Multifunction Printer Review: Brother MFC-J870DW

Tuesday Sep 10th 2013 by Joseph Moran
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Brother's well-connected multifunction printer is the first inkjet that can wirelessly link to a mobile device via NFC.

There’s been a lot of technological innovation in printers over the last few years. Not so much in the realm of getting ink onto paper, but rather in connectivity—getting documents and photos into and out of the printer without need of a computer.

Brother’s MFC-J870DW breaks new ground in this area as the first printer to include built-in Near Field Communication, or NFC, technology. (Samsung subsequently launched  a pair of NFC-equipped lasers, but as of this writing Brother makes the only inkjet sporting NFC.)

A bit of background—NFC lets two devices that are touching or in very close proximity (no more than one or two inches apart) communicate and exchange data without the cumbersome setup processes imposed by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. NFC is most commonly used for file transfer between devices, and to a lesser extent, mobile payments, but it’s easy to see how the technology offers a convenient way to get a document or photo to a printer from a smartphone or tablet.     

Inkjet Printer Feature Overview

The MFC-J870DW is a small office color inkjet that can print, copy, scan and fax. It connects to a network via either 10/100 Ethernet or 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi. It uses a four-cartridge ink system (CYMK), carries a print rating of 12 pages-per-minute (PPM) for black and 10 PPM for color (ISO standard), and it prints duplex without a bulky paper-handling module hanging off the back.

Brother MFC-J870dw multifunction inkjet printer

Figure 1: Brother packs a lot of ways to connect into the MFC-J870DW, a compact and inexpensive multifunction printer. 

This small business inkjet includes a 20-page auto document feeder. The 100-page input tray, 50-page output tray, and a maximum duty cycle of 2,500 pages per month make it best suited for lighter home office or very small office workloads.

The large adjustable panel on the front of the all-in-one printer features a bright, sharp 2.7-inch touch screen. That’s small given the panel’s overall large size, but what looks like an adjacent empty expanse of glossy black plastic is actually an array of touch-sensitive controls that selectively illuminate based on the feature currently in use. The screen and other touch controls are very responsive and don’t require excessive pressure to activate.

Printer Setup and Connectivity

Whereas most printers conveniently locate their various ports on the back of the unit, the MFC-J870DW places its USB, Ethernet, phone, and fax jacks underneath the scanning surface and toward the front of the unit so you have to "pop the hood" to get at them. Other Brother printers do the same thing, and it makes using wired connections needlessly complicated since you’re forced to snake cables through the interior of the device. Moreover, the extra six inches or so that the cable needs to travel through the innards of the system can be the difference between a cable that’s just long enough and one that doesn’t quite make it.

Mobile Printing Options

On the other hand, getting the MFC-J870DW connected to Wi-Fi is quite easy. We did it directly from the printer via a built-in setup wizard. After scanning for networks and entering the WPA2 password (from a full virtual keyboard so there was no cumbersome character scrolling needed), the unit was online.

These days, there’s a better-than-even chance that a document or photo you want to print isn’t sitting on a PC’s hard drive but rather on a smartphone, tablet, or perhaps some form of cloud storage. Don't worry though, the MFC-J870DW covers virtually all of these bases. For starters, it includes support for Apple’s AirPrint, Google Cloud Print, and Wi-Fi Direct printing (the last of which allows mobile devices to link to the printer without an already established Wi-Fi network acting as the conduit).

These features are fairly common in today’s maintstream printer, but what really sets the MFC-J870DW apart is NFC. Using it requires an Android device as well as Brother’s iPrint&Scan app. Be sure to check Brother’s list of officially supported devices. Note that NFC isn’t supported on iOS devices (current models lack NFC capabilities) or on Windows Phone 8 devices—this is in spite of the fact that the iPrint&Scan app is available for Windows Phone 8 devices, many of which also include NFC.

NFC technology

Figure 2: Built-in NFC lets Brother's multifunction inkjet printer easily link with compatible (Android) smartphones and tablets.

In any event, we tested NFC with a Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4 and, for the most part, it made printing brain-dead simple. After opening a document or photo in the app, we placed the phone next to the NFC symbol on the left front of the MFC-J870DW. Instantly we heard a beep, and a "Touch to Beam" message appeared on the phone’s display.

Upon tapping the screen, the file transfer started and printing began within a few seconds. Notably, you don’t need to hold the phone next to printer during the entire process; the fact that you can remove it after a few seconds suggests that NFC is actually being used to set up a Wi-Fi Direct connection, which in turn transfers the file. (Recall that NFC won’t work beyond a few inches distance.)

Brother’s iPrint&Scan app isn’t just for NFC printing; it can also connect to a printer via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Regardless of the connection method, one caveat worth mentioning is that printing certain things can be limited by the capabilities of the app. For example, you can print emails via the app, but only from a Gmail account—you’re out of luck if you use any other provider. 

Printing from the Cloud

As for cloud storage services, the MFC-J870DW connects directly to a bunch of popular ones—Box, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Flickr, Google Drive, Picasa, and (the soon to be renamed) SkyDrive. To configure a given service on the MFC-J870DW, you can visit a special Brother Web page to retrieve a configuration code for that service and then enter the code at the printer—via the touch screen—to set up the connection. To guard against unauthorized use of cloud storage accounts via walk-up access to the printer, you can secure them with PIN codes.

It only took a couple of minutes to set up our MFC-J870DW to link to Google Drive and SkyDrive, and once we had done so we could directly download and print files stored on those services. On the down side, there’s no way to preview the files from the printer (or even see when they were uploaded), so you do have to identify them solely by name.

Small business printing: Brother Web Connect

Figure 3: The MFC-J870DW can directly upload or download from a number of cloud storage services, including Box.net, Evernote, and SkyDrive

If you don’t want to print the file immediately, you can opt to download it to a USB Flash drive or SD card inserted into the printer. Conversely, if you have a paper version of a document or photo you can scan it directly to cloud storage (as well as to a networked PC, an email address, or local storage attached to the printer). Whatever form of storage you scan to, you can choose from multiple file types—PDF, JPG, DOCX, XLSX, or PPTX.

We tested most of the aforementioned download/upload and print/scan methods against Google Drive, and they all went off without a hitch. You can also store up to 12 shortcuts on the MFC-J870DW’s control panel, which allows you to perform custom tasks—say, scan and upload an 8.5 x 14 document in monochrome PDF format at 600 DPI resolution to SkyDrive in three button presses instead of 10 or more.         

Print Speed, Quality, and Consumables

We used three test documents to gauge the MFC-J870DW’s print speed and quality—a 10-page, text-only Microsoft Word DOCX file, a 26-page DOCX file containing mixed text and graphics, and a  Microsoft PowerPoint presentation consisting of 19 slides. We printed all three at the default Normal quality (other options include Fast and Best) so on plain copier paper.

The 10-page, text-only Word document printed in 1:10, and it took 17 seconds for the first page to emerge. The 26-page mixed text/graphics document took 2:40 to print, with almost 18 seconds required to output the first page. Not surprisingly, the 19-slide PowerPoint took the longest: 3:44 to print, and 23 seconds for the first page. Print quality at the normal setting is very good, with crisp, clear text and vivid color graphics.

We also printed the text-only document using both the Fast and Best settings. The former printed the entire 10 pages in speedy 46 seconds while the latter took the same 46 seconds just to spit out the first page—5:34 had elapsed by the time the last page emerged.

While the considerable difference in print times across quality settings certainly isn’t surprising, we did not expect the relative high quality of the Fast and Normal settings compared to glacial and ink-swilling Best. Although many inkjets output very faint and jagged text in Draft mode, that wasn’t the case with the MFC-J870DW, whose characters were very clear and easy to read. And though the Best document was a bit darker and sharper than the Normal one, it was subtle enough that it arguably didn’t justify the extra time and ink consumption.

Brother MFC-J870dw printer controls

Figure 4: The printer’s front panel includes a 2.7-inch touch screen. Other touch-sensitive controls that only illuminate when needed.

The MFC-J870DW offers "high capacity" LC103 cartridges that yield up to 600 pages and cost $25 for black, and $15 for Cyan, Yellow, or Magenta. That works out to 4.2 cents per black printed page, which is high compared to the 1.6 and 3.2 cents per black page of HP and Epson models, respectively, we’ve recently looked at.

Like most printer manufacturers Brother also offers less expensive, lower-capacity (300 pages) ink cartridges, but since they provide half the capacity for more than half the price, you’d do well to avoid them unless absolutely necessary. 

Bottom Line

The Brother’s good output, NFC support and breadth of other connectivity options alone make it worthy of consideration, especially given its $150 estimated street price, and it can be had from other online sources for as little as a hundred bucks. Incidentally, if you’re a brick-and-mortar shopper looking for the MFC-J870DW at Best Buy you won’t find it there. However, you will find the MFC-J875DW, which is the identical printer save for the name (a fact that’s not made clear on Brother’s website).

Price: $150 (estimated street price)

Pros: good quality print output; myriad mobile and cloud-based connectivity options; easy to use control panel

Cons: relatively high cost per page for ink; NFC printing only supported on certain Android devices

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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