For This Printer, Scanning's A Snap

With one cartridge change, a $239 machine turns into a color scanner

Just when I think that color inkjet printers have become pretty much alike in terms of price, print quality, and features, along comes a new one to prove me wrong. For the past couple of weeks, I've been toying around with Canon Inc.'s just-introduced BJC-4304 model, which retails for about $240. As a printer, it works fine. The major difference is that this printer can also be used as a color scanner for documents, photographs, and other images.

Converting it to a scanner is a snap--literally. Canon has come up with a matchbox-size optical scanner cartridge that snaps into the carrier that usually holds the ink cartridge. The scan cartridge is a $99 option, but that's about half the cost of other sheetfed scanners.

EASY START. Getting started is simple, too. It involves nothing more than loading the scanner driver software into the computer. You don't have to open the computer to add a board, which many scanners require. You don't have to calibrate colors to match the scanner to your printer, which sometimes can be tricky.

Such a hybrid design does have some limitations, though. After the novelty wore off, I found it awkward to be continually swapping between the scan cartridge and an ink cartridge to print out the photographs I was scanning in. The swapping also means that it can be inconvenient to use the printer as if were a color copier. Conventional scanners can be set to scan directly to a printer.

But Canon didn't really mean for this to be a serious productivity tool. It only accepts documents one at a time, for example. And it doesn't include any optical character recognition (OCR) software for converting images of pages into text files that you can edit. (A similar scanner for Canon's upcoming BJC-80 portable printer, popular with students and road warriors, will have it.) Finally, the scanner quality probably won't suit photo enthusiasts who insist on top-quality prints. This machine is more for the home user who wants to put color pictures in photo albums, school reports, or greeting cards. You could also use it for making digital copies of photos that can be attached to E-mail or posted on Web pages.

FAST WORK. For that kind of casual use, it works extremely well. I scanned 4-in. by 6-in. snapshots in just over four minutes in the 360 dots-per-inch mode. At 180 dpi, it took only a quarter as long. Full-page monochrome scans--which can be used in PC fax programs--took less than a minute. I printed out the images on plain, coated, and high-gloss paper, which took about five minutes each in the printer's highest-resolution mode with a photo ink cartridge. It was hard to tell the difference between the 180- and 360-dpi scans. On high-gloss paper, which costs 50 cents a page, they looked like the original photos.

A few tips. Canon's manual says to always use the scan holder, a clear plastic envelope, to scan things. Don't bother. I recommend it only when you scan heirloom photos or flimsy, irregularly sized newspaper clips. I suspect Canon is worried about lawsuits over ruined originals. Also, while Canon says the software provided with the scanning cartridge is an all-purpose photo editor, it can't compress images into the newer, preferred JPEG format, which compresses files to save space on your hard drive. For that you will need to use the ColorDesk Photo software included with the printer.

Given its limitations, this double-duty machine isn't the be-all and end-all as a scanner. But it's enough for what most people want to do. And, most importantly, the price is right.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.