Brother MFC-420cn review: Brother MFC-420cn

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MSRP: $229.99

The Good Low price; compact space-saving design; good-quality text, photo, and color graphics output.

The Bad Limited paper supply; flimsy plastic parts.

The Bottom Line The Brother MFC-420cn is a good multifunction for easy digital photo printing, but it's too limited for heavy workloads.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Support 8


The Brother MFC-420cn is a diminutive inkjet all-in-one with features worthy of a much more expensive product. It prints, scans, copies, faxes, and delivers photos directly from its set of built-in media-card readers. Just in case that's not enough, the 420cn is also network ready. You may wonder why anyone would want to network an all-in-one with a paper capacity of only 110 sheets and a slow 14.4Kbps fax modem; but we say, why not throw it on the network and see what it can do? After all, even a two-person office might want to scan documents, edit photos, and send faxes from both computers. Whoever sits closest to the 420cn can refill the paper tray without even getting up from the chair. We can't predict how long the Brother 420cn will last, but given the creaky look and feel of its plastic parts, we suspect that longevity is not its strong suit. Still, if you're in the market for an inexpensive all-in-one to share with an office mate or two, we can't think of a better place to start than with the Brother 420cn. The Brother MFC-420cn is a briefcase-size all-in-one device that would fit on a shelf alongside the family entertainment center or on a cramped desk in a busy small office. Clad in shiny pewter-colored and matte dark-gray plastic, the 420cn weighs just more than 13 pounds and measures a scant 15.3 by 15.8 by 6.5 inches (WDH). That's about half the height and 5 pounds lighter than most machines in its class. Brother designed the 420cn to be small and short enough so that you can fax, scan, copy, and print with it without getting up from your desk chair.

This convenience comes with some sacrifice, and for the 420cn, that means tolerating lightweight plastic parts and a diminished paper-storage capacity. On its top, the 420cn holds a wee 10 sheets, and the automatic document feeder (ADF) and the input paper tray keep only 100 sheets. It's rare for such a small printer to feature an ADF, which allows you to make copies without lifting the tray lid. A small piece of free-sliding plastic in the center of the input tray functions as a 25-sheet output tray. The weak, thin plastic forming the ADF appears fragile.

Unlike with the meager paper capacity, Brother did not skimp on the 420cn's control panel. The full-size panel features a 12-button alphanumeric keypad; a 32-character LCD screen; four mode buttons for Photo Capture, Copy, Fax, and Scan; plus a combination menu-search and speed-dial button. Curiously, Brother put the 420cn's keypad to the left of the LCD panel, which right-handed users may find inconvenient. Without backlighting, the LCD is hard to read in low light or under a bright fluorescent glare. And unlike most all-in-one devices, the Brother 420cn's USB 2.0 and network-connection ports are situated under the front cover, not in back.

The top of the Brother 420cn, which contains the ADF, the flatbed scanner lid, and the control panel, lifts up on its right side and locks open with a creaky plastic support arm. This provides access to the four CMYK ink tanks. The 420cn does not use special photo inks, so unlike the Dell 942 or the Lexmark x7170, you don't have to swap out cartridges between photo and text printing. The individual ink cartridges create a replace-only-the-colors-you-use scenario, which is preferable to single three-color ink tanks that need replacement as soon as one color goes dry.

At its size and price, you might not expect the 420cn to have room for a set of digital-media card readers. But lo and behold, the 420cn sports three slots--for CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, xD Picture Card, and Secure Digital media cards--sandwiched between the top cover and the input/output tray.

The Brother MFC-420cn all-in-one works as a standalone device for printing photos from digital-media cards and for faxing and copying. Connected to a PC or a Macintosh computer, the 420cn adds printing and scanning to its repertoire, and if your office is networked, this little machine can join your network via its built-in Ethernet 10/100BaseT card. The 420cn comes with Brother's BRAdmin Professional utility network-management software and supports a variety of standard network protocols, including TCP/IP and Apple's Simple network configuration--a good set of features for the price.

The Brother 420cn also includes 16MB of RAM, which the company claims can store up to 480 pages in memory. The device can broadcast faxes from your computer or over a network to up to 130 locations, and you can can program it to autodial up to 80 numbers. Fax transmission itself, however, will be on the slow side, as the 420cn has a modem speed of just 14.4Kbps, nearly half the speed of the modem on the Lexmark x7170.

The Brother 420cn's slim, built-in collection of media-card readers, dubbed the Brother PhotoCapture Center, makes printing photos from digital cameras quick and easy. Just insert your camera's media card into the appropriate slot. And if you've networked the 420cn, anyone on the network can copy, edit, and print photos from the card. If the 420cn is neither networked nor connected to a computer, you can still enjoy printing photos; the control panel's LCD and menu scrolling button let you select the size of the photo and the type of paper you wish to use. With either method, be prepared to wait if you're printing an 8x10-inch photograph, as it can take almost seven minutes to print in Fine mode on glossy paper.

Black-ink cartridges cost $21.99 and are built to last 500 pages, while the cyan, magenta, and yellow cartridges each cost $11.99 and yield 400 pages. That brings black-only prints to 2.3 cents per page and four-color prints to an affordable average of 14 cents per page.

The Brother MFC-420cn performed well in CNET Labs' tests for a machine of its small size, although its 3.2-page-per-minute (ppm) text speed didn't rank it among the fastest multifunctions we've seen. The inkjet printer's pace fell below our expectations, hogging up to 6.5 minutes to finish a high-resolution 8x10 photo, nearly 2 minutes longer than the average for machines in its class.

Still, the little Brother MFC-420cn produced good-quality text and graphics on CNET Labs' tests. Text on inkjet paper looked truly black, well saturated, and easy to read. Color graphics also printed well, showing plenty of detail and sharpness but not quite enough vibrancy and saturation to be called excellent. Color photos on glossy photo paper were vibrant, if a bit oversaturated. Unfortunately, we saw severe graininess--on a par with that of, say, inkjet technology circa 2000.

Color photos on glossy photo paper, by contrast, showed a much livelier, bold palette of colors. Unfortunately, they were also grainy-looking, making them good rather than excellent.

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