Best Cheap Scanners
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
If you're a serious amateur photographer (or a professional, for that matter), it may be worth spending more for a high-end model rather than a cheap scanner. Higher-priced scanners offer higher scanning resolution and often have more features, including one-touch buttons for tasks such as scanning several pages of a document. The main benefit of costly models is the quality of photo scans, which tends to be superior to what you get with inexpensive scanners. But the difference in quality generally isn't significant enough for casual or frugal users to worry about. The point-and-shoot camera crowd will be more than satisfied with the best cheap scanners.
Cheap Scanners Buying Guide
When it comes to performance, cheap scanners should meet your expectations. The best cheap scanners scan quickly while still churning out very high-quality images. These two attributes are a bit at odds, though. It's hard for a cheap scanner to scan an item fast while still capturing a lot of detail in the photo while a slow scan will capture a higher quality image. Having said that, most cheap scanners today deliver images nearly identical to the original in less than 60 seconds. Most also let you adjust the settings, so you have some control over the speed vs. quality issue.
Most companies that make printers also make scanners. We found only a few companies, however, that make good cheap flatbed scanners; Epson, Canon, HP, and Visioneer are the names to look for. Many producers combine scanners and printers into one machine, called a multifunction device (MFD) scanner, which often includes a fax in the mix, giving you three products in one. (See our Cheap Multifunction Printers Buying Guide.) Some home office/small office users prefer an ADF (Automatic Document Feeder) scanner to a flatbed scanner. ADF scanners are designed to scan lots of pages of documents quickly, so ADF scanners aren't ideal for scanning photos. They tend to have less color depth and resolution than budget flatbed scanners because scanned pages of text simply don't require high resolution or color depth. ADF scanners tend to be expensive, however, usually costing $300 or more. You can also find an array of specialty scanners, like those designed for business cards or small photos, or others that are portable and can be used without a computer.
Our focus here is on cheap flatbed scanners. Flatbed scanners tend to be less costly than ADF and MFD scanners, and if you already have a printer, you may not want to buy a second printer just because it has a scanner built into it. The cheap scanners we like, because they sport the all-important features and perform at high levels, include the Epson Perfection V300 (starting at $80), Canon CanoScan 5600f (starting at $105), Canon CanoScan Lide 200 (starting at $60), and Visioneer OneTouch 9520 (starting at $60); two models that fall short in one or more critical dimensions are the HP ScanJet G3110 (starting at $87) and Canon CanoScan Lide 100 (starting at $53). Please continue reading for more detail.
Scanner Resolution and Features
Scanners typically don't have a lot of features due to their simplicity. There are a few specs you should look for, however, to make sure you're getting your money's worth when buying a cheap flatbed scanner.
Scanner Resolution.The resolution on a cheap scanner, measured in dots per inch (dpi), indicates how much detail a scanner can capture when scanning an image. The higher the number, the sharper and more detailed images will appear. Manufacturers usually display two numbers when stating the resolution, for example 4800x9600. The first number is the scanner's actual optical resolution, in this case 4800dpi. The second number measures the movement of the scanner's motor when scanning an image and isn't relevant to the quality of the image.
Cheap scanners have adjustable resolutions, so a model that can scan images at 4800dpi can also scan images at, say, 300dpi, 600dpi, or 1200dpi. You don't always need to scan an image at the highest optical resolution. Choosing a lower resolution will result in a faster, though lower quality, scan. If you're scanning a simple text document, a resolution of 300dpi to 600dpi will work just fine; the text should still look sharp and clear even at that lower resolution. You can scan photos for Web sites at 600dpi and they'll be pleasing to the eye. But if you want to scan a 4x6 photo and then print the digital file as an 8x10 photo, you should use a higher optical resolution, such as 1200dpi.
Cheap flatbed scanners that we researched, including the Epson Perfection V300 (starting at $80), Canon CanoScan 5600f (starting at $105), Canon CanoScan Lide 200 (starting at $60), Visioneer OneTouch 9520 (starting at $60), and HP ScanJet G3110 (starting at $87), feature a maximum optical resolution of 4800dpi; the Canon CanoScan Lide 100 (starting at $53) has maximum resolution of 2400dpi, which, honestly, is sufficient for most scanning tasks. ADF (automatic document feeder) scanners, like the Visioneer Strobe (starting at $311), tend to have much lower optical resolutions, usually 600dpi, because they're designed primarily for scanning text rather than images. The portable Pandigital PanSCN06 (starting at $100) also maxes out at 600dpi; even though it's designed to scan photos, its purpose is to take fast scans of lower resolution photos.
Some budget scanners state both a maximum optical resolution and a maximum software (or interpolated or "enhanced") resolution. The interpolated resolution is higher than the optical resolution, but that doesn't mean an interpolated scan will be higher quality than that of an optical scan. Interpolated scans use software tricks to blow up the scanned image, but the image quality suffers in the process. With today's cheap flatbed scanners supporting high optical resolutions, it's not really necessary to use a scanner's enhanced resolution settings. Besides, if you do want to blow up a scanned image, you can use photo editing software to achieve the same effect. Still, all the scanners on our list can create interpolated scans.
One thing to keep in mind when choosing a resolution setting: the higher the resolution, the larger the scanned file will be. Files get pretty large at higher resolutions, and while this isn't a huge problem with today's monstrous hard drives and zippy computers, larger files take more time to scan and are a little slower to load when you work with them.
Scanner Color Depth.The color depth of a cheap flatbed scanner is a measurement of how many colors and shades it can record. A model that scans photos at 24-bit color depth can capture about 17 million colors. A scanner with 36-bit or 48-bit color depth can record literally billions of colors. A 24-bit color depth is sufficient for most any task (unless, perhaps, you're a professional photographer who wants the highest color accuracy possible), although all the scanners on our list have a 48-bit color depth. As with high scanner resolution settings, a higher color depth setting will result in a larger file size, but you can create a smaller file by choosing a smaller color depth setting.
Scanner Light Source.For years, cheap flatbed scanners used CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent light) bulbs to provide the light necessary for scanning images, and some still do. But many newer models have switched over to LED bulbs as the light source. Discount scanners with CCFL bulbs need several seconds of warm-up time, while LED-based scanners get to work immediately. All the Canon models we researched (the Canon CanoScan 5600f, CanoScan LiDE 200, and CanoScan LiDE 100), as well as the Epson Perfection V300, use LED bulbs; the HP ScanJet G3110 and Visioneer OneTouch 9520 use CCFL bulbs.
Scanners Slide & Negatives Scanning.If you or someone in your family is a shutterbug, you probably have boxes of slides and strips of photo negatives sitting around. Some cheap flatbed scanners can scan slides and photo negatives, letting you save those images directly to your PC. Most discount scanners only copy a few slides or negatives at a time, so if you have lots of images to scan, set aside some time. A cheap flatbed scanner can copy four slides and perhaps a strip of six negatives in one go; by contrast, pricier models that support negative scanning can usually handle up to 12 frames of negatives in one shot. The cheap scanners on our list that include slide and negative scanning include the HP ScanJet G3110, Canon CanoScan 5600f, Visioneer OneTouch 9520, and Epson Perfection V300.
Scanner Power Source.There are two ways to power a cheap scanner: with a power cord that plugs into a wall socket or with a USB cable that draws power from your PC. A USB-powered scanner means one less cable cluttering up your desk area and one less device competing for a socket on your power strip. Both the Canon CanoScan LiDE 200 and CanoScan LiDE 100 are powered by their USB connections. But remember, you'll always need a USB cable to connect a flatbed scanner to your PC in order to save scanned images.
Scanners Special Features.Scanner manufacturers like to make their budget models easy to use, and one way they do so is by loading them up with "one-touch" buttons. Typically this means one button to start a scan, one button to scan an item and automatically attach that file to an email, and another button to convert a scanned item directly into a PDF file that is saved to your PC. All the scanners we researched include at least a few one-touch buttons.
Any decent cheap scanner should also include some free programs that enhance your scanner's functionality. All scanners include a basic program to control the scanner (e.g., changing settings and running scans). Many low-cost scanners also come with extra programs to color-correct photos or digitally remove dust specs or scratches from photos. It's also fairly common for scanner manufacturers to include at least a basic photo editing program so you can crop, resize, or otherwise manipulate your photos once it's been saved to your PC.
Some cheap flatbed scanners also include OCR (optical character recognition) software, which we think is fairly important. When you initially scan a document, it simply takes a "photo" of the document, which means you won't be able to edit the text. OCR "reads" the text in the photo and converts the document into a text file that you can edit. We found a few inexpensive scanners that include OCR software, including the Epson Perfection V300, the HP ScanJet G3110, and Visioneer OneTouch 9520.
Specialty scanners, like the Visioneer Strobe or Pandigital SCN06, have features you won't find on cheap flatbed scanners. The Visioneer Strobe is a document scanner, so it includes an attached document cradle that you can load with several pages of documents, just like a printer; it scans up to 15 pages a minute -- much faster than a flatbed scanner. The Pandigital SCN06 is a portable scanner that you don't have to attach it to a PC at all. It scans photos up to 8.5x11inches at 600dpi directly to a built-in memory card, a neat and convenient trick that means you don't need a PC for storage.
According to the scanners reviews that we read, consumers typically expect two things from cheap scanners: excellent images and fast results. Additionally, scanner reviews indicate consumers also want a scanner that's easy to set up and easy to use. As noted above, though, scanners are pretty dead-simple to operate, so that's not as much of an issue.
Scanner Image Quality.Image quality is the most important performance attribute on a scanner. If your scanner doesn't deliver excellent scans, what's the point of having one? Flatbed scanners are primarily designed for photo scanning; they handle documents, as well, but only one page at a time. Most of the low-price scanners we researched proved their mettle with documents quite well, so the quality of photo scans is the thing to focus on. Here, too, scanners reviews say low-priced models are very good at this task. Bottom line: you won't need to spend a lot to get a lot.
The Epson Perfection V300 garners rave reviews from a variety of sources. It ranks as a 2009 Editor's Choice in PCmag.com, where the scanners review notes the Epson Perfection V300 is particularly adept at scanning transparencies. Test scans of prints that were then printed out show a bit less detail in bright areas but more in dark areas compared to the original, , and this expert scanners review further adds that the Perfection V300 handles light-duty text scanning without difficulty and does a good job on optical character recognition. PCWorld.com likewise applauds the Epson Perfection V300's image quality and singles out the sharp detail and color accuracy for praise. Users posting scanners reviews on Amazon agree and say scan quality is excellent, even when copying slides.
Canon's CanoScan LiDE 100 and CanoScan LiDE 200 also earn a thumbs-up for image duplication in scanners reviews. A scanners review of the LiDE 100 posted in PCmag.com notes that the scanner's color restore spiffs up faded photos and photo scans look oh-so-close to the original. Users commenting in scanners reviews on Best Buy about the CanoScan LiDE 200 say it produces high-quality reproductions of photos; one scanners review on Amazon reports using the LiDE 200 to scan 100-year old photos. An expert scanners review on Macworld.com of the CanoScan LiDE 200 hedges a bit, saying scan quality is generally good, although detail in the scans isn't quite sharp enough.
Another cheap scanner, the Visioneer OneTouch 9520, also garners positive assessments from consumers. Scanner reviews on Tigerdirect.com assert the resolution and contrast for photos, slides, and documents are pretty good given the price, although one user would prefer sharper output and a few found software installation to be tricky. Scan quality, even on 40-year-old slide, is good enough with the Visioneer OneTouch 9520, say scanners reviews on Amazon, although some users gripe that the machine doesn't come with a printed instruction manual.
Sitting at the high end of the Cheapism niche, the Canon CanoScan 5600F is lauded for the excellent quality of its image scans. Several users posting scanners reviews on Newegg.com are particularly impressed by the CanoScan 5600f's ability to reproduce black and white images. It's another Editor's Choice in PCmag.com, which writes in a scanners review that the strength of the CanoScan 5600F is its performance with prints, slides, and negatives, which should make serious amateur photographers happy. OCR (optical character recognition) is adequate for short documents, the scanners review continues, and in a test it accurately read font sizes of 10 or 12 on two popular fonts.
Users and experts offer mixed assessments of the HP ScanJet G3110. PCmag writes in a scanners review that the ScanJet G3110's print scans are generally OK, and the color restore and dust removal features are praiseworthy; on the other hand, artifacts (such as streaks) occasionally pop up. Macworld.com is more impressed with the HP ScanJet G3110, citing its very good color accuracy and fine detail in scanned photos. A few consumers posting scanners reviews on Amazon also like the ScanJet G3110's picture quality, but most are disappointed with creaky software that slows the process and generates mediocre results, especially with film.
Scanners Speed.Good scans don't happen instantly, but scanners reviews indicate that users appreciate a scanner that takes care of business fairly quickly. A fast scanner should be able to scan a document in just a few seconds, and a high-resolution, high-color depth photo in less than a minute. The process moves along faster if you've got a scanner that uses LED lighting rather than CCFL because the former need no warm-up time and generally ensures consistent scan speeds on each job. PCmag.com likes the LED lighting on the Epson Perfection V300 and approvingly notes that pre-scanning and scanning both prints and slides come in at well under 60 seconds. Image scanning speed of the Visioneer OneTouch 9520 impresses users posting scanners reviews on Amazon. And several experts (including Macworld.com and PCWorld.com) and consumers (as seen on Newegg.com) likewise compliment the Canon CanoScan LiDE 200 for its quick work.
Not all the cheap scanners we researched proved to be speed demons, however. Users and experts have mixed opinions about the performance of the Canon CanoScan 5600F. A scanners review in PCmag.com reports a slow two minutes are needed for slides, and users' scanners reviews at J&R.com report similar creaky performance; consumers commenting on Newegg.com view the matter differently, and say scan speeds are fairly fast. There are no mixed opinions about the HP ScanJet G3110's scan speed. This model is panned in several scanners reviews -- on MacWorld.com and Amazon, for example -- for being a pokey performer. The Canon CanoScan LiDE 100 also gets dinged for sluggishness in a scanners review by PCmag.