Editors' note: (8/6/03) In the original version of this review, we incorrectly stated there were 20 speed dials on the MFC-8420. There are 40.
The Brother MFC-8420 is an ungainly yet curiously endearing multifunction device (MFD) that is top-heavy in both design and price. Home-office users with a generous equipment allowance may be tempted by its fast, sharp, laser-printed text, but busy small-office folks will not be happy with the MFC-8420's slow copy speeds and subpar scans. Inkjet-based multifunctions, such as the , offer a better buy, because of the more consistent quality of their components.
The Brother MFC-8420 resembles a giant, pale-gray, rectilinear mushroom. The printer body acts as its base, and the flatbed scanner sits atop it. The MFC-8420's plastic automatic document feeder (ADF) forms part of the lid of the flatbed scanner. We noticed that the ADF rattled every time we closed the lid. The printer's output tray sits in the middle of the unit, just beneath the control panel. At the bottom of the unit is the printer's main input tray. The entire stack measures 21.3 inches wide by 17.8 inches deep by 18.8 inches high--hefty even by multifunction standards.
The MFC-8420's control panel, which juts out the upper front of the machine, has as its centerpiece a five-line LCD and three buttons labeled Fax, Copy, and Scan. The buttons, which light a greenish glow when touched, let you activate each function without computer intervention; navigation buttons to the right of the LCD let you sift through the menus for each function. To the left of the LCD panel, there are 40 speed-dial buttons, plus small clusters of print- and fax-specific controls. On the right side are copy-specific buttons, plus a numeric keypad (for dialing numbers the old-fashioned way) and On/Off buttons.
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Installing Brother's toner-and-drum cartridge is easy.
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The control panel is essential for operating the unit without a PC.
Following the instructions in the quick-setup guide, we were able to get the printer up and working in a few minutes. The MFC-8420 is both Windows and Mac compatible via USB or parallel port connections, but Brother does not include either cable with the machine. Our Windows 2000 machine instantly recognized the Brother MFL Pro Suite CD, which contains drivers for all of the MFC-8420's functions.
Windows users will have to use the simple but clunky Brother MFL Pro Control Center to initiate a scan, a print, or a fax from their PC. The MFL Pro Control Center autoloads with Windows, and it lurks as an arrow-shaped icon in the tool tray. From within the active MFL Pro Control Center, right-click any desired function. For example, the Scan To File button displays the scanner's configuration possibilities, including the Destination folder. Unfortunately, the MFL Pro Control Center documentation, including the all-important PC-fax configuration instructions, can be found only on the Brother MFL Pro Suite CD itself and not within the handy printed user manual, which is annoying.
The MFC-8420's strongest component is its monochrome laser printer--but even that could be more advanced. It comes with an adequate 32MB of standard memory and a 250-sheet input tray, plus a 150-page output tray. These paper capacities are acceptable for a personal multifunction, but a small office will have to replenish the input tray frequently. An additional 250-sheet paper tray costs a pricey $199 plus shipping. The print driver installed by the Brother MFL Pro Suite installation CD is only a basic universal print driver, with no special features beyond the ability to print at 1,200x1,200 dots per inch (dpi) in addition to its standard 600x600 dpi. To upgrade to Brother's full-featured--but not-Windows certified--driver, you have to install it as an additional step in the setup process. The printed quick-setup guide outlines the extra step efficiently. It's worth the extra effort to get the enhanced print options.
The fax machine, with its 33.6Kbps modem, allows users to save time by storing up to 40 numbers on the control panel's speed-dial buttons and another 300 in the printer's memory.
The copier and scanner are even more bland than the fax machine. The scanner's 50-sheet ADF is useful for copying or faxing lengthy documents or sorting multiple copies. It can scan at an adequate 48-bit color depth, and it comes with TextBridge, optical character recognition (OCR) software for Windows and Presto PageManager, OCR/scanning software for the Mac. The copier can make as many as 99 copies at a time on letter- or legal-size paper, but it does so slowly.
The MFC-8420's performance and output quality in CNET Labs' tests ranged from good to mediocre. The printer's text speeds were quite good at 13.2 pages per minute (ppm)--essentially tying the 13.3ppm results of its sibling, the MFC-9700, and faring much better than the Dell P1500 personal laser printer and the Minolta-QMS 1250W. It trounced the competition at printing graphics, turning out pages at a healthy 12.16ppm compared to the 8.6ppm and the personal laser printer's 8.0ppm. The closest competition, the Minolta-QMS 1250W, managed just 11.5ppm.