Scanner buying tips

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

Q. My boss told me to purchase a new scanner for our small office, but I know nothing about scanners. I looked briefly and determined that there are flatbed and sheet-fed scanners, but I have no clue what to buy. Can you bail me out on this one, Mr. M?

A. Let's start with the basics: A scanner is a device used to input text or images into a computer by converting printed material into digital data files.

A flatbed scanner looks a bit like a copy machine in that it has a top or lid that lifts up so you can insert a document to be scanned. The scanning head moves while the material that you're scanning remains motionless on top of the scanning glass. With sheet-fed scanners, the material that you're scanning moves through a system of rollers while the scanning head remains stationary.

Printer manufacturers typically use sheet-fed scanning hardware in all-in-one or multi-function devices, which combine a printer, scanner, fax machine, copy machine, and toaster oven in one unit. Though popular, I’m not particularly enamored with all-in-one units because if one component fails, then what?

If you’re in the market for a small-office, presumably low-volume scanner, I’d recommend a flatbed scanner for several reasons: First, flatbed scanners generally provide a higher-quality scan because the original document remains in a fixed position, which affords less opportunity for shifting or movement during the scanning process.

Flatbed scanners also have greater flexibility. If an original document can fit on top of a flatbed scanner’s glass, such as pages from a book or small items like business cards, receipts, or twenty-dollar bills, you can scan them. If you’re using a sheet-fed scanner, you’re pretty much limited to paper documents that can travel through the rollers. For smaller items such as business cards or receipts, you’ll need to use a clear plastic sleeve to hold the items while scanning.

In addition, flatbed scanners have fewer moving parts. Sheet-fed scanners can jam if the original document doesn’t feed correctly or gets tangled up in the rollers. It's also not fun getting one's tie caught in the rollers. That happened to me once. It was scan-dalous. Generally speaking, flatbed scanners require less maintenance over time than do sheet-fed scanners.

The scanner market has grown exponentially in recent years and today there are even specialty scanners such as negative scanners, business card scanners, and pen scanners. A negative scanner isn't depressed or oppositional, but rather is designed to scan film negatives; a business card scanner is designed to scan—well, care to take a guess? A pen scanner captures a single line of text in one scan.

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