The $399 HP LaserJet Pro 400 M401dw bundles all of HP's latest technologies into a tight package; you get Smart Install that eliminates the hassle of installing off a driver disc, ePrint remote access, and walk-up printing through the USB port on the front, but the 3.5-inch touch-screen display doesn't offer enough unique features to warrant the price jump to $400, especially compared with competing devices. Small businesses and home offices shopping for a reliable monochrome laser printer for quick prints should ignore the HP LaserJet M401dw's inflated price tag and look for a better deal.
The LaserJet Pro M401dw's design is a new look for HP LaserJet printers as older models give way to new technology -- in this case, the latest addition is the 3.5-inch color touch-screen mounted to a plastic arm that lifts out of machine. A notched hinge at the base of the arm allows for incremental viewing angles all the way up to 90 degrees (perpendicular with the chassis), but the bumps that guide it into position allow for an annoying wiggle with each button press. That jitter gets frustrating really quickly, especially when you're trying to enter an SSID or scrolling through the onscreen menus.
The rest of the printer -- including the output bin and the 250-sheet input tray -- feels solid and capable of withstanding daily wear. You'll find a toner cartridge latch button beneath the display on top of the printer, and the two trays (paper and toner) fold completely into the printer for easy access. The direct-access USB port on the bottom-left side of the machine is also a new addition to the LaserJet, designed for anyone to walk up and print a document or photo on a flash drive.
HP lets you print off the M401dw using a variety of methods, but the easiest is HP's Smart Install. Simply plug it in, connect it to your Windows PC (Mac OS unsupported), power it on, and let HP's Smart Install take care of the rest. The convenience lets you avoid installing drivers from a CD. Instead, the drivers and software are stored on the printer itself.
After connecting the printer to our test bed, the software prompted me to load the necessary software. It installed the driver and also a small application that manages print jobs, troubleshooting problems, toner replacement cartridges, the user guide, and so on. Though you don't need to reach for the bundled CD to get the printer installed, you will need to locate a USB or Ethernet cable (only a USB cable is included in the box).
Setting up the printer with an Ethernet cable is nearly as easy as setting up a direct connection. As with USB installation, you can use either the included CD or Smart Install. I opted for the latter. First, you must print out a configuration report using the printer's control panel by pressing the setup button (the one with the wrench icon), using either of the arrow keys to select "Reports" from the Main menu, and then selecting "Config report." The printer will then spit out two pages of configuration details, one of which is the printer's IP address.
Type the address into the browser of a PC on your network, and on the resulting Web page, click the HP Smart Install tab. From there, click the green Download button to install the software. After a quick download, the printer will print out a test page confirming it's connected to your network.
Once you're connected to the Web, you can also set up your custom ePrint address that lets you output e-mail message attachments in the form of images document files, PDFs, and photos, and it will send a separate job for any text that appears in the body of the e-mail.
The default preferences let anyone with the address print wirelessly, but you can also set up a list of verified senders to allow on a private network. My testing confirms ePrint works with a variety of Web clients like Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and Microsoft Outlook, and you can even e-mail articles directly from an RSS feed like Google Reader.
The process for connecting to a wireless 802.11b/g/n network is similar, except that you have to enter your SSID and password to start the process. Once the printer finds your router, a physical Wi-Fi button on the front control panel will confirm the connection and print out an information sheet to confirm it, and you're set.
All three of the connectivity options are a breeze to install, and after you get the LaserJet set up, you'll find it's a considerate officemate -- it doesn't waste energy (Energy Star qualified), and it's fairly quiet during operation. It also features an auto-duplexer on the back that automatically flips a page for double-sided printing.
Adding up the cloud-computing features and Smart Install still doesn't add up to $399, however, especially when competing devices like the Brother HL-5450DN have the same 300-sheet paper input capacity for half the cost. It cuts costs by omitting a touch screen in lieu of an LED-based notification system on top, but if all you're looking for is a simple monochrome laser printer for medium output, you can still get networking and a duplexer for far less than the HP, with similar performance results to boot.
Compared with its similarly priced competitors, the HP M401dw stays ahead of the pack with exemplary results in black graphics prints, edged out of the fastest position by its own sibling, the compact HP LaserJet Pro P1606dn. It trailed behind the budget priced Brother HL-5450dn yet still registered quick marks overall.
The HP's print quality is equally serviceable for small offices and work groups alike. Black text samples exhibit excellent quality with true black text and dark photos on the graphics page, although some elements need sharpening and come off as a shade of gray rather than solid black. The HP aced bar code patterns as well, handling blocks of lines with accurate detail and saturation, certainly worthy of professional handouts.
Service and support
HP backs the LaserJet Pro 400 M401dw with a standard one-year warranty that includes 24-7 toll-free phone support and live Web chat during weekdays. HP's Web site also contains downloadable drivers, software, and manuals.
Smart Install takes the pain out of a typically tedious process by storing drivers on the printer to speed things along, but an overly ambitious price tag and a sloppy arm holding up the superfluous touch-screen display mars its usability. Home offices and small businesses can get equal performance without the touch screen from competitors for half the price.
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