Now, Scanners Are A Snap To Use

And the latest models are more versatile, thanks to their drag-and-drop software

Using computers to edit or play with pictures has become increasingly popular. But the first step, getting images into digital form, has been anything but fun. A new class of cheap, easy-to-use color scanners for Windows computers is at last making it simple to turn your snapshots into images that can be printed, incorporated into craft projects, E-mailed, or posted on a Web site. You can utilize the scanner to make quick copies, convert printed documents into text that can be edited in a word processor or sent out over a fax modem.

Scanners come in two basic varieties, sheetfed and flatbed. Sheetfed scanners use motorized rollers to draw paper past the light sensors that create the digital image. Their main advantage is that they take up little room. But they are less versatile than flatbeds and are more prone to errors. A flatbed is basically a box with a hinged cover over a sheet of glass. Material is placed on the glass, just like on an office copier. The flatbed scanner can handle books, magazines, and other bound documents.

The Visioneer PaperPort OneTouch, a flatbed, may be the most convenient scanner I have used. It connects easily to a printer port, and you can plug your printer into the scanner when you want to use both. The OneTouch comes with Visioneer's excellent PaperPort software, which provides drag-and-drop handling of items you scan in.

When you scan an image, a thumbnail version of it appears on the desktop. You can sort images into folders. PaperPort then lets you drag an image of a text page to your word processor. The program uses optical character recognition software to create a document that your word processor can handle. Drop an image on the icon of Adobe PhotoDeluxe or other image-editing program, and the application launches with your picture open.

To make things even easier, the OneTouch offers several buttons. One begins a scan and opens the PaperPort software. Another button sends the scan directly to a printer, effectively creating a copy machine. A third sends the scan to the fax software you designate. And a fourth, labeled "custom," can connect to the link of your choice.

The Agfa SnapScan EZ, as befits the camera and film heritage of its maker, seems ideally suited for photographic work. Like the OneTouch, it can scan up to 1200 dots per inch vertically and 600 DPI horizontally. For photo work, the more dots, the better the results. But the dot concentration, or resolution, alone can be misleading: I found I got consistently better photo scans with the Agfa than the Visioneer. Both machines can scan at lower resolutions, which allows for faster scanning and creates smaller files.

EASIER INSTALLATION. One big advantage of the SnapScan is in the FotoSnap software it uses to control the scanner. FotoSnap makes it simple to fit the processing to the use you will be making of the images. An image destined for a photo-quality printer will automatically be read at the highest possible resolution.

The Storm PageScan USB is an inexpensive, sheetfed device best suited to entering documents for such things as faxing, quick copying, or for scanning photos for online purposes, since its 300 DPI resolution is low for serious photo work. The PageScan's distinction is that it is the first of a coming flood of scanners to use the new universal serial bus connection on computers, making installation easier. It also avoids the problems some printers have in sharing a port with another device.

Whether you go for one of these scanners or a competitor from companies such as UMAX or Mustek, choosing the right image-management software will make things a lot easier. In addition to Visioneer's PaperPort (which is also available in a Macintosh version), Xerox' Pagis Pro is good at managing your scans and dispatching them to other applications. If your scanner doesn't come bundled with one of these, you'd do well to spend $50 for a copy.

Not that long ago, scanners were considered exotic equipment for specialists. But I suspect you'll find that after using one for a few days, you'll wonder how you got along without it.