Review: Brother's HL-3170CDW color laser-class printer is inexpensive, but graphics are mediocre

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At a Glance
  • Brother HL-3170CDW

You want a color laser printer, but you don't have a lot of cash. How does $280 sound? That’s the price of the Brother HL-3170CDW, and in exchange it delivers reasonably good prints. Not pristine, evocative color graphics—move on to another printer for that. But good text and decent spot color, it can do, and the toner costs are tolerable as well.

Here’s the real decision: Do you pick this all-around-average machine, or do you pick this other, like-priced color laser, the Dell C1760nw, which has much better color quality—but also much more expensive toner? Or do you think a bit outside of the box and consider a business inkjet, such as the Epson WorkForce WP-4020, which competes head-to-head with both of these lasers on speed, print quality, and features, and whomps them both on cost of consumables? By our reckoning the latter is the best deal, but some people just can’t get laser out of their heads, and they will have to think harder about the tradeoffs.

Bulky profile, basic features, and duplexing

Measuring 16.1 inches wide by 18.3 inches deep by 9.4 inches wide and weighing 39 pounds, the HL-3170CDW is fairly large and beefy for an entry-level, laser-class printer (it uses LED technology to produce basically identical results). The height is due more to the stacked toner/drum system than the bottom-mounted, 250-sheet paper cassette. There's also a 100-sheet output tray integrated into the top of the unit, and a single-sheet manual feed for envelopes and glossy photo paper. The unit prints automatically in duplex.

When some color printers run low on one color, they will complain, but keep printing. Not so with the HL-3170CDW: It will not print when you run out of any of the four colors. This can be a problem if you really, really need to print something and haven't any spare toner. Better a warning and a less-than-optimal printout, than no printout at all. Brother needs to rethink this.

There's no reason to make a big deal about control panels on single-function printers, as most people rarely use them after setup is over. (Multifunctions are another story.) But the HL-3170CDW's control panel could definitely use a dedicated menu button. Employing the OK button for this purpose is unintuitive and awkward, an unnecessary corner cut. Otherwise, the single-line monochrome LCD display and controls are easy enough. The HL-3170CDW's setup was a breeze. The unit sports USB, ethernet, and Wi-Fi connectivity. There's a full array of wireless and email printing features, including AirPrint, and both the PC and Mac driver dialogs offer a bevy of options.

Reasonably priced toner

After enjoying its initial purchase price, your ongoing costs for the HL-3170CDW will be, if not actually cheap, at least better than expected. Most low-cost color lasers hit you with high toner costs down the road. The HL-3170CDW’s prices hover comfortably around the average—and are better than those of many of its competitors, though not as good as the above-mentioned Epson WorkForce WF-4020, whose inks are amazingly cheap. The unit ships with starter cartridges rated for a scant 1000 pages. Brother’s price for the standard-size, 2500-page black is $85, or a midrange 3.4 cents per page (cpp). We found it online for closer to $70, or 2.8 cpp.

The standard-size, 1400-page cyan, magenta, and yellow supplies cost about $70 apiece per Brother—a middling 5 cents per color, per page. Our shopping found prices closer to $57 apiece, or just over 4 cents per color, per page. A page with all four colors (using the lower prices) would cost about 15 cents. Higher-capacity, 2200-page color cartridges are available, but they offer just a small savings in cost per page over their standard-size cousins.

Good speed for the price

Speed is good compared to other entry-level color lasers and business inkjets. The Brother HL-3170CDW spits out text and mixed monochrome pages at a lively 12.2 ppm on the PC and 11.2 ppm on the Mac. Snapshot-sized (4-inch by 6-inch) color photos printed onto letter-size paper at a brisk pace of 2.9 ppm, and full-page photos arrive at a spirited 1.4 ppm.

Fast means nothing if quality is inferior, and unfortunately, that describes the HL-3170CDW's graphics. Both monochrome and color artwork exhibited mild horizontal striations and vertical banding that were visible under light scrutiny. Worse, the color palette is overly light, and human faces look jaundiced. For a dab of color, a small picture, or the occasional, simple graphic, the HL-3170CDW's color quality will suffice, but not for much else. On the other hand, text is top-notch, and that's generally the larger part of the equation for the small or home offices that would consider this model.

A good choice for basic color printing

To its credit, Brother offers a little more than most competitors do. The warranty lasts only one year, but there's free phone support for as long as you own the product. Speed is excellent, and for text and spot color the HL-3170CDW's print quality is fine. Toner costs are around average. At this price point, it offers a decent color-laser experience without gouging you later. But if you want the best possible deal in this price range, a business inkjet delivers far more.

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Low purchase price
    • Good text quality


    • Color graphics are mediocre
    • Control panel lacks a menu button
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