When Bad OEM Software Happens to Good Slide/Negative Scanner Hardware

I like the Plustek OpticFilm 7600i SE scanner. Just wish the software had a better UI.

My husband's first career was "professional photographer" and he built his first darkroom as a teenager. That explains why my garage has boxes upon boxes of slides and negatives. Many negatives are in larger formats (we still have the 8x10" view camera too), but I think I could build a tree fort with yellow boxes of Kodak slides. Who needs Legos?

Having the slides is one thing. Getting them into a useful format — by which, of course, I mean, onto digital storage — is another matter. However, while apparently you can get a basic flatbed scanner for two boxtops and and a rookie baseball trading card, slide scanners traditionally have been expensive. Certainly they have been in my "too much to spend right now" category, given that there was no urgent reason to capture my 1983 vacation photos. Plus, I wasn't sure whether the process would be easy enough that I'd actually do the work to scan in the pictures. Would a slide scanner be like the music gizmo I got to play my vinyl albums and record them digitally? I knew that this would have to be disgustingly easy or it never would be done.

As a result, I was very happy to be offered a loaner of the brand-new Plustek OpticFilm 7600i SE scanner (I have to send back the unit, whose list price is $589), because it let me figure out the scope of the equipment and to weigh its value. My short summary is: The scanner is okay, perhaps better than okay. But I probably never will know what it's capable of, because the software dreadfully needs an upgrade, at least for Mac users.

The hardware first. The scanner itself is the size of a loaf of bread, though heftier (the company includes a carrying case, but I can't fathom why; you'll want to set this down on a desk). You load up the slides or 35mm negatives in one of two provided carriers, each of which accommodate four photos. (I experimented only with the slides, as I found those boxes first; most of my negatives are larger.) These carriers look like the machine is prepared to auto-feed and -scan all four images at one fell swoop, and maybe it is... but I never found documentation to support that, despite buttons labeled "quick scan" and "intelliscan" on the front.

The scanner has a USB 2.0 interface and will scan in increments up to 7200x7200 dpi. They can be used with both Windows and Macintosh computers; I'm primarily a Mac girl though I also have an aging Windows XP notebook; I used the scanner with both. Apparently there's also a plug-in for PhotoShop, which I didn't try.

Everything is accomplished through software, primarily a SilverFastSEPlus application that operates sort-of-the-same on both Mac and PC. And it's where the unit really falls short, because this is inherently a "user interface" product. The software is too complicated for mere mortals like myself (who would prefer to tell the Mac, "Please just scan into iPhoto and be done with it") and it is not detailed enough for my still photo-snob husband. Without doubt, the software is far beyond the capabilities of my photography-enthusiast sister. Admittedly, she can't figure out how to use Flickr, but she spends money on camera equipment the way I spend it on chocolate, and she's the person that the company (or the OEM who made the software) ought to imagine as the primary user. Granted, the company says this model is "geared toward advanced amateurs, prosumers and professional photographers looking for the ultimate in control over the film and slide imaging process" but it gosh, it ought to be simpler than this. (The OpticFilm 7600i SE, at $369, is apparently meant for novices.)

To its credit, the software does have easy drop-down settings to let you scan the image with settings suitable for skin tones, or landscape, or evening. You're also given a hint of how much hard disk space you're about to use up; a 7200 dpi image uses 146MB, which is overkill for my snapshots but suitable for a wedding photo. If you want to fiddle with the densitometer or brightness at this point, you can certainly do so. Personally I was just as happy to leave the image manipulation to iPhoto, PhotoShop Elements, or my husband's copy of PhotoShop.

Enough whining. Does it do the job? Without hesitation: Yes. It takes a while to scan each image (especially at 7200 dpi) but the image quality is excellent. The press materials promised that the scanner has IR dust and scratch removal, and I found it did a decent-to-excellent job with my ancient slides. They still required some cleanup in my photo-software-of-choice, which is to be expected. (And yes, iPhoto gets along with the results. I saved all the images in a single directory, then told iPhoto to import to its library. I now have plenty of ammunition for my high school Facebook photo albums.)

However, this isn't the slide and negative scanner of my dreams. It's a project waiting to happen, and I fear that the stack of slide boxes will not diminish as rapidly as I had hoped. There's no way to tell the scanner, "Scan in four at a time, and let me know when you're done, wouldya?" I can't reasonably expect to give the equipment a box of slides and come back in the morning to a nice neat directory of images... but the process is as tedious as flatbed OCR once was. I had — perhaps unreasonably — hoped for more.

The reviewer's triage is: When the company wants its hardware back, how hard do they have to work to pry it out of my hands? I like this scanner, and I wouldn't mind keeping it. But I won't cry about stuffing it back in its box and returning it to the company. On a one-to-five-star scale, I give this scanner three stars. If the software is improved, it easily would be four, perhaps even five.

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