The Brother MFC-990CW is an ideal multifunction printer that can truly do it all: for $230, you get a 4.2-inch touch-screen LCD display, 802.11 b/g wireless networking, a cordless handset with a digital answering machine, autoduplexing, and Bluetooth connectivity, just to name a few of the extended features. Only a few competitive printers offer these functions and accessories built into one device. The Brother MFC-990CW will make a functional workhorse for a busy home office that needs network connectivity and mostly prints high-quality documents and photos. If you don’t need the fancy display, digital answering machine, or cordless phone, we suggest the Canon Pixma MX860, another high-scoring all-in-one.
Similar to the MFC-490CW, the MFC-990CW is fairly easy on the eyes. Instead of the drab matte-gray finish marring the majority of Brother’s all-in-ones, you get a glossy black finish on the large control panel and autodocument feeder, which adds an element of executive style to the design. The unit measures 18.4 inches long, 14.8 inches deep, and 18.1 inches tall, a compact footprint relative to other multifunctional devices. Of course, the docking station for the cordless phone adds a bit of width, but you can easily fit the 990CW on a desk without contributing too much clutter.
The control panel occupies the majority of real estate on the printer’s exterior, and the main cutout prominently displays a large 4.2-inch touch-screen color LCD display, four feature shortcut buttons (with a fourth button labeled “photo capture” that opens a folder to display images on digital memory cards that you insert into the media reader), and a numerical keypad for the fax machine. Unfortunately, Brother refused to ditch the mushy rubber buttons that also cheapened the MFC-490CW. The left and right sides of the display screen offer hard buttons for functions like start, stop, and exit, but the rest of the controls are all accessible onscreen.
The backlit LCD display offers a very intuitive way to navigate through the main controls and settings within the printer driver software. The default home screen shows a heads-up of the job in progress, easy access to speed dial and call history, the current time/date, and a graphical representation of the remaining ink left in the four ink cartridges. Contrary to other printers that simply have a touch screen for gimmicks, Brother actually makes good use of it with a simple two-tiered menu system and an automatic dimmer that saves energy during dormancy. Finally, the screen swivels up and down at incremental notches to give you a variety of viewing angles.
Brother offers a variety of ways to transfer photos from digital memory cards; the most obvious is the media reader just below the display screen on the front face of the printer. Acceptable formats include Compact Flash, SD, Memory Stick, and xD slots. There’s also a PictBridge USB port to link up a digital camera, and Bluetooth rounds out the transfer options for wireless printing from an enabled portable device.
The large drawer that pulls from the bottom of the device holds blank sheets of paper and the top doubles as a landing where finished prints come to rest. The glaring issue here is that the drawer sits flush in the printer and doesn’t extend far enough out of the device, making it difficult to grab outbound prints from the output cavern. Brother forces you to squeeze your hand into this awkward, covered cave to retrieve smaller prints, so potential buyers with larger-than-average mitts should take this into consideration.
Like many of the other Brother printers, we still have complaints about the internal cable guide; while the power port is easy to access on the left side of the rear panel, the USB and Ethernet ports sit inside the printer. Brother forces you to open up the machine, prop up the lid with a plastic arm (similar to the arm on the hood of a car engine), snake the USB cable (not included in the box) through a small plastic guide, and plug it directly into the internal components. Not only is this hassle unique to Brother, you also wind up losing more than a foot of cable slack as a result of the extensive internal looping. It feels counterintuitive to lift up the lid and expose the print head to serve no other purpose other than to plug in the USB cord.
Thankfully, you can connect the printer to a desktop without wires at all using the built-in 802.11b/g wireless print server. The Wi-Fi setup proved remarkably easy using the Wireless Setup Wizard built into the printer. While other manufacturers require you to go through the drivers on the host computer to establish a connection, the Wizard literally took a minute from start to finish.
The MFC-990CW uses a four-cartridge system with individual tanks for black, cyan, magenta, and yellow that load into the front bay. Unfortunately, Brother only gives you smaller starter ink packs that will get you printing but certainly won’t last as long as a standard cartridge. In any case, the company also offers standard and high-yield cartridges on its Web site, but we’ll use the high-capacity price points and page yields for a cost per page analysis: color cartridges cost $17 for 750 pages and a black cartridge costs $32 that will last approximately 900 pages, according to Brother, which factors out to 2.2 cents per page of color and 3.5 cents for black. Those prices are just shy of the average cost to print, but the Canon Pixma MX860 offers better print quality for the same price and won’t try to gyp you with half-filled starter cartridges.
There isn’t much to say about the basic handset that comes attached to the printer. It’s a 5.8GHz model, which means that you don’t need to worry about interference with wireless networks and microwaves. The answering machine is built into the unit, as well, and the message center on the left side of the display is home to the play, erase, speakerphone, and hold/intercom buttons.
The drivers on the MFC-990CW installation disc give you the option to adjust the printer’s quality settings from normal to fine, fast, and fast normal. In addition, you get a box to check natural versus vivid photo printers and a unique “True2life” color-enhancement tool with customizable changes to color density, white balance, contrast, brightness, and other settings. Finally, the driver also installs a status monitor that pops up during job processing to monitor ink cartridge levels and quality control, but it doesn’t indicate the status of the spooling or the job progress.
Brother also gives you the option to install a third-party imaging application called Paperport, by ScanSoft. This program lets you edit photos in a file-browsing setup similar to Apple’s iPhoto, with basic photo-editing solutions for autoenhancement, blemish erasing, and red-eye elimination. We played around with the software for a while and enjoyed its simplicity compared with iPhoto, although don’t expect the editing quality to be on par with Adobe suites; this is geared more for light users and amateur photographers with limited time and editing resources.
The printer’s scanning, copying, and fax features all perform adequately, especially in conjunction with the ADF that can function without a computer connection. We’re a little disappointed to see that it can only hold up to 15 sheets of paper, since the MX860 and other printers typically hold at least double. Scanning options include routing images to a file folder, e-mail, or an optical character recognition text translator. You also get four customizable buttons on the virtual Control Center that you can program to any preference. Copying also works as a standalone device; you can set the magnification from 25 percent up to 400 percent of the original size, but the only two options for pagination are two pages on one sheet of paper and four pages on one sheet. The competition usually offers up to four images on one page, thumbnails, and two-sided prints.
The comprehensive set of features hardly makes up for the MFC-990CW’s slower than average print speeds. We thought the MFC-490CW’s photo speed was disappointing at 0.64 page per minute, but the 990CW manages to double the wait: only 0.33 page per minute calculated through an average of three separately timed print sessions. The rest of the print scores aren’t as terrible, but still register below average, compared with other machines.
We’re impressed by the MFC-990CW’s print quality, especially in a direct comparison with lower-scoring Brother printers. This one printed text with especially sharp-edged letters with near-laser quality in black and white prints. The graphics and photo quality output surprised us the most: smooth gradients and curves, rendered with solid color handling with very little blotches or malformations. The prints aren’t perfect, however; the most obvious problem is a noticeable graininess in blocks of color that include muted colors and facial tones. Overall, the details will certainly satisfy a quick snapshooter or amateur photo enthusiast.