The Differences Between Types of Scanners

Different scanners are used for different applications

There are several scanner types. Like printers, the best scanner for you depends on how you intend to use it. The most common scanner types are flatbed, sheetfed, photo, and portable scanners.

Flatbed Scanners

Flatbed scanners take up some desktop space but provide many features for the price. These scanners 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-size documents. The flexible cover allows you to scan large items such as books. These scanners are great for converting newspaper articles, book chapters, and photographs. Flatbed scanners are often built into multifunction printers. You can find a decent flatbed scanner for $100 or less.

Epson Perfection V39 Color Scanner

Photo Scanners

You don't need high resolution or color depth to scan documents, but you do when scanning photos. Many all-purpose scanners scan photos, so you don't need a separate device to handle your photographs. A photo scanner is a better deal if you only use a scanner to digitize film negatives or slides. However, it may be more expensive than an all-purpose scanner.

Photo scanners include specialized technology that deals with slides and negatives. These scanners also offer built-in software to clean up old photos. Photo scanners like these come with adapters for scanning slides and negatives and scan at higher resolutions than other types of scanners.​

Epson FastFoto FF-640 High-Speed Photo Scanner

Sheetfed Scanners

Sheetfed scanners are smaller than flatbed scanners. A document or photo is fed into the scanner's automatic document feeder (ADF) rather than placed on top of the platen one photo or document at a time. You'll win back some desktop space with a sheetfed scanner, but you may lose some resolution. If you only scan documents, it may be a worthwhile trade, especially if you have several copies because you can feed pages in bunches.

With a sheetfed scanner, you'll scan one page at a time (unless it comes with an automatic document feeder). Sheetfed scanner prices vary widely. You can find ones for $100 and others that cost $300 and more, depending on speed and features. Most sheetfed scanners are fast and loaded with features for capturing and processing data.

HP Scanjet Enterprise Flow 5000 s2 Sheet-fed Scanner

Portable Scanners

Portable scanners are small enough to bring on the road. Some are small enough to put in a pocket. Portable pen scanners are a bit larger than fountain pens and scan the text of a document line by line. Some portable scanners are as wide as a page and roll quickly down the page. Some even read text back to you, which is helpful for people with vision or reading challenges. These scanners don't give high-resolution scans and aren't as suitable for scanning photographs or other applications where you need a high-quality result.


Pen scanners are most helpful if you are a student, a researcher, or travel for work. Prices vary widely depending on these devices' features and capabilities. You can find some for less than $100 and some for $300 or more. Note that quality and accuracy depend on how steady you hold the device while implementing a scan.

  • What is the best flatbed scanner for office workload?

    The best flatbed scanner for your office depends on your business's needs. For example, if it must handle photos and documents and produce excellent quality output on a budget, consider the Visioneer 7800 Flatbed Color Photo and Document Scanner.

  • How do I choose a photo scanner?

    To choose the best photo scanner, identify what you need to scan, what size photos you're scanning, and whether you need exceptionally high-quality resolution (1200dpi) or standard resolution (300dpi). Consider your speed needs, budget, and how big or small a scanner you can accommodate.

  • What is the best scanner app?

    The best scanners for mobile devices include Google PhotoScan, Photomyne, and Microsoft Lens. All three are free to download and use and are available for iOS and Android. Photomyne has a premium version with more features.

Was this page helpful?