What You Need to Know about Flatbed Scanners

By Mark L. Chambers

The first thing you need to know about flatbed scanners is that if you’re in the market for a scanner, a flatbed is the one to buy. On a flatbed scanner the top lifts up, just like a copy machine. The sensor head moves in a flatbed scanner while the material you’re scanning remains motionless on top of the scanning glass.


Comparatively, with a sheet-fed scanner, the material you’re scanning moves through a system of rollers while the sensor remains stationary. Printer manufacturers often use sheet-fed scanning hardware in all-in-one, or multifunction, devices, which combine the functionality of a printer, a scanner, a fax machine, and a copy machine in one svelte case.

(Some multifunction devices even sport both a flatbed scanner and a sheet-feed option, so you get the best of both worlds.) The single major advantage to sheet-fed scanners is that they take up far less space.


Here are the top three reasons why you should pick a flatbed:

  • They deliver a better-quality scan. Because the original material remains fixed in a flatbed (compared with the moving original in a sheet-fed), you have less chance of shifting, which allows a flatbed to deliver a better scan with more detail.

  • They’re versatile. If an original can fit on top of the flatbed’s glass, you can scan it — pages from a book, small items such as business cards, or even items such as clothing. With a sheet-fed scanner, you’re limited to paper documents, and you have to use a clear plastic sleeve to hold those business cards. (Many sheet-fed scanners don’t even accept small items.)

    Sheet-fed owners: Keep those documents as pristine as possible, meaning no torn edges, no staples, and no brittle or fragile antique documents that could suddenly decompose inside the hard-to-reach areas of your machine.

  • They have fewer moving parts. Sheet-fed scanners can easily jam if the original document doesn’t feed correctly, and I’ve found them less reliable over the long run than flatbed models because sheet-fed scanners require more cleaning and adjustment.

If you already invested in a sheet-fed model, don’t despair; there’s no reason to scrap your hardware. However, you have to limit yourself somewhat in your material — unless, of course, you don’t mind cutting pages from books and magazines to scan them.

Other specialized types of scanners are lurking in the shadows these days:

  • Negative scanners: These expensive models are especially designed to produce the best possible scans from film negatives. They do nothing else, so versatility isn’t their claim to fame.

  • Business card scanners: Again, the name says it all. These portable scanners capture images and information from standard-size business cards. They’re often used in conjunction with laptop or netbook computers.

  • Pen scanners: A pen scanner captures only a single line of text at once, but it’s easy to carry around and can be used with a laptop computer and OCR software to read text from documents into a word processing application. (The wand scanner, a close relative to the pen scanner, works in a similar fashion — however, it can capture an entire page as you sweep it across the sheet.)