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

This basic color laser printer (technically it uses a different light, not a laser) just plain works, which is more than I can say for most color inkjets I've tried.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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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. 

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7.9

Brother HL-3170CDW

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.
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Watch this: A pair of affordable laser printers that won't drive you crazy

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. 

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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.

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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. 

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.  

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Not the only game in town

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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7.9

Brother HL-3170CDW

Score Breakdown

Value 9Features 7Performance 8Design 7