Once they were the design professional's preserve. But new and cheaper technologies have changed all that. Roger Frost reports
Whether you use the computer for typing or aspire to illustrating worksheets, making multimedia or pages for the Internet, you will find a scanner useful. It's a gadget that turns real world stuff, such as documents and photos, into "digital stuff" that you can use on the computer screen. Even though you might use one occasionally, when you do they seem indispensable.
Using a scanner, the reading device found in fax machines and photocopiers, you can turn a printed page into editable text. You might have an article, work scheme or document where the file has been lost, and software can "read" the text and make it useful. In this way you can not only recycle the paper, but you can recycle the ideas on it too.
If that seems handy, the really important bit is to have a scanner on your computer. If it's on a machine next door, there's a serious chance you'll not use it. You can find models that conveniently fit between the keyboard and screen; they have a slot to drop a page into and this kicks them into action.
As examples, see the Paperport MX (pound;120), Microtek Colour PageWiz (pound;150) and the Logitech Colour PageScan (pound;140). Incidentally, you don't need colour to scan text, it's just that monochrome scanners, like televisions, are scarce. More common, flat-bed scanners are more versatile in that they can scan fabric patterns, 3D objects and pictures from books. Some have accessories which can scan a stack of documents or images from slides and negatives.
There are legions to choose from but the Epson GT5500 (pound;250) and HP ScanJet 5P colour scanner (pound;199) manage quality at a reasonable cost. Those who want speed and the last speck of detail for professional printing could justify spending more. But it must be appreciated that most scanners let you capture images at a quality or resolution that exceeds what the best laser printers can handle.
The advice in the manual is usually to let the machine do the thinking or else you may use lots of disk space and waiting time on the computer and printer. As with all things "technological", the more versatile your scanner, the more hassle you may have using it. Some say that when you try to address everyone's needs, you can end up addressing no one's and this has led to a proliferation of specialised scanners.
For example, Kodak does a Snapshot Photo Scanner (pound;199) that can scan jumbo size prints very well. A few computer brands have similar built-in devices where you pop the picture into a slot, and these are good. Then there are hand-held scanners, such as the Logitech Scanman 2000 (pound;90), appropriate technology for taking an image off a page without fuss and without wasting desk space. And if you've a legacy of slides and negatives, you'll be tempted by film scanners which, at around pound;400, produce images that are awesome and may be too good.
Any of these are worth opting for if your needs are that well focused. On the other hand, if you're taking fresh photos with a camera, there are easier and cheaper ways to do some of this. One is to get your films developed on to a photo CD disc, which costs little more that normal developing. The other is to use a digital camera which, on current form, are increasingly being used in schools.
New breeds of scanners, called "all-in-ones", have been brought out by Xerox, Canon and Hewlett-Packard among others. More than just having an image scanned, they can also copy and fax it, and work as printers too. If you're short of space, power outlets and rejoice in having a tidy desk, these are very attractive at a starting price of pound;400.
Hewlett Packard www.hp.com