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HP PhotoSmart Photo Scanner

by Patrick Hudepohl, 2003

The HP PhotoSmart PhotoScanner is a desktop scanner that can handle prints up to 13 x 18 cm (5 x 7 inches), negatives and mounted slides. When scanning prints, the scanner offers a resolution of 300 dpi; for scanning negatives and slides, it offers 2400 dpi. It scans at a depth of 30 bit. The package includes an ISA-type SCSI card, SCSI cable, scanner software and Microsoft PictureIt!. It should be available at a price of just over 1100 guilders, or about $500.

It doesn't do any other film format than 35mm, so no 4x5, no APS. The only available model is the SCSI model, there is no parallel port version. The scanner is of a fixed-focus type and HP only supports Windows 95. Windows NT does work, but is simply not supported. Slide mounts can be up to 4mm thick, but best results are achieved with mounts of 1.8mm or thinner.

The picture showing my computer setup was taken on Kodak Gold 400 print film and scanned from negative by the HP scanner. The picture on the monitor is from my second wedding assignment .

Top photo: Tulip field, Heemskerk, Holland. Nikon F100, AF 24-50 at 24mm, Fuji Sensia II 100, hand held.

Note: there is a newer version of this scanner, the S20. It features 36bit scanning (internally) and a USB-interface. This review is about the older model.


Installation of the scanner is really simple. First, turn on your computer and insert the CD that comes along with the scanner. The appropriate SCSI drivers are installed and you can watch a video about how to proceed next.

Following the instructions, you open the computer and "gently lower the card into the slot." The hardest part is over. Close the computer, connect the scanner to the SCSI card, boot and watch Windows detect your new hardware.

More videos are included, this time about using the scanner. Have a brief look at them and then insert your first picture to be scanned.

A note about the system requirements... A fast computer is good, but a lot of memory is better. If you intend to do many high resolution scans, I suggest getting at least 64MB RAM in your machine. My AMD K6-200 with 64MB handles 2400dpi scans well, although editing and especially applying filters does cause it to (seriously) swap at times. Also, make room on your hard disk since scans can be up to 22MB. Compressing your files into JPEGs helps, but not enough if you have to store a couple of hundred of them. I suggest getting a ZIP- or JAZ-drive, or a CD-Writer.

Update: I have upgraded to an AMD Athlon 500 with 128MB RAM. I noticed quite a performance increase, probably due to both the faster processor and the larger amount of memory.

Working with the scanner

The scanner offers a simple user interface, consisting of two buttons. The first selects the type of media you want to scan: slides, negatives or prints. After selecting the correct type, the scanner adjusts the media-insertion-opening to fit the media and calibrates itself. The second button is an eject-button. If that button (or the software eject option) should fail, you can open the scanner cover and retrieve the medium manually.

After inserting the picture, the software pops up and you can set resolution, crop the image and correct exposure and colour. If the resulting image is less than 16MB, you can send it directly to your favorite photo editor, by default Microsoft PictureIt!. You can also save it to file; formats supported are: BMP, FlashPix, JPEG and TIFF. No options can be set. I save my scans as TIFF-files, then use either Paint Shop Pro, PhotoShop or The GIMP (included in all major Linux distributions). I store edited TIFF files of about 1500 x 2300 pixels on a CD-recordable and I create smaller JPEGs for slide shows and my website.

The quality of the scans is suprisingly good, although 300 dpi scans from prints is not great; many flatbeds can do better. However, when scanning negatives and slides, you get an optical resolution of 2400dpi and this makes for images slightly bigger than 2000 x 3000 pixels. This is sufficiently large for approximately 20 x 30 cm inkjet prints.

Many people have reported problems with slides: shadows contain more noise (artifacts) than detail. The problems are said to vary with the computer and/or SCSI card used. My scanner also displays this problem, although certainly not with every slide. The only 'solution' is to turn down the shadows, causing them to become plain black. With negatives, these problems have not been reported.

So far, you might have come to the conclusion that when buying the HP, you'd get a $500 Nikon Super CoolScan. You're not. Here are the drawbacks (or should I say, the $1800 explanation for the Nikon?)

  • After each scan, all controls are reset and there's no way to save your settings.
  • After each scan, the medium is ejected. Perhaps with slides and prints this is OK, but with negatives, it can be a hassle since you have to re-insert the strip and wait for the preview to complete.
  • The controls are limited. For example, exposure control is limited to midtones, highlights and shadows. No histograms or other advanced features.
  • It's fixed focus. I have not yet found focussing problems, but if you do, you can't adjust it.
  • As mentioned, the scanner can't really read into the shadows of slides.

A general problem with scanners, not just with this one, is dust. All kinds of little things tend to cling to my slides and negatives, showing up fairly clear in the scan. Use a blower to get rid of the most before scanning and use the Clone-tool to touch up the scan afterwards. Using a drawing tablet, such as the Dynalink FreeDraw (aka AceCad Flair) makes this 'digital dust buster' job a lot easier.


My reaction when the first preview scan appeared, was "Wow! This is great!" It's big fun working with this scanner. The HP is great value for money and it handles the supported media well. If you're expecting the pro features mentioned in the previous paragraph, then prepare for spending some serious money on a scanner.

More information

  • Robert Niland wrote a FAQ about the scanner.
  • Philip Greenspun pays attention to digital images in chapter Scanning Photos for the Web of his book "How to be a Web Whore Just Like Me".
  • Philip also presents some scanner reviews (written by others) on photo.net.
  • halftone.
  • Steve Hoffmann wrote a review , covering both the scanner and the HP PhotoSmart PhotoPrinter.
  • Hewlett Packard offers product information for their PC Photography product line
  • Wayne Fulton wrote " A few scanning tips", which should help you get started.

Patrick Hudepohl ( email)

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

Madis Kaal , April 01, 2003; 04:47 A.M.

I have had PhotoSmart S20 for almost 2 years now, and besides things told in this review I have these gripes:

1. The performance on dark areas of the films is POOR. I mean POOR shouted in capital letters. This _does_ affect negative scans as well, to the extent of making overexposed negative scans impossible although the Frontier scans made in lab are quite acdeptable (not fantastic, of course). All you get from overexposed negatives (read: dark film) are bands of noise...

2. The frame detection algorithm that is used on strip scans is quite stupid. Besides just making more mistakes than correct guesses when you scan darker than average slides, I've seen it lock up altogether. You then have to kill the driver software from task manager, and sometimes also unplug the scanner from USB, power cycle, and re-plug it. Usually, reinserting the strip other end first allows you to bypass the problem, but I have had a strip that locked the software up whichever end first I inserted it. Had to cut it into two pieces. It is completely beyound me why the frame detection algorithm on 35mm film _only_ scanner tries to find frames that are just fraction of 24x35 mm frame size?

3. It has no notion of film profiles, so all you get is its automatic color correction based on the _image_data, and not on the film base. Needless to say, it is far from foolproof. In fact, it sucks.

4. It is noisy, even scanning perfectly exposed shots. Not very visible on paper, but for images on web, I usually scan at 1800 or 2400 DPI, then scale down to average the noise out. And I still cannot get scans as clean as my pals do on their nikons.

5. Optics is also just barely adequate, you just have to live with purple fringing on edges of high contrast details.

6. The software sometimes loses connectivity with scanner, has happened on other folks machines too, so its either a driver software problem, or scanner hardware problem. You have to unplug, power cycle, and replug to fix this condition.

7. No 3rd party support for USB version whatsoever, so you have to live with crappy HP software (btw, the 70MB driver update also includes totorial animations!).

So in conclusion - you get what you pay for. Want quality scans - cough up about 4 times the money for Nikon. Don't have the money - learn to live with average quality product.

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