Kodak FD 300 Film Drive
An APS film scanner that's as easy as 1-2-3
FD 300 Film Drive
Although Advantix--otherwise known as Advanced Photo System, or APS--film was ostensibly designed to make photography easier for non-photographers, its features also make it a boon for more advanced shutterbugs. Easy mid-roll replacement, faster loading time, extra information recorded magnetically on the film, and on-the-fly selection between three different aspect ratios are just a few of its benefits. It's almost like combining the resolution and range of film with the flexibility of digital media.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Kodak has introduced the Film Drive FD 300, an APS film scanner. Like APS itself, it's positioned for consumers while also being useful for more advanced users, combining the benefits of digital and analog.

While the Film Drive is not the most flexible film scanner on the market--unlike other film scanners, it scans APS film exclusively--it's the smallest and cheapest I've seen to date. A featherweight 709 g, the Film Drive is a white plastic box about twice the volume of an external Zip drive. Half of that volume is empty air; the entire back half is used for cooling vents.

Like so many other consumer-oriented PC gadgets these days, installing the Film Drive is just a matter of connecting it to an ECP parallel port (daisy-chaining any other parallel devices, if necessary) and plugging it in. Then it's just a matter of installing the software. (Inexplicably, the setup program asks you to provide the serial number from the bottom of the Film Drive. Why? Does Kodak anticipate someone using the Film Drive software with some other device?)

The Film Drive is also one of those consumer-oriented PC gadgets that has no off switch, which is an increasing source of irritation for me. Including the Film Drive, I had four peripherals on my desk which are used for maybe 15 minutes day, and yet are always on, even if the computer is off. Is a power switch really such a bad thing?

Fortunately, that's my only complaint about the hardware. True to its hype, the Film Drive is as easy to load as an APS camera: pop open the door, slide in a processed or partially-processed film cartridge, and close the door. Once the Film Drive's TWAIN driver has been activated, the access software scans the cartridge and presents thumbnails. On a Pentium-133 test system, it took just under a minute to scan a 15-exposure cartridge and generate the preview.

From there, you can crop or enhance the image if you're so inclined. This is where the advantage of scanning directly from film, as compared to using a flatbed scanner and printed photos, is clear. APS cameras have three available aspect ratios: Classic (1.5:1), Group or HDTV (1.75:1), and Panoramic (2.75:1). All photos are actually taken in Group; the entire frame is exposed on the negative, but when you get a take a Classic or Panoramic shot, the print is cropped to match the aspect ratio. When scanning the negative, you actually have the whole frame to work with, regardless of the mode you selected while taking the photograph. I'm sure anyone who has accidentally cut the heads off a group of friends in a photo will appreciate this.

The image enhancement function is simple and straightforward. You can adjust brightness, contrast, red, green, and blue levels. It certainly won't give Photoshop a run for its money, but the key issue here is that you're enhancing the image based on the original film negative. For example, when I got back a photo of my nephew on my couch, the picture looked fine at a glance--except that the couch looked like it was one solid color. Had I scanned the print on my flatbed, no amount of image enhancement would have brought out the intricate pattern and wrinkles in the material. By adjusting the colors from the Film Drive access software, I was able to bring them out easily. Although the Film Drive outputs 24-bit color (compared to the 30-bit color on many flatbeds), this feature helps to make up for it. There is one problem, though: the preview is reduced to an unacceptably small size in order to show the original and modified images. I would have appreciated the ability to zoom in to catch some of the details.

Once you've finished your pre-scanning tweaking, it's time to scan and transfer the frame. Again, this is simple but a bit lacking. You're given the option to scan at low, medium, or high resolution (800, 1600, and 2400 dpi, respectively), and the access software tells you how that translates into pixels--but only based on the full frame. That is, regardless of how you've decided to crop the image, all you're told is that high resolution gives you 2625x1500 pixels, which isn't very helpful.

Scanning a full frame at high resolution took 78 seconds; transferring and processing the data took another minute, but I expect that would vary with processor speed and RAM. Unsurprisingly, the results were clear and sharp. And, ultimately, that's what it all comes down to: the final image. Even after the quibbles I had with the access software's interface, the final result was worth it.

Other film scanners can handle other film formats, squeeze out higher optical resolution, or output 30 or 36-bit color; however, the FD 300 Film Drive packs a lot of power into a small package at a lower cost. Once again, though, I find the software falls just a little bit short of the hardware. Memo to Kodak and other manufacturers: a few more advanced functions aren't going to scare novices away. In fact, if you design the interface well, users of all levels will thank you for it.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (June 1999)
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