Why you should trust me
I've been writing about everything imaging-related—including cameras, printers, and scanners—for more than a decade, and I know each manufacturer's lineup inside and out. Over that period, I've owned several flatbed scanners and used them for everything from grad school research to archiving film and prints. Wirecutter has been covering scanners since 2013, and we've collectively logged well over 65 hours of research and testing to find the best, most reliable models.
Who should get a cheap flatbed scanner
In an age of smartphone scanning apps, affordable all-in-one printers, and portable document scanners that can fit in a messenger bag, standalone flatbed scanners are becoming a niche product. Scanner manufacturers aren't doing much to make them enticing, either. Most models you can buy today are several years old, and some have been available for a decade. They don't have built-in Wi-Fi and can't scan to the cloud without first transferring files to your computer. Most of their software looks like it was written around the turn of the millennium. Nevertheless, these dinosaurs are still the best choice for a few specific kinds of users.
- People who need to scan at very high resolutions: Mobile scanning apps are limited in resolution by your device's camera, and the image quality is usually little more than serviceable. (Not to mention dependent on a steady hand.) Portable document scanners and all-in-one printer flatbeds produce better-looking scans but are typically limited to 600 or 1,200 dpi resolution. Standalone flatbeds can go up to 6,400 dpi, which provides a much higher level of detail.
- Those who scan delicate or thick material: Portable document scanners are quick and convenient, but their automatic feeders pose serious risk to precious items like historical documents and children's projects. Even our recommended portable photo scanner could damage particularly old or priceless photos. In these cases, a flatbed scanner will provide better results with less wear and tear on the originals. A flatbed—whether standalone or as part of an all-in-one printer—is also the only choice for thick materials like books and magazines.
- Photography buffs, especially ones who shoot film: While portable photo scanners can tear through piles of prints, they don't scan at as high a resolution as flatbeds. And when it comes to film negatives and slides, a flatbed scanner is the only way to go at a reasonable price. Dedicated film scanners cost nearly twice as much and don't offer the flexibility that a flatbed provides, so we'd only recommend them to those who only scan film, or demand such high quality that they're willing to make room in their office for two scanners.
If you don't fall into these categories, an all-in-one printer that includes both an automatic document feeder and a flatbed scanner is likely a more sensible purchase. And if you already own a flatbed scanner that was made in the past decade or so, there's almost certainly no reason to upgrade; the category hasn't seen any new innovations worth mentioning in quite some time.
How we picked
Flatbed scanners aren't complicated machines, and they don't vary much from model to model. Still, there are some traits that make the best scanners stand out above their peers.
- Ample resolution: A good flatbed scanner should be able to capture images at high resolution, typically 2,400 dpi or higher, without using software interpolation to artificially boost the pixel count.
- Good-looking results: High resolution doesn't necessarily mean your scans will look good. A great scanner will also produce accurate color, render sharp (but not too sharp) details, and reliably capture the texture of multimedia items. It should also be able to produce good-looking results regardless of the type of item you're scanning, including office documents, photos, books, newspapers, magazines, collages, and more. And it should ideally do all of this on default settings, since not everyone is well-versed in image editing.
- Quick(ish) scanning: Since you have to manually swap out your media, a flatbed scanner will never be as fast as a portable document scanner or all-in-one printer. That makes quick scanning all the more important. The fastest flatbeds we've seen claim speeds of 8 seconds per page at 300 dpi (a typical resolution for office documents), so we're looking for speeds somewhere in that ballpark.
- Quality software: Most scanner software feels ancient, because most scanners available today are really old. That said, it should work with today's operating systems—specifically Windows 10 and MacOS 10.14 Mojave, but Linux would be nice, too. It should also be functional, at the very least, but we give bonus points to scanners whose software isn't painful to use.
- User-friendly physical controls: Most flatbed scanners have several buttons designed to perform specific actions, like scan to a PDF file or scan to email.
- Reliable text recognition: Though we'd recommend a portable document scanner for those who plan to scan a lot of paperwork, it's likely that even hardcore photographers and scrapbookers will need to scan text from time to time. When they do, a good flatbed should be able to interpret the language it scans and turn it into searchable text. In our portable doc scanner and mobile-scanning app testing, we looked for a 90 percent success rate, and we'd be thrilled to see similar results from these machines.
- A compact, lightweight design: Since most flatbed scanners are designed to scan up to legal-size documents, they all take up roughly the same footprint on a desk—a little under a foot wide and a foot and a half long. Still, slimmer and lighter designs are better because it makes the machines easier to store. Some even come with a stand so they can be set up on their side, saving more precious desk space while they're in use. Film-capable scanners, however, tend to be bulkier and heavier because of the built-in light source in the lid.
We started our search with a list of 14 current models from the few brands that currently make cheap flatbed scanners: Canon, Epson, HP, and Plustek. We ruled out models that cost more than we think the average user is willing to pay (around $200), those with an unusually low maximum resolution (knocking out a couple of machines that could only scan at 600 or 1,200 dpi), and those that were often unavailable at major retailers.
That left us with just four models to test. Two of those fit our idea of a general-purpose cheap scanner: the Canon CanoScan LiDE 300 and LiDE 400. For film buffs, we also decided to re-test our reigning pick, the Epson Perfection V550, against its slightly older but higher-spec relative, the V600.
How we tested
The best way to test a scanner is to scan a lot of different content, over and over again, at different resolutions and in different file formats. So that's exactly what we did. Using both a MacBook Pro running MacOS 10.14 Mojave and a desktop PC running Windows 10, we scanned the following items:
- an IRS 1099 form
- a typical office document that includes both text and color graphics
- a lens-testing chart
- a glossy 8.5-by-11-inch photo
- several pages from an old paperback book
- 35mm film negatives
- slide film
These items allowed us to gauge each scanner's output in terms of sharpness, detail retention, color accuracy, and text recognition. We also looked for any notable flaws, like banding in solid color areas, artifacts caused by over-sharpening, and moiré patterns. When scanning text documents and printed photos, we scanned at 300 and 600 dpi. We saved photos as JPG files and text docs as both PDF and JPG. For film, we scanned at 600 and 6,400 dpi and saved the results as JPG. We also tested each scanner's other file formats (like TIFF, PNG, and multipage PDF) at least once, just to make sure they worked as expected.
Since speed matters, we made note of how long it took each scanner to save text docs, photos, and film scans at the above resolutions, specifically recording the time that elapsed between hitting the scan button to the file popping up in the file manager. We compared those times to the manufacturers' specs to ensure that they aren't playing games.
To assess text recognition, we used each machine to scan the first page of Gene Wolfe's delightfully sinister short story "War Beneath the Tree" as a PDF, ran the included optical character recognition (OCR) software on it, and then compared the results.
Beyond OCR, we spent a lot of time poking around in the included scanning software to get a feel for how enjoyable or painful it would be to use over the long term. How many menus do you have to click through to change scanning resolution? How much can you customize file names? Does it pop up a ton of annoying notifications?
And of course we took note of how easy or difficult each scanner was to set up, both in terms of the physical unboxing and in terms of finding, downloading, and installing the software. Can you get all the same programs from the manufacturer's website that are found on the (increasingly useless) included CD-ROM?
Our pick: Canon CanoScan LiDE 300
The Canon CanoScan LiDE 300 is quicker, smaller, and lighter than most competing scanners and produces better image quality at default settings. Despite its clunky design, Canon's software works on both Windows and Mac, and provides an array of tweakable settings to satisfy demanding image-quality purists. Setup couldn't be simpler, since the scanner uses a single cord for both power and data, and it doesn't even have a power button. Our tests showed that the LiDE 300 performs equally well with documents and photos, and capably handles thicker stuff like books and magazines. It can't scan photo negatives, and its text-recognition capabilities can't compete with a portable document scanner, but on the whole it's the best (or least frustrating) scanner we've found.
While it's not the highest-resolution scanner we tested, the LiDE 300 can scan at 2,400 dpi, and we think that will be more than enough detail for most people when it comes to common office documents, photos, and even some specialty uses. But before you buy this scanner, be aware that Canon's scanning software refuses to save any files larger than 100 MB, which rules out scanning most photos and documents at ultra-high resolution. The average 4-by-6-inch photo scanned at 2,400 dpi would result in a massive 381 MB JPG file, and a standard Polaroid photo comes out to 282 MB. Ultimately, this means the LiDE 300's highest resolution is really only useful for very small items, like stamps. Even baseball cards are too big. (It's worth mentioning that Epson also places limits on scan sizes with its scanners, though they're defined by pixel dimensions rather than file size.)
Our test scans of photos at everyday resolutions like 300 and 600 dpi showed realistic color and contrast, with enhanced but not overbearing sharpness. By default, IJ Scan Utility and the bundled, more advanced ScanGear app have sharpening (in the form of unsharp mask) turned on, but it can be turned off if you prefer a softer look.
With sharpening turned on, there's also a slightly elevated level of image noise, but we preferred that to the unnatural smoothness created by competing models' noise-reduction algorithms. The LiDE 300 also captured office documents with the same attention to detail, rendering crisp text and vibrant but not overly saturated graphics.
In our tests, the LiDE 300 scanned a typical black-and-white office document in about 10 seconds at 300 dpi, or 30 seconds at 600 dpi.
Letter-size glossy color photos took 12 and 41 seconds at the same resolutions. That's much quicker than the Epson V550, which took 16 seconds to scan both text and photos at 300 dpi and 48 seconds at 600 dpi, but a couple of seconds slower than the more expensive Canon LiDE 400.
The LiDE 300's platen glass has a maximum scannable area of 8.5 by 11.7 inches, which is exactly what most rivals offer. If you need to scan something that's larger than that, you can use the Stitch mode in IJ Scan Utility to capture it in pieces and then assemble the pieces into one larger file. Similarly, you can save a little time by scanning up to four smaller items (like wallet-size photos) at once and saving them as separate files. It would be nice if there were a dedicated scanner button for Stitch mode, but it's simple enough to access as is.
The LiDE 300's physical design is extremely simple, with one Micro-USB port for power and data. On the front you'll find four buttons that can be used for different quick-scan options. The first scans to a PDF. The second (Auto Scan) attempts to detect the type of content you're scanning and save it with the appropriate file type. The third (Copy) scans your content and then automatically prints it on your printer. And the last (Send) either attaches your scan to an email or uploads it to your choice of Web services, including Evernote, Adobe Acrobat DC, Box, Dropbox, or OneDrive. All of these buttons can be configured to use the resolution, paper size, color settings, and post-processing options of your choice, via the Canon IJ Scan Utility.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The LiDE 300 isn't great for anyone who needs to scan a lot of stuff fast or for people who want to scan film negatives or slides. For high-volume scanning, you really want a portable document scanner or an all-in-one printer with an automatic document feeder. And as for film, we have a pick for that, too.
Canon's text-recognition software (which is baked into IJ Scan Utility) is mediocre. Its OCR results are much less reliable than what you'd get from the average portable document scanner and might not even keep up with a smartphone scanning app. However, if OCR is crucial to your workflow, there are third-party apps from companies like ABBYY and Adobe that will get you better results. While the ABBYY software that comes with the Epson Perfection V550 is vastly superior to Canon's solution, it will be inaccessible to most buyers because it's only available on the CD-ROM that comes with the scanner.
While it's substantially lighter and slimmer than the Epson flatbeds we tested, which are chunkier thanks to their in-lid light sources used to scan film negatives, the LiDE 300 is only a little smaller in terms of the footprint it occupies on your desk. And unlike the more expensive LiDE 400, it doesn't include and isn't designed for a kickstand, so you can't position it upright to save space during use (though you can of course store it on its side when you're not using it). We don't consider this to be a serious flaw, but it's something to consider if your desk space is limited.
Initially, we had trouble getting the LiDE 300 to scan on our MacBook. Our worries deepened when we saw that Amazon reviews for the LiDE 300 and 400 are riddled with complaints about Mac compatibility. However, we soon discovered that these scanners work just fine with Macs; the problem is a locking mechanism designed to prevent damage to the machine during shipping. Scanning in Windows with the lock engaged results in an error message telling you to unlock it. Canon's IJ Scan Utility Lite for Mac doesn't produce that message, so there's no way to tell what's wrong. Moral of the story: Unlock that switch (at the bottom rear of the scanner) as soon as you unbox your scanner.
Like the other flatbeds we tested, the LiDE 300 doesn't have built-in wireless connectivity. Even though it's 2019 and virtually everything in your house has Wi-Fi, this isn't really a mortal sin. After all, you need to manually change out each piece of content that goes into the scanner, so you need to stay close to the machine. However, we always prefer to have as few wires as possible cluttering our desks, so we'd love it if future scanners included Wi-Fi.
Also great: Epson Perfection V550
If you need a flatbed scanner for office docs and photos, and also need to scan film negatives and slides, the Epson Perfection V550 is your best option. We loved the results we got with both negatives and slides. However, it falls short of the LiDE 300 as a general-use scanner. It's slower, taking about 16 seconds to scan a photo or office document at 300 dpi, and we're less enamored of its default image quality, especially in terms of color accuracy and contrast. The V550 is also bulkier than the Canon, weighs more, and has some annoying software issues that make it less than ideal as an office machine.
As a film scanner, the V550 works great. The machine comes with a holder designed for both 35mm and medium format slides (aka positive film) and negatives. A variety of image corrections are available, including sharpening, grain reduction, color restoration, backlight correction, dust removal, and Epson's proprietary digital ICE technology.
We found through trial and error that while some of these corrections are beneficial, others often have a decidedly negative effect on image quality. In particular, contrary to their stated purposes, backlight correction often led to blown-out highlights, and color restoration tended to unnaturally skew colors. Digital ICE technology, on the other hand, worked well to remove specks of dust, scratches, and fingerprints from film. In general, we'd recommend leaving digital ICE and unsharp mask turned on and ignore the other corrections.
Scans of photos and office docs look pretty good, too, but they're not up to the standards set by the Canon LiDE 300. At least, not on default settings. Photos come out just a little too contrasty and too saturated for our taste, and there's occasional posterization in solid-color areas like blue skies.
Epson's software does less sharpening by default, but it also seems to employ noise reduction that leads to an unnatural-looking smoothness in skin and other detail-heavy areas. The good news, however, is that Epson's software provides a huge range of adjustment tools so you can fine-tune the output to your liking.
The biggest issue with the Epson V550 is the software—specifically whether you'll be able to install all of it. While you can get the core software required to run the scanner from Epson's site or the included CD-ROM, the included OCR software (the excellent ABBYY FineReader Sprint 9.0) can only be found on the disc. That may have made some sense when the machine was originally released in 2011, but in 2019 it's preposterous: Most computers simply don't ship with optical disc drives anymore.
Similarly, the software required to set up the V550's physical buttons (for one-touch scanning to email or saving a quick PDF scan) isn't installed by default if you use the Web installer; it's hidden in a separate, collapsed drop-down menu on Epson's support page, and without it the buttons simply don't work. This hurdle is easy enough to clear, but if you don't know that you have to look for the software (the manual is of little help here), you're going to be tearing your hair out. Even when you do get it installed, the buttons are slow to respond, and the integrations are very limited. For instance, there's no way to get the email button to send a scan via Gmail or another Web mail service.
The Epson Scan app is outdated-looking but works well enough. It has four operating modes (full auto, home, office, and professional) that offer different levels of fine-grained control. While we appreciate the idea of curating software settings to different uses, we think most people will be best served by either Full Auto or Professional mode. The former is great for when you need a quick and easy scan and don't want to worry about resolution or color profile; the latter lets you tweak each and every setting the V550 has to offer, but it's easy enough to ignore the ones that are irrelevant to your application. Compared with Canon's scanning suite, Epson Scan puts more control right at your fingertips, with less clicking required to access crucial controls.
The Canon CanoScan LiDE 400 is a very capable scanner that's nearly identical to our top pick. The main differences are that it can scan at 4,800 dpi (the LiDE 300 maxes out at 2,400 dpi), it has a kickstand for vertical positioning, and there's an extra physical control button for multipage PDF scanning. It's also a couple of seconds faster per page. Those features are nice to have, but we don't think they'll be worth the price premium for most people. If they speak to you, you'll get image quality that's virtually identical to what you'd get from our top pick, with a bit more flexibility.
The Epson Perfection V600 is billed as an upgrade to the V550, but it shares most of the same hardware and specs. In our tests, it was faster than the V550 when scanning office documents and photos (sometimes twice as fast) but recorded the same scan speeds with film negatives and slides. Output looked identical in terms of color, contrast, and sharpness, too. The V600 comes with the ArcSoft PhotoStudio image-editing suite, a feature not included with the V550, but as with the other add-on software it's trapped on the CD-ROM and can't be downloaded by owners who don't have a disc drive. Overall, we don't think these questionable upgrades are worth the extra money the V600 demands.
The Epson Perfection V39 has been Epson's top-of-the-line non-film flatbed scanner since it hit the scene in 2015. It shares many specifications with its Canon counterparts, scanning at a high resolution (4,800 dpi), offering a vertical kickstand, and sporting a light and compact design. Scanning performance was similar to the Perfection V550 overall, but we dismissed it the last time we tested flatbeds because it was much slower than its advertised 10 seconds per document, requiring more like 15 to 20 seconds per item. It also had the same issues with buttons that we experienced with the V550.
Plustek's OpticSlim 2610 has respectable overall specs and a low price, but we couldn't get past its top scanning resolution of just 1,200 dpi, which is lower than all other flatbeds we considered.
The Plustek ephoto Z300 is an interesting hybrid of a portable document scanner and flatbed, with a hand-fed scanning slot that's designed primarily for photos but is also capable of handling documents. However, it's limited to just 600 dpi optical scanning and costs much more than our picks.
This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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