After living with digital cameras and scanners for decades, we can’t help but wonder: Just how many shoeboxes of snapshots are left in the world?
There must be many. Why else would Epson’s market research indicate that a relatively expensive high-speed photo scanner would be a viable product almost 17 years into the 21st century?
Enter Epson’s $649.99-MSRP FastFoto FF-640 High-speed Photo Scanning System, a sheet-fed scanner with a robust automatic document feeder (ADF) front and center, augmented by image-editing and -cataloging software. It looks like any number of other sheet scanners, especially Epson’s own, meant for scanning text documents. And that’s a departure, because most photo scanners are flatbeds, not snapshot-feeders.
Some higher-end photo scanners come with a detachable automatic document feeder (ADF) for moving images past the platen, but even so, in that design images lay flat while the scanning mechanism moves under them. Sheet-fed scanners like the FastFoto FF-640, on the other hand, pass the originals over the scanning sensor (as well as under one, with single-pass scanners like this one), scanning as the image moves by. And that hasn’t always been considered the best way to scan photos, for a number of reasons, but primarily because an ADF can damage your original prints.
That said, as we’ll get into later, the scan quality here is better than acceptable, except when scanning documents for optical character recognition (OCR). While it can scan images and documents at multiple sizes, it’s best suited for scanning piles of snapshots of the 4×6- and 5×7-inch variety. However, as we’ll get into in detail, its first-version scanning and cataloging software is a bit light on features and not very forgiving.
That’s not to say that the FastFoto FF-640 isn’t good at what it’s designed to do. It’s highly useful and well suited to exactly what it’s designed for: scanning vast stacks of snapshots. But we, like a few other reviewers (including Tony Hoffman at our sister site PCMag.com) found ourselves wishing for several other features and greater flexibility, as well as a lower price.
And that’s the rub. At this scanner’s $649.99 list price, you’d need to have a lot of photos (in the several thousands, minimum) to scan to make this purchase worthwhile economically. (Depending on how many you have, there may be less expensive ways to get your photos scanned in bulk, which we’ll detail at the end of this review.) The ideal situation, we think, would be passing the FastFoto FF-640 around between friends and family members who have lots of photos to digitize, or perhaps keeping it on hand as a document scanner after you get all of your photos in the digital realm.
Epson needs to do some work on the non-photo document side of this scanner, though. Overall, the FastFoto FF-640 is a capable scanner good at what it’s designed for, but it does suffer from some first-version blues. And we’d like it a lot better if it cost a few hundred dollars less. (At this writing in mid-December 2016, we hadn’t seen it discounted off its MSRP yet.)
If you’re intimately familiar with the contours of modern document scanners (and we’re not sure why you would be, but hey), you might notice that the FastFoto FF-640 is a dead ringer for Epson’s own WorkForce DS-510. As you can see, aside from a few minor differences, the FastFoto model (left) and the WorkForce model (right) are very much brothers from the same mother. Twins, really…
At 11.8 inches across by 8.7 inches from front to back by 8.1 inches high, and weighing 8.8 pounds, the FastFoto FF-640 is relatively small and light, and since it connects to your PC or Mac via a USB cable (no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth support here), its most logical location is plunked down beside your computer. Photos, documents, and panoramas up to 8.5×120 inches (8.5×14 on a Mac) get placed in the letter-size ADF. The ADF is good for holding about 80 sheets of paper at a time, or about 30 photos.
You start scans by pressing a single button, but how those scans are handled depends on how you configure the bundled software on your PC prior to scanning. For the most part, the scanner just scans; the included software does most of the work.
Like most good document scanners nowadays, this one has a single-pass sensor mechanism for scanning both sides of your document simultaneously, or for scanning handwritten notes on the backside of your photo print. This latter feature is especially handy if you’re scanning piles of photos in which you are not familiar with the subjects, or you have forgotten the who, what, where, and when of the shots. Sometimes, say, a printed date from the photo processor on the back of the snapshot, or a scribble, is a valuable clue worth saving with the digitized photo.
Scanning older photos (especially fragile ones on stiff paper) with a sheet-fed scanner like this has generally been a bit risky, fraught with the possibility of cracking or jamming photo stock that’s sometimes not flexible enough to feed safely. According to Epson, the FastFoto FF-640 deploys specially designed rollers that won’t damage your hard-copy images. Epson also bundles a special clear “handling sleeve” for protecting particularly fragile prints and small photos. And the scan path is mostly straight through. During our tests, we scanned hundreds of photos, old and new, without any visible effect on them.
Overall, the FastFoto FF-640 is easy to use, to the point of being a little threadbare on flexibility, but again that’s primarily a fault with the software. Let’s discuss that next.
To configure our FastFoto tester unit, we downloaded the Epson FastFoto app (for scanning photos), as well as Abbyy FineReader Sprint (an optical character recognition, or OCR, program for text recognition) and Epson’s Document Capture Pro. While you can use the scanner itself and Epson’s software with your Mac, the OCR program is not Mac-compatible. If you need Apple-ready OCR capabilities, you’ll need to purchase the Mac version of the program (Abbyy FineReader Pro for Mac was $69.99 at this writing) or download a freeware version of the software.
The FastFoto utility handles all facets of scanning, rotating, cropping, restoring, and enhancing the images, as well as batch-saving them in a FastFoto directory inside your Pictures folder. (You can change that destination, of course.)
As you set up your batch scans, you configure the software to batch-process the images to restore color, apply red-eye reduction, or set up naming conventions. Sounds good in theory, right? We immediately realized that anything we wanted to do to one or two of the images, we had to do to all of them in the batch.
In other words, if you apply a color-restoration routine to one image, every photo in the stack (or batch) of photos will get (or at least be subject to) the same treatment, if not to the same degree.
In our experience, images that weren’t faded or underexposed didn’t get changed a noticeable amount, if at all. The saving grace is that you can opt to save both versions of the images—the restored, and the unaltered. Our take? If you’ve got loads of photos (and why buy this scanner, otherwise?), you’ll benefit greatly from manually separating them into stacks yourself that require the same types of treatment, and only then applying the batch effects.
We also encountered some frustration—or at least, some necessary preplanning—with the file-naming and -saving conventions. For example, you can save images with filenames by year or decade, and by month or season, as well as a name. In other words, the files can be named year_month_name or decade_season_name. Alternately, you can mix the first two conventions, or leave off those parameters completely.
Be careful, though, because the software provides no way to batch-change the filenames after scanning. So be sure you set it up from the start in a way that makes the most sense for you. It’s a one-way street, unless you have a good aftermarket file-management utility to clean up any mess later.
We found a quirk in this scheme, too. While you can leave the first two naming fields blank, once you click a drop-down menu and open it, you can no longer leave that field blank—without starting over. Our point, until Epson releases an updated version of the software, you must be very deliberate in your file naming. Making a mistake can mean that you either have to live with it, or set up and scan the batch again to make the filename convention conform to what you want.
We’ve had a lot of experience with Epson Document Capture and Abbyy FineReader Sprint over the years. (The latter is a pared-down version of the commercial Abbyy FineReader OCR program. Both versions are quite capable text-recognition apps.) Document Capture helps you scan, organize, and save your document scans, and FineReader converts them into editable, searchable plain-text, Microsoft Word, or PDF files. Our experience here, and in general, is that FineReader is very accurate at converting any clean scan of a document containing everyday sans-serif (Arial, Helvetica) and serif (Times New Roman, Garamond) fonts.
The key thing is “clean scan.” Unfortunately, for some reason, during our tests the FastFoto scanner handled photos much more adroitly than it did documents. Some of our text scans were not of good enough quality to allow for highly accurate OCR conversions. We had to do some editing (sometimes significant amounts of it) on the converted text to correct errors. If and when this happens to you, we suggest scanning the document again, rather than allowing the OCR program to try to decipher a bad scan.
If what you need is a document scanner first and foremost, we suggest that you choose one of those, rather than the FastFoto FF-640. In our tests, it worked much better as a photo scanner.
Photo Handling Performance
Epson claims that you can load the ADF up with photos of different shapes and sizes in the same stack, and that the FastFoto FF-640 can move from, say, 5×7-inch photos to 8x10s without missing a beat. We had to try that.
For the most part, our experience was smooth, except that the feeder did jam once when it encountered three prints (of the same size, mind you) that were stuck together. Even so, it didn’t damage any of the three, and we cleared the jam without much trouble. For the most part, it just kept scanning photos, no matter what we threw at it. A couple of times we had to de-skew an image some, but in the long run we found it more reliable to run similar-size prints in the same stack. Having the scanner’s rigid paper guides tight up against a stack of same-size photos kept skewing to a minimum.
Our experience with document scanning was similar, except that no matter what we threw at the ADF, including documents of various length and sizes, the mechanism didn’t jam. Here, too, we got passable results when scanning different-size documents in the same stack; we got much better results, though, when we didn’t mix them. Few (if any) sheet-fed scanners can scan a stack of business cards and legal-size (8.5×14-inch) pages in the same pile without something shifting left or right now and then.
For scanning 4×6-inch photos at 300dpi, Epson rates the FastFoto FF-640 at 60 pages per minute (ppm) for one-sided (“simplex”) scanning and 120 images per minute (ipm) for two-sided (“duplex”). For scanning standard letter-size (8.5×11-inch) documents, the rated speed is 45 pages per minute (ppm) and 90 images per minute (ipm). In other words, that’s about one photo per second, which is very close to the 57ppm we averaged during our tests with snapshots. When scanning business documents, the scanner churned at an average of 41ppm or 82ipm.
Note that matters slow down a good bit (by a factor of about three) if you put the scanner at its 600dpi setting.
Essentially, there are two ways to judge how well the FastFoto FF-640 scans photos—from the unaltered scans, and from the scans on which the Epson FastFoto app applies its restoration and enhancement routines.
When it comes to detailed scans with good color accuracy, we found that the scanner did a great job, but then it should for $650. Most often, we saw little to no color shifts in the raw, unenhanced scans. What we started with is what we saw onscreen, for better or worse.
When we used the enhancement routines, on the other hand, the results were mixed. When working with faded or underexposed images, the processed images generally looked better than the originals, with brighter, more vibrant colors. Unfortunately, in a few scattered cases, the software altered images that didn’t require restoration. The treatments, in some cases, made things look worse, including fading out the blues in skies and water to the point of looking washed out. In a couple of images, yellows changed to a light orange, as well as a few other not-as-noticeable color shifts.
The bottom line: If you use the enhancement routines, to keep from having to scan some of your images again, we suggest that you allow the software to save copies of both the altered and unaltered scans. You can always delete the less desirable one in each pair.
As we said at the beginning of this review, we were surprised that after all this time enough shoeboxes full of old photos are still out there to warrant a product like this. Epson assures us that its market research suggests otherwise. The company set out to create an uncomplicated photo-scanning system that requires little to no effort to use. For the most part, the Japanese electronics giant has succeeded. However, as many of our colleagues have pointed out, simplicity and a lack of flexibility are not the same things.
That said, if you have a ton of prints that need digitizing, this is most likely the fastest consumer solution out there that you can put on your desk for an accessible price. We’d like to see some measures for backing out of and reversing mistakes, as well as fewer one-size-fits-all aspects to the enhancement routines. And beyond that, we’d like to see the FastFoto for a few hundred dollars less.
Even so, to date, this is the most cost-efficient method we know of—other than employing an online scanning service—for turning extremely large piles of prints into high-quality, well-organized digital files at home. So those services bear some examination when considering the value proposition of this scanner.
One of the leading such scanning services, ScanMyPhotos.com, charged $146 at this writing for scanning a box of 1,800 snaps, and the pictures, of course, need to leave your custody. (Not so with the FastFoto.) Another, ScanCafe.com, charged a minimum of 21 cents per photo scan, or about double the rate of ScanMyPhotos.com. A third, DigMyPics.com, was 39 or 49 cents per photo scanned.
Now, for small batches of pictures, these services can add up to a lot less than $650. On the other hand, the more photos you have to scan, the greater value you’ll realize from Epson’s FastFoto FF-640 High-speed Photo Scanning System. If you’ll spend anywhere close to $500 or $600 scanning your initial cache of pics with a service-for-hire, the FastFoto makes a lot of sense; at the end of the process, at least you still have a scanner to use or resell. With a service, all you’ll have are your digital files, and to scan more, you’ll have to keep paying.
If you can share the cost of the FastFoto among friends, family, and colleagues—and maybe get them to chip in for its lofty cost?—it can be a very worthy investment. But know that you’ll need to scan snaps in the several thousands at a minimum, not just the hundreds, to make it worth the dough.
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