Color is swell, but for most documents, black and white look just fine. Monochrome laser printers and avoid the waste and hassle of inkjet machines (no cleaning purges!), the cost and bulk of color laser (only one toner cartridge!), and still churn out a couple dozen pages per minute with razor-sharp text. For students, small-office denizens, or anyone with modest printing needs, the Samsung Xpress M2835DW is the most efficient way to make hard copies of term papers, tax forms, or any other documents that look great in grayscale.
I spent more than 20 hours researching the mono laser category, looking over dozens of expert reviews and hundreds of user testimonials for the best, most affordable black-and-white printers. Meanwhile, Wirecutter researcher Audrey Lorberfeld spent another 32 hours analyzing existing professional printer reviews and comparing them to user reviews to identify how we could improve upon them with our own testing. With her findings in mind, I’ve spent 23 total hours testing a handful of the top contenders, jumping through hoops to set them up on a smorgasbord of devices and operating systems and printing stacks of monochrome documents to measure speed and print quality.
Like any worthwhile laser printer, the M2835DW spits out crisp text fast and at a wicked low cost per page.
Like any worthwhile laser printer, the M2835DW spits out crisp text fast and at a wicked low cost per page. It’s affordable to buy, yet still includes cost- and time-saving features like automatic two-sided printing and wireless networking, which are often missing from some pricier models. And for what it’s worth, it’s the candidate least likely to send you into fits of rage, Office Space-style, during setup.
How we picked
Our previous pick for this category, the Samsung M2825DW, was discontinued and replaced by the M2835DW in May. Nothing about the new model seemed like an important upgrade, so we continued to recommend the older M2825DW for a few months while it was still widely available for cheaper than its replacement. But its stock status is starting to get sketchy and the price keeps going up. So it came time to look over the category for the replacement, whether it was the new Samsung, an old favorite, or another low-key announcement that we’d missed since March 2014.
First, we first headed to the manufacturers’ websites and rounded up a list of currently available models that cost less than $150, as listed on the manufacturers’ websites. Then we looked to see which of those printers got the best ratings from well-known editorial sources, including Consumer Reports, CNET, and PCMag. Computer Shopper, which is a smaller outlet, was particularly helpful, with studied analyses on image quality and educated guesses about long-term reliability. When the data was available, we cross-checked the expert scores with user reviews posted at major retailers like Best Buy, Newegg, and Amazon.
Three finalists emerged, and they’re all familiar faces.
The Samsung Xpress M2835DW was released in May, and there aren’t many reviews available yet. But our research suggested (and our testing confirmed) that it’s the same solid machine as its predecessor, the M2825DW, with some new features and tweaks that don’t change the formula at all. It has “recommended” status and the highest overall score for a mono-laser at Consumer Reports, and PCMag awarded its predecessor an editor’s choice badge. Its average Amazon user rating is 4.3 stars, while its predecessor has a respectable 4.2 stars. The downside is that the new M2835DW currently costs $125, while the old model hovered around $100. However, once this has been out for a few more weeks, we expect the price to settle, and could even drop below $100 from time to time.
The Brother HL-2270DW was our favorite cheap printer from late 2011 through early 2014, until the Samsung M2825DW dethroned it. It’s still one of the best-selling laser printers out there, and it’s earned strong reviews from experts and owners alike. The price generally holds steady around $100.
Then there’s the Brother HL-2280DW, which is essentially the tried-and-true HL-2270DW, but attached to a flatbed scanner and an LCD control panel, all for just a few extra bucks.
Like all reviewers, we tested for print quality and speed, and accounted for the cost of consumables like toner. Based on our survey of user reviews, we’ve also learned that the ease of setup, interface, and reliability—on a variety of devices and operating systems—can be just as important when it comes to make a printer that real people like to use. So we ran each of the printers through a battery of tests and trials to expose any quirks or outright weaknesses.
The Samsung Xpress M2835DW is our new pick for a cheap mono-laser printer. Its print quality and speed are the best in class. The crucial features are here, including wireless networking, support for a handful of mobile printing standards, and auto-duplexing. The price is fair, and the costs for consumables are low. And best of all, wireless setup is, uh, less horrible than with other low-end laser printers. (Since it’s a very new model, we’ll be citing some reviews of the older M2825DW in our explanation—they’re nearly identical, and almost all of the points stand.
As with any laser printer, text is where the M2835DW shines. In our tests, large typefaces had crisp edges and dark centers. Consumer Reports wrote that the M2835DW has “excellent text quality.” Small text was perfectly legible down to three-point font, sometimes two-point. Talking about the M2825DW, M. David Stone atPCMag wrote: “Text was easily good enough for any business needs, with scores falling in the middle of a fairly tight range that includes the vast majority of mono laser printers.” At Computer Shopper, Barry Brenesal said “The M2825DW does an outstanding job with text. Letters at all font sizes look exceptionally clear, with firm letter edges and dark, even centers at 600dpi.”
Grayscale graphics that you’d find on presentations, tax forms, or reports look good enough for office use.
Grayscale graphics that you’d find on presentations, tax forms, or reports look good enough for office use. We printed samples of an “office document”provided by the International Organization of Standards, a group that standardizes measurementsfor products and services. All sorts of colors, fonts, clip art graphics, charts, and tables are crammed onto the four-page printout. Compared to the Brother printers, the M2835DW had the best contrast on edges of graphs and tables and filled their gray backgrounds the most evenly and consistently. Clip art even looked okay.
If you’re desperate to print a full-size photo or image, the M2835DW can come through in a pinch, but it’s nothing you’d want to hang on your fridge or present to a client. About the M2825DW, Stone at PCMag said “Graphics and photos were both absolutely typical for a mono laser. For graphics output, that translates to being suitable for any internal business need…For photos, par quality means being able to print recognizable images from photos in Web pages and print photos in general at roughly newspaper-level photo quality.”
Speed is an asset for all mono lasers, and the M2835DW is even speedier than its rivals. Samsung advertises 29 pages per minute, though we actually measured close to 31. In duplex mode, it cranked out a respectable 13.5 pages per minute. Even when we maxed out the print quality, the M2835DW stayed as fast as ever.
Our results are mostly consistent with PCMag’s. They measured 30.3 pages per minute for single-sided printing on the M2825DW. Pages with more formatting are apparently slower: Both Computer Shopper and PCMag clocked a shade under 10 pages per minute when printing from business-oriented software, which often deals with complex formatting. (For what it’s worth, we didn’t notice any slowdown when we printed multi-column PDFs, but both of those publications have more experience testing printers that we do.)
Linking a printer to a wireless network can be enraging, but the M2835DW earns the dubious achievement of being merely frustrating to install. If you have a CD drive and either a USB or Ethernet port, setup is actually pretty simple. An installer wizard tells the printer where its network connection will be and adds the right drivers to the computer’s system. The printer even comes with a USB cable—unlike the Brother printers. Brenesal at Computer Shopper described setting up the M2825DW as a “breeze.” He used the installation CD. Stone at PCMag connected via Ethernet, and called the experience “absolutely typical for a monochrome laser.” Bingo.
Adding the printer to a network without a hardline connection or the installation CD wasn’t nearly as smooth. We set it up once with a PC (Dell tablet, Windows 8) and once with a Mac (MacBook Air, Mavericks), and in both cases, it took between 25 and 30 minutes to get the M2835DW onto the network and printing. Believe it or not, that’s on the quick side.
The rest of the gory details are exposed in the next section, but in a nutshell, the M2835DW has the least-bad wireless setup of any good, cheap laser printer.
The M2835DW supports a number of mobile printing interfaces, including AirPrint for iOS devices; Google Cloud Print for anybody with a Google account but most importantly for Chrome OS users; and a new tap-to-print feature for phones and tablets with NFC chips. They also have a free, proprietary mobile printing app for iOSand Android devices (and apparently Windows Phones, but we couldn’t find any evidence of an actual app).
Automatic duplex printing (both sides of the paper) is another super useful feature. The M2835DW prints on one side of a page as normal, then re-feeds itself the sheet from the output tray and prints to the other side. It’s much slower than single-sided printing, but can save a ton of paper.
Operating costs for the M2835DW are below average compared to other mono-laser and inkjet printers in the price range.
Operating costs for the M2835DW are below average compared to other mono-laser and inkjet printers in the price range. A typical mono laser in this price range uses somewhere in the range of 3.5 to 5 cents of consumables per page—3 or 4 cents’ worth of toner per page, plus 1 cent of the cost of wear on the drum.1 Inkjets average a bit less ink than that, though ink purges and cleaning cycles can raise the effective cost quite a bit—and of course, that’s only counting black ink. Color prints easily cost 10 cents per page.
The M2835DW uses about 2.3 cents of toner per page, assuming that you use the high-capacity MLT-D116L toner cartridge ($69), rated for 3,000 pages. Factor in the cost of the drum2—the MLT-R116 ($59), good for 9,000 pages at $59—and the actual cost per page is a shade under 3 cents. That’s good. And for what it’s worth, the printer comes with the standard MLT-D116S toner cartridge, rated for 1,200 pages. Most mono laser printers come with starter cartridges that are only good for a few hundred pages, so the Samsung has a built-in $15 advantage over most of its competitors.
Some resource-saving features can help stretch pennies even further. Toner save mode de-saturates images a bit, though it’s hard to spot a difference in the text. Eco Mode activates toner save, duplex printing, and turns on the page-shrinking feature so that two pages fit on one side of a sheet of paper by default. It’s good for drafts, PowerPoint presentations, and anything that’ll end up in the recycling bin in short order.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Brother mono laser printers technically have lower operating costs than the M2835DW. Both the HL-2270DW and HL-2280DW use just 1.8 cents worth of toner per page and less than 2.4 cents per page when the wear on the drum is factored in. That’s about 20 percent cheaper per page than the Samsung M2825DW (three cents per page).
Projecting for expenses can get messy, but let’s try some basic arithmetic. If 250 pages (one tray) per month is a typical workload, the Brother printers use $6 per month in toner and drum-life ($72 a year), while the Samsung M2825DW uses $7.50 per month ($90 a year).
…since it comes with a full toner cartridge, it actually has a bit of built-in value compared to the Brother models, which ship with only enough toner for 500 pages…
It’s a notable difference. But the M2835DW is a better printer overall. Faster printing, easier setup, and superior graphics quality offset the added cost of consumables, and even the added cost for the machine itself. And since it comes with a full, 1,200-page toner cartridge, it actually has a bit of built-in value compared to the Brother models, which ship with only enough toner for 500 pages.
While the M2835DW is less irritating to network than other printers, it still really sucks if you can’t use a cable or installation CD. Most of the 25-30 minutes we spent on wireless installation were searching for a PDF of the user manual—there’s no printed manual here, only a quick-start foldout guide. And that guide assumes that you have a CD drive, which is often not the case anymore.
When we tested the M2825DW back in February 2014, it took us three attempts to find the correct software package, because the file names are not helpful and Samsung’s in-site navigation is labyrinthine. (Pro tip: Download the Easy Wireless Setup package.) Once we got the directions and the installer, the process only took about seven minutes. Anything under 10 would be acceptable, but 30 is beyond irritating. It was apoint of frustration for Amazon reviewers, too. The process to install the M2835DW was much faster—but that’s only because we remember the shortcuts from the last time around. (Pro tip: Use one-touch setup if your router supports it, which it probably does.) It’s a new model, but the process has not changed at all.
Here’s what’s frustating: The M2835DW came out in 2014, more than a half-decade since the original MacBook Air was released and optical disk drives started to fade from favor. And it’s not only Macs that don’t have optical drives these days—Samsung makes ultrabooks and tablet PCs without them too. At this point, there’s no good reason why you shouldn’t be able to easily set this up without a cable or CD, and yet here we are.
Another minor gripe is that the print options are scattered across a few different menus and control panels.
Another minor gripe is that the print options are scattered across a few different menus and control panels. A few print quality controls are stashed in drop-downs on the print menu. But then the toggle for toner save is hidden away in System Preferences, at least on Mac. And the switch for Eco Mode is a physical button on the printer. The Easy Printer Manager can control everything, but it’s proprietary software, it doesn’t pop up when you print from, say, Chrome or Preview or Word, and—get this—it asks for a login and password when you try to access it. (Pro-tip: The default login is admin and the default password is sec00000.)
On the bright side, the default print quality is rock solid, so you probably won’t monkey with the settings much. And if you do dig into the print manager, there are some pretty deep controls available—sleep timer, print density, and much, much more.
In his review of the M2825DW at Computer Shopper, Brenesal noted that the feeder tray feels cheap and doesn’t glide easily in or out of the machine, and a few Amazon reviewers mention the same thing. The tray actually sticks out from the back of the machine by a centimeter or so, which makes it difficult to wedge into a corner or against a wall. We didn’t feel like the M2835DW or its predecessor were particularly chintzy in comparison to the Brother HL-2270DW. It seems like par for the course for a cheap mono laser.
Brenesal also raised a concern about how the M2825DW will hold up under extended wear and tear. Though the maximum duty cycle is a respectable 12,000 pages per month, there’s a comparatively limited lifespan for parts like the fuser (100,000 pages) and rollers (50,000 pages). The parts aren’t readily available online and that kind of repair is best left to a professional technician.
We reached out to Samsung for pricing and they told us that rollers range from $14 to $21 a pop, but the fuser alone is $75. Taken together, that adds up to more than the original cost of the printer, so it’s clear that the M2825DW (and the new M2835DW) is expected to sustain only a moderate workload. “Know that this is an occasional-use printer for a user or three in the office, not an everyday workgroup workhorse,”Brenesal wrote.
For personal use, or even in most home offices, this won’t ever be a concern—50,000 pages is a whole lot of printing. And even if it does eventually get pushed past the breaking point, it’s hard to be too upset about a $100 printer biting the dust after tens of thousands of pages of dutiful service.
Envelope printing is not a strong suit for the M2835DW. They need to be inserted one at a time through the manual feeder, but several commenters on this site have noted that it jams pretty easily, especially with thicker stocks. For what it’s worth, it doesn’t sound like the Brother printers are any better at the task. And we’ve heard similar complaints about our all-in-one printer pick. There’s got to be some cheap printer out there that can reliably print on whatever size and stock of envelope that you throw at it, but we haven’t heard of it yet.
We’ve noticed a few reports from readers and Amazon reviewers that the M2825DW constantly drops its Wi-Fi connection, or in some cases can’t even establish one. We’re certain that we’ll hear similar complaints about the M2835DW, because we hear them about every other printer that we research. A few people do get units with honest-to-goodness hardware problems. Most of the time, it’s one of a dozen possible issues stemming from the router, or the network settings, or interference. Here and there, it’s user error. So it’s not something that you should worry about when if you’re thinking about buying the M2835DW, or its predecessor, or any other printer. If you think you have a dud, call Samsung customer service. If they’re not helpful, return the printer to wherever you bought it from.
We touched on the main pros and cons here, but for finer, deep-level stuff check out the Computer Shopper review of the M2825DW. Almost all of the notes apply to the new model, and Brenesal really knows his stuff.
Long-term test notes
We’ve used the Samsung M2825DW regularly since February 2014, and we haven’t had any problems. We’re swapping it out for the new M2835DW, and while we don’t expect any issues, we’ll post them here if we find some.
If the price of the Samsung M2825DW suddenly skyrockets back to $120, the Brother HL-2270DW is a better deal as long as it stays cheap.
For more than two years, the Brother HL-2270DW was our favorite mono laser printer. We weren’t the only ones who liked it. At Amazon, it has an average user rating of 4.3 (out of five) based on 3,059 reviews, including 1,910 five-star reviews. It’s a perennial top seller, too. Consumer Reports gives it “best buy” status.PCMag awarded it an “excellent” four out of five rating and an editors’ choice badge, and it’s still the cheap mono laser by which they judge all cheap mono lasers. It’s one ofCNET’s favorite laser printers. Computer Shopper likes it too, writing that it’s “the perfect combination of price, performance, and feature set for small and home offices with moderate document printing needs.”
We came close to sticking with the 2270 yet again. It’s so, so similar to the Samsung model on many levels and costs less to run—1.8 cents per page for toner and just 2.4 cents total factoring in the wear on the drum (the replacement costs about $69 and lasts for 12,000 pages). They share plenty of other important features, too: wireless networking, automatic duplex printing, tray size, even the physical dimensions are close.
It makes setting up the Samsung seem like a cakewalk.
That said, even some of the positive user reviews point toward problems with the HL-2270DW. The main one is that setting it up on a wireless network without a USB connection or CD drive can be a nightmare, especially using a Mac. It’s an archaic process and the most common reason for owners to give it a one-star user review. It makes setting up the Samsung seem like a cakewalk.
To their credit, Brother does include a printed user manual with the 2270 and there are instructions for a few different setup methods, though they aren’t always clear. There’s tons of extra documentation on their website, and customer support was helpful when we called to ask for assistance. But it’s a convoluted process—nobody should have to jump through hoops like a circus animal to set up a damn printer.
Let’s walk through the best-case scenario. The easiest way to get the 2270 on the network without a cable or disk is through one-touch protected setup, where the router and printer communicate directly. Press the WPS setup button on your router, hit a different button on the printer, and wait for the devices to find each other. If it succeeds, the 2270 spits out a page letting you know that it worked. Voila. (Apple Airport base stations don’t have the one-touch button, but the First Attempt function in Airport Utility works the same way. The 2270’s instructions don’t mention this possibility.)
Seems simple, but it still took us three tries to connect. The printer’s instructions say to first press the button on the printer, then the router. We tried twice, and it didn’t work. The router’s instructions say to press the router button first, then the printer. That worked. When the first steps in the instruction manual are wrong, it doesn’t leave a great impression.
Once the printer and router are connected, Brother’s installation software (available for download) adds the drivers and tells the computer, “you can print with this now.” Then you’re done. Not so bad, even with the hitch in the protected setup instructions.
But! The installer is Windows-only, and Mac users need to manually add the 2270 to their printer list. The user guide doesn’t mention that little detail. There’s nothing more frustrating than following the directions to the letter and still not being able to get the thing to work.
We turned to Brother’s website to try to find help. Good news: They have instructions for this exact scenario. Bad news: It involves timed button presses, connecting to the printer through an ad-hoc wireless network, printing a series of status reports, manually entering an IP address into a web browser to connect to the printer’s semi-secret hidden control panel, entering a default username and password to gain admin status, and then messing around with some settings. (Good luck walking your parents through this process.)
And, oh yeah, then you need to manually add the printer to the system list anyway. It turned out that we didn’t have to go through all those steps. The printer and router connected successfully, but since there’s no screen, there’s also no menu, and therefore no obvious way to print out a status report—we had no easy way to know what was going on. The whole thing was an eye-opening experience.
The [support] call took about 40 minutes, give or take time spent on hold. But nobody should need to do anything like this to set up a printer. Not in 2014.
Look, plenty of people could follow these instructions if they put their minds to it, though it would be a challenge for those who don’t have the patience or technical knowledge to go through this themselves. On the bright side, Brother customer service will patiently talk anyone through the steps. We called for help with the HL-2280DW (see below) and pretended that we didn’t know anything. They walked us through a similar process to the one we just described. The call took about 40 minutes, give or take time spent on hold.
But nobody should need to do anything like this to set up a printer. Not in 2014. Other reviewers noted that networking the printer with the aid of an Ethernet or USB cablemade things easier, but the 2270 doesn’t come with either one of those in the box. It’s a mess. F minus.
Other beefs that 2270 owners had:
The low toner warning is trigger-happy. It turns on when a couple hundred pages’ worth of toner is left in the cartridge and disables printing. The workaround is to put a piece of tape over the sensor. It’ll be pretty obvious when the toner actually runs out—printed pages will be faint or blank. We also found an off switch for the low toner warning in the semi-secret print manager (there was some silver lining in that nightmare of a setup after all). But it’s a shady way to try to trick customers into wasting toner.
Being a years-old printer, it doesn’t support most mobile printing standards. No AirPrint, no “real” Google Cloud Print, no NFC tap-to-print. There is a proprietary app for iOS and Android that lets you print or scan, and it works well. But it’s not as smooth as native support.
The installation CD comes with drivers, but only for old operating systems—like, three or four generations out of date—so you’ll have to download fresh drivers from Brother’s website anyway. Some owners complained that the 2270 couldn’t get back on the network after it was turned off and turned back on again. We thought we ran into a similar issue with the Brother HL-2280DW during testing, but it turned out we just had to wait a minute for the printer and the network to start communicating again. If there’s a wireless issue, the printer is probably a lemon and you should lean on customer service or your retailer for a replacement.
Based on our own testing, we found that the 2270 doesn’t print gray graphics as cleanly as the Samsung M2835DW, at least not by default. Text looks excellent, and there’s no problem with black graphics, like the ones on the 1099 tax form. But graphics with grays are muddled and sometimes patchy—it’s a noticeable difference and made the ISO documents we printed look a bit unprofessional. Setting the 2270 to its highest quality setting seems to fix the issue for the most part, but the M2835DW makes it easier to print better-looking images.
Even with those flaws and frustrations, the Brother is still a great little laser printer. Once you get past the setup stage, it’s smooth sailing. Text documents and most official forms will look excellent, and the cost of operation is as cheap as we could find. If you’re a high-volume user—like, thousands of pages per month—you’ll end up saving a huge chunk of change on toner compared to just about any other cheap laser printers. Though at that point, it might make sense to just get a bigger, beefier printer built to handle a serious workload.
We’d choose the Samsung nine times out of 10 because the print quality is better, the setup and interface don’t feel so outdated, it comes with a full toner cartridge, and it supports modern mobile-printing standards. But if the Samsung becomes unavailable, or if the price difference opens up to, say, $40, then the Brother is a good buy. Just maybe add a USB or ethernet cable to your shopping cart to make the setup easier on yourself.
Need a scanner?
The Brother HL-2280DW is basically the 2270 with a scanner/copier and an LCD screen, all for only $130. That’s a very good deal.
We’d hoped that the LCD would make it easier to get the 2280 onto a network compared to the 2270. It might help some users, but it’s not a guaranteed improvement. When the protected setup failed, we tried just to enter our wireless password directly into the printer. Unfortunately, the interface only accepts passwords 16 characters or shorter, and ours was longer than that. This is a downside. So we had to bounce around the same dumb obstacles that we did with the 2270, though it was much easier to print out a status report thanks to the LCD—no timed button presses here.
The one-touch setup method didn’t work for us either. The printer and router just would not talk to each other. It’s baffling because the 2270 had no trouble, so it might be some fluke, probably nothing for most users to worry about.
We called customer service for assistance, pretending that we weren’t aware of any workarounds—none that weren’t printed in the manual, at least. They were very pleasant, patient, and helpful in getting the printer set up. It was a 40-minute support call, but eventually it worked.
The Brother rep didn’t know why the router and printer wouldn’t shake hands. She speculated that it might’ve had to do with the router’s settings. We mentioned that we’d successfully connected to a different Brother printer with that method, so it didn’t seem likely that there was a problem with the router. But she didn’t know what else to tell us, and because the 2280 did finally make it onto our network with all of its functions working properly, the call was a success from Brother’s perspective.
As for the scanner/copier, it works. The examples scattered throughout this guide were all scanned with it—seems fine to our eyes, especially as a toss-in feature on a cheap printer.
There are many (color) inkjet all-in-one machines that cost less than the 2280, and have automatic document feeders for quickly scanning or copying stacks of paper. If that’s the kind of machine you’re looking for, check out our all-in-one guide. Just keep in mind that cheap inkjet printers end up wasting more time and frustration in the long run.
How we tested
After sifting through what other reviews had covered and what user reviewers specifically liked and disliked about certain printers, we determined that our first priority should be setup. Since wireless networking was a prerequisite for all of our finalists and one of the most consistent complaints about our old winner was a frustrating wireless setup process, we went straight for it. No extra cables or installation CDs allowed, either—they just shouldn’t be a requirement in 2014, at least not for any device that uses wireless connectivity as a selling point.
For reference, we ran our setup procedure with a $200 Dell tablet running the latest version of Windows 8, as well as a 2013 MacBook Air running OS X Mavericks. The router is a Netgear N600 with about a year and a half of service under its belt. During installation, we were joined by Brendan Nystedt, who reviews imaging products forReviewed.com and used to work at an IT help desk when he was in college. He’s no stranger to networking printers, and even so, he still found the setup process befuddling at times.
We considered the setup a success once we could hit command+P and get a page to print, then shut the printer off, turn it back on, and get it to print again.
We considered the setup a success once we could hit command+P and get a page to print, then shut the printer off, turn it back on, and get it to print again.
After we got the printers hooked into the network, we tried mobile printing from an iPhone 5S. Brother and Samsung both have free apps for iOS and Android that make it possible, though Samsung also has native AirPrint, Google Cloud Print, and NFC tap-to-print functions. Either way, we had no problems printing web pages and PDFs—the Samsung was just more streamlined.
Since these are laser printers, our print quality testing focused on text, small graphics like charts and tables, and official forms. We used three reference documents: instructions for the 1099 tax form, an excerpt from a Sherlock Holmes story in three common typefaces (Helvetica, Arial, Times New Roman) in multiple font sizes (14 down to four), and a document from the International Organization of Standards (ISO) meant to mimic a typical office report. We printed some photos too—more data is better, and it could be fun to compare the print quality against inkjet printers when we get around to testing those.
We ran off most documents at three different quality settings: low, default, and high. For both Brother printers, the low setting was 300 DPI with toner save turned on, default was 600 DPI, and the high setting was 1200 DPI. For the Samsung, the low setting was toner save mode, default was the standard resolution setting, and high was the high resolution setting.
After we printed everything out, we looked for clarity in text and graphics, trying to find qualitative differences between each printer and among each printer’s own settings.
Experimenting with the quality settings also helped us get familiar with the print menus. We spent time in the standard print box, system preferences, and the hidden control panels that, apparently, most printers have.
We also ran speed tests. To test duplex, we printed out five copies of the four-page ISO document. For single-sided printed, we ran off four copies of the ISO document. We also tried duplex printing at the highest quality setting for each printer.
There are dozens of mono laser printers out there that we didn’t consider for the purposes of this guide. Our cutoff was $150, for two reasons. One, the Brother HL-2270DW was $100 when we started our research and was such a highly rated model that it seemed pointless to push it aside for something more expensive.
…most mono laser printers above [$150] don’t have any additional features or specs that help somebody like a student or freelancer working from a home office.
Two, most mono laser printers above that price point don’t have any additional features or specs that help somebody like a student or freelancer working from a home office.
The extra cash for a printer like the Brother HL-5470DW buys a sturdier body—something that won’t break down when it cranks out tens of thousands of pages per month. It might fit bigger toner cartridges or have a couple of input trays to hold a few different sizes of paper at once. It might handle envelopes well. It usually prints a few extra pages per minute for a few tenths of a cent cheaper. But going back to the first point, everything important to the majority of small-scale users (sorry, envelope folks) is available for $125 or less, so why bother spending more?
At the request of many commenters, we’ve looked color laser printers as a category. They just don’t make sense for most users. Any decent model runs at least a few hundred bucks. The machines are huge because they’re stuffed with four toner cartridges, four drums, and four rollers. Color toner isn’t any cheaper than ink, either, and laser printers can’t print on photo paper at all. For personal use, inkjets are a much more flexible, economical way to print in color. We might make a pick for color laser someday, but not in the near future.
Of the sub-$150 mono laser printers we found, most of them were missing either wireless connectivity or automatic duplexing, both of which were dealbreakers in our book, especially since there were other good options available with those features.
Aside from the models that we ended up testing, only two printers fit our winnowing criteria, but we ended up dismissing them for other reasons.
The Canon imageClass MF4880DW has great specs and features, but it’s pricier than our finalists and the only benefit is a fax machine, which most people just don’t need anymore.
The Ricoh SP 311DNw looks okay on paper, but it’s pricy, earned middling reviews, and isn’t readily compatible with Macs.
What makes a good cheap laser printer?
Here’s the short version of how a mono laser printer works: A laser beam (duh) bounces ions off of a mirror and onto a photosensitive drum. Toner, which is basically dry, powdered ink, sticks to the charged part of the drum. Paper passes under the drum as it rotates, transferring the toner to the sheet. The toner-covered paper then rolls under a heating element, melting and fusing the toner in place.
In practical terms, this gives laser printers three advantages over inkjet printers when it comes to printing forms, reports, and text-heavy documents.
First, laser printers are better at printing text. Even at small font sizes, type should be crisp and readable. Most low-end laser printers have a resolution of at least 600×600 DPI. Some models make some ridiculous-sounding claims like 4800×600 DPI, and even after a couple hours of research, we’re not sure how they arrive at those figures. But there’s no need to worry about this spec—even the cheapest mono laser models will get the job done. Inkjets have enough resolution to print sharp text at small font sizes, but the wet ink bleeds into the paper and spreads out, whereas dry toner stays put.
Typical mono printers use about four cents’ worth of toner per page, but the most efficient models use half as much.
Second, laser printers are cheaper. Typical mono printers use about 4 cents’ worth of toner per page, but the most efficient models use less than half as much. Today’s inkjet printers can match those figures. But they also need to regularly purge their print heads every week, which means squirting fresh ink to clear away the dried ink. So even if an inkjet isn’t printing anything, it’s slowly running through its cartridge. Toner can sit for quite a while with no upkeep required.
And third, laser printers are much faster. It’s common for low-end mono laser printers to spit out 24 or more pages per minute because the drum receives each page in its entirety. Quick inkjets only churn through a dozen because each page has to be printed line-by-line.
Other features that make a great cheap mono laser printer include wireless networking and automatic duplexing. Both of them are available at the bottom end of the price range, so there’s no reason not to get a printer with both—they’re super convenient.
Wrapping it up
If you need a printer for your dorm room or home office and don’t mind printing in black and white, the Samsung Xpress M2835DW is your best bet. It’s fast, it’s cheap to run and really cheap to buy, and prints great text and decent graphics.