Brother MFC-J6920DW multifunction A3 review

Multifunctional printers are cheap, but 9 out of 10 still doesn’t go beyond the A4 paper format. Enter the Brother MFC-J6920DW multifunction A3. It can scan and print up to A3 format and even scan and print double-sided. It has both a document feeder and a flatbed scanner option. It doubles as a photocopier. Documents can be printed via WiFi, USB and memory cards en sticks. A first for a multifunctional printer for under € 300. I’ve used it for two years now. Let’s take a look at the devil in the details of the Brother MFC-J6920DW.

The pros and cons of the Brother MFC-J6920DW

This article is about the MFC-J6920DW. However, most, if not all that is said here about the ’69’ is also applicable to the ’45’ and probably all other MFC-J models.

Differences with other Brother MFC’s

Like all the MFC-series, it can print and scan at the same time. This can save time and irritation in small offices or even if you use it intensively yourself. It has more memory, which seems to be the bottleneck with serial scanning on the 128 megabyte MFC-J4510DW I used before. The ’45’ freezes after about two dozen of continuous scanning via the document feeder.

Talking about model numbers: Yes, I wholeheartedly agree there are way too many printer models, even Brother MFC models. Or maybe I should say: The differences are often poorly communicated and therefore unclear to the general public. All models have 802.11b/g/n WiFi. If you study their specifications on the Brother website though, you’ll find that indeed they differ on details that may or may not be important for you. For example, the MFC-J4420DW has only one A4 paper drawer where the MFC-J6720DW has two A4 paper drawers, while only the MFC-J6920DW can hold A3 paper thanks to its two extendible paper drawers.

A3 printing

All these MFC’s can print to A3 format, except that with most models this can only be done via the manual paper feed slit that can be reached by opening a latch on the back. This method often makes the paper go into the machine at a slicht angle, resulting in a print that is also out of plumb. Not very practical if you want to print A3 regularly.

With a bigger touch screen panel, A3 paper drawer, 256 MB memory instead of 128 MB is the ‘top of the line’.

Ink pricing and usage

To prevent the ink heads from drying in, the Brother MFC-J6920DW cleans the printer heads daily, even in sleep mode, but without excessive use ink. It uses relatively little ink.

Ink is readily available online from both ‘official Brother’ as white labels for competitive prices.

The ink cartridges have their own chips that keep track of a ‘countdown’ number of prints after which the cartridges are assumed to be empty. So far, they keep working, even after firmware updates.

Quality of scanning, printing and copying and noise level

Compared to similar multifunctionals, the Brother MFC-J6920DW A3 has a slightly loud paper feed. Printing itself is quite silent. More importantly, it prints fast, wether it’s a color print or not. Brother claims up to 35 pages per minute in color. While the quality of the prints is not as perfect as a folder from an expensive copier/printer from a professional printing service, it is not bad for a SOHO printer/scanner.

Printing quality greatly depends on the settings you use. For bookkeeping purposes the standard settings are more than sufficient. Sometimes you can see a tiny shift between two printed strokes though. If this bothers you, there is a silent mode option. I’m not sure if it’s that much more silent. I think it’s not loud to begin with. With silent mode activated though, the printer takes a bit more time and there won’t be any slightly shifted parts.

Copying is fast an accurate. I haven’t noticed the slightest shift there. The color touchscreen is large enough, bright and easy to operate and  can be tilted more horizontally for a better view. Double-sided, also called duplex copying is also quite easy with the document feeder and a pre-set button for this option. I’ve noticed that using the document feeder tends to give slightly tilted scans though.

Photo prints

When you select photographic printing quality and paper, the print will take a few minutes longer for a full A4 borderless print. I rarely need this but it’s a nice feature. I am impressed by the clarity and bright colors of these prints.

Double-sided printing or borderless

These printers can print from edge to edge. Brother calls this borderless. There’s a catch to the double-side printing option: You can’t print double-sided while printing borderless. I suppose this has to do with the possibility that the ink is still wet while the paper is turned.

Borderless printing at 100%

There are more counterintuitive things. You’d think that A4 borderless printing at 100% does what it sounds like, but I found out it doesn’t. The Brother printer firmware has some strange quirks. The bottom line is that you can either print with 3 mm white borders around the paper’s edge or have a 103% enlarged print with 3 mm image cut-off. A 100% print is possible, but not with the settings you’d expect. You’ll have to put some extra effort in it. Basically, you’ll have to trick the printer software. I wrote a separate article about the strange, undocumented methods of the Brother MFC’s printer drivers and how to work around them to still get borderless printing at 100%.

Bundled software

The Mac OS X Brother ControlCenter scanner software that comes with every Brother printer and MFC looks and feels outdated. That’s because it is. It basically hasn’t changed a bit since 2003, except for some updates to keep it running on versions of Mac OS X that are not over a decade old.

Another way of printing is via the System Preferences panel for Printers and Scanners. When the ‘wireless’ version of the driver is used, printing options are limited though. No matter what driver is used, the scanner preferences for size don’t stick, while other setting do.

Of course, via TWAIN the scanner is still also available for other applications, such as Photoshop.

There are options for faxing as well, but it’s beyond me why anyone would want want to go back to this archaic method.

Other quirks and deviations

According to the manual, printing is either possible via USB or WiFi, but I found USB printing works fine while the WiFi option is active. It works fine with AirPrint too. It was unnecessary hard to set it up for AirPrint though, thanks to the documentation that is for some reason split up in different .pdf’s on the Brother site, with names that are not very descriptive. AirPrint is a wireless printing option on Apple iOS and Mac OS.

Soft reset

Once a month or few months, the MFC-J6920DW seems to become unresponsive via WiFi. The old ‘switch it off and on again’ trick usually makes it come to life again. If that doesn’t fix it, it usually also doesn’t help to pull the plug and reconnect it. Instead, pull the plug and hold down the on/off button while you plug it in again. This will cause a soft reset. The printer is reset but without losing your personal settings. It worked for me.

Borderless printing at 100%

Borderless printing at 100% seems impossible with the Brother MFC-J6920DW and similar printers and multifunctionals, even though the printer is physically capable of making borderless prints. Instead, prints are either enlarged or scaled down. Manuals don’t provide any information about this strange behavior. What is going wrong here?

Prints at 100% are scaled down

When you print a document at 100% on a Brother MFC, despite the correct printer preview, it will still be reduced to fit within a 3 mm border, measured from the longest side. An A4 document for example, will be scaled down from 210 × 297 mm to 204 × 291 mm. This results in a 98% print instead of a true scale image. You might think this isn’t noticeable, but 6 mm can make quite a difference. For example, you don’t want a folding mark or the address to be off 6 mm just to start with when using window envelopes.

Borderless prints are scaled up

When you print a document with ‘borderless’ paper settings it will first be scaled up until it has a 3 mm bleed on both ends of the longest side. For A4 this is 3+297+3 = 303 mm instead of 297 mm. 303/297 mm = 1,0202. The prints are therefore scaled to 102%.

For A3 sized paper these percentages are slightly lower because to enlarge the 420 mm length with 6 mm, a smaller percentage is needed: 426/420 mm = 1,0142  so rounded to an integer it’s 101%.

Why is my printer resizing my prints uninvitedly?

I assume these measurements are to prevent an imperfect borderless print to come out of the printer. The ISO paper sizes tolerances are specified to be ± 2mm (0.08 in) for lengths in the range 150 to 600 mm. Even if the paper itself has the perfect measurements of the chosen paper size, the printer may feed the paper with a deviation of 1 mm. Worst case these two add up to about 3 mm.

The printer will feed the paper with a deviation of a millimeter or so. If it will then try to print exactly to the edges of the paper, it will very likely fail at least some of the time. This will often result in a small white stroke along one of the long and one of the short sides of the print. Depending on the image, this will be quite noticeable. Specially with photo’s and documents with a tinted background this will look bad. By forcing the print either within a 3 mm border or using an image that has a 3 mm bleed on all edges, the risk of a very uneven white border or a white stroke on a borderless print are eliminated. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

‘We can’t print borderless at 100% on Mac’ – Brother helpdesk

I spend quite a few hours wasting paper and trying to find out a way to fix this problem, before I came to this conclusion. The US Brother helpdesk simply said “We can’t print borderless at 100% on Mac.“, suggesting it’s a Mac OS X flaw. Others at Brother said it’s a problem with only certain Mac OS X and Windows software, but could not give a list or even give a single example.

It’s true that available printing options can vary wildly per application, but this resizing has nothing to do with the operating system. It’s build into the printer firmware. The only reason it is so confusing, is because you can’t find anything about it in the manual. Quite the opposite: Your system print dialog pane doesn’t know about this resizing trickery, shows a wrong size preview and leaves out the white border.

Online, others thought it must be a problem with the drivers and pointed to the Gutenprint project, which is a noble and interesting initiative providing alternative printer driver software, but it could not bring me borderless printing at 100%.

I’m afraid there is no clean fix until the printer driver is updated. Looking at other people’s experiences it seems that more printer manufacturers, such as HP are using the same approach. Therefore, the only way to print at 100% is to work around it.

Still make a borderless print at 100%

The easiest fix is to take the deviation into account when you print. The Brother MFC’s make a 100% A4 print when you choose A4 Borderless as the Paper size and set Scale to 98%. I use this successfully while printing .pdf’s from Mac OS X 10.10.5 Preview. I noticed it doesn’t work while printing .pdf’s from OS X Safari 9.0.3.

Here are some populair paper sizes and the scales to make borderless prints with the Brother MFC models and others that use the 3 mm border upscale / downscale method:

Correction percentages per paper size

paper namepaper sizenearest correction %remaining deviation %remaining deviation (longest side)
A3297 × 420 mm99%0,429 %1,800 mm
A4210 × 297 mm98%0,020 %0,059 mm
Carta216 × 279 mm98%-0,215%-0,600 mm
Officio216 × 330 mm98% 0,182 %0,600 mm
Ledger17 × 11 in99%
Letter8,5 × 11 in98%
Look up the percentage that best corrects the printers 'borderless deviation' for your paper size.

Even better results

Notice that the A4 size percentage correction of 2% coincidently matches the deviation very well. The A3 however, is out of luck. The deviation is about 1,42% and because the printer dialog only accepts integers, a 0,42% deviation can’t be corrected this way. This will result in a difference of 1,764 mm over the length of the paper. This is not because the printer can’t be more accurate. It’s just because of the firmware.

There is better solution, besides buying a printer with better firmware. You can get a 100% scale print by adjusting the size of the paper.

Other side effects of printing borderless: a bad form of rich black

Interestingly, there seems to be another side effect included with printing in borderless setting on Brother MFC’s. Text, lines and images that are 100% black and printed as such in default settings, are converted to a combination of CMYK. This can have an interesting effect called rich black. Given the type of ink and hardware that is used, there are only downsides:

  • Much more ink is used, which costs more
  • Text is less readable, lines are too thick and images blur from the ink overdose
  • Text, lines and images are printed brown instead of black

On photographic paper there’s a slight chance that this might work. One would expect this option to appear when photographic paper is selected, but not to be silently activated when printing an every-day print job like an invoice.

Given the lack of advantages, this seems just a trick to sell more ink. Professional printers do the opposite: Grey Component Replacement (GCR) is a technique, used to partially replace CMY ink for blacK. Part of the CMY ink in dark images will often look like a shade of gray, despite that it is build from three colors of ink. One could say it’s only function is to create the right tone, not color. That part is replaced with blacK. This saves a lot of ink, which is cheaper, dries faster and is better for the environment.

Black or rich black

(To Do: Afbeeldingen, links naar en van  en tussenkopjes toevoegen)

In print, 100% black becomes even darker when other colors are mixed in. Graphic designers have known this for years. Color in print is typically created by mixing Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK (CYMK) ink. This works best when the printer ink is partially transparant, thus making the underlying ink shine through, optically mixing the light that is reflected by the paper underneath it.

Black is not a color, but the opposite: The absence of color. A surface that is covered with black ink absorbs most of the light that falls on it, but not all. Some light will still reflect because there is no such thing as 100% black pigment. By adding more, halftransparant layers of ink that block specific other colors, even less light will be reflected. This black mix is usually referred to as rich black in Adobe applications preferences.

Transparant lacquer and even matte lacquer can also deepen black, as well as colors.

Rich black also works for laser printers and inkjet printers.

While making prints with my Brother MFC, I noticed black text looks different on some prints. It comes in two variations of black. One is sharper, but less black even though the text 100% RGB black in both digital documents. Still, the other text is printed slightly fuzzier, but deeper black.

I have often noticed this and tried to find an explanation for it. Obviously it had to be something in the software since both black or rich black prints came out of the same printer.

My first hypothesis was, that this was caused by the black or rich black preferences in Adobe Illustrator. Then I though it had to do with the color system the document was set to: RGB or CMYK. However, these turned out to be a false assumptions. I feel I never got to the bottom of it, but I suspect the printer’s RIP handles the document data as if it’s in RGB colors, even if it’s really set to CMYK and even though the printer uses CMYK ink to print it.

Now, years later I think I have found the cause. I had already noticed PDFs from others, like invoices that I got per email, would print in slightly duller black, but resulting in a bit sharper text than my own PDFs. It was hard to see, even with a magnifying glass, but my home-made black texts had minuscule colored spots around the edges.

This is the result of choosing different color management options. The Illustrator documents I printed had color management information with them. This results in rich black printed black text. The PDFs from others had no color management options specified. In that case, the printer uses it’s own color management. In practice, this means that 100% black is printed in 100% blacK – no more, no less.

I suspected the printer companies to have their printers default to rich black, since they seem eager to sell as much ink cartridges as possible, but apparently I was wrong. So, there you have it. Print black text with color management off, if you want to safe ink.