There was a time when scanners were a hot consumer item. But it passed. Nowadays, scanning is just a tick-mark item in the list of features on a multifunction printer. But Hewlett-Packard has injected a new twist, with its Topshot technology, which promises "3D scanning."
I tested HP's new Topshot LaserJet Pro M275. It's a good all-round color-laser multifunction device, reasonably priced at $399, with the added novelty of a Topshot device on top, in lieu of the usual flatbed scanner.
The Topshot ‘scanner' is really just a digital camera on a hinged, foldable overhead arm. It shoots downward, grabbing instant images of anything on the scanning platform. This might include page-size documents, or small three-dimensional items.
This approach has clearly been enabled by the recent availability of tiny, low-cost, high-quality image sensors. And it does have certain advantages. But it also has corresponding drawbacks. Consumers will need to carefully weigh the one against the other in deciding whether the LaserJet Pro M275 is the right device for them.
When it comes to scanning typical flat documents, speed is the Topshot's greatest strength. There's no warm-up and no slow traverse of the scanning head. Grabbing an image involves just three quick light-flashes, consuming maybe a second in total. In my tests, far more time was spent in transmitting image data back to my PC via Wi-Fi.
For business documents, quality is remarkably good,: easily as good as you'd get from a flatbed scanner. The scanning app has just four resolution settings: 75, 100, 200 and 300 dots per inch (dpi), but these are more than adequate for everyday applications.
Also, the device seems to do some very smart image processing. In my tests using magazine pages, I got crisp, black text on a pure white background, but also a well-optimized contrast range for embedded images. Even halftone photos came out smooth, with no blotchiness or moiré patterns.
Full-page colour images also looked very good at a cursory glance. But for archival-quality work, the flatbed still wins out. The Topshot is great at preserving perceptual detail in a quick copy, but even at the highest resolution settings fine detail is limited. This is hardly surprising. The Topshot's top 300 dpi resolution is no match for something like my ancient flatbed, which handles up to 12,800 dpi.
Another downside of the Topshot approach is that there's no automatic document feeder (ADF). So while the LaserJet Pro M275 is very fast for single pages, a flatbed multi-function product would still be a better bet for long documents.
When it comes to scanning 3D objects, results are similarly a mix of the pro and the con. The best results come with objects that aren't too three-dimensional. The outside of the packaging shows a couple of chunky bracelets, which is just about right. I got good results ‘scanning' objects like a TV remote, portable phone or fancy brass letter opener.
Anything much taller than an inch or so will end up looking flattened and over-contrasty. Imagine shooting a digital photo vertically down on an object, using your camera's built-in flash. You'd expect to get an over-lit image of the top of the object. And that's just about what you'll get from the Topshot.
What's more, even with lower-profile objects, image quality is limited by the Topshot's resolution and image-processing capability. Look closely at a scan, even at the highest 300dpi setting, and you'll see not fine detail, but a blurry dither pattern.
This makes some sense. Even though the sensor is rated at 8 megapixels, it has to be quite a small one, so noise and dynamic range will be more of a constraint than on a late-model digital camera with modest macro capability. A camera would also allow you to shoot at an ‘artistic' angle, rather than just vertically downward.
On the other hand, a camera wouldn't be as quick as the LaserJet Pro M275. If you simply want to capture and print on-the-fly, there's no denying the convenience. Also, the Topshot does really well at blanking out the background to pure white, so your ‘scans' tend to have a nice professional look.
Leaving aside the Topshot scanner, the LaserJet Pro M275 is, as you'd expect, a good laser printer. It's got USB, Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity built in, and a tiltable colour LCD control panel on the front. It supports Apple's AirPrint for output from mobile i-devices, as well as HP's own e-Print cloud-based service, allowing users to print by emailing their documents to a special address. And it can download apps from services like Yahoo!, Financial Times, Disney and DreamWorks.
Physically, the unit has a fairly compact footprint, with the paper tray protruding only slightly at the front. It wants a bit of clearance on the top for raising the Topshot camera arm, but less than you'd need for the lid of a traditional flatbed MFP.
The included software is comprehensive, with all the scanning options in a convenient app. You can even setup shortcuts for common tasks, like scanning at a specific resolution to a PDF file.
Installation is a bit more of an obstacle course than it should be. By default, the installer tries to load up needless extras like an "HP Product Improvement Study" and the Bing Toolbar. These can be tricky to avoid, and the best you can say about them is that they're not particularly relevant to the customer's main intent in purchasing the LaserJet Pro M275.
On the plus side, installation worked smoothly, detecting the printer via Wi-Fi. And the software package includes a useful bonus: a version of the Readiris OCR (optical character recognition) software.
All in all, customers looking for a good colour laser printer won't go far wrong with the LaserJet Pro M275. That leaves only the question of whether, in a world in which every new electronic device includes a camera, they should choose the Topshot scanner over a more traditional flatbed type.
In the end, that will depend on their specific needs. Those seeking the best possible image quality, or unattended processing of long documents via ADF, will continue to be best served by traditional flatbed devices.
On the other hand, someone who wants very quick copies of short documents may prefer the no-fuss responsiveness of the Topshot. And anyone who needs fast, on-demand images of small objects will find it a dream come true.