How Useful Are Small Portable Scanners?
You’ve probably heard of or seen the small portable scanners now on the market. (Sometimes they’re called mobile scanners.) They tend to cost between $70 and $200, with the main price point being about $100. But are they worth it?
How Portable Scanners Work
Portable scanners come in two different variants: very small computer scanners and fully-detached scanners.
The small computer scanners can be cheaper, but they need to be connected to a computer in order to work. That makes them less portable, as you’ll also need to carry some sort of mobile device with you and probably at least a tablet-sized device so you can check image quality without zooming in and out too much.
The fully-detached portable scanners don’t require any external connections to scan, although most of them do require an additional storage card (usually an SD card) which adds to their cost. With these, you scan the photograph or document and download it to your computer later.
Some portable scanners of both types have a small one-page feed mechanism so you can insert a page, press the scan button, and it will pull the page over the imager. This guarantees a good scan but limits the maximum size document you can scan.
Other portable scanners, mostly of the fully-detached type, require you manually wave or roll the scanner over the page. This can create distortions if you don’t move the scanner in a straight line, but there’s also a benefit: if you use special software after downloading the image to your computer (called photo stitching software), you can combine several scans of different parts of the same large document or poster into a single full-sized image.
The Convenience Trade-Off
Fully-detached portable scanners would seem to be the most convenient. They’re typically only about 9 inches wide (slightly wider than an 8.5-inch letter-sized sheet) and about an inch thick and an inch tall, so they’ll fit in backpacks, daypacks, briefcases, and even some larger purses.
They don’t require you carry a computer, but this is also their downside. Because you can’t preview the image after scanning it, there’s a chance you’ll get back home or to your office and discover you made a bad scan—which may mean that you’ll need to go back and scan the document again.
Computer scanners require that computer or tablet connection, but if you already have a small netbook or tablet that you carry with you often, this doesn’t add much of a burden.
Who Should Use A Portable Scanner, And Who Can Use An Alternative
Professional and amateur researchers are the target market for portable scanners, particularly people who need to scan public records or library reference material.
If you frequently visit the same research location and don’t have tight deadlines, you may find it more convenient to carry a fully-detached scanner—after all, if you make a bad scan, you can always rescan the document the next time you’re researching.
But if you can’t easily rescan your document—such as going to a foreign country to research genealogy records—you should probably use a portable computer scanner to ensure you make high-quality scans.
On the other hand, if you aren’t planning any real research, you can use a trick I’ve used when traveling—use your digital camera or camera-equipped mobile device to make a pseudo-scan. Just put the page on a flat surface, hold your photographic device over it, and snap photos until you get a good one.
To make it look like a legitimate scan, you may need to open the file in a photo editor and trim the borders a bit. This whole process takes quite a bit longer than using either type of portable scanner, but it saves you from having to carry a scanner with you on non-research trips.