He Ain’t Eight-and-a-Half by Eleven, He’s My Brother

It’s been a time of reassessing my creative work, brought on by a change of company back at the end of September 2009. In some ways it’s meant jettisoning some things that have been gathering dust on my shelves for many years. In others, it’s meant investing in some new tools.

Case in point, I do comic book work sometimes, and I still draw 10″x15″ ink artwork on 11″x17″ pieces of bristol. Scanning that on a standard letter-sized scanner (like my Epson Perfection 4870 Photo), as good a scan as that is, means making two to three scans of each page and then stitching them together in Photoshop. It’s a big pain.

Before I go any further, I’ll say that I’ve received no consideration for my remarks, and have no relationship with these brands other than buying them. My workflow is Mac based.

Brother MFC-6490CW

Tabloid scanners (11″x17″) have always been the rarer, much more expensive beast than their letter-sized cousins. Or they’ve been pieces of crap.

For example, on the low end is the Mustek, which has been around for a number of years. 1200×1200 optical resolution, USB, around $200. From what I understand, Snow Leopard has broken the Mustek drivers, but you may still be able to use VueScan by Ed Hamrick (more on VueScan in a moment). Users report ease of use, but not the sharpest scans.

On the high end, something I can hope to justify purchasing one day, is the Epson Expression 10000XL. 2400×4800 optical resolution, 3.8 DMax, 48-bit colour, USB, FireWire, around $3000. The big brother to models like my 4870, and designed for professional graphics environments. Other pro scanners, if you can find one used, start at $1000.

Okay, so I didn’t want a Mustek, and didn’t feel like taxing my line of credit with the Epson. I went looking, and only went as far as Mitch Klassen of The Camera Store in Calgary, because I’m lazy and Mitch is the best Mac tech/sales guy in Alberta. I can afford to be lazy with him on the job.

He came back with the Brother MFC-6890CDW or the MFC-6490CW. The MFC stands for multi-function centre, so we’ve got an inkjet printer as the central feature that enables a photocopy and fax function, and in order to photocopy you need a scanning bed. It also reads various flash media to print straight from your camera’s memory card. The 6890 does duplex printing, which is why it gets the D in its model number. The 6490 goes for about $285 at Staples right now, which is less than the $350 it was six months ago.

Now, I never want anyone to send me a fax (“If I fax you my logo, that’ll be good enough for my brochure, right?”). I got rid of my inkjet printer because it was cheaper and better for me to buy a colour laser. Photocopy? Cute, but not really a draw for me. But a 1200×1200 11″x17″ scanner for only $285 gets my attention. It connects via USB, Ethernet or Wireless B/G.

Brother has the worst scanning software I’ve ever seen. It’s not even up to the normal level of suck you associate with consumer software. Just look at this miniscule scan window you get in TWAIN-compliant apps like Photoshop.

Brother MFC-6490CW

The window is not resizable, and that’s all the control you get as well. No curves or other pre-scan adjustments. Image Capture will give you a larger window, but no more control. A couple of months back, before Brother updated their drivers for OS 10.6, even this didn’t work.

VueScan is Ed Hamrick’s amazing scanning software for scanners that just don’t have great support under your OS (Mac, Windows or Linux). If you buy the professional license from him, it’s $80 US. I know, it sounds a little high, but upgrades are free for life. I paid mine back in 2000, I think. Never regretted it. Ed is also the guy when I bought my 6490 and the Brother software broke after I upgraded to 10.6, he emailed me back and forth for three days while we worked through the issue. When we were done, my scanner worked. I suggested to Ed that if he wanted to start charging pro licensees for upgrades he would have no complaints from me.

Ed Hamrick VueScan

That’s VueScan above. The application window can take up your whole desktop if you want it to, with complete control over every aspect of the scan process.

What’s the quality of scan like? Better than the Mustek and not as good as the Epson, but for greyscale artwork (my primary use), we’re about 90% of the way there. A bit of cleanup with Curves and Brightness & Contrast in Photoshop and there is no difference between the Epson and the Brother for generating crisp, true black & white 1200 dpi scans. Except for the lack of stitching. I haven’t done much colour on the Brother, but I do notice a small difference in capturing detail in highlights and shadows, so we’re dealing with a lower dynamic range. Not unexpected in a modestly-priced product.


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