3D printers no longer belong solely to the realm of science fiction; you can have this technology sitting in your living room tomorrow. Many consumer-level 3D printers are designed for beginners and early adopters of the technology. There are even DIY and build-it-yourself printers, 3D metal printers, and 3D wax printers hitting the market.
The printers on our lineup have the most common and popular features, including pre-assembled frames and ABS and PLA compatibility. Depending on your skill level, different printer types will work better for you. If you have some experience, you might be more interested in an open source printer to print your own printer accessories and make modifications to your machine. If you're completely new to 3D printing, you might want a highly connectable printer with Wi-Fi and SD card compatibility for easy printing.
The Ultimaker 2, Cubify CubeX, and the Lulzbot TAZ 4 are some of the best printers we reviewed for their multicolor printing capabilities, precise print quality, large printing sizes and overall ease of use. If you're curious about the 3D printing industry or which 3D printer would be best for your hobbies and projects, read some of these articles about 3D printing.
Wading through specs and features of the best 3D printers can be daunting. Just follow some of the helpful advice below, gleaned 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, the best home 3D printer print speeds and quality have an inverse relationship: the faster the speed, the lower the quality and vice versa. 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.
Some of the 3D plastic printers on our lineup can print with nylon, Play-Doh and other experimental materials, none of which are 3D food printers though. Many manufacturers sell printer-tested filament, but you can also 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 color 3D printer indicates how many colors you can print at once. If you want to print a blue and green model of the 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 desktop 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, cheap 3D printer could cause your 3D models to print incorrectly. However, many wood and plastic frames are lighter and make it easier to move your portable 3D printer 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 keeps 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.
Help & Support
Whether you're an expert or a newbie, you and your 3D printer will need support. Tutorials, blogs and forums are 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. Email and phone support are the most popular contact methods, but a few companies do offer live chat or blog, a forum, or Skype-based support.
Some 3D printers have lead time, which is the time between when you place your order and when the printer actually ships to your home or office. During that time, some manufacturers are assembling your printer, printing test prints and preparing your printer for shipping. To circumvent the extra lead time, finding a local distributer can cut down on both the lead time and shipping costs if your printer is manufactured abroad.
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 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 Wi-Fi capable printers. Many affordable 3D printers only have USB printing. Some printers need to stay connected during the printing process, but a few of the best machines can be unplugged from your computer after the files are transferred to the printer.
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 companies recommend open-source software such as Repetier or professional-grade CAD programs, while some companies have free downloads available for you on their websites. A few have specialized software that is designed for both beginners and advanced creators that is built into the 3D printer price.
Reading these 3D printer reviews will help you sift through the numerous available printers and find the best solution for you and your projects.