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If you're anything like me, the idea of printing on a home printer sends you running for the hills. Will the printer wake up? Will it connect to my laptop? Will the paper jam? Will I get an out-of-ink warning? That last one is a trick question -- of course you're going to get that.
So I finally decided it was worth it to look at investing just a bit more and going the laser route. I found monochrome nirvana with the Brother HL-L2395DW, an all-in-one printer that can often be found on sale for $99. Then I got a little more ambitious and searched for something with the same combination of value and reliability, but with color. I tried the Brother HL-3170CDW, which is usually available online for $199 (the "official" price is $249). User reviews for it are generally good, but not as good as for the monochrome version. In the UK, it's £240 and in Australia it's AU$259.
To keep costs down, I traded away the scanner functions and color touchscreen interface found on the monochrome version, so this is a printer only, and a basic one at that. But I wasn't looking for bells and whistles, I wanted a half-decent printer that didn't cost too much, was easy to use, and -- most importantly -- actually worked at least most of the time. My biggest benchmark was this: I'd consider it a success if I didn't want to throw the printer out of a window after a week.
It's important to note that I didn't set up and formally test multiple similar products, like we do for reviews of laptops, televisions, phones and so on. Instead, this was a personal quest where I picked the model that looked like it had the best reputation from consumers at the price I was looking for.
Technically the HL-3170CDW is a digital-LED printer, rather than a laser printer. The difference is in the type of light beam used to get the toner onto the paper. LEDs are less expensive while lasers can offer better quality, but the differences are subtle.
You give up a couple of key features in exchange for cheap color. The onboard display isn't a touchscreen, making Wi-Fi setup much more annoying, and this is a printer only, meaning there's no scanner hardware or photocopy function. Anecdotally, I find the scanner on a home multifunction printer gets used a few times per year at most, so it's not a dealbreaker for me, but your needs may be different.
One thing to keep in mind is that even though inkjet printers can be incredibly annoying, they're still better at printing accurate color photos on photo paper. The color Brother printer did fine printing a large photo on decent nonglossy paper (see below), but it's not a print anyone is going to hang on a wall. While both laser printers I tried are very good at illustrations and graphics, photos ranged from OK to meh, with poor color accuracy.
You can mitigate the photo issues by using laser printer glossy paper -- inkjet photo paper is specially coated for an inkjet mechanism and doesn't play nice with laser printers. If you're specifically looking to print lots of high-quality photos, you're better off with a specialty photo printer, like the Canon Pixma line or the HP Envy Photo line.
Printing was a bit slower than using the monochrome model. A black-and-white 10-page text document took 55 seconds to fully print (versus 27 seconds for the monochrome printer), while a single-page color test sheet took 20 seconds. With both printers on their default settings, black text looked a little darker and bolder from the monochrome printer, but you'd have to have them sitting side by side to tell the difference.
The color HL-3170CDW came with its black, cyan, yellow and magenta toner cartridges preinstalled, which Brother says should be good for 1,000 pages. If buying from Amazon, it has autoreplenishment turned on by default, so keep an eye on that, as replacement cartridges cost around $57 per color (and are said to be good for 1,400 pages each). Third-party color laser toner can be found online for under $100 for a full-color set.
As I said my review of the monochrome HL-L2395DW, these are not the only low-cost, high-quality printers you can find, but they are models I kept running across recommendations for, so they seemed like a good place to start. There's one thing I am convinced of, which is that even for budget shoppers, laser (or digital LED) is the way to go, rather than inkjet, which has caused me so much frustration over the years.
Now, I've only used these two Brother printers for about a month, so even though they pass my test of not wanting to throw either one out of the nearest window yet, that could certainly change over time. I'll update this review if that happens, and warn you against standing under my window.
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