It is time to talk hardware. You know how to get the most out of PhotoShop, you know about resolution, bit-depth and dynamic range, now what are you going to use to make those gorgeous scans? I picked eight scanners from various companies that distribute in Hong Kong and, at high noon on a Saturday, a couple of Saturdays actually, had a showdown. I used several colour prints that were chosen to challenge the test units. One had no true white, which makes things very difficult for the scanner's automatic colour balancing software, and it had detailed highlights and shadows that were very hard to reproduce. There was one 3R print with strong reds and subtle shadow details. I also chose a portrait that had no highlight and no shadow, another challenge for the software, which will sometimes try to create a true 100 per cent black and a true 0 per cent white where there is none in the original. There was a page of typewritten text and Kodak Colour Separation Guide and a grey scale. The most challenging test for the scanners was an inside page of my passport, which, with subtle tones and details, is designed to be difficult to reproduce. The scanners were divided into three categories, units over HK$15,000, units between $4,500 and $15,000 and those under $4,500. Only two units fell into the upper range, the Umax PowerLook 2000 and the Agfa DuoScan. In the mid-range there were the Nikon ScanTouch 210, the Epson GT-9500, the Apple Colour OneScanner 1200/30, and the Hewlett-Packard 4C. At the bottom-end was the HP 5P, the Nikon ScanTouch 110, the Epson GT-5000, the Umax S-6E and the Agfa SnapScan. The scanners were all set up without great difficulty. The only minor problems were Agfa's temperamental SCSI connections and DuoScan's locking screw. With the DuoScan, a red tag attached to the locking screw tells you to turn the lock with a coin. The screw must be pushed into the body of the scanner before it can be turned, which can only be done with a screwdriver. Between the two high-end units, the competition was tough. At a glance, it was very difficult to see much of a difference between them. In the process of scanning, I found the interface on the Agfa to be much more straightforward. A good thing too, because I had to nurse every scan. The unit's auto exposure was always too dark. My complaint with the Umax is with the hardware rather than the software. The scanning head comes to rest under a small slat just below the scanning bed. Since the light on the scan head remains on all the time, I was nearly blinded when I opened the unit to load an original. By the end of the test I was wearing sunglasses. Both units make 36 bit scans that result in a 48 bit RGB file in PhotoShop. (All of the test scans were done this way.) The scans from the Umax showed better shadow detail and the colour was more accurate. The grey-scale card has a total of 20 steps and they all reproduced well on the Umax, but the last three turned solid black on the Agfa. To be fair to Agfa, this may have been due to the way I balanced the image before scanning. However, there was no need to make any hand colour corrections with the Umax. Among the mid-range scanners, Nikon had the most professional scanner interface. There were no complicated pull-down menus to access. All colour controls were on a single pallet that was very straightforward and easy to use. Scans from the Nikon, however, left much to be desired. The images showed considerable banding. Odd colours appeared in some where they should not have. The Apple OneScanner and the Epson GT-5000 were the most petite scanners. The scans from the OneScanner were quite good and showed accurate colours. The Epson GT-9500 showed accurate colours but the scans were all quite dark, with the last four or five steps in the grey scale showing black. The Epson scans showed a disappointing lack of sharpness. In the end, the HP 4C nudged out the Apple in the mid-range category. The control strip scans show the HP to be a bit sharper. It reproduced all of the 20 steps in the grey-scaled chart, even though the colours were unrealistically vibrant. The scanner interface of the Apple was superior but I still preferred the HP, by a nose. With the exception of one unit, all the bottom-end units performed badly. These scanners are so affordable that they are within reach of the casual user, but I do not think most of these users will want to spend much time fiddling with images when scanning. The Umax had extreme contrasts. The scan of my passport turned the page bleach white. None of the subtle blue and red lines in the background reproduced and my photograph was inky black. The grey-scale scan failed to reproduce any highlights. Not one scan from this unit was acceptable, save the line art. The Nikon showed very strange colour casts in its scans, namely lizard green rainbows in fields of black. One scan had horizontal red lines running at about five-millimetre intervals all the way through the image. The lower-end Agfa scanned everything too dark. This could have been corrected and I think that the Agfa would have given the best results of the three, had I intervened. The Epson GT-5000 scans were too dark, the shadows blocked up heavily and the greys had odd colour casts. The HP 5P was the standout exception in this category - and it stood way out. The scans were not only better than any other unit in this category, they were better than anything in the mid-range category and almost better than anything in the high-end category. Scans were sharp and detailed, equalling the PowerLook, with little image noise. The colours were appealing, if unrealistically vibrant. Software ergonomics on the HP left much to be desired, though. HP could take a lesson from Nikon. The HP is no substitute for either of the units in the top category, either. The capabilities of the 5P do not equal those of the Agfa or the Umax. The ScanJet's overly vibrant colours, lack of software flexibility and inability to perform a high-bit scan make it inappropriate for professional use. One last note. The Agfa DuoScan is so named because it has a second lower bed which is used only for transparencies. I did not test this feature thoroughly but from a single scan from a negative I thought the quality to be quite poor. Although test reports have shown Agfa's design to be superior to a transparency adaptor, I do not think that it will come close to the quality of a dedication film scanner, such as the Nikon LS-1000 or the Polariod SprintScan.