Scanner or multifunction printer?
There's a lot to be said for storing important documents, from tax returns to family photos, in digital form. Files stored on a computer rather than in file cabinets and boxes are much easier to search, and they take up a lot less room in the office. Scanners can create digital versions of all kinds of hard-copy material, particularly loose paper documents and photos. Some scanners can also handle slides, negatives, film, and even specialized types of material such as business cards, magazines, and three-dimensional objects.
In recent years, standalone scanners have taken a back seat to multifunction printers (MFPs), also known as all-in-ones. These devices combine the functions of a scanner, printer, copier, and sometimes even a fax machine, in one unit.
According to PCMag.com, the choice between a scanner and an MFP comes down to your personal scanning needs. If all you ever need to scan is letter-sized, single-page documents – with perhaps the occasional longer document or book page thrown in – then an MFP is probably the better choice, and we cover some great alternatives in our report on multifunction printers. However, for those who frequently scan multi-page documents, or need a high-resolution scanner for photos, artwork and, especially, transparencies such as negatives or slides, will find a stand-alone scanner to be a better option.
Types of scanners
Scanners come in many shapes and sizes, and many are designed to serve a specific need. The most common type is a flatbed scanner, in which you place the objects on a flat "scanbed" and close the lid before scanning. This design works for a wide variety of media types: loose documents and photos, bound material such as books and magazines, and even three-dimensional objects, if they're not too bulky. Since you don't have to put anything through a document feeder, flatbed scanners are the best for protecting easily damaged materials, such as stamps or irreplaceable family photos.
However, if you need to archive lots of unbound pages and documents, it gets very time-consuming to constantly lift a flatbed lid and scan one page at a time. For jobs like these, a sheet-fed document scanner is a better option. Sheet-fed scanners come in two types. A manual sheet feeder lets you insert pages one by one, without the extra step of lifting and lowering the lid. This is fine for short documents, but if you need to churn through an entire stack of paper, an automatic document feeder (ADF) gets the job done much quicker. Many sheet-fed scanners also have duplexing capabilities, which means that they can scan both sides of a page that's been fed through once.
Most portable scanners are also sheet-fed. These scanners typically weigh no more than a couple of pounds and are small enough to fit inside a backpack, making them easy to tote around. Unlike document scanners, they can be slow and tedious to use, but they are ideal for scanning in a few paper documents or business cards while on the road.
If image quality is the absolute chief concern, you'll need to shell out significantly more cash for a professional-grade photo scanner. Photo scanners offer higher optical resolution – measured in either pixels per inch (ppi) or dots per inch (dpi) – than typical multipurpose or document scanners. (The two terms are often used interchangeably, but dpi technically refers to the fidelity of an image printed on paper, while ppi is for images displayed on a screen.) Many also include premium features to help improve scan quality, such as automatically editing out dust and scratches. However, unless you're a photographer or graphics professional, a dedicated photo scanner may be overkill.
Finding the best scanners
Scanners range in price from as little as $60 to $1,000 or more. To help you find the best scanner for your needs without breaking the bank, ConsumerSearch digs through expert and user reviews to find the best picks for different uses and users. Scanners are evaluated on the quality of the scans they produce, of course, but also on their speed, ease of use, and overall reliability.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Flatbed Scanners | Cheap Flatbed Scanners | Best Photo Scanners | Best Document Scanners | Best Portable Scanners | Buying Guide | Our Sources