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Scanners have exactly one purpose in life: to scan fanart. Or doujinshi (Japanese fan comics) which is sort of fanart. Or credit cards with which to buy doujinshi (and other fanart-related things like anime) when the company requests a copy of the credit card. Or ID cards for when fanart-related-stuff-selling companies need proof that the buyer is over 18. And then there is the odd batch of analog (ie. paper) photographs from those primitive days before the digital camera. In short: what I value in a scanner is the ability to reproduce as faithfully as possible an image, probably pencilled and/or in colour, for digital processing/storage. The "photocopy" and "scan & email" options mean exactly nothing to me, as the quality of the so-called photocopy would depend on the printer, and I am not too stupid to print an image or attach it to an outgoing email message myself.

In short, the ideal scanner has a nice flat surface, an accurate high-resolution scanning head, a good TWAIN driver and as little software as possible, please. In my opinion, anyway. But it seems Mr and Mrs Consumer think differently...

OpticPro 4830P HP Scanjet 4670 Lexmark X1130 All-In-One CanoScan LiDE 500F

OpticPro 4830P
Comment: Pretty good while it lasted (and still used in emergencies)

My first, very solid scanner in the time when peripherals were connected to the parallel port, it has two ports on the rear: parallel-in and parallel-out. For years, it has worked strung onto the computer's parallel port like this: computer-zipdrive-scanner-printer. The zipdrive being the most frequently used parallel port device until 100MB zipdisks started to run out, I discovered only lately that the scanner wouldn't work if the zipdrive was switched off.

Compared to today's models it's chunky, but that's because it had an old-fashioned big lamp in the scanner head, and a button on the front to turn that lamp on so it could warm up before the scanning started. The colour quality depends on the scanner head plus the colour-interpreting software, and either of them were better than the average cheap modern scanner, as I've rarely had a problem with colour coming out badly. The only colour cockup I remember was when a mostly-turquoise scan came out mottled, and I've been told computers have a problem with the colour turquoise. Towards the end of its lifespan the scanner produced a ghastly-looking scan in red tones. A second attempt produced a proper scan, and I think that was a hardware glitch, nothing to do with the software.

The software: as usual most functionality went unused, the only relevant application being the ImageIn colour scanning software. This came in a 16-bit (Windows 3.xx) and a 32-bit (Windows 9xx) version and both versions were unintrusive, although I vaguely recall a problem between the runtimes installed by this software, and Video for Windows, which was resolved by putting back the pre-installation runtimes. While the machine was scanning, of course, it froze (that's what you get when using the parallel port) but otherwise it produced a modest-sized settings dialog with Colour/BW/Greyscale, contrast, a scaling percentage, and all paper sizes under the sun. The paper sizes were indications for the scanning area selection rectangle in the pre-scan window, but this selection could be freely moved and enlarged. In short, the scanning software did what was needed and nothing more. The image editing software wasn't so great, and saved only to a limited number of formats, and used the Mac gamma values by default; it took me a while to find out why the scans were shown in such pale, watery colours. But I did the editing in a real graphics program anyway.

About the hardware, my only complaint is, when will there be a scanner with sides exactly perpendicular to each other? If I put a completely flat and regular A4-sized piece of paper flush against the longer side, the scan still comes out tilted and the image needs to be rotated in a graphics program. And then there's the "blind spot", the margin of two millimetres down each side that simply doesn't get scanned, so that the paper can't be put directly against the sides but has to be lined up a matchstick's width away from each side, and even if it's put on the scanner exactly straight, the waft of air from closing the cover will move it out of position. How hard can it be to create a scanner surface that allows a person to make completely straight scans??

This scanner still works, but has been retired. Firstly, parallel ports on computers are a thing of the past. Secondly, a big stain has formed under the scanner's glass plate. It's barely visible, but does affect the scan, and it's smack in the middle of the plate, so I could only scan small stuff that fits in the corners. If I were braver I could take the machine apart and clean its inside, but the case is smooth with no visible screws. Thirdly, scanner lamps are supposed to be vulnerable to shocks, and this machine has moved house three or four times, with all the banging involved. Nevertheless, it's proven the most reliable scanner so far.

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HP Scanjet 4670

Taking the comment "How hard can it be to create a scanner surface that allows a person to make completely straight scans" from the previous heading, I thought HP had come up with the perfect solution. This scanner comes in two pieces, the scanner itself and the frame it rests in. Imagine a typical scanner with lid where the scanner head isn't in the main body, but in the lid. Then, imagine that this lid is see-through so you can see exactly what's under the lid and being scanned. Next, in your mind's eye, erase the main body so that only the lid is left. Now, for completeness' sake, imagine this lid standing almost vertically in a frame, in such a way that an A4-sized piece of paper can be slipped between lid and frame for scanning.

The frame feature gives the scanner a striking appearance and nothing more, and as I could foresee the in-frame way of scanning means the lowest inch of the paper isn't scanned, so to get a proper scan you'd have to tape the paper to the frame so that it's hanging one inch away from the bottom. But I only planned to use the lid anyway. This product had rave reviews and I took a day off from work to travel to the Dutch HP centre (by public transport, with a half-hour walk tacked to the end, as the idea is "If you're rich enough to buy a scanner, you're rich enough to own a car"). In this way, not only would the machine be cheaper (about 260 euro), but I wouldn't have to wait for it to appear in the shops.

Now there are two products I've bought - this scanner and the Philips GoGear HDD060 MP3-man - which had rave reviews for their design, and both had faulty hardware and lousy software. This says something about trusting rave reviews.

Starting with the software: this insisted on installing itself to the C: drive, where I didn't have the required 500MB free disk space. After a lot of fiddling it agreed to install 467MB to another drive, but still hogged the C: drive to the extent that I had to remove a lot of programs from C: that should be there, just to test the HP "Image Zone" software. And I discovered why the software was so bulky: it was a "suite" supporting every kind of HP imaging hardware - cameras, printers, scanners - under the sun. It also offered funky image processing software that I didn't need, as Paint Shop Pro is good enough for me. In other words, 99% of this junk was unnecessary. In my mind I grimly compared this half-a-gig to the small amount of software needed to operate the OpticPro 4830P. I also grimly blamed the stupid consumers who won't buy a scanner unless it comes with scanning software, image processing software, photo-retouching software, OCR software, the latest 3D games and an office suite complete with spreadsheet. Preferably to be installed in one big interdependent heap with no options to choose only the wanted modules, just so the stupid consumers can make one-click scans. This bloatware was installed on a computer whose C: drive I planned on erasing anyway, and sort of worked (I got stuff scanned) although, as further source of grim amusement, the software was not user-friendly. Scanning options weren't retained and had to be set again for every scan. And I could make only one scan at a time which then had to be laboriously saved (though not to a name of my own choosing - it got put in a folder with a date in the filename). In later websearches I learned that other users had been just as frustrated, but it was possible to retain settings and generally make stuff work as it should by... followed by instructions which I forgot as soon as I read them, for if software is made for stupid consumers in the first place, why not make it idiot-proof?

I did download, from HP's site, the TWAIN drivers that would let me use the scanner without HP's bloatware under Windows. I also took the scanner to work to try it under Windows XP, where no bloatware was necessary and it worked just fine with the Windows image importer. On Windows ME, with just the TWAIN drivers, it refused to work. Neither Windows Imaging nor Paint Shop Pro's Image Capture could get anything from the scanner. After the umpteenth re-installation of the TWAIN drivers, I somehow managed to get a scan - B/W, not even greyscale, at a huge resolution. This scanner is also supposed to work under Mac, I haven't tried it there yet as the Windows experiences were too disheartening. And then the scanner broke.

Which takes me to the hardware. The plastic scanner is a magnet for dust, scratches (even from a lint-free CD-wiper cloth) and fingerprints, all of which, if they're in the transparent area, affect scans. I know the magic phrase is "image cleaning software", but how about scanning an image that's clean to begin with?? There are big buttons on the side to which functions like "scan" and "photocopy" can be assigned, and it's hard not to push one of them when putting the scanner on whatever it is that needs scanning; then, either the action happens (whether it was meant to or not) or some dialog pops up and I can't scan until I've clicked it away. The cord on the scanner is far too short, given that one of its uses is to scan large (bigger than A4) images in several parts and then stitch the parts together. The scanner head is extremely sensitive. When I took it to work, I made about 40 scans resting the scanner across spread pages of an open book (which is where the transparent lid comes in very handy). Each time before turning the page, I lifted the scanner, rotated it and put it on the desk on its back to prevent the scanning side getting scratches from dust (it really is that sensitive). All this tilting of the scanner must have hurt it, for when I was using it at home with Windows ME and the junk HP software, it suddenly quit - the head was jammed. Or maybe I'd put too much pressure on the scanner, which was intended to scan two-page spreads, so, yes, one has to press it down firmly to flatten those pages. After some time on the HP helpdesk line I got it across that the scanner really was dead (and no, it wasn't a faulty electricity cord) - and the HP centre took it back and sent me a new one. That is to say, I had to take it back and then pick up a new one from a "distribution point" conveniently close to where I lived - convenient if you own a car. After some time I had a working scanner again and last time I tried (which was almost a year back) it worked - because I've been very careful with the new one, and barely dared to use it. I did however test it on various surfaces and confirmed what I'd read in user reviews: that the scans produced are barred. This is barely noticeable in scans of photographs or line drawings, but large black or single-colour areas show actual bars of darker and lighter colour. The TWAIN driver has been blamed, and one user review stated that HP admitted to having used "a bad batch of RAM" which may mean that not all scanners have this defect, but it was present in both the first scanner I bought and its replacement. Final conclusion: brilliant idea ruined by bad implementation.

(Update: after many months of doing nothing it was suddenly broken when I tried to use it again. Like the Canon camera, and the CanoScan below, it wears down even without use. Maybe it couldn't handle the harsh way I looked at it, or something.)

Many angry user reviews mentioned what solid machines HP had made in the past, and I suspect this is the 21st-century economy at work: sell cheap stuff that's badly made and will break down soon, so the customers keep buying. You can make high-quality stuff at high prices, but either consumers can't afford it or they buy once and never again. If they keep buying stuff that breaks down, in the end they'll have lost as much money as when they'd bought a quality product to start with, but since it's spread out over a period of time they won't notice; they'll only notice how much frustration they went through contacting support and getting replacements. Brave customers demand a better product or their money back; stupid customers ditch it and buy a more advanced model from the same producer thinking this will solve the problem. And it's not as if the stupid consumers know quality, anyway; apart from the professional artists who sharply criticized scanning and focusing faults that I hadn't even noticed, everyone LUUUUVs this machine and it's even won awards, despite the general concensus that the software - in fact, HP software in general - sucks bollocks and HP support is a joke. There are even idiots who LUUUUV the software because even if it does do a mediocre job, hog disk space and cause issues with other applications, it's glitzy and stops them from having to think hard and figure out how a scanner works!! Though I haven't tried using the scanner with a Mac yet, I've heard the same applies to HP's software for Mac. Given the doting support from stupid consumers, why should HP even bother to deliver quality...

Amazement at HP's policy of continuing to sell these defective machines has led to this Dutch thread with examples of banded scans on Linux users please note the scanner is not, and probably never will be, supported by SANE.

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Lexmark X1130 All-In-One
Comment: Okay but fragile

The All-In-One should really be called a Two-In-One because it's a combination of printer and scanner (a scanner sitting on top of a printer, to be exact) but because of the silliness noted in the intro, it is marketed as a combination printer/scanner/fax/photocopier. It does NOT photocopy, you can scan and print the scan with the same machine. It is NOT a fax, any fax has to be received by a modem and the printer just prints it out. So I don't like Lexmark's sales pitch on this one. Not that I had much to do with this sales pitch, as I'd simply bought a second-hand computer from someone and the Lexmark was thrown in as an extra.

To briefly mention the printer, a sample print was made for me, the blurry kind of pic that shows the printer is clearly not for making reproductions of Old Masters but will do to print out a letter or unprofessional brochure. Lexmark printers are not first choice when it comes to graphics anyway; the best thing I can say about this one is that it has two ink tanks. Which were dried up by the time I decided to print something myself. Again, it just doesn't matter since I wasn't going to use it. I only ended up using the scanner because the HP Scanjet turned out to be such a dud.

Sigh. It has programmable buttons like the Scanjet (but at least I'm not constantly pressing them by mistake). It has a Task Centre with a lot of functionality I don't need, but which scans and pre-scans and saves scans as PNG (one niggle about the OpticPro was that it didn't know PNG, only TIFF and BMP) and takes up a very modest 23MB on the C: drive. Its scans are of a quite acceptable quality - good enough for the odd fanart/DJ scan - although I now know better than to scan colour at high resolution with smoothing on: this changes the colours and washes out some contrast. The Scanjet oddly did better here, maybe because I only used it at low resolutions; the Lexmark also faithfully reproduced most colours at lower resolutions, but it has a problem with colours in the apricot/peach/salmon range, these may be lightened and yellowed.

Not that I could experiment much, for when scanning a spread of two pages one tends to press them down firmly on the glass plate to minimize the blurring in the middle. This made the scanner creak and groan when moving its head under the plate, and when one scan came out with a line running horizontally through the picture, I realized I'd damaged the scanner head. Shoot, shoot and shoot. This scanner head sensitivity is one issue the OpticPro has never had! (Its head is much bigger and there's plenty of room between head and glass plate.) Like the OpticPro, this scanner can now only scan small stuff that fits in the corners. And with that, I was at the point which inspired these hardware reviews, where I ranted on the main page: three scanners in the house, and I can't scan!!!

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CanoScan LiDE 500F
Comment: No complaints yet! Scratch that: broken.

To alleviate the critical condition of having three scanners in the house and still not being able to scan, yet having promised to make some scans for someone, I went out and bought (cheap, and it was the last one left) a scanner of which I'd heard good things. Not blindly going for brand names, I noticed the scanner looked as light and portable as the HP Scanjet (which, with its short cord and easily broken head, is NOT portable) and seemed compatible with Mac and even capable, like the Scanjet, of standing on its side. The salesperson who came over to demonstrate even said its lid could swing to the side for easier scanning of books (at which my heart started singing) although neither of us managed to make it swing, and as the lid is a flimsy plastic thing (the downside of being lightweight) I didn't persevere. The glass plate itself, the salesperson claimed (and pressed down hard on it to prove the point) was thick and sturdy. No more jammed scanner heads?

LiDE scanners use a special technique for ultrafine scans (I'd read a whole article about it in a computer mag but, being a non-techie, it went right over my head) which as a bonus doesn't cost much energy, which for a USB scanner (and these days all scanners are USB unless stated otherwise) is a Very Good Thing. Specifically, this scanner uses so little energy that it doesn't need its own brick of a power source! I made the scans planned, did some testing of colour scans and found out again that high-resolution with smoothing settings shifts colours, and then had to give up again as the computer with enough disk room for scans chose to break down. Something somewhere doesn't want me to make scans.

About a year later, I pulled the scanner out of its dust cover again to make a few small scans. Since they would fit on the laptop, I did a very minimal software installation of, guess what, 8MB. Bravo to Canon for keeping its basic software so small. What I get is a "CanoScan Toolbox" with a series of buttons (of which I needed exactly three: "Scan-1", "Save" and "Settings") that graphically depict the assignment of the (yes, they're here to stay) scanner's programmable buttons. The scanner was so light that I could sit on the couch with the scanner on my lap and the laptop on the far end of my legs and hold stuff down to be scanned while occasionally bending forward to type something on the keyboard. While not comfortable, this certainly beats having to stand or even kneel at some hefty machine that won't fit on the same desk as the computer (student lodgings...) My only niggle is that the Canoscan Toolbox, like the OpticPro's ImageIn, only saves to the graphic formats BMP, TIFF and JPG; no PNG. However, it can also save to a PDF file.

Websearches tell me that this isn't Canon's most high-end scanner, but it will do fine for the average consumer; that it's a nuisance to scan negatives with, which I wasn't planning on doing anyway; and that it's currently not supported under Linux, although that may already have changed.

Update: after leaving it lying in a safe place protected from dust for a couple of months, I used it for three scans, then returned it to aforementioned safe place. Then, a few weeks later, I wanted to use it again, and it was broken. When I plugged it into the laptop (exact same setup as for previous scans) the scanner head whirred and wanted to move, then the scanner went dead - and that's how it remained. I found the USB jack was a bit wobbly and expect that something is broken in there. Two statements: 1. modern hardware, especially when made by Canon, wears with time even when not used, and 2. I now have FOUR scanners in the house and can't scan. To make the rather vitally important scans, I had to pull my oldest and least defective scanner out of retirement again. Will I bother to buy a fifth scanner? Hmmm...

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