A difficult 2020 that has blended into a difficult 2021 has made it harder for many of us to get outside and shoot, but that doesn't mean you have to neglect your photography. If you're like me, you probably still have years' worth of unscanned slides and negatives waiting to be tended to some rainy day, and a COVID lockdown gives you a golden opportunity.

But are you better off using the software that came with your scanner, or should you shell out for a third-party alternative to get the best results? Before I rolled up my sleeves and started scanning, I wanted to answer this question for myself.

To do so, I compared Epson Scan – which comes bundled with the company's Perfection-series photo scanners and seems nicely representative of manufacturer-supplied software – with two of the most popular third-party alternatives, LaserSoft Imaging's SilverFast SE Plus 8.8.0r22 and Hamrick Software's VueScan Professional Edition 9.7.35.

Unfortunately, SilverFast version 9 was issued after this article had been completed, but before it made it through our edit queue. We understand it addresses some of our concerns, but have not yet tested it ourselves.

All three applications were tested with Windows 10 version 1909 on a 2018 Dell XPS 15 9570 alongside an Epson Perfection V850 Pro scanner. SilverFast SE Plus costs $99, although it was included free in the bundle with our Epson V850 Pro. VueScan Professional, meanwhile, is ordinarily $99.95.

Since I'm looking at this from the perspective of film scanning, I'm limiting my comparisons solely to scanning of positive and negative strip film and slides, and won't be considering features like document or photo print scanning, copying, OCR, and the like.

Let's start off by looking at interfaces.

Epson Scan feels a bit dated and lacks some features

Epson Scan shown in Professional mode with all windows open except the configuration dialog. As you can see, there's not much space for your photos.

As is often the case with software from hardware manufacturers, Epson Scan's Professional Mode user interface feels quite dated and somewhat unintuitive. It's split across five floating control panels that, together, don't leave much room to preview your slides, yet still offers fewer controls than its third-party rivals.

No matter how I set Windows 10's resolution and scaling, I couldn't access the reset button on this non-resizable configuration dialog.

Optional Full Auto and Home modes simplify things, but also hide many features altogether. And it's also sometimes a little buggy. For example, no matter how I configured Windows' resolution and scaling, its un-resizable configuration dialog overflowed its borders, preventing me from being able to do things like reset app defaults.

Overall, it's reasonably usable but not great.

SilverFast is powerful, but overly dense and confusing

SilverFast has only two operating modes: WorkflowPilot or Manual. WorkFlowPilot only allows single-photo scanning, and takes you through the process step by step. Some choices feel odd, though: For example it won't allow you to simply scan a standard JPEG.

SilverFast's user interface is packed with buttons and controls, not all of them intuitively named or labeled. (And quite a few are duplicates, increasing the clutter.)

Manual mode gives access to everything at once, but is very busy and unnecessarily confusing. Button colors vary for no logical reason, and active functions are indicated only with a tiny red dot. Help is provided throughout, but the many (and often redundant) buttons linking to abbreviated PDF manuals and numerous lengthy tutorial videos make its interface even more cluttered.

I also found it prone to making me wait for preview scans more than its rivals, and cancelling a batch scan can be extremely tedious as it makes you separately cancel every remaining frame, one by one. This was my least-favorite interface of the bunch.

[Edit: I've since learned that SilverFast batch scans can be canceled entirely by alt-clicking the cancel button. This is, however, not obvious, although it's mentioned in one of 13 separate PDF manuals for SilverFast SE Plus 8 on the company's website.]

VueScan's interface is faster and cleaner

VueScan's user interface largely revolves around intuitively named and well-categorized dropdown menus. It's the cleanest and most responsive of the bunch.

VueScan's UI has Basic, Standard or Professional modes, all three mostly using drop-down lists very logically arranged in two to five tabs. It's cleaner, faster and more modern than its rivals, and leaves more room to preview your images. Its single PDF user manual is also unusually detailed and helpful.

This is hands-down my favorite of the trio.

Epson is fastest, but there's a catch

Performance will, obviously, vary depending both on the speed of your scanner, and what hardware features it offers. With that proviso, I found Epson Scan had a slight edge in scanning speed, but with a significant catch.

Epson Scan took just under 59 minutes to scan 18 negatives at 6400 dpi with dust reduction and sharpening active, while VueScan took 67 minutes, and SilverFast trailed the pack at 84 minutes. But Epson Scan's fixed crop for batch scanning threw away a significant amount of image data.

Epson Scan is just fractionally ahead of VueScan performance-wise. SilverFast trails both its rivals by some distance.

Calculating backwards from the image dimensions as scanned, Epson Scan managed around 14.8 Megapixels/minute, just fractionally faster than VueScan's 14.5 Megapixels/minute. SilverFast managed only 11.5 Megapixels/minute, making it by far the slowest.

All three apps could use more accurate cropping

While Epson Scan's auto-cropping was by far the least accurate of the bunch, routinely discarding 10-15% of the frame height, I was surprised to find both SilverFast and VueScan also struggled to accurately detect frame sizes, as well.

Both apps mostly got the frame height in the ballpark, but had some issues detecting the gaps between frames. SilverFast sometimes incorrectly rotated frames, too. Significant manual tweaking is needed for all three programs if you want accurate cropping.

Although I found its cropping setup the best overall, I still thought VueScan could use improvement both in its frame detection and its somewhat confusing default UI.

VueScan's much more responsive interface made those adjustments easier than its rivals, though. And Epson Scan was the least flexible, preventing you from batch-scanning unless you're willing to live with its automatically-selected cropping.

I did find VueScan's enabled-by-default "multi outline" option a bit confusing, though. To look at the wildly flickering borders you'd think the cropping was wildly off, but the actual framing is indicated for only one frame at a time by the smaller border seen on the top-rightmost thumbnail in the picture above.

But enough of the user interface. How did they perform in terms of image quality? We'll start out with detail levels.

Similar levels of detail, but SilverFast has higher default sharpening

One of my first attempts at a still life as a teenager now makes for a rather nice gauge of detail. In the 100% crops below, note the pale horizontal lines are fine water droplets misted from a garden hose just out of frame right.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given they're all constrained by the same scanner hardware, all three programs turn in a very similar result in terms of their rendering of fine detail. In all three cases, sharpening and IR dust reduction were enabled.

SilverFast definitely defaults to significantly higher levels of sharpening than its rivals, though, giving the impression of more detail. But VueScan and Epson Scan's images can easily be unsharp-masked post capture or the default sharpening levels tweaked similarly.

Epson Scan SilverFast VueScan

Epson and VueScan give the best color

All three programs can give good color with some work, but I found SilverFast needed tweaking more often than its rivals, tending to yield results that were too warm and with purplish casts, even with its color-cast reduction and orange mask expansion enabled. Unlike Epson Scan, it allows the film type to be selected for better results, but has a shorter list of film types than does VueScan.

Epson Scan's automatic tools tended to yield the best color, but were perhaps a bit overly-saturated and warm for my liking, especially in skin tones, and manual adjustments were significantly trickier.

VueScan's defaults were a bit cool and less saturated, although switching to auto levels or white balance modes gave better results. Like SilverFast, it can correct for the film's orange mask, but the multi-step process is a little confusing, and it frequently lost the correction values, which then had to be reset.

Find out more on how image quality compares, and my final verdict on which program is best, on the next page.