A good scanner has become as essential to computing as a decent printer. So, with that in mind, I tested the Visioneer One-Touch 8600 ($199) and the UMAX Astra 4000U ($349).

Both of these flatbed scanners can connect to either the parallel or universal serial bus (USB) ports on your computer. Both will give you crisp, clear reproductions. But that's where the similarity ends.The One-Touch is for either home or office and has several buttons so you can select one of five functions: scan, copy, fax, OCR (optical character recognition), and e-mail. You just push a button and the deed is done.

There's also a ''custom'' button that can be programmed to send scans to a second printer, to your word processor or to your image-editing software.

And this baby is fast. A lot of this is due to the USB connection, but I believe that the JPEG Enhancement Technology (JET), developed by Visioneer, also plays a role.

Optical resolution of the scans is 600 by 1,200 dots per square inch, but that can be enhanced to 9,600 dpi using a driver downloadable from Although digital enhancement can really sharpen a scanned photograph, I've found that most folks usually can't tell the difference.

The One-Touch also comes with a great package of software, including TextBridge Pro 8 OCR, for translating scanned documents into text; MGI PhotoSuite II SE; the PictureWorks Photo Enhancer, which eliminates such nasty things as red-eye and scan lines from photos; PaperPort Deluxe 6; Internet Explorer 4.01; Adobe Acrobat Reader and WebPublisher Link.

The only problem with the One-Touch is that it can only handle documents that are letter-sized or smaller. Larger documents have to be scanned in pieces and then stitched together using the PaperPort or photo editing software.

Other than that, it's a steal at $199.

The UMAX scanner is geared more for offices. The first difference you notice is its size.

This baby can handle everything from legal-sized documents to business cards without a hitch. And, although it's not as fast as the One-Touch, it can scan a four-inch by six-inch photograph in fewer than two minutes and a letter-sized document in 38 seconds.

There's also an accessory port that can be used to attach the optional UMAX transparency adapter to scan slides, negatives and other transparent media.

Resolution is 1,200 by 2,400 dpi, which can be enhanced to 9,600 by 9,600.

It also comes with an impressive list of software, including VistaScan 3.5, featuring the Kodak Digital Science Color Management System; Adobe Photoshop LE; Caere OmniPage LE OCR software; the NewSoft Presto! Page Manager; and NewSoft PhotoAlbum LE.

Also, once you call up the VistaScan software, you'll discover that it offers a bunch of options, including scanning directly to your printer and everything else the One-Touch does.

The difference is that, since these options are software-driven rather than hardware-driven, it takes a few seconds longer for each task to be completed.

There's even a beginner and advanced option that walks you through each of the scanner's features as they're being performed.