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Hands-on Gear Review
HP Color LaserJet Pro MFP M281fdw Review
Price: $430 List
Pros: Great text and graphics quality, great interface
Cons: Can be expensive, relatively slow for a laser
Bottom line: Great balance of functionality and quality for any home office
Capabilities: Print, Scan, Fax, Copy
Resolution (Black): 600 x 600
Providing enough speed, functionality, and quality to handle the busiest home offices and even some small offices, the HP Color LaserJet Pro MFP M281fdw was a shoe-in for our Editors' Choice Award. Not only does it provide the speed and impeccable text quality of a laser printer, it somehow manages to produce vivid and crisp color graphics as well. On top of that, it has an attached fax/scanner with a 50-page automatic document feeder, so you can digitize long documents in a flash and get scan to your heart's content. If you want all of this impressive printing performance but already have a nice scanner, check out the HP Color LaserJet Pro M254dw. It's the same printer but without the multi-function capabilities, and thus sell for significantly less.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
As you can see in the table above, the HP Color LaserJet Pro MFP M281fdw was the top overall scorer in our testing. We used a number of different hands-on tests to determine those scores, which we divided into five testing metrics. Below you can read about how the M281fdw performed in each of those metrics.
The M281fdw shared the top step of the podium with three other printers in our text quality contest, scoring a 9. This put it in a whole other league than the worst scorer, which received a 2.
Text produced by the M281fdw during our testing was incredibly crisp with no noticeable pixelation and clean, smooth borders. It retained this quality no matter the font or italicization. The only weak point that prevented the M281fdw from getting a perfect text quality score was that it tended to print just a bit light at font sizes below 10 point. This was apparent under our microscope but only somewhat noticeable by the naked eye, so it is a very minor issue. So you can rest assured that any reports, resumes, or other important documents produced by the M281fdw are going to look high quality and professional.
Cost is the only real downside of the M281fdw. It scored a 5 in this metric, somewhat better than the low score of 2, but still relatively far from the top score of 7.
It printed in black and white at a fairly reasonable rate, about $0.03 per page or $14.11 per ream of paper. However, its color printing costs were the highest of any model we tested, clocking in at about $0.11 per page or $56.09 per ream. These color printing costs, combined with a fairly high retail price, gave the M281fdw an estimated lifetime cost of $645. This was the second highest lifetime cost that we calculated, and was more than double the estimated lifetime cost of the Canon imageCLASS LBP151dw.
Ease of Use
The M281fdw shared the top score of 9 out of 10 with its single function sibling in this metric, which saw scores as low as 4.
Setup involved plugging in the printer and being walked through a quick installation menu. The included starter ink cartridges were already in place, so we were printing within minutes of opening up the box. After downloading the HP ePrint app we were printing directly from our phones just a couple of minutes later. In fact, some visitors to the office were printing plane tickets on the M281fdw directly from their phones the day we received it. Also, if you're printing via a wifi connection you don't even need to plug in the printer to do the initial setup. Our testers' favorite aspect of the M281fdw was its large touchscreen control panel. This interface made it easy to navigate through the myriad of functions, which include printing, scanning to various destinations, copying, and faxing. A USB port on the front of the printer lets you plug in a flash drive and either print documents directly from it or save scanned documents to it, and a convenient bypass tray makes it easy to print on non-standard paper stock like envelopes. We found that all of the added features worked well and produced good results. Copies and scans were of a high resolution and the automatic document feeder operated smoothly and never clogged.
HP also provides a number of web applications that can be utilized by most of its multifunction printers. We found the touchscreen on the M281fdw really allowed us to access the full functionality of these apps. The genres of these apps range from productivity (printing directly from your google drive account, or printing postage stamps at home via a stamps.com account) to lifestyle (printing the daily recipe from allrecipes.com, or printing a menu for the week complete with a checklist style shopping list) to whimsical (printing a template on which to play the dot game).
The M281fdw received a 6 in our graphics and photos printing test. This is just slightly behind the two top scorers, both of which received a 7, and well ahead of the bottom score of 2.
For printing simple graphics, such as line charts and bar graphs, it was one of the best models we tested. Lines and bars had bright vivid colors and looked bold and solid. Even under our microscope we were only able to notice trace amounts of pixelation in these types of graphics. It did lose some points in this category for photo quality. In high resolution photos colors looked a bit oversaturated and dark areas looked muddled and lacked clarity. Pixelation was much more apparent in photos than in simple graphics, particularly in light areas of images. While the photos weren't great, they would certainly pass muster for the occasional image printed in a report or newsletter.
The M281fdw was relatively quick in our testing. It scored a 7 on our print speed test, putting it towards the top of a metric that had scores ranging between 2 and 9.
In our hallmark single sided text document test it clocked a print speed of 14 pages per minute. This was significantly slower than the HP LaserJet Pro M402n, which led the field at 25 pages per minute, but is still fast enough that you'll have to print a sizable document before it feels like the M281fdw is taking a long time to finish printing. Speeds were comparable when printing a mixed text and graphics document. When printing duplex the speed dropped to 10 pages per minute. This still felt plenty fast for printing long documents. It was one of the fastest models for printing photos. It printed a full page, high resolution photo in just 19 seconds.
The M281fdw is a situation where you get what you pay for. With a list price of $430 the M281fdw is the most expensive printer we tested. It is common for printers to be available from online retailers for much less than the manufacturer's standard retail price. At the time of this writing the M281fdw could be found online for over $100 less than the list price, which is still a pretty hefty price tag. This price, along with expensive color toner, also gave the M281fdw one of the highest estimated lifetime costs that we calculated. However, the M281fdw was also far and away the best performer that we tested. While we can't say the M281fdw is an amazing value, you are getting a top notch performer at a correspondingly top end price.
The M281fdw combines all the printing, faxing, copying, and scanning that you could hope for in a multifunction printer, and does so with aplomb. There isn't really a task that the M281fdw does not excel in, except for being easy on the wallet. If your printing and office needs are diverse and you don't mind paying for performance, you will not be disappointed with the M281fdw.
— Max Mutter and Steven Tata
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