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Scanning basics

Home computer users have access to cheaper, better scanners. Here are tips for picking and using one.

By JULES ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 1999


In a picture-perfect world, it should be easy to take a photo and scan it into your computer so you can add it to your Web page or send it to someone by e-mail.

Scanners are cheaper, faster and more powerful than ever, producing almost professional-level quality for the home user. Software is available to help people edit and organize their photos.

But it is not, unfortunately, a picture-perfect world.

Plug in a new scanner to your PC and it performs as advertised -- but your printer, whose computer connection it is sharing, won't work anymore.

You scan in a photo and put it on your Web site. It takes forever for the image to download when people visit the site. Why? Because it was scanned and used at 100 percent of its digital size, and photos take up a lot of space.

The makers of photo software and scanners are making the mistakes, not the users, in my opinion. People-friendly scanning has a long way to go.

But if you choose your scanner and the image-manipulating software with some luck and care, home scanning can be easy and effective.

Start with hardware

The first scanner I could afford for my home office was expensive, painfully slow and low on features. Fast forward a few years: I have a UMAX (www.umax.com) Astra 1220p for a tenth of the cost of the old one. It has a much higher resolution and scans everything in one pass instead of three.

Consumers have many choices in scanners, with costs ranging from less than $100, like mine, up to hundreds of dollars. While I haven't tried all the models out there, I recommend a 36-bit scanner instead of a 30-bit or 24-bit one. Those few extra bucks will go a long way to getting a better image into your computer.

Of course, you can skip a scanner by buying a digital camera. I use a Kodak DC210 (www.kodak.com), but photo companies have been coming out with new, improved and, yes, cheaper models (see the March 15 Tech Times, available online at www.sptimes.com/Technology.shtml, for a complete look at digital cameras).

The connection

While you are shopping for your scanner, you also will have to figure out how you want to connect it to your computer.

Many affordable scanners are designed to hook up to your parallel port, which is the connection you probably already use for your printer. The scanner may come with an adapter so that your printer will plug into the scanner, which in turn will plug into the computer.

The catch is that your printer and scanner may not play well together. A Times editor bought a Mustek 1200 III EP scanner and hooked it up as directed -- only to discover that his Hewlett Packard DeskJet 693C printer no longer worked.

Technical support personnel at Mustek confessed that it was a known problem and the only solution was to disable some of the software that came with the scanner. The user kept having problems and ended up buying a separate software package. The lesson: Buy your scanner somewhere that promises to give you your money back if you run into that kind of conflict.

If you can, hook up your scanner to a fast parallel port (usually called EPP or ECP). Newer PCs usually come with these installed; older PCs require a plug-in card.

Scanners with SCSI-type connections used to have the advantage of being faster than parallel port versions but they cost more. For home use, it is not really worth the extra expense of a SCSI scanner.

Many experts rave about the new generation of fast Universal Serial Bus connections, and you may want to look for a scanner with a USB connection. But beware if you don't have Windows 98: Even if your PC comes with a USB port, it is sometimes a hassle to get it to work with an earlier operating system.

The software

Once your scanner is up and running, you need software to handle and shape the images it captures.

Alas, there is no magic image tweaking software that can reach into your mind and interpret what you are trying to do. Scanning programs are still dumb as a box of rocks, just like word processors and spreadsheets. So much of it is a case of trial and error.

The key is to find a package that thinks as you do. The Web is full of free, downloadable trials, so finding the right package should be easy to do.

Most scanners and digital image devices come with some image manipulation software -- usually thrown in for free. Perhaps the most common bundled software package is a cut-down version of Adobe Photoshop, the standard for photo editing and manipulation. Even in the reduced form, Photoshop LE is a serious tool that has a significant learning curve and can scare the heebies out of the casual image tweaker.

Thankfully we have the Web to rescue us with the power of choice. I played with trial versions of JPEG Wizard and PICPress from Tampa's Pegasus (www.jpg.com), and also with JASC software's Paint Shop Pro (www.jasc.com). If you like the trial versions, you can pay to use these programs permanently. Pegasus says its Wizard is not aimed at newcomers, more for people with some scanning experience. I agree with its assessment and would say the same for Paint Shop Pro.

On Linux and other free Unix-like operating systems, there is the excellent GNU Image Manipulation Tool (www.gimp.org), which is free.

Another Times editor and Mac user had this to say for Mac users: Most Mac-compatible scanners ship with either Photoshop LE or PhotoDeluxe from Adobe (www.adobe.com). PhotoDeluxe, which also sells for $49, includes the basic features most casual users need, though the menu options can be confusing and some features are unnecessarily hard to find. (Photoshop LE, which has been available only as bundled software, will be available for purchase as a $100 stand-alone product in July.)

Kai's Photo Soap 2 (www.metacreations.com), also $49, offers basic editing features, such as red-eye and scratch removal and color adjustments. It also can export Web-ready images.

Right-sizing images

So we have our gear. Let's get into the photos.

You almost certainly have experienced a desperately slow Web site: a seemingly tiny image on a page that slowly reveals itself, row by row, about the speed of the line at the driver's license office at lunchtime.

You have encountered a seemingly small image that isn't really small in the digital world. What did the author of the page do wrong? It is likely that the author took the image, freshly scanned or uploaded from a digital camera, and pushed it directly into the software used to create the Web page.

"Goodness!" our intrepid Web publisher exclaimed, "that's a big image and doesn't fit."

So, doing what any Word, Excel or PageMaker warrior would do, he grabs the corner of the image and shrinks it so it fits. Smaller, it looks wonderful on the screen and our latter-day Gutenberg publishes on with other tasks.

The problem is the image is being displayed at a small size but is still in its original hulking digital glory. The author should have taken the image into a photo editing software package and changed the size and resolution.

So, what is the right image size? I consulted with Christine Page, Best Software's in-house graphics expert and one of my co-workers.

"In most cases, you will want to make your images 72 dots per inch, the resolution of just about all computer screens," Page said.

For example, I scanned in a 3.5-inch by 7-inch photo at 300 dots per inch, or dpi, which translated into 5,293 kilobytes. By reducing the image quality from 100 percent to 60 percent, changing the size to 400 pixels deep, and altering the resolution to a Web-friendly 72 dpi, I reduced the image file size to a mere 30Kb and maintained quality that satisfied me.

If you want to print it out, you will want to double the resolution to 144 dpi or even 192 dpi.

If you want an image you can share with others, you can save it in one of two formats.

The first is called JPEG (pronounced JAY peg), which works wonders for photographs. JPEGs have a variable quality setting that is directly proportional to size of the file: The lesser the quality, the smaller the size of the image file. What you are willing to accept in loss of image quality is subjective: It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between an image with a 100 percent setting and one with a 60 percent setting.

The other popular format is a GIF (either pronounced with a hard G, or as jiff). GIFs are the granddaddy of graphics formats and were made popular by online services pioneer CompuServe. GIFs shine for images that have small text, sharp lines and other intricate details. GIF files are limited to 256 colors, which makes them not so great for color photographs but sometimes acceptable for black and white.

With GIF files, you also will want to apply a Web-safe palette or Color Lookup Table. A Web-safe palette is a collection of 216 colors that will make your image look great on most computers. (For more information on Web-safe colors, see www.lynda.com/hex.html.)

Image manipulation software produced in the past few years will ship with a Web-safe color palette. Applying it to your images is beyond the scope of this article but your software vendor's Web site is often an excellent place to start hunting for information.

Take care when you alter an image and keep an original copy until you are sure you do not need it again. It is easy to reduce the resolution and colors in an image, but putting them back is often impossible.

While we have focused mostly on images for Web pages, the same rules apply to graphics you might e-mail to friends and family. A common mistake when e-mailing images is trying to compress the files with utilities such as WinZip or StuffIt.

GIF and JPEG images already have their own built-in compression. By attempting to compress them again, you actually may make the file larger. Larger images take more time to send and receive. Imagine trying to shove a picture of 400,000 bytes through a pipe when you can reduce it to a fraction of that. It will go much faster with fewer bytes.

Shaving those bytes will save space, also known as bandwidth, and save time for all who view your photos. Older computers and slower modems will thank you.

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