Color laser printers have been commonplace in offices for years now. Despite the fact that the price per page cost for laser printers is usually a bargain compared to inkjet printers, a number of factors including initial cost and lower quality photo output has made laser printers in the home and home office relatively uncommon. Brother’s MFC-9120CN all-in-one color laser printer is squarely aimed at the home, but can it compete in a vast field of inexpensive ink jets?
My home office printing capacities have evolved over the past few years to cover a range of needs. For printing manuscripts and correspondence, I rely on a compact but capable monochrome laser printer. An all-in-one inkjet takes care of faxing, scanning, photocopying and printing color material for the kids -graphics for school assignments, cards and the like. A compact dye-sub printer has done a great job of printing high quality photos when we want quick, hard copies of family snaps. The setup is a little tangled in terms of wires and some users would occasionally run into frustrations when they’d forget to switch between printers for different tasks, but it’s generally worked well.
Brother offered to send their new MFC-9120CN Network Color All-in-One laser printer to try out. I haven’t had a Brother printer since waaaay back when I was a kid rocking a portable Brother typewriter with a thermal printer and small LCD display (it looked something like this one), but I was game to give it a try.
Once I got over the initial shock from the physical size of the box that arrived (with two UPS guys unloading it), it was time to try comparison number one: unpacking and set up. The instructions (printers are probably the only devices where I actually take the time to scan the Quick Set Up instructions, mainly due to an aversion to getting ink all over my hands if I open a cartridge the wrong way) recommend having two people lift the 50lb printer out of the box. I was able to manage it myself without much difficulty, but this was a much bigger beast than the 19lb Canon all-in-one ink jet or the 17lb Samsung laser printer it was going up against. Once it was wrestled out of the box, set up was straightforward. The usual protective plastic tabs and cardboard bits to pull out of doors and compartments took a minute or two and installing the four toner cartridges was much simpler than I’d expected. I’ve become accustomed to a little more fussing with inject cartridges and the Brother’s top-loading toner cartridges slide in so easily that I had a sneaky suspicion I’d missed a step and forgotten to twist or snap something to seat them, but it turns out they’re just easy to install.
Configuration was a snap. While it supports pretty much every version of Windows (from XP through Windows 7), our house is all Mac. Rather than hook it up via the USB 2.0 connection (cable included), I thought I’d take advantage of the printer’s ethernet connectivity to share it on an Airport Extreme base station, freeing up the router’s USB port. Mac drivers are included and after a quick installation and a setting change on the Airport to share the printer over the network, it was good to go.
The printer was able to handle any text I threw at it, spitting out crisp copies at 17 pages per minute. Having four toner cartridges (black, cyan, magenta and yellow) means color copies are also single pass, so they fired off at a brisk 17 pages per minute as well (my inkjet is rated at about 4 pages per minute). Looking for a challenge, my daughter and I printed off her birthday party invitations, featuring bright, colorful cartoon characters with plenty of opportunity for banding, inconsistency and poor color reproduction to rear their heads. Not a problem. On the first pass, the colors were accurate, but just a tad on the dull side. Using the Vivid print setting punched the color up to the point where it was just as bright as anything my inkjet could spit out, and the Brother’s LED technology gives up to 600 x 2400 dpi resolution color printing (that compares to 600 x 1200 dpi black and white on my mono laser and 1200 x 4800 dpi color output on the inkjet). Unlike the inkjet, there was no worry about moisture smudging things.
At the end of the day, to my eye the Brother’s text output was equal to that of the mono laser and color graphics and text were close enough to the quality the inkjet produced to be a wash. Where the inkjet (and the dye-sub photo printer) left the laser behind was in the printing of photographs. Inkjets have the advantage of higher resolution and being able to accept specialized stock like ultra glossy paper to make photographic reproductions that the Brother simply couldn’t approach. Still, for most color work (invitations, school projects, reports, etc…) it looks really good.
Cost of consumables is one area where lasers really shine. While there’s all sorts of voodoo involved around page coverage, OEM vs. refills, initial purchase price and the fact that lasers eventually require drum replacement, the reality is that the last three inkjets I’ve bought were disposed of once the included cartridges ran out, because it ended up being cheaper to buy a new printer (with its included cartridges) on sale, than buy replacement cartridges for an existing printer. I don’t like adding to our landfill problems, but that’s the way it is. With color toner cartridges rated at 1,400 pages each going for roughly $70 apiece and a 2,200 page black toner for $75, generating multiple copies of anything on this laser printer is hardly cringe worthy. Without factoring longer term costs like drum replacement or getting fancy with page coverage calculations, the numbers crunch out to something like 20 cents a page for color and 3 cents for black and white, which is quite reasonable. There’s also a convenience factor to consider, with much less frequent consumable purchase/installation to deal with than with an inkjet.
When all is said and done, the MFC-9120CN makes a good case for a multi-purpose home printer, so long as one of those purposes isn’t photo quality prints. Faxing, scanning and photocopying capabilities are all robust. Printing of documents and color graphics is crisp, bright, fast and reasonably inexpensive. While the machine is large and quite heavy compared to an inkjet version, the Brother has functionality stacked so its footprint is relatively compact. It’s also very sturdy, with none of the flimsy feel that sometimes plagues inkjets and everything is built for higher capacity (such as the 250 page paper tray and 35 page auto-feeder). In my case, I would gain desk space because it effectively replaces the mono laser and multifunction inkjet in a single, taller device (although I’d still be relying on the portable dye-sub for photo prints).
Wired: Fast, crisp text output and fast color prints; color looks great for most applications; easy toner replacement; includes starter toner cartridges rated at 1000 pages; full range of OS support.
Tired: Printing of color photos is lackluster; heavy.