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If there's one truth about every printer I've ever owned, it's that I've dreamed of pulling an IniTech: Taking each one into an empty field somewhere and beating it into pieces with a baseball bat. If you don't identify with this sentiment, chances are you've never owned a low-end consumer inkjet printer. I've had several over the years (I won't name and shame the specific brands), and end up stuck in the same unpleasant cycle every time.
Editors' note, Aug. 22, 2018: The Brother HL-L2395DW is once again on sale at Amazon for $99, while the color HL-3170CDW is on sale for $175, both as of Aug. 19. More details on these discounts can be found here.
First, I'm lured in by a low starting price, usually under $80 or so, but the setup is a pain, the printer only sees my laptop over Wi-Fi when it's in the mood, and output ranges from fine to spotty, with colors and tones all over the place. Of course, the ink runs out shockingly soon, and sometimes my expensive replacement inkjet cartridges aren't recognized or fail to initialize properly. Take too many trips down that troubleshooting rabbit hole and you'll be ready to go back to legal pads and No. 2 pencils.
If any of the above sounds familiar, you'll understand why I set out to find 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.
I consulted some of my CNET colleagues who have faced similar frustrations, looked up different models with widely varying lists of features, and searched for reports of problems from purchasers. The price, both upfront and ongoing, was also a major factor.
Eventually, I landed on the Brother HL-L2395DW. It has almost 2,000 customer reviews on Amazon, nearly all positive, and it's a favorite over at Gizmodo, too. It's a monochrome laser printer that includes a scanner (printer people call this a "multifunction" printer), and it's the sequel to the Brother HL2380DW, which has been employed in the CNET Labs for months, faithfully printing shipping labels without skipping a beat.
But here's the key part: While the official price is $169, it's on sale on Amazon at least once per quarter for $99, or AU$199 in Australia. Wait for it to go on sale and you'll feel like it's $99 well spent (it's semidiscounted right now, at $129 on Amazon). Brother doesn't offer this exact printer in the UK, but comparable models start at £142.
It's important to note that I didn't set up and formally test multiple similar products, like we do for reviews of laptops, TVs, 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. There are other laser printers that can get down to around $99 during sales, and many of them are probably just as good, so don't @ me with your favorite. (Actually, please do.)
Setup of the HL-L2395DW was easy, and the only assembly required was pulling off several strips of tape holding all the doors and panels closed, and inserting the drum-plus-toner package. The hardest part was the thin instruction sheet with less-than-detailed illustrations, but I was able to intuit the correct way to insert the toner. Brother says the "starter" black toner that comes with the system should be good for 700 printed pages, and a 1,200-page replacement costs $44 from Amazon.
Wi-Fi setup was also painless, but it helped that there were relatively few options on the onscreen menu. The small color touchscreen was responsive enough that I was able to tap in my Wi-Fi password on the first attempt.
A bigger time sink was setting up to print via Google Cloud Print, a system I've always found to be inscrutable. Simply adding a networked local printer via Windows 10 or MacOS is also not the one-button task it should be, but I got that sorted out after a few minutes as well.
In my hands-on testing, printing 10 pages from a MacBook took 27 seconds, including about 5 seconds for the data to stream over the network from my laptop to the printer. Printing a seven-page webpage from the Edge browser on a Windows laptop took 36 seconds. Making a "photocopy" of a single sheet of paper took 9 seconds.
But much more importantly than that, once I had the printer set up and the Wi-Fi connections made, it just worked and kicked out a perfectly legible document every time. I tried different laptops, I tried my phone (19 seconds for a one-page email via AirPrint), I tried Google Docs, PDF files and emails. It just worked, and for me as a decades-long inkjet user, it was a refreshing change of pace.
One thing to watch out for if you buy from Amazon: It uses "Amazon Dash Auto Replenishment," which means it'll automatically order new toner for you when it's running low, but that's a feature you can turn off via your Amazon account.
The HL-L2395DW has a flatbed scanner and copier, but isn't a color printer. I find that most of my printing is shipping labels, pages of notes for TV appearances, and user manuals for laptops to read while testing. But, I also get that color is important to a lot of people, and a monochrome printer can be a dealbreaker. That's why I followed the printer rabbit hole just a little deeper to find the Brother's big, uh, brother basic color version.
I tried the least expensive color cousin to the so-far excellent HL-L2395DW, which is called the HL-3170CDW. Let's just say clear product naming isn't a strong suit here. This color printer is normally $249 (£240, AU$259), but Amazon and other stores regularly sell it for $199, or double the on-sale price of the monochrome version. User reviews for it are generally good, but not as good as for the monochrome version.
More details are in my review of the HL-3170CDW here, but the biggest takeaway is that you're trading some features, like the scanner and touchscreen interface, for cheap, but effective, color.
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 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 I'll also make sure no one is standing right below my window.
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