computer attached, scanning to a memory card or even to a smartphone. You can also find some that function as both portable and desktop document scanners by combining a portable scanner with a docking station that includes an ADF. Depending on what you need to scan, any one of these may be a good choice, either as your only scanner or as a supplement to a general-purpose scanner.
Let’s Get Down to Scanner Shopping…
Multifunction printers (MFPs) have built-in scanners, nearly all with flatbeds and many with sheet feeders and ADFs. To get the most out of your scanning, however, you’ll probably want to get a single-function scanner. Fortunately, there are many models to choose from, and the 10 below are among the best we’ve tested. For more advice, check out our roundup of the top scanners for photos, or our list of the best all-in-one printers, if having a scanner attached to your printer is more appealing.
And finally, after you’ve digitized all that paper, take a look at the best shredders we’ve tested.
Pros: Exceptional optical character recognition (OCR) accuracy. Feature-rich, easy-to-deploy software. Very fast scanning and saving to PDF. 10,000-page daily duty cycle.
Cons: Would be more competitive at a lower price.
Bottom Line: The Visioneer Patriot H60 scans quickly and accurately, and it has a huge daily duty cycle and a comprehensive software bundle.
Pros: Fast scanning. Reasonably speedy when saving to searchable PDF. Onboard CPU allows for quicker, more accurate processing. Terrific OCR accuracy.
Cons: Somewhat pricey. Expensive accessories.
Bottom Line: The Alaris S2060w Scanner is reasonably fast and highly accurate, and it comes with an impressive software bundle, making it a good fit for medium- to heavy-volume workloads.
Pros: Fast scanning. Accurate OCR. Light and small. Easy to use.
Cons: Lacks ADF.
Bottom Line: The Epson DS-80W is a fast and accurate single-sheet-feed portable document scanner ideally suited for scanning short jobs to your laptop or smartphone on the road.
Pros: Quickly scans stacks of photo prints. Decent as a document scanner. Scans to searchable PDF. Solid OCR performance.
Cons: Somewhat pricey. Slower at photo scanning than its predecessor.
Bottom Line: The Epson FastFoto FF-680W is a sheet-feed desktop scanner that excels at scanning stacks of snapshots while doing a credible job at document scanning.
Pros: Fast scanning. High daily duty cycle. Robust software. Built-in tablet control panel, keyboard, and hard disk.
Cons: Costly. Big and heavy.
Bottom Line: The HP Digital Sender Flow 8500, with its tablet control panel and built-in keyboard and hard disk, is a powerful, if expensive, network document scanner for midsize to large offices.
Pros: Excellent speed and accuracy for the price. Well-rounded software bundle, including document and business-card archiving software. High daily duty cycle.
Cons: Primary scanning utility is slow.
Bottom Line: The moderately priced HP ScanJet Pro 3000 delivers excellent speed and respectable accuracy, as well as an inclusive software bundle, making it a good value.
Pros: No computer required. Fast, accurate OCR. Comes with USB cable, 4GB MiniSD card, and vinyl drawstring carrying case. Easy to set up and use. Capable of scanning directly to a computer.
Cons: Short battery life.
Bottom Line: The IRIScan book 5 WiFi is a wand scanner designed for scanning directly from books, magazines, journals, and notebooks. It’s relatively fast and accurate, and allows you to scan directly to a PC, but it would benefit from a longer battery life.
Pros: Fast scanning. Excellent OCR accuracy. Massive input capacity. Supports tabloid-size and larger pages. Robust, easy-to-use software.
Cons: Slow at saving to searchable PDF.
Bottom Line: The Kodak i3300 is a fast, high-volume document scanner, and it comes with excellent full-featured scanning and processing software at a competitive price.
Pros: Fast scanning and text recognition. Accurate OCR. Strong software bundle. Supports scanning to USB drives. Color touch screen.
Cons: No battery. Heavier than other portable scanners.
Bottom Line: The Brother ADS-1700W is a fast and accurate portable document scanner that offers a slew of features that will be attractive to road warriors.
Pros: Superb OCR accuracy. Customizable touch screen. Comprehensive software. Competitive speed when scanning to image files and searchable PDF. Wired and wireless networking, including Wi-Fi Direct. Three-year warranty.
Cons: Individual workstation licenses sold separately. A bit pricey.
Bottom Line: The Panasonic KV-N1028X is a snappy and exceptionally accurate networkable document scanner, designed primarily for enterprise environments.