From classrooms to design shops, 3D printers seem to be popping everywhere. And as you would expect for a product that appeals to everyone from professional designers to educators to hobbyists, 3D printers vary wildly in the features they offer and the amount they cost.
Based on our extensive evaluations and hours of testing of more than a dozen models in different price ranges, we now recommend the XYZ da Vinci Nano ($229) as the best budget option, replacing a previous XYZ model, the da Vinci Mini ($259). The Nano is cheaper and produces fine-looking prints with easy-to-use controls that won't intimidate newcomers.
Those looking to print in a variety of materials should turn to the LulzBot Mini 2 ($1,500), a worthy if higher-priced successor to the original Mini that offers faster print times, a big print area, and a more flexible printhead capable of handling even more materials than its predecessor. 3D-printing enthusiasts and professional designs will appreciate the two swappable extruders and excellent print quality of the Ultimaker 3 ($3,495). If you're not prepared to spend that much on a printer, we also like the LulzBot Taz 6, which costs about $1,000 less than the latest Ultimaker model and turned out fast, high-quality prints when we reviewed it last year.
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- Ultimaker's latest printer, the Ultimaker S5, gets a thumbs up from us if you need a highly capable printer that produces excellent quality prints. However, at a price tag of $5,995, it's really aimed at shops and school rooms that do a lot of 3D printing. Enthusiasts are still better off with the relatively less expensive Ultimaker 3 if they need a professional-quality machine.
- We've also reviewed the Monoprice MP Mini Deluxe, a resin-based 3D printer that brings SLA printing to the home for a relatively affordable $599. As attractive as that price is, the MP Mini involves too much tweaking and too many frustrations. We think the Peopoly Moai is a better choice, even if it costs a little more than twice as much as the MP Mini Deluxe.
What a 3D Printer Costs
3D printers can be very costly if you're looking at the ones used by professional designers or creators who print at heavy volumes. Both the Ultimaker 3 and FormLabs Form 2 cost upward of $3,000. But you can find very capable 3D printers for around $1,000, and prices are even lower for machines aimed at novices, educators and home printing enthusiasts. Prices for entry-level 3D printers are now below $300, and you'll even find some — like Monoprice's $160 Mini Delta 3D Printer — which push the price even lower.
What to Look for in a 3D Printer
Not sure how to decide which 3D printer is right for you? Here are a few things to consider when shopping for a printer.
Printer type: There are two main types of 3D printers: FFF (fused filament fabrication) and SLA (stereo lithography). FFF printers — which also cover FFM (fused filament manufacturing) and FDM (fused deposition modeling) devices — work by melting a plastic filament in a moving printhead to form the model. SLA printers use an ultraviolet (UV) laser to solidify a resin, focusing the laser to form the solid model. FFF printers are generally cheaper, simpler and easier to use, although SLA models like the XYZprinting Nobel 1.0 (around $1,000) and the $1,295 Peopoly Moai are lowering the price difference.
Printing materials: Whichever type of printer you choose, pay attention to the type of material it uses when printing. The filament material used by FFF printers like the LulzBot TAZ 6 is available in several different materials, such as PLA (a brittle, biodegradable material), ABS (the same plastic used in Lego blocks), nylon, TPE (a soft, rubberlike material) and HDPE (a light, tough polystyrene). Many of these materials, particularly PLA and ABS, are available in a huge range of colors. Filaments come in two sizes: 1.75 mm and 3 mm, which are not interchangeable.
SLA printers have fewer options than their FFF counterparts, but printers like the Form 2 can use resins that produce models ranging from very rigid to flexible and rubbery. The best printers can use a wide range of materials, each of which comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. (HDPE, for example, is light and tough, but not suitable for food use, while nylon is food-safe.)
Note that some printers only allow the use of approved materials or materials produced by the same company that made the printer. In that sense, those types of 3D printers are like more traditional paper printers: The manufacturers sell the hardware cheaply and then make money back on the consumables. (Our top budget 3D printer, the da Vinci Mini, only works with PLA filament from manufacturer XYZprinting, for example; however XYZ's filament costs about the same as most third-party materials.) Other 3D printers place no restrictions on the type or origin of the material.
Print volume: All printers have limits on the size of the 3D print they can produce. That limit is defined by the size of the print bed and how far the printer can move the printhead. This is usually measured in cubic inches, but you should also pay attention to each of the individual dimensions, which determine the maximum size 3D print the device can create. So, for example, if a printer like the LulzBot Mini has a print volume of 223 cubic inches (6.2 x 6 x 6 inches), it can print objects that are up to just less than 6 inches high, wide and deep.
Print speed and quality: 3D printing is a slow business, and at present, there's no way to get around this. You should expect a 3- to 4-inch model to typically take between 6 and 12 hours to print, depending on the print quality you select. That's because of the way 3D printing works: The print is constructed in layers. The thicker these layers are, the quicker the print is produced but the lower the print quality is, as the layers become more visible. So, there is a trade-off between print speed and print quality.
The best printers will allow you to determine which way you want to go with this, producing prints quickly or more slowly but at higher quality. The best printers offer a wide range of quality settings, from fast (but low quality) to slow (but high quality).
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