What Type of Scanner Do You Really Need? (It May Be Your Phone)

No. Scanners are not created alike. There are mobile scanners, flatbed scanners, document scanners, and overhead scanners. I’ve used and reviewed a ton of these things over the years. There have been a few points that scanners have piled up like a big collection of old magazines.

So what scanner do you really need? Do you really even need a scanner at all? Here are a few scanners you might consider and why you would or wouldn’t need one:

Sony Xperia z5
Image Courtesy Sony

Your Phone.

Your first option. Don’t get a scanner. That’s right. Skip it. Get a really good phone with a camera instead. In this case, I suggest the Sony Xperia Z5. It’s an Android phone that is water resistant and has a fantastic camera. It’s a fantastic choice. The iPhone also has a great camera, and so do a lot of other phones. If you want to capture the occasional document, not a pile of them, and you don’t want an extra device taking up space, just go with a good phone.  You can even get OCR apps (optical character recognition) that will convert what you scan into text you can edit later.  If you go to trade shows and get handed a ton of business cards, start scanning them from your phone. Trust me on this. It’s a life-changer.

Portable Scanners

The first class of scanners people often consider is the portable scanner, such as this Doxie One:

Doxie One
Image Courtesy Amazon/Doxie

It sounds like a great idea. It’s portable. You can scan full-size images. The problem is that there are very few situations where you really need something this portable and this limited. (Full disclosure, Doxie sent me a review unit.)  If you need portable, your phone is usually all you need. That includes things like scanning business cards and receipts (expense tracking apps like Concur or Expensify allow you to use phone camera images).  If you need to scan a lot of documents, you need speed that this won’t provide.

All-in-ones

Scanner: Image courtesy Epson
Image Courtesy Epson

If you do need to scan in the occasional stack of documents and do a little printing, a reasonable option is the all-in-one printer and scanner. These are great and available for some pretty cheap prices. Do yourself a favor and get a model that has a document feeder, a flatbed scanner, and wireless printing, such as this Epson workhorse. The setup on this model is very easy, and it scans at 19 pages per minute. The caveat with most printers these days (especially Epsons) is that they sell them cheap and make up for the loss by selling expensive printing ink. If you want to do a lot of printing, look for a model that prints more efficiently.

Flatbed Scanners

Flatbed scanners used to be the only scanner you could get. These days, you have a lot more options. Rather than getting a dedicated flatbed scanner, look for one that also has a document feeder or consider an All-in-one printer like the Epson above. Flatbed scanners are slow and manual and unless you get an oversize model, they’re still limited to standard paper sizes. They’re good if you have a very specific need to scan things that are flat and cannot be bent, such as old photographs or smaller paintings. Sometimes you can also get a bundle deal that includes image manipulation software.

Document Feeders

Fujitsu Scansnap
Image Courtesy Fujitsu

Document feeders are incredibly useful if you have two-sided documents that are paper (so they can be bent) and you need to scan a lot of them. My favorite is the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which I’ve already reviewed here.  It’s super fast at 25 pages per minute and scans double-sided. It plowed through years of IEP paperwork and allowed me to save the files directly to Google Drive. NeatDesk also makes a solid competing product.

Overhead Scanners

Fujitsu ScanSnap 600
Image Courtesy Fujitsu/Amazon

This is the most specialized of the scanners I’ll cover here. Not many people will need it, but if you’re one of those people, you should freak out that they’re now available as consumer models. The Fujitsu SV600 is the best of these models I’ve personally tried (full disclosure, they sent a review unit). There are also lower cost portable overhead scanners, though this model still suffers from software issues, unlike the Fujitsu.

You need an overhead scanner if you’re scanning in larger art pieces or books. Books you can legally scan, people, such as design plans you keep in a spiral-bound notebook. For example, I have a hand-written memoir my grandmother wrote. I also have a scrapbook collection I created when I went to Germany as an exchange student. Both of those things are hard to scan on flatbed scanners. Pressing the pages against a flatbed will distort them and often result in poor images. The Fujitsu SV600 lets you leave the pages naturally open and uses software to correct for the curve of the pages. That means you don’t get that dark shadow down the center of your book, and you don’t end up with folds and curves that obscure your work. It’s really pretty magical.

You can still use it to do things like scan in business cards or put multiple things on the same scan and split them up into separate images, but this really isn’t the scanner you want as your everyday document scanner. It’s still pretty specialized, and a decent model (like the Fujitsu) is still pricey for one person. One thing you might think about doing is contacting your local maker space or tool library to see if that’s something they’d consider carrying.

That said, for most of my scanning needs – I still use my phone.

Marziah Karch has written books on topics like Android and LEGO robotics. She is also writes for About.com for money and GlitterSquid for fun. She lives in Portland, Oregon and still works a day job. Because she apparently has free time on top of all that, she is also a doctoral candidate researching the information behavior of independent game designers.