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Brother Printer Does So Much, But Isn't Easy

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NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- To channel Kermit the Frog: It's not easy being a desktop printer company.

It's not enough that such small-biz printing giants as H-P(HPQ) , Canon(CAJ) and Epson can't seem to get a media word in edgewise with Apple(AAPL) hyping this or that version of the iPad, Google(GOOG) getting into business laptops and Research In Motion (RIMM) finally taking the wraps off its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, coming in a few weeks to Best Buy (BBY) . These days, printer heavies also face a brutal commoditization wave. Low-end imaging companies just keeping baking once one big-company-only features, such as Wi-Fi, Web access and PC-less printing, into ever cheaper printers.

Brother International's MFC-9970CDW multifunction small-business laser printer is flawed, but does so much right that buying a business desktop printer may never be the same.

Take Brother International's MFC-9970CDW multifunction small-business laser printer, $579 via Amazon.com(AMZN) . While far from perfect, this scanner/printer/faxer/copier does so much right that buying a business desktop printer will probably never be the same.

What you get
This is a simply ridiculous printer at a simply ridiculous price.

The 9970 is so feature packed it's hard to get your brain around the thing. The 9970 is not a low-cost inkjet, nor a midpriced laser jet. This thing is a full on, in-your-face laser printer, like what you see in FedEx(FDX) Office -- except that it is the size of a biggish microwave oven and costs less than some phone bills. And as you would expect, lots of big-machine imaging features are in full effect: Not just 30-page-per-minute printing for both color and black and white. Oh no. This sucker boots up to print in less than six seconds, has a document feeder that can process 20 pages in less than 30 seconds and smokes just about every faxing, scanning and printing test I assigned it. The thing supports sophisticated wired and wireless network printing, direct imaging, slick instant duplex printing and a ton more. And check out the scanner: 50 pages in one job. Wooh!

But the real mind-boggler is the printing cost per page: The high-yield black cartridge, which claims a ridiculous 6,000(!) page capacity, costs just $77 each at Amazon. (Sorry, I love my job but I'm not printing 6,000 pages to test this.) So let's assume that claim is only half true -- that still grosses up to two cents a page. P/> Are you kidding me?

What you don't get
The 9970 falls short of first-line, top-drawer functionality.

Sadly, the unit is not imported from Hogwarts School of Desktop Printer Witchcraft and Wizardry. It is not magic. The printer achieves all this marvelous functionality at a clear cost; Brother is not a shop that invests in slick engineering, so an Apple iMac this thing is not. Setup, while perfectly manageable, is supported by a manual that makes Google Translate look like Ernest Hemingway. Printing quality is not firstrate. On-screen menus are clunky, and so is finagling the replacement cartridges. But the real bummer? Network access. Yes, the printer does support Wi-Fi, but you'd better be ready to mess with firewalls, IP addresses and other heavy bits of tech wonkiness.