Best 3D Printers
Best 3D Printer for Print Quality: Our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award goes to the Ultimaker 3 for its consistent, reliable and stellar print quality. This printer is so precise you can hardly see individual layers in your finished models. The Ultimaker 3 has powerful fans that keep prints cool, so models print as they should from the first to the last layer. This is also the only printer we reviewed that comes with swappable nozzles and two print heads that optimize the machine for fast draft prints or high-quality detailed prints. We didn’t have any problems printing quality models on the first try, and the machine required very little calibration.
Best Connected 3D Printer: The Airwolf AXIOM is the most feature-rich 3D printer we reviewed, and it can print any high-quality project, thus earning it our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award. It can print in ABS, PLA and a host of other new filament options like nylon and NinjaFlex. The onboard screen lets you print from a MicroSD card, preheat and adjust settings without tethering the machine to your computer. Features such as auto leveling, a large heated glass print plate and a variety of software choices ensure the AXIOM can adapt to any custom project. Wi-Fi printing, a self-cleaning feature and filament all come standard with this professional printer and aren’t found on most of the other 3D printers in our comparison.
Best 3D Printer Design: The LulzBot TAZ 6 wins our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award for its easy-to-use interface and large build capacity. This London-Bridge-style 3D printer is huge and can print models up to 11 inches in size. Its design is completely open for quick access, yet it’s PEI print bed maintains the right temperature to print with ABS filament.
The TAZ 6 is incredibly intelligent too – it auto levels the print plate and auto cleans the nozzle before each print. You control the onboard screen with a click wheel that’s simple to navigate, and you can print your designs right from an SD card without your computer. While it’s rated for intermediate users, its documentation and support options are so straightforward and helpful that people with less experience can assemble and use this 3D printer.
Best 3D Printer for Wireless Printing: The Type A Series 1 Pro is a Wi-Fi printer, and it’s also controlled using an online platform. Using this platform, you can watch a live feed from the machine’s built-in webcam to see your model’s real-time progress. From your seat in another room, you can preheat, print and know when your model finishes printing. The online interface is easy to access from your phone, computer or tablet once you hook up your printer to your wireless router. Cura is the recommended platform for slicing and modifying files to print. This huge printer also has the largest print capacity on our lineup and can accommodate models 12 inches in size in every direction.
Best Built-In Computer 3D Printer: AIO Robotics ZEUS redefines what a 3D printer is. It still uses traditional PLA filament, but it also has a built-in scanner and computer, making it a creative powerhouse. You can use the scanner to scan any item and then slice and modify the resulting image with the built-in computer – this printer lets you make a 3D copy without touching your computer or other hardware. The touchscreen on the printer’s front panel functions like a tablet, and you can also plug in a flash drive to access other designs. To top it off, the ZEUS even auto levels and has incredible print quality.
Best Budget 3D Printer: If you’re looking for the best cheap 3D printer, we recommend the Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner in our budget 3D printer review, the XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0 Pro. Although it costs less than the printers in this comparison, it has features typically found on more expensive machines such as a large print bed, onboard screen and Wi-Fi printing. Since it accepts generic filament, you can shop around for the colors you want in PLA or ABS. This is also one of the easiest printers to use, as it’s geared toward beginners. It requires very little installation, and the software has a simple interface, which make the da Vinci 1.0 Pro the best home 3D printer for a first-timer.
We selected our lineup of 3D printers from the best plastic-printing models on the market. We kept the price point between $1,000 and $5,000, but if you’re interested in a more affordable 3D printer made for beginners or school use, check out our budget 3D printer review. We also have a comparison of the best industrial 3D printers for more advanced, professional users. The 3D printers we reviewed come fully assembled, but many of them are still modifiable if you’re looking for a hobbyist machine.
How We Tested the 3D Printers
We created three simple tests designed to stress each 3D printer to assess its accuracy, abilities and ease of use. We performed all hands-on tests in our lab under the same conditions, using the same model files and quality settings.
Because we wanted to test the quality of the printer rather than the quality of our 3D model files, we used the manufacturer-recommended filament, settings, software and slicers unique to each printer, and we calibrated each machine for its best performance by leveling the bed, making temperature adjustments and more. Our group of expert reviewers ranked each model in a blind test.
The stress test model is a small 2 x 3-inch print with features designed to push the 3D printer to its limits. Design features on the stress test include open and closed boxes, stairs, bridges, arches, spires, open and closed cylinders, thin walls, crop circles, open holes, pyramids, pegs, and more. These test the 3D printer’s XY and Z accuracy, bridging abilities, consistency, surface quality, and more.
Machines that printed this piece with straight corners; smooth vertical and horizontal surfaces; clean, non-collapsed bridges and archways; few strings; no warping; straight pillars; complete surface layers; no gaps; no scars; and no layer shifting or separation earned A scores. If a printer failed in at least five of these areas, it earned a C score. We found that the MakerBot Replicator had the best print quality straight out of the box. Each print was smooth, incredibly accurate, precise and clean. Our group of reviewers consistently ranked the MakerBot prints extremely high, as each one had no defects, no layer shifting, no scars, straight corners and near-perfect surface quality.
For the second print test, our group of expert reviewers assessed the quality of a printed model of the Empire State Building. This model features mostly corners and is far from complex – it doesn’t have bridges, rounded sections, complicated twists or intricate designs. The test isn’t designed to stress the printer but rather to test it in its natural habitat. The Empire State accuracy test is an easy way to see how well the printer can handle simple, everyday print jobs. The model’s extremely simple design makes it easy to observe and assess XY accuracy, corner quality, surface quality, layer shifting and warping. Prints with clean corners, even surfaces, smooth sides, flat bottoms and pointy spires scored higher than those with errors.
Ease of Use
The ease of use test started as soon as we opened the shipping box. 3D printers that are easy to assemble and have thorough instructions and quality chassis were rated higher than those that lacked in these criteria. Printers also scored well if they don’t rock or shake, are easy to clean, have open access to components like the print head, have intuitive interfaces, and use feeding mechanisms and filament holders that are efficient and don’t impede the printing process.
We found the Ultimaker 3 was one of the best-designed and easiest-to-use printers. The filament holder automatically feeds the filament into the head, the open compartment gives easy access to the print plate, and the onboard screen is simple yet has all the settings you need.
Top Ten Reviews obtained all the printers we tested directly from the manufacturers. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology nor was any detail provided to them other than what is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Is 3D Printing?
3D printing is often referred to as additive manufacturing because the machine builds objects by adding materials layer by layer. You start with a 3D model and software that slices it into thin horizontal layers, with layer one at the bottom, layer two on top of layer one and so on. After the software slices the model, it sends it to the printer so the machine knows where to lay each layer of filament.
How Does a 3D Printer Work?
All the 3D printers on our lineup are Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) printers, which work primarily with melted plastic. Think of an FFF printer like a giant glue gun; it melts a thick strand of plastic filament in the extruder, also called the print head, then drizzles it onto the print bed through a nozzle like icing through a metal icing cone. In most cases, the print head is attached to an axis, which moves like a marionette around the stationary print bed, carefully laying out filament. There are many other types of 3D printers, such as stereolithography and laser printers.
What Is 3D Print Quality Like?
The size of the layers determines the print quality or resolution: thin layers of plastic result in a high-resolution model with a smooth surface, whereas thicker layers of plastic result in a low-resolution model with a ridged surface. Like paper inkjet printers, home 3D printers have an inverse relationship between quality and speed. Just like your office printer, a fast draft has lower quality and a high-quality photo takes longer to print. The best 3D printer software allows you to change the quality of each model with the layer height and speed settings.
The nozzle size also determines how thin you can make the layers. For example, a 0.25-mm nozzle can better print tiny layers than a 0.5-mm nozzle. The Ultimaker 3 is the best 3D printer for resolution control, as it comes with four different nozzle sizes.
Keep in mind that print quality is one of the most important aspects of 3D printing, and don’t get distracted by fancy apps and LED lighting schemes. Also, if budget is a concern, cheap 3D printers don’t necessarily have terrible print resolutions. You could save money by selecting a printer with an extremely high print quality and save money bypassing the frills.
Where Do I Find 3D Printing Models?
Finding and creating files for your 3D printer is much easier than it used to be. If you’re a beginner, we recommend predesigned files from websites with free open source models or copyrighted files you pay for. You want to look for STL or G-Code files, depending on your printer and its software. Creating your own files with CAD software is also an option, but we only recommend this course if you have more advanced knowledge of 3D modeling.
Cost of 3D Printing
Overall, the biggest ongoing cost of 3D printing is the filament cartridges, just as ink cartridges are with your paper printer. A 1-kilogram filament spool (2.2 pounds) from the manufacturers on our lineup typically costs between $20 and $150. This size cartridge can print about 400 chess pieces, depending on filament type, infill, layer size, size of the piece and other factors. With a $20 spool, each piece will cost you 5 cents, while it will cost 37 cents per piece with a $150 spool.
One way to save on filament is to shop around for universal or third-party filament cartridges. Affordable 3D printers that accept universal cartridges give you more freedom with price, color and type of filament compared to those that only accept proprietary filament. Propriety filament is purchased from the manufacturer, which limits your color options and means you can’t bargain shop. Be careful, though – using non-propriety filament can void your warranty in some cases. Also, make sure you buy the right filament size; all the printers on our lineup accept either 3 mm or 1.75 mm filament.
By choosing a machine with the right filament compatibility, you can afford a 3D printer on any budget. Cheaper 3D printers might have fewer material options, so you should take into account the types of projects you want to complete, the future cost per kilogram of your favorite filament and how often you need to replace cartridges.
Different projects call for different materials, and the two most common types of filament are PLA and ABS. Below is a list of the most popular types of 3D printer materials and filament for FFF style printers as well as their pros and cons.
Types of 3D Printer Filament
- ABS: ABS is extremely tough and resilient but produces a strong burning plastic smell. ABS is best for high-quality, intricate models.
- PLA: PLA is usually cheaper than ABS; it is environmentally friendly and shiny, and it has the general consistency of a Lego. PLA is great for mass production and draft pieces.
- PET (CPE): This is most comparable to PLA or ABS, as it’s recyclable, doesn’t smell, and is flexible and strong.
- TPE, TPU: These are the best flexible filaments; they’re good for phone cases, toys and things that need a bit of stretch.
- PETG: This polyester filament is extremely durable, flexible and good for mechanical prints.
- HIPS: HIPS stands for High Impact Polystyrene, and it is used as a support material because it’s soluble. It does require a heated bed and works best with ABS models.
- Carbon: Carbon is extremely tough and doesn’t shrink. However, you might need to replace your nozzle after printing.
- Polycarbonate: This is generally a transparent filament that is great for high-temperature uses.
- Metal: Actual metal 3D printers are hard to come by on a budget, but you can find filament that is a mock metal made up of plastic and metallic powders.
Despite common misconceptions, 3D printers are becoming easier and easier to use. There are certain features that smooth the printing experience. We recommend machines with the following features, all of which let you spend more time printing and less time fussing and fixing.
3D Printer Software
Many of the 3D printers on our comparison use proprietary software to create, slice, prepare, save and print 3D models. Proprietary software is always available for free download from the manufacturer’s website. We found Cura to be the best 3D printer software overall because the interface lets you switch between beginner and expert mode, and you can control all aspects of the print quality.
However, if you want to create 3D models from scratch and send them to print, you need a few different programs. Start with a free CAD program such as TinkerCAD, FreeCAD or SketchUP. You’ll design and create your model in the CAD software. Then use a free slicer program such as Repetier or Slic3r to prepare your files for 3D printing. Next, use a 3D printer host like OctoPrint or Cura to control prints wirelessly (if your 3D printer supports Wi-Fi).
Connecting your printer to your computer and the software should be easy. Wi-Fi printers are the easiest to set up because they have one less cord to deal with. It should also be easy to change settings and start your prints, and an onboard LCD screen helps. This bonus feature also makes it easy to move the print head out of the way or start preheating without your computer.
Maintaining your printer can be a full-time job. Printers that auto level and self-clean mostly keep themselves in good shape. Look at the printer’s actual design to make sure you can access the screws you need to tighten and that you can control the bed and enclosure space to ensure the print doesn’t get too hot or too cold.
Your 3D printer’s design can actually affect print quality. Lightweight printers with plastic frames can wobble during the print process, resulting in poor-quality models. Look for a printer with a metal frame and a glass print bed – glass can stand up to high temperatures, is easy to clean and won’t scratch.
The size of the print plate and the capacity of the printer are also key aspects, especially if you want to print large items. For example, if you want to print models that are 10 x 10 x 10 inches, you need to choose a machine with enough clearance between the print head and the print bed for a 10-inch model. If you opt for a smaller printer, you may end up having to scale all your models or print them in pieces and glue them together.
3D printers are much more accessible than they were just a few years ago, and you don’t even need to skimp on features if you buy an affordable machine. The models in our review are easy to use and powerful because they incorporate helpful features like Wi-Fi, self-calibration and intuitive navigation. Read our individual reviews of the best 3D printers to find out more about our testing and to help you choose a machine that guarantees quality without selling the farm.