3D printing has finally arrived as an accessible technology for virtually anyone with the desire and willingness to learn. In the past few years we have witnessed a far-fetched idea enter into the mainstream, with commonly available technology and 3D printing packages. Hundreds of years after the Gutenberg press, printers are once again revolutionizing the way we do business and conceive new possibilities.
While the market is still evolving, a number of companies have successfully created and marketed effective home and small commercial printers. Not all of them are effective, however.
There are varying levels of ability among these devices and as well as different price points. For new and even intermediate to advanced users, comparing the features and capabilities of each printing system can be a daunting task. In this resource page we will be going in depth with a variety of different criteria to help you – the aspiring 3D printer -make an informed purchasing decision. Please feel free to comment with your own experiences or questions at the bottom of this page.
Table of Contents
- 1 Criteria to Evaluate 3D Printers
- 2 The Best 3D Printer for Beginners
- 3 The Best Affordable 3D Printer Under $1000 (mid-grade)
- 4 The Best 3D Printer Under $500 (budget)
- 5 The Best DIY 3D Printer
- 6 The Best 3D Printer for Overall Performance
- 7 The Best 3D Printer for Experimenters
- 8 3D Printer Comparison Chart – Find the Top 3D Printer for the Money
Criteria to Evaluate 3D Printers
> Price: Simply put, how much does the device cost? There are many different price points, but not all of them offer equal value. For example, there are plenty of recent additions to the sub-$1500 market, but not all of them are necessarily fully functional for what you will need. Similarly, some of the more expensive models are not always worth the high price tag. Generally, a lower price-point is favorable but not always worth degrading the other factors listed below.
> Capacity: This is also fairly straightforward, but still important. You may also see this referred to in the industry as “build area”. There are a range of sizes of 3D printing machines, from large commercial-style appliances to the small desktop 3D printer. Depending on what your goals are, this will be an important factor. A smaller size device is excellent for experimenting and learning how 3D printing works, or for producing small models or products. For larger endeavors it follows that a larger capacity printer will be required.
> Ease of Use: 3D printers require varying degrees of skill and usually have a learning curve initially. However, some are more “user friendly” than others. Ease of use and simplicity to operate is an important criteria to judge one of these devices. Again, depending on what you will be using your printer for, this category should be weighted more or less.
> Precision: Different printers have varying levels of precision. The key factors to consider here are usually “layer resolution” and the diameter of the print nozzle. Generally, the lower the better i.e. more detailed and exact.
> Adaptability: Some machines are ideal for making small toys or jewelry while others are good for large scale models and mock-ups. While almost every 3D printer can be used for a variety of applications, some are definitely better than others at certain tasks. This is a critical category to consider before investing in any machine.
> Speed: How fast can it get the job done? This is particularly useful for people looking to scale their operations beyond the initial experimentation phase. Generally, you will be looking for a print speed of around 20mm/second.
> Durability: Maintenance, servicing, part replacement, etc… Like all machines, 3D printers inevitably run into problems that require fixing at some point. Especially with so many new models on the market, this can be an important “hidden cost” to consider before investing in one. For an investment of this size, durability does matter.
The Best 3D Printer for Beginners
If you are new to 3D printing, but ready to take the plunge, this section is for you! See below for more advanced recommendations. The two most important qualifications for the best 3D printer for a beginner are 1) ease of use, and 2) price. With this criteria in mind, we recommend the UP! Mini 3D Desktop Printer. There a number of other “runners-up” in this category, but overall the UP! Mini is a great beginner 3D printer.
The UP! Mini is compatible with both ABS printer material (what Lego’s are made of) and PLA (polylactic acid), although ABS is the best option. It can print in 10 different colors, allowing for a good variety of customization out of the gate.
Set-up is relatively easy, as the printer comes ready to go out of the box. I wouldn’t bother with trying to read the printed manual that comes standard in the box. It appears to have been translated with some of the details “lost in translation”. Rather, they have a good support forum online as well as a much better online instructional guide. When in doubt, YouTube has some excellent videos on getting started with the UP! Mini.
As far as software goes, the UP! Mini is pretty good. It’s won’t allow as much customization and isn’t as flawless as some of the higher end models, but it does the job. If part of your design is not printable, it will highlight in red on your computer prior to printing (great feature!). It is relatively flexible, able to handle most STL files. I’ve only used it with the Windows app and it is excellent, providing accurate time estimates and updates. I’ve heard the Mac app isn’t quite as wonderful, but haven’t been able to verify this for a fact.
On price, the UP! Mini is a great value. Recent price reductions have brought the price tag down to a very reasonable price here.
UPDATE: The UP! Plus 2 has been released and it offers a few improvements, most notably an open architecture set-up. It’s not all that different fundamentally, but it does have a larger build area which helps address one of the “cons” I’ve listed below. It is more expensive, but you can check here for deals.
Pros: Easy to use, good color options, runs well with ABS print material, decent software, works great with Windows app, and affordable.
Cons: Translated printing manual, limited customization, and limited by size.
Best uses: Small parts, lego-like models, small toys, and solid objects.
The Best Affordable 3D Printer Under $1000 (mid-grade)
With 3D printers decreasing in cost, you can now find a good mid range 3d printer for less than $1000. While I expect more companies to start offering models in this price range, there are a few good options right now. Overall, our favorite model out today is the FlashForge Creator 3D Printer. It has plenty of higher end features, but is still accessible for home use and even some small commercial applications. Overall, the Creator is very close to MakerBot’s Replicator, although for much better price and some marginal improvements.
While the set-up and operation of this printer is not extremely difficult, it is a significant step above printers like the UP! Mini and Da Vinci. There are actually two different websites from the company that reference each other for information. It has the feel of a “work in progress” but this is no reflection on the actual performance of the machine.
There are plenty of resources online (video and forums) to solve most issues and knowledge gaps, but it is not for the casual users. I would recommend this for someone who already owns a 3D printer and is looking for a good alternative or for someone who is very willing to put in the hours to learn this machine. In the company’s defense, they can email you the latest updated manual if needed and sometimes as soon as your order. The latest manuals are a significant improvement over the originals. The company support is improving daily to the point that it is now quite good. Support staff are generally quite knowledgeable and can walk you through most problem resolutions.
The Creator is capable of handling both ABS and PLA filament and features a relatively sizable build area of 8.9” x 5.7” x 5.9”. The dual-extruder is essentially the “next step up” or “turbo charger” of 3D printer. This alone makes the Creator a great value for the price.
The FlashForge Creator has a very capable print speed of between 40-100mm, although I would be careful at the top end of this range to avoid lower quality products.
The “ReplicatorG” software works on Windows, Mac, and Linux (nice addition). It is capable of handling STL, gcode, and x3g files. The native software is not as robust as most, BUT you can download MakerWare instead which works great with the Creator.
You will need to be prepared to maintain over time, as parts will go with extended use. The good news is that the core machine is built well and built to last. Ours has lasted over 5 months with a few nozzle replacements and other minor modifications.
On price, the FlashForge Creator slides in generally under $1000, but check here for the latest prices.
Pros: 3-month warranty, dual extruder, works well with both ABS and PLA, mid-range build area, compatibility with Linux, good printer speed, great interface, works with open source software, and works well with MakerWare.
Cons: not as user-friendly, difficult to navigate company website, requires some maintenance, a little noisy, and the ReplicatorG software is so-so.
Best uses: light commercial, experimentation, replacement parts, mid-size consumer items, mid-size models and mock-ups.
Full Review: Read my full review here.
The Best 3D Printer Under $500 (budget)
If you are looking to find the best budget 3D printer, there are (thankfully) now a few options to choose from. While there are some decent contenders, the XYZprinting Da Vinciis the overwhelming choice for the best 3D printer under $500. It is affordable – yes – but it also is one of the most reliable 3D printers on the market right now. It was the winner of the prestigious CES Editors’ Choice Award in 2014.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Da Vinci is that it is highly approachable. It has the appearance and footprint of a standard home appliance. In short, it is perfect for smaller spaces and is an ideal “desktop” printer for the home office and confined commercial spaces. It definitely has a more “finished” feel to it that gives it lots of curb appeal. Customer service is both helpful and prompt. This holds true for both my personal experience and the experience of other owners with whom I have spoken.
The printer is very easy to set-up, configure, and maintain, making it another great option for beginners as well. It features plug-and-play functionality with minimal set-up required. The “SmarT” feature allows for automatic software updates to process in the background so that you are always running the latest version.
The Da Vinci 1.0 looks relatively small, but it actually features a very competitive 7.8 x 7.8 x 7.8 inch build area and a max print speed of 150mm/second. This is actually larger than some comparable desktop printers at higher price points.
Another nice feature of the Da Vinci is the 12 assorted color filament options. Again, this is competitive with or better than many similarly priced models from other company’s. Originally the unit shipped capable with just ABS material and PLA was not an option. The company has stated that PLA will be compatible with all machines beginning in the 4th Quarter of 2014.
Da Vinci works on both Windows XP (with .Net 4.0 upgdate), Windows 7 and higher, and Mac OSx 10.8 or later. Files can be uploaded in the STL format or the native XYZ format. The native software is pretty good, but not as robust or multifaceted as some of the more advanced machines. It really functions to read the STL and XYZ files and allow for minor tweaking and re-sizing.
Overall, the system is great of beginners and people looking for a simple reliable operation. It is the easiest printer by far to set up. However, it is akin to the “Apple” of the 3D printing world in that it is a very closed system. It will be hard to effectively “hack” or modify the inner workings. Again, the target market for the Da Vinci is not the DIYer or tinkering type. For more budget 3D printer options, see our resource page here.
XYZprinting was one of the first companies to target the sub $500 market with an effective and polished printer. The very affordable price tag for the Da Vinci 1.0 is extremely attractive for a lower risk entry into the 3D printing arena.
Pros: Affordable, easy to learn, small footprint, 12 filament colors, larger print area than you think, plug-and-play functionality, and a finished consumer product.
Cons: Limited by size (larger commercial applications), “closed architecture” i.e. not for the tinkering type.
Best uses: Small products and toys, smaller scale models and mock-ups (proof of concepts), and small parts/accessories.
Full Review: Read the full review here.
The Best DIY 3D Printer
For technically inclined DIYers, it is a bit more difficult to find a reputable 3D printer kit. Beware of knockoffs and imitations from Asia! While it is possible to go completely from scratch, a complete “kit” is a good way to avoid wasted time and material. Fortunately, the RepRap Prusa Mendal (iteration 2) is a competent and straightforward all-in-one 3D printer kit.
RepRap has created a number of well-produced series of instructional videos and visuals to help you assemble the printer out of the box from A-Z. Support for the RepRap is surprisingly good for a DIY kit. There is a strong community following as well as a wikipedia-style knowledge base to help you along. The have a very solid 90 day warranty program. If any component breaks they will send out a replacement, no questions asked.
Once assembled, the RepRap Prusa Mendel model has a print area of 7″ x 7″ x 5″. This is a bit smaller than some, but still competitive for the price range it’s in.
Software for the RepRap is open source, meaning that you can take your pick from a wide variety of sources. See this list for an entire listing. Because of this, Mac, Windows and Linux users will all be able to find compatible software. At the end stage of the assembly process, RepRap has provided videos for the software/firmware installation as well.
Because the system is open-structured, you can customize it to fit your needs, including filament colors, extruder size, print speed, etc… It does take some tinkering, but if you want a DIY kit this is probably something you are up for anyway.
One of my favorite concepts of the RepRap is that you can 3D print a replacement RepRap with it. One of the first things I did was replicate a number of replacement parts in case something broke later on. This is great for sharing your machine with others and the company even encourages you to print machines for your friends.
Overall, the RepRap is a good happy medium between building a 3D printer from scratch and purchasing a pre-built system. The $599 price tag is also very competitive for the functionality and customization that you will have. The price is affordable enough to make assembling your own 3D printer well worth the risk.
Pros: Not too difficult to assemble, plenty of customization, “open” architecture, and able to print replacement parts.
Cons: Initial set-up can be time consuming, may quickly outgrow the print area, and must supply your own tools (and sweat!).
Best uses: replacement parts, small consumer products, prototypes, and creating other 3D printing machines.
The Best 3D Printer for Overall Performance
Surprisingly, our experience with a number of 3D printers has unveiled a lesser known contender as the top 3D Printer for overall performance. You can certainly make a case for including 4-5 other printers in this spot, so some of this is subjective. The MakerGear M2 is by far the most reliable and efficient 3D printer that we have tested.
The machine comes mostly assembled, although you may need to break out the tools for a few final configuration requirements. Thankfully, MakerGear has a strong community and excellent customer support. This, coupled with a 6-month warranty, is enough to provide peace of mind prior to purchasing.
One of the strongest selling points of this machine is the precision and quality of the items it produces. There are many printers with mediocre print quality, but MakerGear has raised the bar significantly. This point is reinforced by the solid construction of the machine itself. Many 3D printers are made out of plastic – which is fine – but raises questions about the long term durability. The MakerGear M2 features CNC produced metal with a welded frame.
The MakerGear features a slightly larger build area than most machines at 8″ x 10″ x 8″. Print speeds range from 80-200mm/second.
The 0.35mm nozzle diameter is what allows the M2 to provide superior printing precision. Most 3D printers have a nozzle diameter of 0.40mm and above. It might not seem like much, but for delicate projects it can be the critical difference.
For filaments, the M2 will work out of the box with either PLA or ABS material. A big plus here is that they do not use proprietary cartridges. This means that you can use a variety of filaments from various suppliers without being locked into expensive recurring filament replacements.
MakerGear is an open source company, but they do recommend using the Simplify3D software as it appears to have the best compatibility.
The higher grade material and precision of the M2 does mean a higher price tag, but at less than two grand it is still very competitive with other higher end printers.
Pros: Larger than average build area, open design, no proprietary filament cartridges, more precise than most, good for intermediate and above, made in the USA, quality material, and low maintenance
Cons: More expensive than most at $1500-2000/unit, and not the best for beginners.
Best uses: Replacement parts, mid-size consumer products, models and mock-ups, precision/finely detailed products.
The Best 3D Printer for Experimenters
There are a couple of 3D printers that really expand the horizons in terms of what you can print. The best of these printers so far is the LulzBot TAZ 4 3D Printer. It has created some of the most off-the-wall products, but also has opened doors into new industry’s for the non-traditional 3D printer.
The LulzBot lets your imagine run wild with possibilities as it is designed to handle a wide variety of printing filament types. While the quality is not always perfect and some tinkering is definitely required, this is the forefront of local 3D printing. If fast replication of plastic parts is not your thing, this is the machine for you!
The machine itself comes pre-assembled with plug and play functionality from the start. Within 1-2 hours you will likely be up and running without any problems. Customer service is great and neither experienced or heard of any complaints.
The print area for the TAZ 4 is 11.7″ x 10.8″ x 9.8″, This alone makes it one of the industry leaders in desktop 3D printer build area. The print speed tops out around 200mm/second.
Where the LulzBot truly shines is with the myriad filament choices. It can handle the common plastic PLA, ABS, and HIPS but goes much further than that. Other materials include: nylon, wood, rubber, and stone. These filaments are pseudo substances, meaning that they may not actually be stone, but they provide a stone-like end product. From what I have experienced, these have an authentic appearance and feel.
LulzBot utilizes open source software and hardware, allowing for full customization of your machine without company interference (in fact they encourage it!). You get the feeling that this printer will support various improvements in the future as it is a very open system.
The LulzBot TAZ 3 is not cheap, coming in over 2 grand, but it has the functionality to allow for extensive experimentation, customization, and control.
UPDATE 10/31/16 – The new TAZ 5 has arrived (see this listing)! It’s essentially the same as the TAZ 4 in terms of price and key features. However, the big new feature is the Hexagon All Metal Hot End which greatly expands the filament compatibility to include metal based PLAs! It’s capable of reaching temperatures up to 572 degrees F.
Another nice feature is the new “PEI print bed” which helps to reduce issues where the print would adhere to the bed or warp. In the past, users would have to rig some hokey solutions (like custom tapes) that were far from ideal and sometimes dangerous (flammable).
The other difference isthat the TAZ 5 comes with a 1-year warranty (versus 3 months).
Pros: Opensource hardware, able to be upgraded/customized, supports PLA/ABS/HIPS and exotic filaments, easy to customize, can add second extruder, and no proprietary filament cartridges.
Cons: Not the best for beginners, repeat products not as efficient,
Best uses: Varied/unusual products, rubber products, stone-like products, and wood products.
Full Review: Read the full review here.
3D Printer Comparison Chart – Find the Top 3D Printer for the Money
If you are still undecided about which 3D printer is best for you, we’ve compiled a comparison chart below with a summary of the key features for head-to-head comparison.
|Brand/Model||Build Area||Print Speed||Filament Types||Layer Resolution||Extruders||Nozzle Diameter||Open/Closed System||Warranty||Price|
|UP! Plus 2||5.3" x 5.5" x 5.5"||10-100mm/sec||ABS or PLA||150-400 microns||Single||0.4mm||Open||12 month||About $1,199 here|
|UP! Mini||4.75" x 4.75" x 4.75"||10-100mm/sec||ABS or PLA||200-400 microns||Single||0.4mm||Closed||12 month||Around $599 here|
|FlashForge Creator||8.9" x 5.7" x 5.9"||40-100mm/sec||ABS or PLA||100-500 microns||Dual||0.4mm||Closed||3 month||Around $977 here|
|XYZprinting Da Vinci 1.0||7.8" x 7.8" x 7.8"||150MM/sec||ABS or PLA||100-400 microns||Single||0.4mm||Closed||12 month||Around $499 here|
|RepRap Prusa Mendel||7" x 7" x 5"||customizable||customizable||customizable||customizable||customizable||Open||3 month||Around $599 here|
|MakerGear M2||8" x 10" x 8"||80-200mm||ABS or PLA||10-250 microns||Single||0.35mm||Open||6 month||Around $1825 here|
|Lulzbot Taz 5||11.7" x 10.8" x 9.8"||200mm/sec||ABS, PLA, HIPS, Wood (PLA), Metal (PLA, Nylon, PET, Polycarbonate, and NinjaFlex/SemiFlex TPU||75-350 microns||Single||0.3mm / .50mm||Open||1 year||Around $2220 here|
|Robo 3D R1||8" x 9" x 10"||50mm/sec||ABS, PLA, t-glase, Lay wood, HIPS, and flexible filament||100 microns||Single||0.4mm||Closed||6 month||Around $799 here|
|Zortrax M200||13.6" x 17' x 16.9"||100mm/sec||Z-PCABS, Z-ABS, Z-Glass, Z-HIPS, Z-ULTRAT, and Z-PETG||90-400 microns||Single||0.4mm||Closed||12 month||About $2000 here|