What Are the Differences Between Scanners?

Flatbed, photo, sheetfed, and portable scanners

Scanning slides
Scanning slides on a flatbed photo scanner with adapter. Getty

There are a few different kinds of scanners in the world and, as with printers, the one that’s right for you depends on how you intend to use it. The most common types are: flatbed scanners, sheetfed scanners, photo scanners, and portable scanners. Let's take a brief look at these four different types of scanners and what they're good for.

Flatbed Scanners

Flatbed scanners will take up some desktop space but provide a lot of bang for the buck.

They look like miniature printers with a flip-up cover protecting the glass platen. Depending on its size, a flatbed scanner can fit standard or legal-sized documents, and the flexible cover allows you to scan large items such as books. These scanners are great for scanning the occasional newspaper article, book chapter, or photograph; or for those who may need to scan or bulky items such as the cover of a DVD. Flatbed scanners are often built into multifunction printers (MFPs). You can find a decent flatbed scanner for $100 or less.

Photo Scanners

Scanning documents doesn’t require high resolution or color depth; but scanning photos does. Many all-purpose scanners can also scan photos, meaning that you don’t need a separate device to handle your photographs. But if you need a scanner primarily to digitize film negatives or slides, a photo scanner is a better deal (even if it is considerably more expensive than an all-purpose scanner).

Photo scanners include specialized technology so that they can deal with slides and negatives; they also have built-in software to clean up old photos. Decent photo scanners will start at about $130 (and go way up from there). The Epson Perfection V850 Pro Photo Scanner, for example, is a good photo scanner.

It will cost you more, but photo scanners like these come with adapters for scanning slides and negatives, and they scan at exceptionally high resolutions, compared to other types of scanners.

Sheetfed Scanners

Sheetfed scanners are smaller than flatbed scanners; as the name implies, you feed a document or photo into the scanner's automatic document feeder, or ADF, rather than place it on top of the platen one photo or document at a time. You’ll win back some of that desktop space with a sheetfed scanner but you may sacrifice some resolution in the process. If you’re only scanning documents, however, it may be a worthwhile trade, especially if you’ve got a lot of them since you can feed them in bunches. With a flatbed scanner, you’ll have to scan one page at a time (unless it comes with an automatic document feeder). Sheetfed scanners start around $300 and get increasingly more expensive, depending on speed and features. Most sheetfed scanners these days are quite fast and loaded with features for capturing and processing data.

Portable Scanners

Portable scanners are small enough to bring on the road. In fact, some are small enough to put in your pocket; pen scanners are just a bit bigger than fountain pens and can scan the text of a document line by line.

Some are as wide as a page and roll easily down the page. They’re not going to give high-resolution scans and so aren’t good for scanning photographs or other applications where you need a high-quality result. Since they’re not cheaper than flatbed scanners, they’re probably only useful if you are a student, a researcher, or a spy. Figure on spending about $150 for one. Also figure that quality and accuracy are based largely on how steady and accurate you can hold the device while implementing a scan.

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