David Huff asked today about scanners, and I started to reply as a comment but decided it was too long-winded and ought to be a separate discussion.

So, how does one cut through the hype and get a really good scanner for not a lot of money?The short answer to David’s question is that I like the Canon Canoscan LIDE series. Both my mom and my girlfriend have the LIDE 80 and have been happy with it.

For the long answer to the question, let’s step through several things that I look for when choosing a scanner.

Manufacurer. There are lots of makers of cheap and cheerful scanners out there. Chances are there are some cheap and nasty ones too. Today’s cheap and nasty scanners will be a lot better than 1995’s crop of cheap and nasties, since the PC parallel port was a huge source of incompatibilities, but I want a scanner from a company with some experience making scanners and with good chances of still being around in five years.

Driver support. Much is made of this issue. But past track record isn’t much of an indicator of future results. HP and Umax infamously began charging for updated drivers, for example. But at least I could get a driver from HP or Umax, even if it costs money. My Acer scanner is forever tethered to a Windows 98 box because I can’t get a working driver for Windows 2000 or XP for it.

Umax used to have a stellar track record for providing scanner drivers, which was why I started buying and recommending them several years ago. I don’t know what their current policy is but I know some people have sworn them off because they have charged for drivers, at least for some scanners, in the recent past. But you can get newer drivers, in many cases, from Umax UK.

But that’s why I like to stick with someone like Canon, HP, Umax, or Epson, who’ve been making scanners for several years and are likely to continue doing so. Even if I have to pay for a driver, I’d rather pay for one than not be able to get one. Keep in mind that you’ll be running Windows XP until at least 2006 anyway.

Optical resolution. Resolution is overrated, like megahertz. It’s what everyone plays up. It’s also a source of confusion. Sometimes manufacturers play up interpolated resolution or somesuch nonsense. This is where the scanner fakes it. It’s nice to have, but there are better ways to artificially increase resolution if that’s what you’re seeking.

Look for hardware or optical resolution. Ignore interpolated resolution.

Back to that overrated comment… Few of us need more than 1200dpi optical resolution. For one thing, not so long ago, nobody had enough memory to hold a decent-sized 4800dpi image in memory in order to edit it. If you’re scanning images to put them on the Web, remember, computer screen resolution ranges from 75 to 96dpi, generally speaking. Anything more than that just slows download speed. For printing, higher resolution is useful, but there’s little to no point in your scanner having a higher resolution than your printer.

I just did a search, and while I was able to find inkjet printers with a horizontal resolution of up to 5760dpi, I found exactly one printer with a vertical resolution of 2400dpi. The overwhelming majority were 1200dpi max, going up and down.

Your inkjet printer and your glossy magazines use different measurements for printing, but a true 1200dpi is going to be comparable to National Geographic quality. If your photography isn’t up to National Geographic standards, megaresolution isn’t going to help it.

Bit depth. If resolution is the most overrated factor, bit depth is the most underrated. Generally speaking, the better the bit depth, the more accurate the color recognition. While even 24 bits gives more colors than the human eye can distinguish, there is a noticeable difference in accuracy between scans done on a 24-bit scanner and scans from a 36-bit scanner.

If you have to choose between resolution and bit depth, go for bit depth every time. Even if you intend to print magazines out of your spare bedroom or basement. After all, if the color on the photograph is off, nobody is going to pay any attention to how clear it is.

Size and weight. Some flatbed scanners are smaller and lighter than a laptop. If they can draw their power from the USB port, so much the better. You might not plan to take one with you, but it’s funny how unplanned things seem to happen.