What the best scanner has

  • High resolution. Resolution is measured in pixels per inch/dots per inch (dpi). Experts say that the scanner's claimed optical resolution is the number that matters – mechanical and interpolated resolutions are less important.
  • Large scanbed size/scan read area. The larger the scanning area, the larger the document or photo you can reproduce (and the more smaller images you can scan at a time).
  • High color depth. A measurement of how many variations of colors the scanner can see, this number is generally not important on document scanners -- but it is very important on photo scanners and especially when scanning drawings. It's common for high-end scanners to have 48-bit color depth.
  • Ability to handle duplex documents. Duplex scanning is a feature found on more document scanners, which allows both sides of the page to be scanned at once. These scanners can be expensive, however. If cost is a concern, consider a scanner with an automatic document feeder (ADF) with duplexing capabilities; it will only scan one side at a time but it still handles two-sided scanning automatically.
  • Large-capacity document feeder. Again for document scanning, this feed tray allows you to set up a stack of pages and go. The best scanners don't jam, stick or pull paper in crooked.
  • High number of pages per minute. This figure is tricky, PCMag.com notes, because higher resolution scans take more time. But for document scanners in particular, you want those pages to go as quickly as possible while still producing good results.
  • Connectivity speeds of USB 2.0 or higher. The faster the connection to your PC, the faster your documents will appear once they've been scanned. For quicker speeds, consider a scanner with a USB 3.0 interface.
  • High-end software packages. Software can add a lot to the value of a scanner. Adobe Photoshop Elements, for example, which is included on several models in our report, costs an estimated $90 if bought separately. If you want to convert scanned text into an editable document, you need optical character recognition (OCR) software, which is included with many document scanners.
  • A good warranty. Standard among all the better-quality scanners in our report, a one-year warranty should be your minimum bar for a new scanner.

Know before you go

What will you be scanning? What type of scanner you need largely depends on what, as well as how often, you'll need to scan. Flatbed scanners are the most practical for multipurpose use. They're generally more versatile and cheaper than scanners geared toward a specific function. They're a safe bet if you'll be scanning delicate material such as photos, film or slides; and necessary for handling 3D objects or bound material like books and magazines. Those who need to create digital copies of lots of loose pages and documents should consider a sheet-fed scanner, which are designed specifically for this task. High-end photo scanners are relatively expensive, but they're the best for high-resolution scans of images.

What resolution do you need? If you're scanning plain-text documents or documents with business graphics, resolution isn't a huge concern – experts say 200 dpi is adequate, and 300 dpi is plenty. New scanners typically have resolutions of least 600 dpi, which is sufficient for images, as long you don't enlarge them too much or zoom in too far. For the finest detail or printing scans at a larger size, you'll need a scanner with a higher resolution – at least 4,800 dpi. Editors at PCMag.com note that you should take claimed resolutions with a grain of salt, however; these specs are often inflated or are bottlenecked by the scanner's optical hardware. Though, as a rule of thumb, scanners with high claimed resolutions typically offer high real-world resolutions.

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