Brother HL-3170CDW review: A cheap and charming color laser printer

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The Good This digital-LED printer is a low-cost color laser printer in all but name. Toner cartridges last a long time.

The Bad Despite being a single-function printer, it's big and heavy. Laser printers aren't great for color photos. Setup without a touchscreen is a pain.

The Bottom Line This no-nonsense color printer from Brother cuts extra features to keep the price down.

7.9 Overall
  • Value 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Design 7
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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. 


The monochrome HL-L2395DW and the color HL-3170CDW. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

My colorful quest

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.

Photo finish

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. 

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