The Brother MFC-685CW's low-profile design makes it a great fit for homes and home offices. It measures 18.4 inches wide, 14.6 inches deep, and 7.1 inches tall. The 10-page automatic document feeder is mounted flush with the scanner lid, which makes it less bulky than most multifunctions that have ADFs. Mounted on the front face of the printer are two memory card slots and a PictBridge USB port.
The control panel is straightforward. The 3.3-inch color LCD is unusual in that it's a widescreen LCD, something we haven't seen in on a multifunction printer before. The wide screen allows you to preview pictures on one side, while viewing relevant information on the other. On one side of the LCD is the printer's message center and fax panel. The message center includes buttons for playing back and erasing voice messages, while the fax panel includes an alphanumeric keypad and buttons such as fax preview, redial/pause, hold, and speaker phone. To the left of the message center is a corded handset for making phone calls or manually answering incoming fax calls. The other half of the printer's control panel offers controls for switching between tasks, as well as menu, OK, menu navigation, and start and stop buttons.
The paper handling system is consolidated into a single cassette that slides all of the way out of the printer. The bottom tier is the input cassette, which holds as many as 100 sheets of plain paper. Mounted on the cover of the cassette is a dedicated 4x6 photo paper tray that can hold up to 20 sheets. The printed pages fall out on top of the photo tray. There are a couple of things we really do not like about the paper system. First, in order to load paper--either into the photo tray or the main cassette--you must remove the entire cassette. This precludes adding more paper in the middle of a print job. Second, if you want to print from the dedicated photo paper tray, you have to manually engage it, which again requires removing the entire cassette first. After you're done printing on photo paper, you'll have to remove the cassette to manually disengage the tray. While we ultimately prefer photo trays that engage automatically, we'd be fine with this setup if you could engage the photo tray without having to take out the whole cassette first.
The Brother MFC-685CW uses a four-ink system with individual ink tanks. Instead of installing the tanks directly on the moving print head, they are installed in a compartment in the front of the printer. Tubes siphon the ink to the print head. The black tank is good for about 500 pages and costs about $23.49. Each of the cyan, magenta, and yellow tanks are good for about 400 pages and cost about $12.99 each. Using these numbers, we calculate that it costs approximately 4.7 cents to print an all-black page and 14.4 cents to print a full-color page.
The Brother MFC-685CW offers a compelling feature set for home office users. The printer comes network-ready, with both Ethernet and Wi-Fi. The ADF is great for batch scans, copies, or faxes, though it's limited to 10 pages. And it has a built-in answering machine and telephone handset, great features for those in cozy offices.
The copy options are standard: you can make as many as 99 copies at once. You can scale copy sizes between 25 percent and 400 percent, using preset or custom values. And you can make 2-on-1, 4-on-1, poster (3x3), and collated copies. Using the control panel, you can always change the output quality.
Your scan-to options on the control panel are scan to e-mail, scan to image, scan to OCR, and scan to file. The scan-to-file option is preconfigured to save the file in your My Pictures folder, but you can reprogram the defaults in the ControlCenter3 utility. In fact, you can initiate a scan using either the physical button on the printer or with the virtual button in ControlCenter, and you can configure each button differently. Supported file formats include TIFF, JPEG, bitmap, PDF, and RTF. If you've inserted a memory card or a USB flash drive, you can scan directly to those targets as well. You can change the scan resolution and decide whether to scan in color or black-and-white. If you scan in black-and-white, the files are saved as TIFFs. If you scan in color, you can choose between PDF and JPEG formats.
The fax options are fairly sophisticated for an inexpensive multifunction. You can save as many as 80 two-digit speed dial number to the address book. Additionally, you can set up groups for fax broadcasts; send delayed faxes; forward received faxes; and set up paging (the machine pages you when it receives a fax), fax storage, fax preview, and PC fax receive. You can also retrieve faxes remotely using a numeric code. If you're concerned about receiving faxes securely, you can turn on memory security. This will store incoming faxes in memory and print them when you enter a passcode. When security is on, you can continue to receive and forward faxes, as well as get paged or retrieve them remotely, but activating secure mode will not let users send faxes or use any of the other functions on the unit.
In addition to the usual fax features, the MFC-685CW has an onboard answering machine and handset so you can use it to make and receive phone calls. It even has a speaker phone for hands-free operation.
Using the memory card slots and PictBridge port, you can print photos from cards, USB flash devices, or PictBridge devices such as digital cameras. The MFC-685CW lets you print all, scroll through the contents of your device or card to select individual files, or sort the contents by date. You can print an index of the contents of your card, but it's not scannable. Instead, the printer assigns file numbers to the images, allowing you to key in the file number to print that particular photo without having to click through all the images. Photo effects include autocorrect, enhance skin tone, enhance scenery, red-eye removal, black-and-white, and sepia. Photos may be trimmed (cropped), too.
When compared to other $200 office inkjet multifunctions, the Brother MFC-685CW didn't stand out. It was the slowest of the bunch at printing text, producing it at a pokey rate of 2.76 page per minute (ppm). The Canon Pixma MX700 was almost three times faster, scoring 7.41ppm. The Brother came out on top with 4x6 photo prints, scoring 1.30ppm. The Canon was the next fastest with a score of 1.05ppm. The Brother was in the middle for both scan tests, scoring 4.29ppm for mono scans and 3.65ppm for color scans. When copying via the ADF, it scored 2.78ppm; again, in the middle of the pack.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Where the Brother MFC-685CW really falters is task quality. The black text prints were nicely dark, but every character showed jagged edges, to the point that text at small point sizes looked downright fuzzy. (We printed on the coated inkjet paper that Brother provided.) The color graphics print exhibited the same issue with fuzzy edges, plus photo elements looked grainy, color blocks weren't as saturated as we like, and the color had an overall dull, dark quality to it.
The grayscale scan showed severe compression on both ends of the grayscale, resulting in washed out details in highlight areas and lost details in shadow areas. The scanner also failed to capture some of the smaller-size text on the original. The color scan was the highlight of the Brother's performance, though it still has room for improvement. The color reproduction was decent, but the entire image was marred by faint horizontal striations, and details in the photo elements could be sharper. Overall, you can definitely get much better quality for $200.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Service and support
Brother backs the MFC-685CW with a one-year warranty. Toll-free phone support is available 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET. You can also e-mail tech support via an online form. Brother's site has FAQs, downloadable software and drivers, and user guides and manuals.