Hardware

GO DIGITAL

1 Apr, 2004 By: Ron LaFon

Cadalyst Labs tests the latest wide-format scanners


Many firms have a large number of original, hardcopy drawings and blueprints that have never been digital. Wide-format scanners provide the tools to convert these valuable drawings to digital formats, either as bit mapped images or through conversions to vector formats that you can edit in CAD applications or transmit to field offices. Scanners can become an invaluable part of a scan-to-print or copy system. They are also used in GIS offices to scan in existing maps and aerial photographs.

Reviewer's Report Card
Reviewer's Report Card

Many options are available, ranging from relatively compact monochrome devices to larger, more complex models that scan high-resolution 24-bit color images. This roundup looks at six wide-format scanners that incorporate very sophisticated technology. They really are technological and engineering marvels.

What We Requested

For this Cadalyst Labs roundup, we requested wide-format scanners that met two minimum requirements: the scanner had to support at least D-size drawings and had to have been released after July 2002. Six different scanners from five companies met those requirements.

How We Tested

The evaluation of these wide-format scanners is based on three factors: quality, speed, and ease of use. Each scanner warmed up for at least the manufacturer's recommended time-typically an hour-and then I calibrated using the included guides and software. Calibration typically took from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size and complexity of the scanner.
Choosing the right scanner
Choosing the right scanner

Once I calibrated a scanner, I fed the test image, a 27" X 21.75" 7.5-minute quadrangle USGS topographical map of the South Sister, Oregon, area into the scanner in portrait (horizontal) mode so that timings were based on the scanning of the shorter dimension. After the scanner pulled in and adjusted to the size of the original, I began the timings when the actual scan started and ended when the scan was complete.

Many manufacturers' rated speed is based on feeding an A-size sheet through the scanner, which makes our speed results different. The ips (inches per second) speed included in the online feature table is derived from the time and size of the original I used for testing.

I tested the optimal settings for each scanner to confirm that the lines were generally complete, that broken lines didn't merge into continuous lines and that colors rendered accurately without obscuring detail or, with monochrome scanners, to determine that the representation of a given color in gray didn't obscure important detail in the original. I set the mode and resolution the same for each scanner, 400dpi and 24-bit color or the equivalent in monochrome.

4260e

Colortrac
Colortrac's 4260e offers high-quality scans.
Colortrac's 4260e offers high-quality scans.

www.colortrac.com

Star rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Price: $18,500

All Colortrac scanners use trilinear CCD cameras with open aperture width of 7,500 pixels and a glassless image path for streak-free scanning. The Colortrac 4260e scanner uses two digital cameras with Apochromatic lenses for 36-bit primary point digital data capture. It incorporates fully automatic digital camera stitching (front/back and left/right)-the cameras have isolated chassis and 3-point optics mountings. Twin long-life, color-balanced daylight blue tubes provide illumination for the 4260e.

I used the FireWire connection (400MB per second) to scan the benchmark test drawing, though ultra-wide SCSI (up to 40MB per second) is available. I scanned test drawings at 450dpi for the grayscale and color scans. The 4260e offers an optional media support tray for $625.

The included scanning software, ScanWorks, was slow in painting the image on the screen once the scan was complete. In addition to ScanWorks, the scanner comes with a standard version of CopyWorks. You can buy a Plus upgrade for $2,295. Also available as options are Preditor ($990), a professional raster editor designed for high-speed viewing and editing of large color, grayscale, and monochrome images, and ACTion ($695), which simplifies the capture of index data from scanned engineering drawings, automatically displaying the title block so you can enter drawing information. Project information is stored in the common Microsoft Access 2000 format. UNIX software for the Colortrac 4260e is also available.

Colortrac 4260e scans were high quality, with distinct tones of gray and color depending on the scanning mode, despite the fact that it had the lowest optical resolution (300dpi) of all the scanners reviewed here. Interpolated resolutions up to 1,800dpi are possible. Interpolated resolution is the process of increasing the resolution of an image by adding new pixels throughout the image. It's usually used with smaller images. On the Cadalyst Labs test scan, the Colortrac took 75 seconds for monochrome and 155 seconds for color. Warranty coverage on the Colortrac 4260e is a standard two years. The 4260e scanner is priced at $18,500 with the standard software package.

The Colortrac 4260e comes with a small utility box full of sundry items such as wheels for the scanner and extra straps for anchoring the box to its pallet should you ever need to reship the unit. The included wheels will prove handy if you need to relocate the scanner on-site, because the unit is quite heavy.

Premier TX 36

Contex Scanning Technology
Contex's PREMIER TX 36 offers speedy monochrome scanning.
Contex's PREMIER TX 36 offers speedy monochrome scanning.

www.contex.com

Star rating: 5 stars out of 5

Price: $9,900 Base; $11,900 Plus

Contex submitted two scanners for this roundup that at first appear to be identical, but on closer inspection differ significantly in their capabilities. The Contex PREMIER TX 36 is a monochrome wide-format scanner with a 36" imaging area that can capture up to E-size originals. The base model is priced at $9,900 and produces grayscale and black-and-white scans. An optional stand for the scanner costs $890. The Contex PREMIER TX 36 is the lowest-priced scanner tested here, although keep in mind it's monochrome-only.

Gray tones are captured at 14 bits for maximum precision, with the best 8 bits of gray tone data passed directly to the computer. An image depends on many gray tones to bring out details and give it depth. Setup was easy with this scanner, and calibration took only ten minutes.

The PREMIER TX 36 is attractive and proved to be fairly speedy at making high-quality scans. I have no complaints about the scan quality given the unit's capabilities-400dpi optical resolution holds less data and detail in the final scanned image than the 508dpi optical resolution of other scanners tested in this roundup. We're talking about subtleties here, such as the detail within what were browns on the topographic quadrangle map that I used as a test drawing for all scanners.

The PREMIER TX 36 uses digital cameras with advanced point-of-origin capture and on-board digital conversion to ensure minimum noise and an extended dynamic range. The scanner uses four-linear CCD technology with a special panchromatic line so that no colors are lost when scanning to monochrome images. The

Premier TX 36 scans originals up to 0.6" (15mm) thick, including drawings and maps mounted on foamcore and gatorboards.

The PREMIER TX 36 includes WIDEsystem software to run the scanner, with WIDEimage ($990) scan-to-file software as an option. Contex also offers two free plug-ins, one for AutoCAD and one for PhotoShop. I scanned all the images on the Contex PREMIER TX 36 at 400dpi, with timing results of 6 seconds. Highly Recommended.

COUGAR TX 36

Contex Scanning Technology
The Cougar TX 36 from Contex produces excellent color scans quickly.
The Cougar TX 36 from Contex produces excellent color scans quickly.

www.contex.com

Star rating: 5 stars out of 5

Price: $17,900 Base; $19,900 Plus

The second of the two scanners submitted by Contex is the COUGAR TX 36. Like the PREMIER TX 36 reviewed above, the COUGAR TX 36 is attractive and well designed, and both scanners accommodate originals as wide as 36". Another similarity between the two scanners is the ability to connect to the PC via FireWire or SCSI connections. I used the FireWire connection.

Beyond the superficial similarities, the COUGAR TX 36 quickly begins to distinguish itself from the PREMIER TX 36. The COUGAR TX 36 offers 24-bit color scans in addition to monochrome and bicolor, all at 400dpi optical resolution. It captures color scans at 42 bits for maximum color precision, with the best 24 bits of color data passed directly to the computer to enhance color fidelity. Like the PREMIER TX, the COUGAR TX uses all-digital cameras with advanced point-of-origin color capture and on-board digital conversion to ensure minimum noise and an extended dynamic range. Quality color-matched fluorescent lamps ensure high standards for correct color.

The COUGAR TX captures gray tones at 14 bits for maximum precision, with the best 8 bits of gray tone data passed to the computer. It can also scan originals up to 0.6" (15mm) thick. Calibration took a bit longer-about 30 minutes in all.

The operating panel of the COUGAR TX 36 is well designed, offering programmable action buttons to initiate common tasks. Each button activates a scan, opening the image in an appropriate application and format. The scanner comes with predefined action buttons for scanning, copying, and e-mailing loaded originals. You can reconfigure and save settings for other tasks.

The COUGAR TX 36 base model is priced at $17,900, putting it in the middle range for this roundup of wide-format scanners. The optional stand costs $890. If sufficient clearance is available to accommodate any large originals that need to pass through the scanner, the COUGAR TX 36 operates quite well from a table or bench.

Like the other Contex wide-format scanners reviewed here, the COUGAR TX 36 includes the WIDEsystem software. In addition, you can purchase the company's WIDEimage software for $990.

The COUGAR TX 36 produced high-quality test scans at 400dpi in 6 seconds monochrome and 15 seconds color. Highly Recommended.

MAGNUM XL 54"

IDEAL.com/Contex Scanning Technology
IDEAL.com distributes this mammoth Contex Magnum XL 54" color scanner.
IDEAL.com distributes this mammoth Contex Magnum XL 54" color scanner.

www.ideal.com

Star rating: 5 stars out of 5

Price: $27,900 Base; $29,900 Plus

The MAGNUM XL 54" scanner is available in two models: the Basic model for $27,900 and the Plus model for $29,900. The Plus model offers a higher resolution of 2400dpi (vs. 800dpi) and faster scanning speeds. I tested the Plus model for this roundup. If you decide to upgrade your basic model, you can buy an add-in SmartCard for $2,000. The optional scanner stand costs $890. Note that this scanner is manufactured by Contex and available through IDEAL.com and other resellers.

The MAGNUM XL uses four CCD cameras, one with a fixed position and three that move. It took about 30 minutes to calibrate the unit. The machine gives you a warning if you try to scan before the required warm-up hour. You can set the MAGNUM XL to start up an hour before your business opens so it will be ready for use when you are ready to work.

The MAGNUM XL is very easy to use and produces very high-quality scans. The 508dpi optical resolution produces scans with noticeably more detail than the 400dpi optical resolution of the smaller Contex scanners. The MAGNUM XL completed the test scans in 11 seconds for monochrome and 29 seconds for color.

The MAGNUM XL 54" can use the optional WiseImage software. A base version is available for $1,295 and a Pro version is $3,240. WiseImage includes an AutoCAD 2002 and 2004 plug-in so you can access the scanner from within AutoCAD. A stand-alone Windows version is also available. The Pro version of the software offers raster-to-vector conversion, vector enhancement tools, and open architecture to provide script and ActiveX controls for automation of procedures. I used the standarad version of the software for tests. The hardware dongle for the Pro version didn't arrive in time for testing.

Thanks to well-made rollers on the stand, the MAGNUM XL is easy for one person to move, despite its size and weight. In most situations, you won't need to reposition the scanner, particularly because the WiseImage software allows remote operation of the scanner across the network. Highly Recommended.

TCS400

Océ
The Océ TCS400 wide-format scanner includes its own dedicated computer system and offers outstanding color fidelity and quality.
The Océ TCS400 wide-format scanner includes its own dedicated computer system and offers outstanding color fidelity and quality.

www.oceusa.com

Star rating: 5 stars out of 5

Price: $24,145; $38,140 with printer

The Océ CS400 wide-format scanner distinguishes itself from the others in this roundup in several ways. First, it's significantly more expensive at $38,140, although that also includes a printer, a dedicated controller computer system with 512MB memory and 80GB of hard disk space, and an LCD flat-panel monitor. It also includes an excellent, relatively sizable, and easy-to-read LCD control panel to the right of the TCS400. Embedded Windows XP provides access to the scanner functions. If you already own the printer, you can pick up the scanner with all its parts for $24,145.

The Océ CS400 incorporates three digital cameras-the center one is stationary and the other two self-adjust. Despite its complexity, it took only about 10 minutes to calibrate. I tested the Océ CS400 in a full-blown network setup, with a large-format Ocðlotter attached. After the color scans and timing tests were complete, the originating 24-bit color file (scanned at our usual 400dpi) was fed to the plotter for comparison purposes. The color fidelity and quality were outstanding. No raster-to-vector component is included with the base scanning software. As is the case with most wide-format scanners, you must use third-party raster-to-vector software if your desired result is a vector file. Timing results were slower than expected, but still fast: 40 seconds for monochrome and 41 seconds for color.

Océ scanning software will scan to ten destinations, such as other workstations on the network, to the Web via an FTP site, and to off-site locations. Scanning across the network was both fast and easy. Scanning features include manual and automatic size detection of the original, automatic deskewing, a programmable default setting, auto-crop, preprogramming of the next scan while the current scan is in progress, a scale-while-scanning option (10–1,000%), and automatic background compensation that you can turn on or off.

Evaluating the Océ CS400 scanner for the report card on p. 14 was difficult. I struggled with whether to give extra credit for the ease of use that results in saved hours and in general productivity gains. I weighed this against the overall cost and the slightly slower speed when compared with some of the other scanners reviewed here. I finally decided that the pluses and negatives balance one another out, so I opted not to assign extra credit but gave it an A+ for ease of use. If I were purchasing a wide-format scanner and my budget could stretch to accommodate it, this scanner would be among those receiving serious consideration.

This sophisticated and well-designed scanner incorporates many state-of-the-art features. The Océ CS400 is as easy to use as pressing a button-a prime example of technology helping you work faster and easier. Though it's expensive, the features make this tool fast and easy to operate, potentially saving significant time and maximizing the productivity of the operator. Highly Recommended.

CS2000

Western Graphtec
The sleek CS2000 from Western Graphtec produces high-quality scans with good color separation.
The sleek CS2000 from Western Graphtec produces high-quality scans with good color separation.

www.graphtecusa.com

Star rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Price: $13,995

At $13,995, the Western Graphtec CS2000 scanner is priced comparably with other scanners of similar capabilities reviewed here. It's one of the lightest and most easily maneuverable scanners we tested. The Western Graphtec CS2000 scanner differed from the other scanners in its connectivity and in appearance-it has an attractive black and very dark blue finish in contrast to the light putty finish on the other scanners. The CS2000 scanner has only a SCSI connection, so you'll need a SCSI card in your system.

Following the directions laid out in the manual, I attempted to calibrate the scanner. In this instance, because it turns out the scanner had an updated BIOS that was incompatible with the calibration software included with it, calibration took a tedious six hours and forty minutes to complete. According to the manual, calibration should take about 30 minutes. Western Graphtec assures us that it generally requires less time, especially with the right software.

The primary scanning software that accompanies the CS2000 is Scanning Master 21. Though this software works fine, it's at times inflexible and doesn't offer as broad a range of options as some. That said, it was easy to scan, and the software immediately located and started using the CS2000 across the Adaptec 29160 Ultra SCSI card we used to test this particular scanner. The company says that a new version of its software will be released by the time you read this article. Scanning Master 21 v4.60 offers additional image editing features and other options such as Scan-to-Email and Scan-to-Print.

For ease of use, the Scanning Master Color Copy application lets new users provide minimal information about scanning specifics such as sheet size, scaling, and required number of copies before scanning. A Pre-Scan function allows easy adjustments for difficult originals such as faded bluelines.

Scans were high quality, with good color separation on the 24-bit color scans and a broad range of grays on the monochrome scans. Scan times were very reasonable at 46 seconds for monochrome and 130 seconds for color.

Western Graphtec has a couple of new scanners coming to market in the near future. Watch for them in Product Showcase online at www.cadalyst.com.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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