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The problem with colour laser printers has always been that they're pretty expensive. But, at around £150, Brother's bottom-of-the-range model, the HL-3040CN, is cheaper than many monochrome printers. So how has Brother managed to get the price down so low, and does the HL-3040CN produce decent results?
One of the key reasons Brother has been able to offer this model at such a competitive price is that it uses a row of high-intensity LEDs, rather than a traditional scanning laser, to draw the image onto the printer's drum. As a result, the printer has fewer moving parts than a traditional colour laser printer.
We like the design. The twin-tone, off-white and deep blue colour scheme sets it apart from the crowd, and the build quality is also very good. It's slightly bigger than most monochrome printers, but, with a footprint of 409 by 466mm, it's not so large that it can't still be accommodated at the end of bigger office desks.
The control panel on the front is quite basic. There's just a single-line, monochrome LCD display. This lacks a backlight, although it's still fairly easy to read, as long as you turn the screen contrast down to its minimum level. This display is joined by a traditional four-way control pad, as well as cancel and 'go' buttons. There's also a 'secure print' button, which we'll cover later.
As with most of Brother's printers, there's a 250-sheet pull-out paper tray at the bottom, with a single sheet feeder above it. The latter can be used for feeding in material of odd sizes, such as envelopes. All printed material is fed out of the top into a paper tray that's recessed slightly into the chassis. Rather than sitting flat in the tray, paper actually swoops up and out in a sort of S-shape, which tends to exaggerate the curling effect of the heat that the printer applies to the paper during the printing process. Still, this isn't a huge issue.
Before you can use this printer, you need to install the four different colour cartridges. These contain both the toner and the drum, and slot pretty easily into holders in the belly of the machine. Once they're in place, you just run the installer software on your computer and choose whether you want to connect to the printer either locally via USB, or across a network using Ethernet. It's all pretty easy to set up, as a software wizard guides you through the whole process.
One interesting aspect of this model is its 'secure print' feature. If you need to print a particularly sensitive document that you don't want others to see -- say, a salary report -- you can set a pin code in the printer's software driver before you actually print the job. The document is then sent to the printer, but isn't actually printed until you press the secure print button on the front and enter the correct pin code.
Given its budget nature, it's perhaps no surprise that this model isn't all that quick when it comes to printing. For example, it took 51 seconds to print our ten-page black and white text document, and 55 seconds to print a colour version of the same document. Printing our ten-page business presentation in colour took 49 seconds, and it took 56 seconds to produce ten pages of our colour graphics test.
Nevertheless, the HL-3040CN performed very well in our print-quality tests. It produced dark and clean black and white text, even at very small print sizes. Although the toner-save mode produces slightly rougher results, they're still more than acceptable for documents that aren't being sent out of house.
There was also very little banding visible in our graphics test, although some dithering crept in here and there. Banding does show its face when the printer's dealing with photos, although the HL-3040CN manages to keep colours from looking over-saturated in snaps.
The toner wells can actually be detached from the printer cartridges, so you don't have to replace the drum when the toner has run out. The drums last for 15,000 pages, while the black toner cartridge is good for 2,200 pages and the colour toner cartridge for 1,200 pages.
Overall, running costs are pretty high, though. Prices work out at around 14.3p per colour page and 3.6p for a black and white sheet, including 0.7p for paper costs. Over time, this is going to be quite an expensive machine to run.
The Brother HL-3040CN gets the job done and produces pretty impressive results in terms of print quality. But its low price tag is countered by its high running costs, so, if you do a great deal of printing, you might be better off considering a more expensive printer that's cheaper to run in the long term.
Edited by Charles Kloet