Scanner Solutions

By Rhonda R. McClure Premium

If there’s one gadget you should buy this year, it’s a scanner. Why? Because no other device (other than a computer) can better facilitate your family history research.

Let’s say your cousin Esther in Idaho just got her hands on the family Bible, and you’re itching to uncover its genealogical gems. But alas, you live in Rhode Island, and there’s no way Esther will risk shipping that heirloom across the continent. You could shell out the cash for color copies — or, if Esther has a scanner, you could just ask her to digitize the Bible’s pages (for free) and send them to you over e-mail or post them to her Web site. In the spirit of sharing (and isn’t that what genealogy’s all about?), you could then scan your grandmother’s wedding album and send those images to Esther. You both save money, and you both gain family knowledge — not to mention digital copies of priceless heirlooms.

Already have a scanner? Consider upgrading. Scanners have improved drastically in the past few years, and prices have plummeted. Now you can get a top-of-the-line photo scanner that will make your old pics look like new for less than $200. And portable devices can eliminate the need to make photocopies at record repositories. So trade in that clunky 1997 model for a feather-light, streamlined 2004. Here’s how to choose the right one.

Key components

In the past, family historians picked scanners based solely on price. But with so many affordable models now on the market — some cost less than $30 — price is seldom the deciding factor. Of course, you’ll still take cost into consideration, but you’ll need to examine these features, too:

  • Optical resolution: This indicates how clear a digital image will be. The more dots per inch (dpi), the sharper the image. If you were planning only to post photos on the Web, then 100 dpi would be sufficient. But to get photo-quality pictures you can print out, you’ll need 300 to 600 dpi. Just remember that if you try to enlarge an image, it’ll lose resolution; images that have low resolution to begin with will look fuzzy and pixellated. So if you plan to enlarge smaller images and do heavy photo editing, you’ll need a scanner with 1,200- or 2,400-dpi resolution.
  • Color depth: This refers to the number of colors (or shades of gray) the scanner can recognize and save. The higher the bit rate, the more color choices you have and the more contrast in your scanned images. Note that the amount of color a scanner can recognize (referred to as internal or hardware color) and the amount it can actually save (external or true color) may differ. Typically, 24-bit external color depth is all you need.
  • Software: All scanners come with software that directs them to read an object and then transfer an image of that object to your computer. Most of this software can do basic image-editing. Higher-end models come with an image editor such as Adobe Photoshop Elements <>, which will let you manipulate the image even more.

Role models

Now consider the different types of scanners available and what they can do:

  • Flatbed: Similar to photocopiers, these are the scanners you’re probably most familiar with. You just place your original document on the glass plate, and scan away. They range in price from under $50 to about $400. Most flatbed scanners limit you to letter-(8½/;x11 inches) or legal-sized (8.5×14 inches) documents, which means you’ll have to scan anything larger, such as maps, in sections. You also might find that if your flatbed doesn’t have a sheet-feeder attachment, you’ll spend a lot of time swapping out documents to get them all scanned.
  • Sheet-fed: To solve that problem, some genealogists buy sheet-fed scanners, which allow you to scan multiple pages at once. Many portable scanners, such as Visioneer’s $ 199 Strobe XP100 <> are sheer-fed. The biggest issue with these models is just what the name implies: You can feed only loose pages, not pages in a book. And because you feed the document through the scanner much as you’d send paper through a fax machine, photos can get crumpled.
  • Portable: When you want to scan on the run (such as on a visit to cousin Esther’s), the new batch of small scanners let you do so with ease. The $ 169 WizCom QuickLink Penhandheld scanner <>, for example, is small enough to fit in a purse, and lets you scan full lines of text in up to eight languages. The pen holds up to 1,000 pages of text, which you can then transfer to your computer’s hard drive. Although this scanner will save you money on photocopies, it doesn’t scan handwriting well, as the script may be too wide for the pen to see. For scanning documents up to letter size, Canon’s $48 CanoScan LiDE 20<> may be right for you. This flatbed scanner is about an inch high and weighs just 3 pounds. It powers up through your computer’s USB port, so you can hook it up to a laptop.
  • Photo: These are the best scanners for most genealogists. Offering high optical resolution and color depth, they’ll help you preserve pictures and documents for years to come. Many new models, such as Epson’s $129 Perfection 1670 Photo <>, automatically restore images by removing tears and creases and brightening faded photos. Higher-end models, such as Epson’s $399 Perfection 3200 Photo <>, will even scan negatives, slides and microfilms. The $299 Hewlett-Packard Scanjet 5550c <> comes with a sheet-feeder attachment and lets you digitize slides, negatives and transparencies. When the scanner feeds your pictures, it holds them above the glass, so they won’t scratch. (I wouldn’t recommend putting fragile photos through such an attachment, though.) Keep in mind that this scanner requires some serious desk and overhead space.
  • Multifunction: What about those all-in-one models that scan, copy and fax? The best multifunction photo scanners cost considerably more. But if you’re looking for all of those capabilities, they’re worth investigating.

Imagine all you can do with a brand-new-scanner. You’ll be digitizing your whole photo collection in no time.

From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine