NOTE: This product has been replaced by the S20 model.
||Affordable "personal" film scanner|
||2400 dpi resolution (24 meg file from 35mm neg!)|
||Slides, negatives, or prints up to 5x7 in one unit|
||High-speed SCSI interface (card included)|
||Powerful, easy-to-use "Photofinishing" software|
Hewlett Packard (HP for short) is a company that literally needs no introduction in the world of computers and electronics. (But we're going to introduce them here anyway ;-) They've long been associated with imaging of one sort or another, through their broad line of printers and scanners. Recently, they've entered the digital photography market, although with a slightly different focus than many manufacturers: Rather than view digital cameras, scanners, and printers as isolated accessories to home or office computers, they've taken an approach more oriented to users interested in photography for the sake of the pictures themselves. HP's PhotoSmart System is just that, a system intended to bring truly high-quality digital photography to the consumer. In this review, we'll cover their PhotoSmart Scanner. Other reviews on this site address the PhotoSmart C20 megapixel digital camera, and the PhotoSmart System taken as a whole, including the PhotoSmart printer. (If you haven't seen its output yet, the printer deserves special commendation: First-time viewers of its prints invariably have a hard time telling them from actual photographic prints.)
The PhotoSmart Scanner
The PhotoSmart Scanner (PSS for short) represents half of the input capability of HP's PhotoSmart digital photography system, the other half being the highly capable C20 digital camera. Unless you need to scan photo prints larger than the 5x7 inch capacity of the PSS, you won't need any other input device to bring all your conventionally-photographed (35mm, anyway) pictures into your computer: The PhotoSmart Scanner handles essentially any form of 35mm photographic media, scanning images from prints, slides, and black and white or color negatives. As you'll see in the main body of this review, it performs these functions admirably, with a very simple-to-operate user interface, and at an exceptional price.
The HP PhotoSmart Scanner is a desktop device about the size of a couple of average books stacked atop each other. It measures 3.9 inches tall, 8 inches wide, and 11.6 inches deep (about 10 x 20 x 30 cm), and weighs in at 6 pounds (2.7 kg). Interfacing via an ISA-bus SCSI card, the scanner is designed to support the Windows operating system (Windows '95 and '98 both) only: Mac users regrettably must look elsewhere for their scanning solutions. If you are a Windows user though, you'll find the PhotoSmart Scanner an affordable, highly capable scanning option. Without the benefit of any external adapters or film carriers, the basic PSS unit can scan prints up to 5x7 inches at resolutions of up to 300 dpi, and 35mm slides or negatives at resolutions up to 2400 dpi. (At its maximum 2400 dpi resolution, a 35mm negative ends up as a ~2468 x 3402 pixel, 22.3 megabyte(!) file.) - That's a lot of resolution! (We haven't included resolution numbers for APS format, because the PhotoSmart Scanner does not support APS film.)
While on the topic of resolution, we should clear up some misconceptions about the resolution needed to scan prints. Many flatbed scanners these days have a maximum resolution of 600 or 1200 dpi. Users are often drawn to these devices, thinking that a 1200 dpi scanner will enable them to enlarge their photo prints better than a 600 dpi one will. While high resolution is important for achieving sharp edges when scanning "line art" (text or drawings), anything beyond about 300 dpi is really wasted on photos. This is because, according to most experts, the typical photographic print doesn't have more than about 200 dpi of resolution in it! (Technically, to completely capture all the detail in a 200 dpi print, you'd need a 400 dpi scanner, but in practice, you'd be hard pressed to notice the difference between 300 dpi or 600 dpi scans of most photo prints.) In any event, although we didn't test it explicitly, we found the resolving power of the PhotoSmart Scanner in "print" mode more than adequate for most purposes.
As we've mentioned in other scanner reviews, as high as the resolution of the PSS is, it's even higher than that of a typical digital camera producing a similar file size. This is because the CCD array in the scanner takes separate red, green, and blue measurements for every pixel in the final image. By contrast, the sensors in most digital cameras are "striped" with color filters, so that only one out of every three sensor pixels is assigned to a given color. Thus, while the maximum output file size from the PSS contains 7.7 million pixels, you'd have to have a digital camera with over 20 million pixels to achieve the same resolution. In fact, it's safe to say that the maximum resolution of the PhotoSmart Scanner is greater than the majority of film/lens combinations you're likely to encounter in conventional photography!
Another important scanner parameter is "bit depth," a measure of both the color accuracy and maximum density range the scanner can recognize. (8 bits is good, and common, 10 bits is better, and high-end units digitize to 12 bits per red, green, and blue channel.) The PhotoSmart scanner digitizes to 10 bits per channel, which gives it a good ability to hold detail in shadows on slides, particularly in light of its low price point.
Film (and Print!) Handling
As we mentioned above, the PhotoSmart Scanner handles film, slides, or prints with no additional holders, jigs, or accessories. All the film-handling mechanics are built into the unit itself, and you simply select among the three media types with a front-panel push-button. Pressing the centrally-mounted button cycles an LED indicator between icons showing a slide, a strip of film, and a print respectively. When you select a particular media type, the motor whirs, and the front throat of the scanner reconfigures itself to accept the chosen media: For prints, a wide slot is created, which narrows for slides. When you choose "film" mode, a thin aperture is raised into place to guide the film strip into the machine.
For film and slides, there's not much chance of misaligning the media with the scanner: There's pretty much only one way you can get them in, and not a lot of play on either side to allow rotation. This is great for strips of negatives, but film sometimes gets mis-mounted in slide holders. (Our standard Q60 target is a good example of this, as the film is rotated about 1 degree counterclockwise in its mount.) Fortunately, the PSS software lets you rotate the scanned image in one-degree increments across a fairly wide range of adjustment. This worked well for us, and should be more than enough to compensate for most mis-mounted slides. Actually, while a one-degree rotation doesn't sound like much, it's fairly noticeable: We'd have preferred a somewhat smaller increment for making finer adjustments. We'll take what we can get though, and the rotation adjustment via software is a feature we'd like to see in more scanners.
Prints, especially smaller ones, are much more likely to feed slightly crooked, since there's not the same support on their sides as for film or slides. We were always able to correct for any sloppiness in print-feeding with the software rotation control though.
Very small prints (smaller than about 3x5 or so) can be tough to line up, and may even not catch properly in the feed rollers. Likewise, old prints with frayed edges, or images on thin paper (those clipped from magazines, for instance) may have trouble feeding. To handle subjects of this sort, HP includes a carrier jacket with a clear mylar overlay. This holder provides the needed rigidity for proper feeding, without interfering with the light path to any significant extent.
We found the media handling of the PhotoSmart Scanner to be quite reliable and problem-free. We did encounter an initial problem with our "USAF" resolution target, which is a glass slide. The media-recognition circuitry couldn't detect the edge of the slide (it depends on detecting a change in light transmission), but a call to HP revealed a useful but undocumented calibration feature: If you press the "eject" button with no media inserted, the media-handling system will re-initialize, which includes recalibrating for the proper light level with no media in the track. Once we'd done this, the scanner successfully detected the slide every time. To its great credit, we never had a problem feeding either prints or film strips (or any slides other than our strange glass one), despite some slightly curled negatives that have been problematic when using "clamshell" type film carriers.
System Interface and Included Software
In order to provide reasonable scan speeds at its highest resolution, the PhotoSmart Scanner is a "SCSI" device, requiring the addition of an interface card to most Windows computer systems. (If you already have a SCSI card installed that isn't a limited-capability model dedicated to a single device, chances are good that you'll be able to use it for the PSS as well.) If you've used even a lower-resolution parallel-port-interfaced scanner in the past, you'll be amazed at how much faster the SCSI interface is: In terms of raw numbers, the SCSI port can routinely move data ten to thirty times faster than typical parallel ports!
Adding a card to a PC is often a daunting experience for most computer users. It needn't be with the PhotoSmart, although we have an embarrassing tale to relate in this regard... Our test PC is an elderly machine that started life as a 133 MHz off-brand clone, and has been upgraded piece by piece for a couple of years now. These days, it's a 233 MHz Pentium MMX, with 48 meg of RAM, a faster hard drive controller, about 7 Gigs of hard drive space, an ethernet card, a modem card, etc., etc. - Still no speed demon by current standards, but literally "stuffed to the gills" with a card in virtually every slot. Being the macho computer-jockey types that we are, we figured the arrival of the PSS would be a great excuse to install a "real man's" SCSI card. None of these wussy little ISA cards for us, we needed a sleek, fast PCI-bus SCSI card! Well, after ordering and receiving a nice Adaptec card PCI, we proceeded to lose a good 3 days out of our lives trying to make the doggone thing work in our PC! The full, gory details would take more room and time to relate than we have here, but the bottom line is that there was simply no way to avoid having the fancy PCI SCSI card clash with the card that our main hard drives were connected to. Short of ripping out that card and reconnecting the hard drives to the motherboard controller (risking who knows what fate for our entire machine), there was no way to make the fancy card work.
In the end, we resigned ourselves to pulling out an ISA-bus ethernet networking card to make room for HP's ISA-bus SCSI card. Not expecting much, we plugged the card in, booted the machine, and loaded the HP software: Voila! In literally less time that it's just taken to tell you about it, the drivers were loaded, and the computer recognized the scanner on the first go! There's probably more than one moral to this story, but the one we wanted to convey to you was that (provided you do in fact have a spare "ISA" card slot on your machine), installation of the scanner can be a snap. (For those of you not sure about ISA vs. PCI busses, and a bit timid about messing around inside your computer, HP provides an excellent video on the installation CD that will walk you through the process, step by step.)
Once connected, the PhotoSmart Scanner is controlled by an excellent scanning program that we'll describe below. This program can also function as a TWAIN driver for other software packages supporting the TWAIN standard for image import. When operating in TWAIN mode, you have all the normal functions of the scanning software at your disposal, the only difference being that the finished image magically appears back in the originating application, rather than being sent to a disk file, or output on a printer.
In addition to the scanning application itself, the PSS package includes Microsoft's PictureIt for manipulating images once they're captured, and HP's exceptionally useful "photofinishing" software for efficiently managing the output process. We first encountered the photofinishing application with the HP C20 digital camera, and will repeat the description of its operation here for the benefit of those readers who haven't seen the camera review.
HP's PhotoSmart Photofinishing Program
With digital cameras and scanners, the task of getting images into your computer is relatively easy, almost without regard to the type of camera or scanner you purchase. The real catch comes when it's time to actually do something with the pictures you've taken: It's a genuine hassle most of the time to sit down, tweak and crop the images, and feed them out to the printer. Worse, unless you're printing full-sheet images, you often end up wasting expensive inkjet paper printing the images out one at a time. The end result is often that the images stay in the computer, rather than being shared with the family. (My wife refers to this as the "digital black hole effect.") HP recognized this problem, and developed the PhotoSmart Photofinishing application; one of the slickest solutions we've seen for getting images back out of the computer in an efficient and painless manner.
The part of the process that's missing for most digital photographers is called "photofinishing" in the conventional, film-based world: The conversion of an assortment of randomly-exposed images into a set of presentable hard-copy prints. Face it, while computers are wonderful, and email nearly universal, when it comes right down to it, most people interact with images as pictures printed on physical pieces of paper. Photo albums, framed prints hanging on walls, prints displayed on a mantlepiece or other furniture at home, on a desk at the office, prints stuffed into a wallet -- all of these common uses require print-on-paper. As digital photographers, we have an array of wonderful inkjet printers (including HP's own "PhotoSmart" printer, which we'll discuss in greater depth elsewhere) available to create stunning prints from our digital photographs. In most cases though, there are significant obstacles to actually making the prints. Most applications only support one print per page of output paper. This isn't much of an issue when you're dealing with plain copier paper, but with photo-quality glossy paper running $0.50 to $1.00 (US) per sheet, it's prohibitively costly to routinely print out a 20 or 30 images. Programs exist that will gang-up prints of a uniform size, to print multiples of 2, 3, 4, or more images per page of output, but generally their capabilities are limited to printing the same number of copies of each image, all at the same size. Finally, if you want to make individual adjustments to the images (for color, tone, cropping, etc.), the process can become laborious in the extreme.
HP's PhotoSmart Photofinishing application addresses all these issues in a single, exceptionally easy-to-use, well-integrated application. To crank out a batch of prints, simply point the application at a folder on your hard disk (or at the HP C20 camera) containing the images you're interested in. The program will display thumbnails of all the images, allowing you to select the ones you're interested in. All the images are displayed initially: Deselect the ones you're not interested in by highlighting them and then click the "remove" button. (They'll be removed from the active selection, but the original files aren't deleted from the camera or hard drive.)
Once you've selected the images you want, go to the "adjust" menu to adjust either exposure or color settings. We found the image-adjustment tools to be easy and flexible to work with. The "exposure" controls include separate sliders for adjusting the density of the shadows, midtones, and highlights, as well as an adjustment for setting the amount of sharpening applied to the images before printing. (A "reset" button will also set everything back to normal with a single click, if you get too lost in the adjustment process.) As you make adjustments to each image, the results are shown in a preview area. The color tools are similarly intuitive: A circular, rainbow-hued color control lets you adjust the overall color cast of an image very easily and interactively. A "saturation" slider controls the intensity of the colors. In all cases, it appears that the software is doing some optimization itself, before you even touch the controls, as the default positions of the various sliders and cursors vary from picture to picture, and we found that most images required fairly little additional tweaking. (Meaning that in most cases, you can just hit "print", and you'll get prints looking no worse than typical drugstore photofinishing.) In "adjust" mode, you can also type in a caption for each image, if desired.
Beyond image adjustment, there's the issue of arranging for multiple copies of images, printed at various sizes, all the while trying to make the most efficient usage of expensive paper and ink. This is where the PhotoSmart software really shines: While in adjust mode, each photo appears as a thumbnail in a scrolling list along the right-hand edge of the screen. Under each is a popup menu showing the image size, and a control to set the quantity of prints for that picture. The size menu initially defaults to the image size in pixels, meaning the image will print at a default size based on a "pixels per inch" setting you can adjust elsewhere in the program. To change the size of the print, you simply click on the popup, and choose from a range of pre-configured image sizes (which, again, are also user-configurable). This combination of controls makes it easy to request multiple copies of different images, with different sizes chosen for each image. (If you want different-sized prints of a single image though, you'll need to set up each size as a separate print job; only a minor effort.) For instance, you could ask for three 3 1/2 x 5 prints of image number 1, one 4x6 print of image number two, and so on.
When you select an output size for an image, the cropping guides in the preview window will automatically adjust themselves to the appropriate aspect ratio (a fancy term for the ratio of length to width): Adjusting either the crop height or width will adjust the other dimension in lock-step. You can also slide the cropping area around on your image to achieve the best composition. To handle images shot in "portrait" orientation, the software allows you to rotate both the screen preview and the crop box orientation.
When you're all done setting up your photos, the PhotoSmart Photofinishing software will take over the output process for you. There's one additional wrinkle that HP threw in though, that makes the program especially valuable: The "Paper Saver" option will automatically rotate and place your images on the final output pages to optimize paper usage! This is really slick, and over time could probably justify the purchase price of the entire camera system! (We've probably spent 4 or 5 times the original printer cost on paper and ink for our in-house inkjet.)
We've heard comments from some experienced users that the HP software's "user friendly" interface made them feel a bit like they were back in grade school, but we found little in it to complain about. The only minor deficiencies we found were the lack of any feedback as to portions of the image being pushed to either solid white or solid black by the highlight and shadow adjustment sliders, and the inability to specify multiple different print sizes for individual images. These are both fairly minor complaints though, and the overall usefulness of the application can hardly be overemphasized. (One side note though: The Photofinishing software assembles the pages as a single large file for each page. This means it likes a LOT of disk space to run with, on our system, insisting on at least 65 megabytes of free disk space before it would consent to operate. This may be a limitation for some folks with older systems, but with hard drive prices as low as they are these days, it's pretty cheap to dramatically upgrade your system's capacity.)
Oh yes, one important closing note: While HP would certainly like to see everyone buy their excellent PhotoSmart photo-quality inkjet printer, the PhotoSmart Photofinishing software has no bias toward any particular output device -- it will happily output images to any printer you can install normally under Windows.
Scanner Operation and User Interface
Actually, before we get into the scanning process itself, it would probably be a good idea to mention calibration. The PhotoSmart Scanner calibrates itself automatically when scanning slides and negatives, but requires a separate calibration procedure for print scanning. The scanner needs to be calibrated when it is first set up, whenever it is moved between computers, or whenever the software indicates calibration is needed, by displaying a yellow circle over the scanner icon in the Windows task bar. To calibrate it, bring up the scanner properties dialog box as described in the scanner documentation, and insert the special calibration print from the back of the user's guide book. The scanner will swallow the calibration print and spit it back out, and the calibration is complete - it's that easy.
We did notice one minor problem with this calibration process though, which shows up in very dark areas on some of our scanned images. It turns out that light reflections inside the scanner cause the feed rollers to cast shadows on portions of the print under them. In calibration mode, these shadows are interpreted as areas in which black is "blacker" than other regions. The result is that the calibration routine adjusts the shadow brightness up a tad wherever there's a feed roller. This adjustment is pretty subtle, and not noticeable on "normal" pictures, but in the deep shadows of the Davebox background, you'll notice very faint, greenish stripes across the width of the picture. These correspond to the positions of the feed rollers when the print was scanned. Overall, this is a fairly minor problem, but we wanted to relate our experience, in case some PSS owner with a lot of very dark photos was tearing his/her hair trying to figure out where the streaks were coming from.
All scanning operations on the PhotoSmart Scanner begin by selecting a media type (using the front-panel button mentioned earlier), and inserting the film, slide, or print into the front of the scanner. If the software isn't already running, it will start up automatically in response to a signal from the scanner, although it does politely ask if you want to scan, requesting you to "click to proceed." Actually, we're not sure why the software needs to do this, unless there are some times when the software might launch itself in error. We never saw this, and for the most part, the need to click the mouse to confirm that yes indeed, we really did want to do a scan, was a minor annoyance.
Once the scanning software is launched, you'll see a control panel like that shown below. A small thumbnail (or thumbnails, plural, in the case of a strip of film) shows the image(s) that have been preview-scanned, and the main preview window displays a larger version of the selected image, including the effect of any color, cropping, or tone adjustments you might make. If you've loaded a strip of film, you'll see a set of up to four thumbnails across the top: Clicking on any of them selects that frame for subsequent capture. Controls down the side select different functions, and are arranged logically in the order you'd generally need them. In sequence from the top, the left-hand buttons govern image rotation, cropping and sizing, exposure, and color adjustment. The large "PhotoSmart" button at the bottom initiates the actual scan, and the question-mark icon leads to the help system.
Scanning controls overview (open to "Rotate Picture" panel)
Given the exceptional resolution of slide/film scanners, focus is generally an important issue. Some scanners automatically focus their optics, while others require the user to do so, generally with the help of some feedback from the scanning software. Not so the PhotoSmart! We were quite surprised at how sharp the images from the scanner were, given that its optics are "focus free." That is, there's no focus adjustment at all: The lens system is designed to have enough depth of field to properly focus regardless of the exact location of the film. That said, the designers did make some assumptions about where the film would be, based on the construction of the transport mechanism, and typical slide-mount dimensions. As it turns out, our glass resolution target may be a bit outside the normal range of the scanner's sharp-focus area, since the image is on an outer surface, rather than being located roughly in the middle of the thickness of a typical slide mount. We noticed we got better results when the pattern on the test target was facing up, rather than down, but the resolution was quite good in either position.
First things first: Rotation and Orientation
The first control panel you'll normally access is the "rotate picture" one, shown above with callouts for the icons. (This and subsequent screen shots are taken from HP's excellent on-line help system.) Icons in this panel let you rotate the whole image by 90 degrees in either direction. Pressing any of the "rotate" controls repeats the operation as many times as you wish, so you can turn an upside-down image 180 degrees by just pressing one of the "rotate 90" buttons twice. Another control handles mirror-reversals due to upside-down film, and the final two let you "nudge" the orientation of the image in 1-degree increments. As we mentioned earlier, while the "nudge" controls give you pretty fine adjustments, we would have liked them to be a bit finer yet. On the other hand, if all we're talking about is a half-degree of rotation, you can probably get that much just by changing how you feed the slide, film, or print.
Next Step: Size and Crop
Once the image is properly oriented, the next step is to specify the resolution you want to scan at, and adjust the cropping to your liking. The main control panel for adjusting resolution and cropping appears above. The top button simply resets the software to the previously-chosen defaults, the second button rotates the orientation of the chosen output format, and the third button takes you to a dialog to choose the output size and/or resolution of the scan.
The PSS provides several ways to specify scan resolution and/or output size, depending on your needs and preferences. Two options allow the scanner to optimize the resolution for monitor/web or printer output. Monitor/web output sizes are specified in terms of pixels in the final output. Printer output sizes are specified in terms of the inch dimensions of the final print, from which the software calculates the required pixel dimensions based on your chosen default setting for printer resolution. In both monitor/web and printer modes, you can also create your own custom sizes simply by clicking on an "Add" button and entering the desired dimensions.
Once you've chosen an output size, you'll see a box with the appropriate relative dimensions (that is, width/height) superimposed on the scan preview. You can drag this outline around to choose what portion of the image you want to scan, and resize it by grabbing any of its edges or corners and dragging them to the new size. Regardless of how you resize it, the width and height change in lockstep, maintaining the same aspect ratio as your selected output size. When it actually performs the scan, the software will figure out the exact scanning resolution needed to make your cropped scan fit the output size you've chosen. This method of selecting scan resolution should do much to overcome the confusion many people experience in attempting to convert between the desired output size/resolution and the pixels per inch resolution required of the raw scan.
Once you've selected your scan area, the image preview window for the subsequent steps of exposure and color correction will show only the selected area, albeit at a lower resolution than the original preview. We liked the fact that the software showed us exactly what part of the image we'd selected, as we found the cropping-box somewhat imprecise: For ease of viewing, the cropping-box boundaries are quite thick, making it difficult to tell just what you've selected, particularly when only a small portion of the image is being selected. Seeing the actual selected area makes it easier to achieve precise results than it would have been otherwise. (Nonetheless, we would have liked a more precise cropping indicator at the outset.)
If you want to take matters more into your own hands, or want to be sure you're getting the maximum resolution the scanner can produce, HP has also provided an "override" mode for resolution, which lets you select between 1200 and 2400 dpi when scanning slides or film, or 150 and 300 dpi when scanning prints. In this mode, you can adjust the width and height of the cropping window completely independently, since they aren't tied to any particular output format.
The third step in "tweaking" your scan is adjusting the exposure or tonal balance of the image. The exposure-adjustment control panel is shown at left. Besides the ubiquitous "reset to defaults" and "help" buttons, the three slider controls here adjust "midtones" (actually, overall exposure), highlights, and shadows separately. The manual advises to make adjustments with the "midtones" slider first, as it affects highlights and shadows as well. We found this to be good advice indeed, as the effect of the midtone slider was pretty profound, dramatically affecting the overall exposure. The highlight and shadow sliders on the other hand, are fairly limited in the range of tonal values they affect. That is, the highlight slider only affects very light portions the image, and the shadow slider only affects very dark areas. In practice, we found that making extreme adjustments with the highlight/shadow sliders could result in noticeable "tone breaks," where the effect of the slider abruptly cut off as the tonal values in the original image passed beyond the range of the control.
Not shown in the control-panel screen shot is the movable "adjustment preview" window on the scan preview screen: A small square window appearing over the preview image displays the effect of tonal adjustments immediately, as soon as you move the sliders. Once you release a slider, the effect is applied to the preview image as a whole. While we never found the time required for a full update to be particularly onerous on our 233 MHz Pentium machine, users with slower CPUs may find the adjustment preview window very helpful. As an aid to zeroing-in on specific portions of the scan, the adjustment preview window can be dragged over any portion of the image.
We found the exposure controls quite easy to use, but yearned for a greater degree of control: The scanner itself tended to be conservative in its use of the available 0-255 tonal range, producing default images that were somewhat washed out, particularly in the shadow areas. (That is, for best appearance, the shadows generally needed to be made darker to increase contrast.) In order to effectively adjust a scan's tonal range, you really need to know whether you're pushing any parts of the image beyond the limits of the file format. (In other words, are you pushing any of the shadow areas all the way to "0", or are you pushing any highlight areas all the way to "255?") With high-end image editing programs like Photoshop, you can check to see exactly what you're doing as you adjust tonal values, but we've found that most low-end scanner-control software (HP's included) doesn't give you that level of feedback. Nonetheless, HP's exposure-control sliders are very intuitive to use, and good results can be obtained pretty quickly. The scan preview window portrays the effect of exposure adjustments with fairly good accuracy, and a little experimentation with the controls and observing the effects in test prints should quickly hone your adjustment skills.
After adjusting the exposure, the last step before the actual scan itself is to make any needed color corrections. The PhotoSmart Scanner's color-adjustment control panel appears at right, and includes both hue (color-cast) and saturation controls. Again, we found the color tools to be very intuitive, but slightly limited in their capabilities. We particularly liked the hue adjustment control for its very intuitive interface, although we would have liked it even better if we'd had some sort of adjustment to control its sensitivity: Making very subtle color adjustments was sometimes difficult, requiring very fine mouse movements. The saturation slider is also quite intuitive: Just drag it to the right for brighter colors, and to the left for less-saturated ones.
While the color-correction tools were very easy to use, we found ourselves a bit frustrated as we tried to accurately tweak the final image color. It turns out that (at least our sample of) the PhotoSmart Scanner tended to show a color shift as you moved down the tonal scale: In the case of slides, if you adjusted the color balance to achieve a neutral white point, darker tones had progressively more red in them. This tended to throw off the color balance in odd ways, affecting colors for which red is the "contaminant" color, making greens somewhat muddy and blues a bit purplish. Make no mistake, the final color delivered by the scanner was quite good, but not as good as we could have achieved with more powerful controls. (In fact, we found essentially all color deficiencies in the PSS output scans quite easy to correct in Photoshop, using the "levels" control. You'll find some examples of this in the sample images we have posted on this site.)
Why No Saved Settings?
This is becoming a favorite rant of ours with low-end image scanners: Frequently, an entire roll of images (or even any images from a particular type of film) will need more or less the same color and/or tonal correction. In these cases, the scanning process would be much easier and faster if you could simply save the tone and color settings from one scan to a disk file for use with other images. It seems like this feature should be easy enough to add to the scanner software, and some higher-end products provide just this capability. We're thus surprised when we consistently fail to find it in lower-end products. (We hope that if we keep mentioning it in reviews like this, the various manufacturers involved will listen and add the feature to future software versions.)
Scanning speed is always a key issue to consider when looking for a scanner. Obviously, its importance will be a strong function of how much scanning you plan to do, but take our advice that once you get into a project involving a number of scans, you'll feel that the scanner is never fast enough. (It's just one of those things you can never have too much of, like money or good looks! :-)
We felt that the HP PhotoSmart Scanner provided quite acceptable performance in this respect, with the possible exception of preview time for film strips. Slide previews took about 6 seconds, print previews about 7 seconds (for a 4x6 inch print), and film strip previews about 30 seconds for a strip of 4 negatives (the longest strip that can be previewed - if you have longer strips, just flip them around to preview the images at the other end).
Final scans take variable amounts of time, depending on the resolution selected, the speed of the host CPU, the amount of RAM available, and the condition of the host's hard disk. Confused? What this boils down to is that the software needs to read in the raw data from the scanner, and then process it in order to produce the correct colors and tonal values. The scanning process itself is pretty purely a function of how much data needs to be read in, while the time for the subsequent processing will depend on a variety of factors. The RAM size and disk condition are important because they affect how much of the image data can be held in memory at a time. If there isn't enough RAM to hold the image data as well as any "scratch" information the software needs to create, data must be shuffled back and forth to disk in order to make room as the processing progresses. Consider the following: Scanning the Q60 test target slide at a resolution of 1200x1800 pixels took 38 seconds for the scan time, and an additional 6 seconds for processing, resulting in a 6.3 megabyte file. (The equivalent numbers for a reflective print scanned at 1200 x 1800 were 17 seconds scan, plus 6 seconds processing: Print scanning appears to be a bit faster.) By contrast, the times we recorded for a maximum-resolution (2400dpi) scan of the same slide were 61 seconds for the scan, and 47 seconds for processing, to produce a 21.6 megabyte file of 2230x3288 pixels. (Both slide scans were cropped slightly, to fit the slide's visible area: Maximum scan size could be somewhat larger.) Note how much longer the processing took for the larger image! This was because the computer had to swap data back and forth to the hard drive in order to get the processing done. This is an important note for users: Especially when handling large images, the best thing you can do to enhance your computer's performance is to add more memory: For manipulating large images, 64 megabytes is far from too much, and you may even see noticeable performance improvements with RAM sizes as large as 128 megabytes.
One gripe we had when trying to scan multiple frames from a 35mm film strip was that the scanner insisted on ejecting the film between scans! We couldn't find any setting or option to avoid this, forcing us to re-insert the film strip after each scan, and wait through the 30-second pre-scan process each time. This really seemed unnecessary, particularly given that the software had preview scans of the other three images already in memory. We'd hope that future versions of the software will support a more efficient workflow.
Supported Film Types
One of the things we've learned in playing with film scanners is just how strange color negative film is! Proper color-correction of color negatives during scanning turns out to be quite an art: Not only do you need to compensate for (substantial) variations between film types and brands, but the orange "masking" can also vary in density with the underlying image content. Overall, it's far from straightforward to sort out the necessary color transforms when scanning color negatives.
Many scanners deal with the color-negative strangeness by providing custom color profiles for different film types. Surprisingly, HP didn't find any need to do this, and the scanner produced remarkably consistent results from one type of film to another, with variations between emulsions and brands being less than we were accustomed to seeing in conventional photo prints from the different types. (One exception was our ultra-high-res "house" shot, which was captured on Kodak Royal Gold 25 film: This film appears to have a very different color balance than most other color print films, and has given most scanners we've tested fits.) Although we've used Kodak Royal Gold 100 as our standard film for most of our scanner testing, we've included sample "Davebox" images taken with Fuji Super-G 200 and Agfa HDC-200 on the picture index page for the PSS, for comparison.
Other Software for the PhotoSmart
Thanks to its low price and the large numbers of units that have been sold, there is actually third-party software available for the HP PhotoSmart Scanner! We did a very limited evaluation of Ed Hamrick's VueSmart program, about which we've generally heard very favorable comments on the rec.photo.digital newsgroup. As of this writing, it's available as a freeware demo, with a 15-day time limit: After that, you'll need to purchase Ed's companion VuePrint program for $40. (VuePrint is an excellent utility for printing multiple images on a page, a bit redundant to the features of HP's photofinishing software, but with some differences as well.) A major benefit people on rec.photo.digital have observed about Ed's software is that it significantly improves the PhotoSmart's handling of very dark areas in color slides.
Some of the things that VueSmart can do are: Fast batch scanning, automatic cropping, scanning of mounted color negatives (HP's software will insist that these are slides), scanning of unmounted slide film (HP's software will insist that they're negs), scanning at the full 30 bits per pixel, and saving all that data to a TIFF file (HP's software only reads the "best" 24 bits of data from the scanner), scanning panoramic images, automatic orange mask removal from color negatives, and automatic removal of dust spots. (Whew, that's quite a list!) If you'd like to check out Ed's VueSmart program, follow this link to his site. (Once there, check out his very popular VuePrint shareware image viewer/printer program as well.)
In our (very) limited testing of VueSmart, we found a program with a user interface designed for more-sophisticated users, but with impressive capabilities. We were surprised at how well it did with a new slide we've added to our test suite to test shadow detail: Scanning with a full 30 bits of data, and using an option that doubles the per-line exposure time, the improvement in shadow detail was really exceptional! The program also supports very efficient "batch" scanning of images, in which you can simply feed one slide after another into the scanner.
As always with Imaging Resource reviews, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the final judge: Look at the sample images, download them, print them out on your own printer, and decide for yourself how well the PhotoSmart Scanner would meet your requirements!
At the risk of sounding like perpetual cheerleaders for digital imaging, we were very impressed by the HP PhotoSmart Scanner! We gave it a fair number of knocks above on various topics such as workflow and color/tone adjustment, but on balance, it's a good scanner at any price, and an absolutely exceptional one when you consider that it can be had new for only $299! (This price includes a $100 rebate from HP that's valid for units purchased through January 31, 1999.) As we've pointed out before, while they can't compare with digital cameras for convenience, the combination of a film camera and inexpensive film scanner completely blows away the image quality of even the best digital point & shoot cameras, at least as of this writing. (In late summer, 1998.)
We found the PhotoSmart Scanner capable of producing beautiful, highly-detailed scans, with only minor tweaking of the scan controls. The default settings for both slide and negative scans tended to produce rather light images, requiring a downward adjustment of the "midtone" control in almost all cases, and a smaller nudge of the "shadows" slider as well. As noted earlier though, the color balance of deep shadows was generally off, and could not be corrected through any adjustment of the scanning controls. By contrast (no pun intended), scans of prints were virtually flawless, displaying good colors with no manipulation or adjustment.
Despite our problems in achieving good as-scanned shadow color balance, the basic (hardware) accuracy of the PSS appears to be excellent, with inherently good color purity in the captured images. In all cases, we were able to "clean up" the scanned images in Photoshop with fairly simple white/black point adjustments of the three color channels using the "levels" tool. These post-scan adjustments produced images with brilliant, accurate color, and excellent tonal range.
We found the PhotoSmart Scanner's resolution to be excellent, producing visual resolutions of 1400-1600 line pairs per picture height both vertically and horizontally on our Kodak Gold 100 version of the WG-18 resolution test target. Our testing with the "USAF 1951" target was a bit more ambiguous, most likely due to the target surface being outside the optimum focus range of the scanner optics. The USAF target results showed a maximum resolution of 50.8 line pairs/mm vertically and 35.9 line pairs/mm horizontally (1290 and 912 line pairs/inch, respectively).
See for Yourself!
Take a look at the test images from the PhotoSmart Scanner, download them, print them out, see if the scanner meets your needs!
The Hewlett Packard PhotoSmart Scanner is an excellent all-around photo scanner for personal use. It can handle all three types of 35mm photographic media (negatives, slides, and prints), and consistently produces highly detailed scans with good color. Minor post-scan adjustment in a third-party image editor can easily change the "good" color to "excellent." When it comes time to print your pictures, the included photofinishing software is exceptionally easy to use and highly effective. When its low cost is factored into the equation, it's practically a "no brainer" for photo enthusiasts wanting to bring their film-based images into their computers!