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Photo scanners review

We tested four devices to find out how well they can digitize pictures

Last updated: July 2014

GiiNii NuLife GN-5LS

If you're wondering how to digitize those shoeboxes full of photos sitting in your attic, a leading option is a personal photo scanner. Photo scanners can be faster than other options, such as flatbed scanners, and you don't need to use a computer to scan—while you're sitting in the living room watching a movie, you can convert your photos into JPEG files. And once your photos are digital, you can share them via e-mail, post them on Facebook, and back them up online for good measure.

There are other methods to digitize your photos: You can send them out to services that scan them for you and return them, though that method may make you nervous if you're letting go of the only existing copy of a precious shot. All-in-one home printers can scan photos, too. (See our buying guide to and reviews of printers.) Some people even try to take digital photos of their paper photos—but that requires a good deal of setup and skill, or the results can be pretty unsatisfactory. A personal photo scanner offers the advantages of speed and portable convenience.

Tested products

Pandigital PANSCN05

For this story, we tested four pass-through photo scanners designed to convert photos into JPEG-format files. They can all store the files directly onto memory cards, which you can then use in devices such as computers and electronic picture frames. The tested models are the GiiNii NuLife GN-5LS ($95), Kodak P460 ($100), Kodak P570 ($97), and Pandigital PANSCN05 ($79). We also compared their use and results to that of a conventional flatbed scanner, the Epson Perfection V300 Photo Color Scanner ($79).

Each of the photo scanners came with a plastic sheath to protect pictures as they are fed through, though each scanner also worked without its sheath. The GiiNii came with a sheath for picture 4x6 inches or smaller, but it can handle pictures up to 8.5x11 inches and also features a 2.4-inch LCD screen. The Kodak P460 and Pandigital scanner can each scan photos up to 4x6, and the Kodak P570 can handle sizes up to 5x7.

All the tested models scan photos at a resolution of 300 dpi (dots per inch, a measure of resolution), but both Kodak models can scan at 600 dpi as well; the higher resolution is most noticeable when you're printing enlargements from digital files. The Kodak P460 and the PanDigital can also scan strips of negatives and color slides that are removed from their holders, at 1,200 dpi. The Epson flatbed scanner we used for comparison can scan at up to 4,800 dpi, which is useful when you're cropping images or printing large images from smaller pictures.

Is a photo scanner a worthwhile investment, or should you use a home printer, flatbed scanner, or scanning service instead? We found that the speed and portability of photo scanners are offset by frequently iffy results.

To test, we scanned various photos with and without the plastic sheaths, timing how long it took to do multiple pictures. Then we looked at the files that were created from the scans and compared the results with those of the flatbed scanner. Here are the results.

Kodak P570

Speed

The photo scanners can be fast; as you might expect, they're slower when scanning at higher resolutions and faster at lower resolutions. We were able to scan 4x6 photos at 300 dpi in about 10 seconds each if we did not use the plastic sheaths, and in about 30 seconds each if we used the 600 dpi mode with the plastic sheaths.

Using the sheath slowed things down because it requires two extra steps: inserting the photo into the sheath and removing it before inserting the next photo. The sheaths also collected scratches over time, and they also collected dust and fibers, which were difficult to remove and could become noticeable on the resulting scans. Scans of negative filmstrips and positive slide frames at 1,200 dpi (by the two models that could) were relatively fast: a little more than 40 seconds for four frames.

In comparison, the flatbed scanner averaged about 30 seconds to scan a photo at 300 dpi, and we had to interact with a computer throughout the process.

Quality

With all the photo scanners, we saw two major defects beyond color fidelity, saturation, and dust, which are issues with any scanner.

First, for some photos with dark backgrounds or sections, the photo scanners' auto-image-cropping algorithms chopped off large portions of the picture (see the image below). Because the picture is scanned directly to the memory card (and the GiiNii's display is too small to be useful), we didn't notice the cropping until we viewed the files on a computer. We tried rescanning, but because the algorithm can't be altered, the dark sections were cropped off again.

The scanned version (right) of the original image (left) got over-cropped on the edge.

The second big problem we discovered was the appearance of white lines on some of the scans, apparently caused by dust or paper fragments settling on the sensor elements. Like the auto-cropping, the white lines were not apparent until we viewed the file on the computer. (The plastic sheaths sometimes developed scratches, which could also be seen on the scans, a separate but subtler problem.)

We tried cleaning the scanner with provided tools, but that did not always remove the source of the white-line problem.

Another issue is the pass-through scanners’ inability to scan photos that are glued or taped into albums. By comparison, a flatbed scanner with its removable top can scan anything that can be pressed to the glass bed. Similarly, if you're scanning a slide, it has to be removed from its (often permanent) holder.

Auto-cropping and white lines weren't an issue with the Epson flatbed scanner in our tests.

Our take

Kodak P460

While photo scanners are convenient and easy to use, the results were uniformly disappointing for all the tested models. And these scanners are no less expensive than more flexible and less-error-prone flatbed scanners. If you can live with possible cropping errors and occasional white lines or need to scan negatives or unmounted slides, then a pass-through photo scanner is worth considering.

The portability and speed may also make photo scanners worth consideration if, say, you need to go over to Grandma's to scan her photos, because she refuses to let them leave the house. The convenience of using a photo scanner may also mean that you'll actually get that scanning done. We would recommend the Kodak P460, as it had the least issues with over-cropping.But if you want high-quality scans that are suitable for cropping and printing, you'll be better off using a flatbed scanner that's attached to a computer.

   

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