Best Printers of 2021 | CNN Underscored
Printers have gotten more feature-filled and affordable over the past few years, as the once-massive all-in-one units (print, copy and scan) have become more and more compact while delivering higher quality prints.
We spent the past three months with a bevy of printers from leading brands like Brother, Canon, Epson and HP. If you’re paying more than $100, your printer should be able to do a little more than just print out a single sheet, especially now that we’re doing so much more from home. A single family printer will need to tackle essays and emails, but also extend to visually heavy documents and photos of family memories.
Our testing pool included several units at the top of the budget scale ($300-plus) and bottom (less than $100), but we found that units at either end failed to deliver an incredible experience across the board. Lower-cost units often had more clunky builds and didn’t deliver satisfactory performance with printing. Meanwhile, the higher-priced units offered more capacity and faster prints, but nothing that was extraordinary enough to justify their price for the average user.
After countless hours of print, scan and copy testing we wound up with a modest-sized, sub-$200 printer that delivered a formidable experience.
At $149.99, the HP Envy Pro 6455 is neither the most expensive nor the most affordable printer, but it’s a feature-filled and reliable unit that proves you don’t need to spend a ton for great performance. As an all-in-one unit it offers quality prints across text and visually heavy tasks alike, while also being able to scan and copy with ease.
The Envy Pro 6455 delivered accurate colors, letter reproduction and proper alignment prints — arguably the most important bar for a printer to reach. It can easily tackle text heavy briefs along with a set of keynote slides. HP stops short of pro-photo level prints, but the Envy Pro 6455 does justice to images with accurate colors.
If your needs go beyond the everyday features of our top pick, we’d recommend the Canon Pixma G7020. It lacks the seamless and easy setup of the HP Envy Pro 6455 and has a control panel that looks old in 2021. But it delivered better quality photos and has a larger capacity for prints. It also features fax capabilities (should you need that), but you’re paying a premium for those added capabilities — $349.99 -— though you’ll save a bit on ink, as you won’t need to replace it nearly as often as the HP Envy.
HP’s Envy Pro 6455 features a compact build that can fit into the smallest workspace, even though it is a multifunction device with the ability to print, copy and scan. It’s also an absolute champ at printing and was one of the easiest to set up of all we tested.
Most importantly, though, it succeeds with printing text-heavy documents, large keynotes and even the occasional one or two photo prints. On average, it takes about 15 seconds after you hit print for the first page to shoot out, and we could easily crank through 20 pages double-sided in just under three minutes. That falls behind duplex units like the Brother and Canon all-in-one, which can start a job in less than 10 seconds, but is on par with other units at this price. The HP Envy Pro 6455 makes its presence known, but not to the noisy degree of a laser printer or some of the massive units we tested. You’ll hear the two cartridges inside move back and forth. There is an option for a quiet mode, but that extends the printing time by five to 10 seconds with only a very slight reduction in noise as the payoff.
As for print quality, printed text arrived clear and crisp with deep blacks and no smudging around the letters. As we did with all printers, we gave each model some time to warm up and ran the alignment tests to ensure proper calibration and setup. With black and white prints, the HP Envy Pro 6455 could toss punches back and forth with much higher-priced units. There were no noticeable quality differences between this unit and ones from Brother, Canon or Epson. Heck, it was even on par with more expensive HP units. The ink was also dry, which is to be expected, once the print was complete.
When it comes to photo printing, HP wasn’t overly vibrant and delivered a more middle-of-the-road print. Its prints weren’t on the pro level that Canon and Epson printers can deliver, but they weren’t the worst prints we’ve seen, either. For starters, HP didn’t cause huge issues in terms of the accuracy of the photo or by introducing artifacts (when the printer makes something appear that wasn’t intended) into the shot. The result with photo prints on the HP Envy Pro 6455 is an accurate depiction of a photo that doesn’t raise the brightness or vibrancy. It’ll look nice on your fridge or even in a frame, but doesn’t get close to the quality of a pro job.
Suffice to say, the Envy Pro 6455 is a well-versed printer that can handle an essay, planning doc or even a spreadsheet as well as a family memory. This printer utilizes one black cartridge and a tricolor cartridge, providing blue, red and yellow all in one. HP estimates that the black cartridge provides about 120 sheets and the tricolor can handle 100, which was in line with our experience during testing.
We’re also huge fans of the HP Instant Ink program, which is basically a subscription service for ink cartridges. It takes the hassle out of knowing when you’ll need ink, by monitoring levels and your printing usage to have new cartridges arrive before your current ones run dry. HP Instant Ink starts at $0.99 a month for 15 pages a month, but a more common plan is $4.99 a month for 100 pages. We’d also call out that the HP Instant Ink cartridges are physically larger and provide more ink than even a standard or XL. If you don’t want to use HP Instant Ink, you can purchase cartridges for the Envy Pro 6455 as well. A 2-pack containing tricolor and black is $29.99, for comparison. You can sign up and give it a go directly from within the HP Smart app.
And the HP Smart app is the command central for the Envy Pro 6455. We mentioned that this printer also supports copying and scanning; that’s all controlled from the app, as there is no screen on the Envy Pro 6455. It’s a very modern approach with a focus on simplicity. There is a flatbed scanner and an auto document feed for scans and copies, but you’ll control those from the HP Smart app on your Android, iOS, macOS or Windows device. There are also LED indicators and a button for power or canceling a job on the physical printer.
With scanning especially, we like how you can view the result in real time and make adjustments to the crop via the application. That HP Smart app is also how you handle the setup of the printer, and it’s the most intuitive of any model we tested. You open the app, it then finds the Envy Pro and you connect it to Wi-Fi. The app even walks you through how to insert ink and prints a few test pages.
The whole setup process took about eight minutes. With similarly priced printers, the setup process stretched closer to 25 minutes, and some of the touch screen-centric setups resulted in connection problems. And the Envy Pro 6455 works with all the core printing standards, including Apple AirPrint. We tested with a range of devices and many of the newer ones automatically detected the Envy Pro 6455 on the network.
As a whole, the HP Envy Pro 6455 delivers a great core feature set and dependable functionality for an affordable price tag. We tested cheaper options, but bulky builds and long setup times ultimately weighed them down — along with shaky prints. The Envy Pro 6455 starts with a strong modern build and pairs it with a super simple setup process. It’s refreshing for a printer to be this easy to use, and the resulting prints were on par with units double the cost and with our expectations.
After we decided on a pool of printers from a range of manufacturers, ranging from the affordable to the luxurious, we got to testing. Just as we cast a wide net with models, we also did so when considering which features to test.
After we unboxed the printer, we paid close attention to what was needed for setup, any hiccups that occurred along the way, and the total length of the process. Our top pick, the HP Envy Pro 6455, was the quickest of the bunch, at eight minutes for connectivity and ink installation. HP is integrating its Smart app in many of the printers we tested, and that acts as the main control panel. Other manufacturers, like Canon, also offer apps, so we factored those in here.
To test printing, we had an array of documents ranging from just a few lines scattered on a page to long 30-page documents with graphical elements and heavy text blocks. We printed each test set multiple times and compared prints across printers. We also attempted printing on different surfaces, for instance a table that shakes more than most. For copying and scanning we had several test pages which we ran through each printer multiple times. We looked at the quality of scans and copies to see if any artifacts were introduced.
During the setup process and throughout using the printers, we looked at forms of connectivity. We factored in which version of Wi-Fi was found inside, as well as whether or not a printer could be paired with Bluetooth, Apple AirPrint or Google CloudPrint.
We also paid close attention to the included warranties with each unit.
Each printer was scored using these categories:
- Printing and performance had a maximum of 30 points.
- Setup had a maximum of 25 points.
- Features (Copy, Scan, Controls) had a maximum of 20 points.
- Design had a maximum of 15 points.
- Warranty had a maximum of 10 points.
Brother MFC-J805DW ($159.99; target.com)
This INKvestment all-in-one printer from Brother was nearly our best overall pick, as it brings a new ink type into the industry. It also doesn’t carry a very heavy price tag for liquid ink. But the HP Envy Pro 6455 beat it out not only on price but also for ease of use. Brother throws a lot at you directly on the front of the printer, as you get a screen and tons of buttons. It’s also a fax machine and if you need that feature, it’s an excellent option.
But as far as a standard all-in-one, we still think traditional ink cartridges provide a strong amount of value, and that coupled with HP’s simple Envy Pro makes it the best pick.
Brother MFC-J6545DW ($279.99; bhphotovideo.com)
B&H Photo Video
The MFC-J6545DW is a massive all-in-one printer, and you’ll really need to make space for it. It’s something that belongs in an office, and the basic light and dark gray color scheme fits with this trope. Like the MFC-J805DW above, it uses liquid ink and packs a price since the tanks are housed in the same body. This makes it much easier to squeeze the ink in when it notes a low level.
For the price, you get a really fast experience that is on par with that of a laser printer for black and white text. However, we think this is a bit of overkill for most people.
Brother MFC-L3770CDW ($399.99; staples.com)
At nearly $400, the Brother MFC-L3770CDW is one of the most expensive printers we tested, but it’s also the most functional. With multiple paper trays with extended capacity and a sizable touch screen, it’s intuitive to use and doesn’t require much maintenance. Let’s be clear, though — the MFC-L3770CDW trades a modest size build for a laundry list of features. It’s best suited for those who print close to thousands of pages within a month and need a heavy duty build.
It was one of our favorite units to set up, since it all happened on the screen with no connectivity issues. This Brother all-in-one supports several printing modes, including double-sided, along with copying, scanning and even the ability to send faxes. Rather than traditional ink cartridges or liquid ink, this machine uses toner, which is housed in larger cartridges. We’d bet on a long use time as well. If you need a printer that can handle a heavy workload, the MFC-L3770CDW is worth a look.
Canon Maxify MB5420 ($329.99; canon.com)
Canon Maxify MB5420
Not only does this all-in-one from Canon undercut larger printing powerhouses in price, but it matches many in terms of features. Compared with the Brother printer above, print and copy speeds were on par — and that means the ability to print a lot of pages in a little bit of time, including duplex jobs. It has two key differences, though.
Setup was a bit harder on this Maxify — not so much that the screen was hard to use, but that the connection to Wi-Fi did take a few attempts. We eventually did get the Maxify MB5420 added, though, after the third try. The companion Print app (which is not required) wasn’t the most intuitive either. The Canon really did shine with photo prints though, offering rich colors and a high level of accuracy. We didn’t encounter any artifact issues with this printer either. Similar to the Brother above, if you have a heavy workload that falls into the realm of creative tasks with heavy visuals, this MB5420 deserves a look — just make sure you have the budget and space.
Canon Pixma G7020 ($349.99; canon.com)
Canon Pixma G7020
The Pixma G7020 is one of the newer “Megatank” options from Canon. These printers trade classic ink cartridges for a liquid ink solution. Visible through the front of the G720, you’ll see a few clear vertical tubes which hold the various colors. And you’ll load the ink via a tube with a triangle top. Be warned, though — don’t get the ink on clothing or skin, as it is hard to get out. The advantage here is a lower cost to print through this ink type.
In terms of quality of the print, the Pixma G7020 succeeded easily with text and traditional prints, while also scaling to create vibrant photo prints right from our home. It was a bit faster to get connected than the Maxify above, but we prefer the controls on that model. The Pixma G7020 has a basic series of buttons and a small non-backlit display. We think for the home you’ll be better served with the HP Envy Pro 6455.
Epson XP-4100 ($99.99; bestbuy.com)
At $100, the Epson XP-4100 was one of the cheaper printers that we tested and represents a budget option. And at the end of our testing, it’s a fairly average printer that aims to make a splash with a sizable touchscreen and a pretty easy setup. For the price, though, you do lose a bit in terms of quality for printing and scanning. We found that with black or color, there could be waves or uneven areas in terms of the print quality. The color quality was just not up to the standards that we were seeing across the board from our testing pool. And at just $50 more, the HP Envy Pro 6455 is a more well-rounded option.
Epson EcoTank ET-4760 ($499.99; amazon.com)
Epson EcoTank ET-4760
This EcoTank ET-4760 zooms past other printers with a $500 price tag. And that’s expensive for a printer, but more in line with units that opt for liquid ink. Here’s the good news if you’re sold on this printer: The ink will last for a while, and you likely won’t need to buy a refill for at least a year. Liquid ink can be used more sparingly and has a very long shelf like. Unlike previous Epson models or Canon units, these bottles have a unique release design which aims to stop accidental leakage of ink. We really appreciated that, and it’s better for the environment since it doesn’t use cartridges.
Asides from the ink situation, the ET-4760 features a nice touch screen that allows for easy setup and to make adjustments on the fly. It was quick enough to connect to Wi-Fi, and it’s easy to control the print jobs. It’s an all-in-one that supports print, copy, scan and even fax jobs.
Epson XP-7100 ($199.99; amazon.com)
The XP-7100 sits in the same realm as the HP Envy Pro 6455 as an all-in-one solution designed for homes that are also used for a little work — or rather, in our work-from-home world, a heavier print load that spans the gamut. It’s powered by traditional ink cartridges and you’ll need four of them, which ups the cost on replacements. And it really shines with photography, delivering prints on par with the quality of the Canon printers, both of which surpass the photo quality of the HP Envy Pro 6455.
However, if you’re not looking for a printer that will primarily be used for photography purposes, we think you’ll be better served by the Envy Pro 6455.
HP OfficeJet Pro 9015e ($229.98; staples.com)
HP OfficeJet Pro 9015e
The OfficeJet Pro 9015e is kind of like the Envy Pro 6455 on steroids. It has many of the same features but enriches them. It all starts with a larger build that adds in a sizable touchscreen for easy use — but the HP Smart app is still in full force here. It’s faster to print and holds more paper, which is helpful for larger jobs. It is also more business-oriented, with a faster duplex function.
Speed is a common theme with the OfficeJet Pro 9015e, both with prints and with data getting to the printer. The 9015e was always a second or two faster to start printing. So if you value a zippy fast experience above all else, the OfficeJet Pro 9015e is an excellent pick.
HP Tango X ($199.99; staples.com)
HP Tango X
If Apple made a printer, it would probably be the Tango X. It’s billed as a smartphone-first printer, with no screen and one of the most unique compact designs of any printer. The Tango X features a fabric cover which wraps around the printer to disguise it and give it a more homey feel. It can print pretty well, but it’s not the fastest, and at times did finish a job slower than the Envy Pro 6455.
In order to use the copy or scan function, you’ll need to pull out the smartphone app to crop the image and see if the quality makes it usable. Most of the time we had to rescan to get a nice quality scan. The Tango X can fit almost anywhere and feels like where printers might be going next. We’d like to see some improvements in the all-in-one feature set and with the hardware inside that makes the prints happen. At $199.99, it’s not cheap, either.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: