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The Perfection 4870 Photo is Epson’s attempt to combine the versatility of an A4 flatbed scanner with the ability to scan small format films at adequate resolutions for print. It comes a few months after Microtek’s £155 ScanMaker 6100, which had similar ambitions but fell sadly short on the film side. Can Epson do better?

The Epson’s true optical resolution is apparently 4,800dpi, sub-sampled to 9,600dpi in the long dimension. The Microtek has 3,200-x-6,400dpi, but there’s a lot more to scanning quality than raw resolution. The Epson’s dynamic range of 3.8 is excellent for the price and more than enough for most films.

The scanner is relatively bulky by current standards, but feels well built. There’s a programmable one-touch scan button on the front panel, near the power switch. The transparency illuminator hood covers 155-x-210mm – when scanning prints you cover it over with a clip-on padded cover. For film scanning there are three film holder frames, covering four 35mm strips, two 4-x-5 inch films, and three 120/220 strips. Frame position detection is automatic with the Epson Scan software.

An important and unusual feature of the 4870 is a hardware implementation of the Kodak/ASF Digital ICE technology. Using a second set of lamps inside the scanner, this is designed to automatically remove dust and scratches, and then delete the blemishes without blurring fine details. It worked well with dust, but some scratches survived. Microtek offers ICE in the ScanMaker 6800 flatbed, though it only works on prints.

Scanning at 9,600dpi and 48-bit depth gives a 350MB file from a single 35mm frame. This is big enough to print a portrait image up to 1m high at 360dpi, using a high-resolution inkjet, or much larger for lower print resolutions. The results are surprisingly good – you’re probably capturing all the detail the film has to give.

At resolutions suitable for an A4 inkjet page, the quality and colour is acceptable, but the general sharpness is not as good as a dedicated film scanner such as the Nikon CoolScan 5000 ED (reviewed on page 66). However, the Epson costs a quarter of the price and handles a wider range of originals.

Scan speeds are dependent on resolution and whether ICE is switched on. With USB 2.0 connected, a 35mm film scan at 2,400dpi (for a 20MB 8-bit file) takes 102 seconds with ICE switched off. With ICE turned on, it takes a yawn-inducing 30 minutes. At the maximum 9,600dpi setting with ICE on, a scan can take an hour or more and eat up all your RAM along the way. Reflective (print) scans are much faster, though. A 4-x-6 inch print at 600dpi (for a 22MB file) takes 50 seconds with ICE off, and just under five minutes with it turned on.

The scanner is supplied with LaserSoft SilverFast SE6 professional scanning software, which can’t access the ICE dust-buster, but is more sophisticated than Epson Scan. You can set everything up manually, but the Scan Pilot workflow manager can help you through each stage if needed. It includes dust and scratch removal, GANE grain and noise reduction, as well as LaserSoft’s proprietary NegaFix software.

NegaFix is a sophisticated software system rather than the hardware-assisted ICE. It’s good on colour negative film but failed to distinguish true dust from real detail on some transparencies. It’s slow to work with too. You have to pre-scan at the final resolution, fiddle with the manual settings (auto-detect isn’t brilliant), and then perform the final scan. The GANE grain reduction system works well. Both Epson Scan and SilverFast can be set up for batch scanning of multiple images with different image adjustments.

Epson supplies a worthwhile software bundle with the 4870. Apart from Epson Scan and SilverFast, there’s Photoshop Elements 2.0, and the Abbyy FineReader 5 Sprint Plus OCR.

The Perfection 4870 Photo produces results that are excellent for the price, and it comprehensively beats Microtek’s ScanMaker 6100. It could be used for professional scanning at a pinch, but it’s too slow for intensive use.