3D printing is revolutionizing the medical and manufacturing industries, why not have that same technology sitting in your living room? There are even entry-level 3D printers designed for beginners with little, to no 3D printing expertise. Finding an affordable 3D printer is also easier than ever, some even start as low as $400.
With a consumer-level 3D printer, print personalized toys for your children, custom place settings for a party or wedding, or print something clever – just for fun. All of the printers on our side-by-side review are pre-assembled, but if you want an extra challenge, many manufacturers offer a DIY kit option (you might even save some money in the process). The quality of your 3D prints often depends on your skill level, but don't let that deter you. Experimenting with different filaments, modes and 3D files is easy with the right 3D printer.
Certain features and design aspects of the best 3D printers designate a few machines that lead the pack when it comes to 3D printing technology. The Ultimaker 2, Cubify CubeX and the Cubify Cube are some of the best all-around 3D printers for multicolor PLA and ABS printing. Looking for more inspiration? Discover some fun facts about 3D printing and check out our latest 3D printing articles for exciting ideas and must-have resources.
Wading through specs and features of the best 3D printers can be daunting. Just follow some of the helpful advice below, gleamed through our 3D printer comparison research.
Why buy a 3D printer if it can't produce quality prints? Carefully consider print size, speed, resolution and tolerance for quality 3D models. Large print platforms of at least 9 x 9 x 9 inches are quickly becoming an industry standard. If you have a large print plate, you won't need to scale or slice your print for multiple printing sessions. Like inkjet printers, 3D print speed and quality have an inverse relationship: faster speed = poor quality, better quality = slower speed. However, that isn’t a hard and fast rule, some printers can be tuned to print quick, high quality objects or slowly print poor quality objects.
Layer height or resolution, is the vertical size of each extruded layer of filament. The smaller the layer height, the higher the resolution. You'll want to look for 0.1 mm which is about the thickness of a price of paper. Printer tolerance refers to the accuracy with which a printer can extrude the filament. A smaller tolerance indicates a more precise print.
Filament & Cartridges
The two most common plastic 3D printing materials are ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PLA (polylactic acid). ABS is similar to Lego material (tough stuff) and requires a heated print platform to print. ABS also has a distinctive smell so be prepared for the smell of burning plastic to permeate your printing area. PLA comes in a wider variety of colors, doesn't need a heated print bed and is compostable for a smaller eco-footprint. PLA is typically the choice filament for the glossy, detailed prints desired by hobbyists.
Many manufacturers sell printer-tested filament, or you can purchase universal filament cartridges as long as you have the right size: many printers are either 1.75 or 3 mm capable. The number of print heads or extruders on a 3D printer indicate how many colors you can print at once. If you want to print a blue and green model of earth for instance, you'll want to look for a printer with two or more print heads. Printers with one print head can only print one color per model.
From metal to plastic to wood, there are many different types of 3D printer frames or chassis. The heavier the frame is, the less likely it is that your machine will rock, or wobble while printing. A rickety 3D printer could cause your 3D models to print incorrectly. However, many wood and plastic frame 3D printers are lighter and easier to move around your home or office.
For easy navigation, faster printing and more control of settings and modes, a LCD screen can greatly improve your interaction with your 3D printer. A Housing enclosure keeps your fingers safe from hot extruder ends, and also keep environmental conditions optimal for ABS printing. Also, if you do want to print with ABS, your printer must have a heated platform so your prints won't warp.
Depending on your skill level and creative drive, consider a 3D printer kit instead of the pre-assembled machine. The DIY kit comes with everything you need to build your printer but does take some know-how to put together electrical parts.
The number of included accessories makes-or-breaks the convenience factor of a 3D printer. Many of the best 3D printers include USB cables, power supplies, maintenance tools for taking care of your machine and for cleaning up prints, starter filament cartridges and more.
Also, be sure to choose a 3D printer with corresponding software congruent with your level of expertise. Many 3D printer companies recommend open-source software such as Repetier or professional-grade CAD programs, or have free downloads available for you on their websites. A few have specialized software that is designed for both beginners and advanced creators.
Two different 3D printer designs allow you to print files either from your home computer or from a built-in computer inside the 3D printer. Be aware that if you purchase a built-in computer model, you'll need to provide your own monitor, mouse and keyboard. If you decide to buy a 3D printer to use with your home computer, look for included accessories like a USB cable, SD card, flash drive or WiFi capable printers. Many 3D printers on our 3D printer comparison only have USB printing. Some printers need to stay connected during the printing process, but a few lucky machines can be unplugged from your computer after the files are transferred to the printer.
Help & Support
Whether you're an expert or a newbie, you and your 3D printer will need support. Tutorials, blogs and forums will be extremely helpful as you navigate through choosing different filaments or solving extrusion problems. Also, check to see if a warranty covers your printer – many 3D printing companies do not offer warranties just yet. Email and phone support are the most popular contact methods, but a few companies do offer live chat or blog, forum or Skype based support.
So if you're not looking for a 3D printing service, choose the right 3D printer and start printing quality 3D models from the comfort of your own home.
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