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17. Straight talk on buying a scanner
Translating DPI, OCR, ADF

By Mark Alberstat

OVER THE PAST decade, the most popular add-on for any home or business computer has been a scanner.

A few years ago, it was an expensive proposition, often costing over $500, and you would need a technician or someone well-versed on the insides of a PC to install a special connector board that allowed the 13.5-kilogram scanner to talk to your 22.5-kilogram PC.

That was then, this is now. Scanners can now be seen by the pallet load at wholesale stores. They're also bundled together with new PCs for those who want all the bells and whistles when they order their new Dell, Compaq or other brand-name computer.

If you are in the market to buy a scanner, you may be overwhelmed when you go shopping. There are different types of scanners in various price ranges. All have a variety of numbers and letters attached to them, creating a complex alphabet soup of information on the scanner box or from the salesperson.

DPI is one acronym you will hear lots when scanning the market. It simply means dots per inch, and most scanners today will feature 1,200 or 2,400 DPI. This is fine for almost all uses. Anything higher gets you into the professional realm and out of most practical budgets.

If you find a deal on a scanner that has fewer than 1,200 DPI, walk away. It may be cheaper, but in the long run the quality of scanning you may want to do will just not be available. One caveat, however, is that the higher resolution at which you scan and image, i.e., the higher the DPI rate, the larger the images will be. That is something to keep in mind if hard-drive space is limited.

OCR is another popular acronym and an important one if you plan to scan documents you want converted into text you can later manipulate. OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition, a fancy bit of software that recognizes scanned text and can save it to a text document. Many scanners do not come with OCR software and you would have to buy it separately, adding to the overall cost of your setup.

If you scan a lot of text pages, an automatic document feeder, or ADF, may be a consideration. This extra bit of hardware can save users a lot of time opening and closing the scanner to change pages. Some scanners will have ADF as a standard feature while others will offer it as an add-on.

Most scanners on the market today are flatbed scanners, so named because they feature a large glass panel on which you lay your photo or document. Other scanner types are hand-held or sheet-fed. The sheet-fed ones look a lot like ink-jet printers. You place your document where the blank paper would go in a printer.

The software that comes with the scanner is the bundle that allows the scanner to talk with your PC or Mac. Most of this software is relatively straightforward to install, and hooking the scanner to your PC usually involves nothing more than two cords. One gives the scanner power while the other runs from the scanner to one of your computer's USB ports. (For more information on USB, see this past column.)

With this knowledge in hand, you are now prepared to enter the world of scanner shopping. Shop around and find what you want.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, e-mail If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


The Mousepad Index


Originally published 14 September 2003


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