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Ignore the fast-talking salesman who'll try and steer you toward fancy scanners with "broad dynamic range" and "Digital Grain Equalization Management," as well as make you feel intellectually inferior by rattling off a slew of acronyms. For the 95 percent of home users who just want to burn CDs of vacation photos, a low-end model will suffice. You might need to splurge a tad for decent software, but there's no reason on earth you should wind up paying more than $200.
Scanner spec lists are long, jargony, and mostly useless. The only numbers you need to note are optical resolution, expressed in dots per inch (dpi), and color depth, expressed in bits. The former is usually represented by two figures, like 600 x 1200 dpi, or 1200 x 2400 dpi. Pay attention only to the lower figure; anything 600 or over will be plenty sharp enough. In fact, you'll probably rarely max out the scanner's resolution, since higher quality pictures require much more disk space. For amateurs, 300 dpi usually does the trick.
Color depth determines how well the scanner can differentiate between hues and tones in the originalthe higher the number, the richer the color. As long as a scanner's got at least 30-bit depth, you're good to go. Don't be suckered into spending big bucks on models with a whopping 48 bits, unless you're going to be digitally submitting your Club Med photos to National Geographic. A lot of systems convert scanned photos into 24-bit files for printing purposes anyway, so color depth is often a moot point.
Finding a sub-$100 scanner with adequate specs isn't a problem, but Mr. Roboto strongly recommends ponying up a few extra quid for a model that comes bundled with helpful software. At a minimum, you should demand an optical character recognition (OCR) utility, which lets you scan in documents and then edit them in a word-processing program. Also keep an eye peeled for software that lets you post pictures directly to the Web, image editors like Adobe PhotoDeluxe, or printing aids that'll turn your 8 x 10s into passport-sized photos.
The final detail to note is speed. Lots of budget scanners connect to your computer via the slow-as-molasses USB port. Seek out models that take advantage of speedier USB 2.0 or FireWire connections, through which data streams up to 40 times faster. If your computer features neither type of port, invest in a cheap adapter; you'll thank Mr. Roboto when you're frolicking in the sunshine, rather than waiting for yet another baby picture to scan in at a lethargic 1.5 megabits per second.
As for a specific recommendation, Mr. Roboto admits to being impressed with Hewlett-Packard's ScanJet 2300c. It's a mammoth contraption that still relies on some older technology, and there's no Mac compatibility. But it does hit all the performance benchmarks, and you can currently scoop one up direct from hpshopping.com for $70 plus shipping. Mac adherents can shell out a little more elsewhere for the 3500c, a steal for under $90 despite some lackluster color performance.
Don't be hypnotized by the HP name, though. Acer, UMAX, and Canon all have good reps for churning out bargain scanners. If you're really strapped for cash, simply wait for the inevitable after-Christmas sales, when they'll practically be giving away the 2002 leftovers. Six-month-old scanners, like day-old doughnuts or irregular underwear, rarely disappoint a dyed-in-the-wool bargain hunter.
Mr. Roboto's a sucker for beach balls, which probably explains why Ellula's Hot Air Speakers (available at Ellula.com) were such a treat. A few quick puffs, jack in an MP3 player, and you've got yourself a portable sound system, albeit one that should not be placed near sharp objects or curious dogs. The inflatable speakers churn out respectable sound, on par with a mid-range boom box. For $45 to $50, not a bad deal, though your audiophile, music-snob friends will scoff. Then again, they'll scoff at anything.
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