Your PC is just waiting for you to exploit its potential. How about getting it to adjust your photos? It's easy to do, and photos aren't the only items you can transfer to your PC and mess around with.
A scanner takes an image of something, such as a photo, letter, recipe, magazine article and even small objects like coins, and transfers the image, in a digital format, to your PC. You can then use it on your website, make personalised cards or simply liven up an otherwise boring letter.
Best of all, with an image editing program you can manipulate the photo itself. For example, you could obliterate all traces of your ex-partner, lighten a dark print, turn the sky green or give Aunt Mildred a fetching pair of Mr Spock ears.
Scanners aren't just good for scanning photos. You can scan in a page of text and turn it into a text file to use in your word processor using an optical character recognition (OCR) program, without the hassle of manually typing in text line by line. Scanners also make it easy to 'photocopy' pages directly to your printer, and if you have a fax modem you could scan a page and then have it faxed automatically to the recipient at the touch of a button.
Choosing your scanner
First off, what type of scanner do you need? For specialised use you can get ones designed for scanning transparencies or slides and even negatives, but these are quite expensive.
The most common type is a flatbed scanner, so called because to perform a scan, you put the object to be scanned face down on a glass sheet, as you do with a photocopier. The scanning head moves under the object, capturing its image. These types of scanners are relatively inexpensive and incredibly versatile, as they're good at capturing colour images as well as black-and-white ones, such as the pages of a book.
Then there are sheet-fed scanners, which are about the same size and shape as a large roll of cling film. A document or photo is fed into the scanner, and rollers pass it over the scanning head. Although they save a lot on space, they're not good at taking colour images. For home users, the quality and versatility of a flatbed scanner wins out, and it is flatbed scanners that we'll be looking at in detail here.
New gear resolution
With resolution, you'll notice two figures are often quoted, both measured in dots per inch (dpi). The first is the optical resolution. This is the physical resolution at which the scanner can capture an image. A digital image is made up of lots of tiny dots, or pixels. If there's only a few pixels, the viewer will see a 'blocky' image. The more pixels there are, the more detail can be displayed, which should result in a sharper image. Most good scanners have an optical resolution of 600dpi, more than enough for most purposes.
But a high optical resolution doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a good image. Other factors come into play, and the quality of colour scans depends on things like the components in the scanner. The image passes through the scanner on its way to the PC in the form of a digital signal. With a good scanner, the amount of interference, or noise, introduced to the signal will be kept to a minimum. Any noise introduced into a signal will degrade the final image.
You may also see a much higher resolution quoted - up to 9600dpi in some cases. This will be the interpolated resolution. Interpolation is a bit of software trickery which works by 'best guessing' the information between each dot (pixel) for supposedly more detailed, sharper images.
Don't pay too much attention to this figure either, as interpolated resolution is only as good as the software that produces it. A scanner with 2400dpi interpolated resolution may produce a sharp, clear image, while one with a 9600dpi interpolated resolution may still produce fuzzy, indistinct images.
Out of your depth
To muddy the waters further there's another number to add to the mix - the bit depth, a measure of how many colours a scanner can detect. Most scanners are now 36bit models, capable of recognising more colours than your monitor can display, so you can happily ignore this number.
Another factor to take into consideration is whether your PC is up to the job. A PC with a Pentium processor or better, running Windows 98 or later versions of Windows 95, with 32Mb of memory, some free hard disk space for the software and scanned images and a spare USB port, will be fine. But if your PC doesn't have a USB port, or you're using an earlier version of Windows, all is not lost.
It's possible to add USB ports to your PC if you are running Windows 98 by fitting a USB card into a PCI slot in your computer. If you don't fancy fiddling inside your machine, there are scanners which connect to your parallel port instead, and many manufacturers can also supply Windows 3.1 drivers for their scanners.
Less is more
With the right scanner, and after making sure that your PC is USB-enabled and up to the job ahead of it, you can improve your image for business or pleasure. The smallest visual detail can make a world of difference, but don't overdo it: you don't want your readers to be overcome by glaring shapes and colours, to the detriment of the information you're trying to get across.
Be careful, too, of falling foul of copyright legislation regarding other people's logos or design ideas: if in doubt, check it out.
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