Going digital Software test: Silverfast Ai vs VueScan 8.2.30

You don't have to stick with the software that came supplied with your scanner. In fact, you can get a virtual scanner upgrade by changing it, as Ian Farrall explains

THIRD-PARTY scanning software can often improve on the look and feel of a scanner's user interface. It can also provide a way of using old scanners with operating systems that aren't supported by the manufacturer's own drivers, for example if you're struggling to get an older scanner to work under Windows XP or Mac OS X.

Two such applications are Silverfast Ai (version 6) from Lasersoft Imaging, and Hamrick Software's VueScan 8.2.30. Both are available to buy on the web: Silverfast is available on disk or by download; VueScan is downloaded only. We tested both packages on an identical set-up: an Apple Powerbook G4 with 1GB RAM; an Epson Perfection 4870 flatbed scanner; and a Minolta DiMAGE Scan Elite 5400 film scanner.

Initial Thoughts

Downloading each application was pretty straightforward, though you wouldn't want to attempt this without a high-speed broadband connection. Installation was also a breeze.

Opening up each program reveals quite different approaches, however. From the outset it's apparent that Silverfast is a very powerful beast - there are buttons everywhere, which is quite intimidating at first. All of them are iconic, so you have to hover over each one and wait for the pop-up help. All becomes a bit clearer though as the help files are very good - there are even movie clips that talk you through the process of making a scan.

In contrast, VueScan's help files are complicated and a couple of readings are needed to glean the information. It's a good job that VueScan's interface is user-friendly enough not to need the help files all that much. By default the software kicks off in Basic mode which asks the user questions ("what kind of scan do you want to make?) and presents a series of options with a Next button. Great both for being easy and for not being intimidating. Change from Basic to Standard or Advanced modes, though, and it becomes apparent that VueScan is every bit as fully featured as Silverfast - it just looks much nicer!

Features

The great thing about both of these packages is that they are not simply replacements for a manufacturer's own software, but genuine alternatives with extra functionality. For instance, both have batch-scanning features. This is particularly useful if you have a large number of originals to get through as it means you can leave the scanner running and only return to change a strip of film. VueScan even gives the option of saving a kind of raw file (different to a camera Raw file), which is perfect for archiving purposes. It scans a complete strip of film in one go, and the user can come back to this at any time to extract a particular frame.

Features particular to a specific scanner are supported too. If a model incorporates dust and scratch removal using an infrared light source then this is available as Digital ICE in Silverfast and as Infrared Cleaning (Hamrick's own method) in VueScan. Interestingly, Hamrick's IR Cleaning system worked every bit as effectively as its more well-known competitor.

Both packages make it possible to set every parameter of the process manually or automatically, but VueScan's superior interface makes this a much quicker and easier task than it is on Silverfast. It should be noted, though, that both packages are better than ORM solutions we've used from Epson, HP, Minolta and Canon.

Image quality is likely to be dictated more by hardware than software, and we couldn't detect much of a difference between the packages on test here. Good scans are all about being able to get the most from your set-up though, so the more intuitive interface of VueScan or the more expansive user manual of Silverfast may be factors that influence image quality indirectly.

Value for money

Both packages are available to download for free as trial versions, but once you hear Lasersoft's pricing policy for Silverfast you might have already made your decision. When buying Silverfast, you specify which scanner you'll use it with and then pick a corresponding version of the software, costing between $138 and $253. If you upgrade your scanner at a later date, you must buy another version of Silverfast to work with the new model.

Hamrick's policy is much better value for money: $49.95 buys you a standard edition of VueScan that works with over 400 different scanners, with more are being added all the time, so you don't have to buy new software if you get a new scanner. And what's more the standard edition gives 12 months of updates for free while the Pro version updates for life.

Lasersoft tells us if you buy a second copy of Silverfast because you're now using a different scanner you'll get a discount, but even so, VueScan is the clear choice if you own more than one scanner or have plans to upgrade at a later date. It's cheaper, easier to use and performs just as well.

Conclusion

Replacing unstable, unfriendly scanner software with one of these packages is well considering. In PM's opinion, the choice between the two is a no-brainer: the superior user interface, well thought-out features and great value make VueScan the clear winner. Thoroughly recommended.