First it was a mouse, then color, then CD-ROM. Now it's a scanner that the well-equipped system has to acquire. The faxlike instrument converts printed material, such as a magazine page or a company logo, into data that a computer can read. Those digitized images -- pictures and words -- can be stored, retrieved, and adapted to applications such as desktop publishing. So far they've been comparatively expensive, and slow and unreliable as text readers. Because coaxing the most out of low-end flatbed scanners has required an expert hand, they haven't yet caught on as office-PC peripherals.

But they might be about to. In a joint marketing thrust into the anticipated boom, hardware manufacturer Hewlett-Packard and software developer Caere have come out with a package that tempers scanners' fussiness, at a reasonable cost. Among the ease-of-use features of HP's new machine, the ScanJet IIp: self-installation in both DOS and Macintosh computers, preset adjustments for a variety of popular printers, automatic image-type selection (gray scale or line art), automatic exposure, and simplified placement of scanned material in a document.

To those basics, teammate Caere adds optical-character-recognition (OCR) software, which accurately converts into word-processing characters the text that HP's machine scans, so that retyping is unnecessary. An example: a revision of a contract that's been sent over by a lawyer. The automated point-and-click program reads virtually any typeface and can also interpret odd shapes and characters.

HP ScanJet IIp for Macintosh is $1,095; for PC and Micro Channel systems, $1,295. A trial version of OmniPage Direct, Caere's OCR program, is bundled with it and can be converted to a full working version for $300.

For information, write Hewlett-Packard Inquiries, 19310 Pruneridge Ave., Cupertino, CA 95014, or call 408-725-8900.

-- Robert A. Mamis

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