The Brother HL-6180DW is the easiest printer to setup. It's also the hands-down fastest in our round-up when we run our text and graphics benchmarks. Priced at a respectable $300, it offers a lot of nice extras for not a lot of money.
Although we tested all four printers using a USB 2.0 connection, Brother's HL-6180DW really wanted to connect to a wireless network. In fact, that's the first thing you're asked for when you power-up. I went ahead and completed that step, just to see how well it'd work. In no time, the HL-6180DW was available to anyone on our network, wirelessly.
Configuring a printer to work like this is easy outside of a dedicated office, since no Ethernet or USB cable is required. Find somewhere with accessible power and the HL-6180DW can be ready to go in less than a minute. I also happened to have a Brother scanner on the network, and found that the interface between those devices was seamless as well. Naturally, wireless connectivity makes the Brother HL-6180DW a good choice for those with less technical acumen.
This printer's availability is thankfully balanced by secure printing, a feature normally only found on higher-end units. An authorized user can designate any print job as secure. That user then assigns a numeric password or PIN to the task. They can even change the name of the job to obfuscate its true purpose. Thereafter, the job is sent to the printer, but not processed until the same user selects it from the local LCD menu and enters the proper code. Only when the right person is standing in front of Brother's HL-6180DW is the data released. This is a nice feature if confidential material needs to be printed over a shared network connection.
Once the printer is up and running, its most admirable strength is speed. The HL-6180DW is blazingly fast. It flew through our 30-page all-text benchmark in just 49 seconds, with the first page out just eight seconds after the job was sent. Adding graphics to the document didn't slow Brother's submission down much. Even with our large pictures and detailed renderings of text over graphics, the workload only took an additional second. It finished in an impressive 50 seconds.
Exceptional performance carries over to duplex printing as well. This is functionality that all four contenders offer, but not at Brother's speed. In order to print on both sides of a sheet of paper, these entry-level offerings output to one side of the page, come close to dumping the sheet into the return tray, but then reverse the print engine, sucking the paper back in. Then, the opposite side is printed on the paper before it's placed into the return area. I was expecting this to double print times, and indeed it came close. The HL-6180DW took 1:39 to print the 30-page graphical test file with data on both sides of the paper. This collapsed the output to just 15 pages, which is a nice savings if you can work with double-sided prints. We were so impressed with the speed that we made a short movie to showcase it.
In terms of quality, the Brother does acceptably with text. In more than 1000 pages, I never saw any output that was misprinted or smudged. Unfortunately, graphics is another story entirely; the HL-6180DW is the worst of the group. Dark images especially tend to get muddled. That's not a big deal for business-oriented diagrams, but you wouldn't want to use the Brother for monochrome photos. Typically that's not an issue you'd hold against an entry-level laser printer. However, with other units in our round-up faring well, it bears mention here.