How to Choose a 3D Printer
Best 3D Printer Overall
The Airwolf 3D AXIOM is the most feature-rich 3D printer we reviewed, and it is capable of printing any high-quality project, thus earning our Top Ten Reviews Gold 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 or 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 for Print Quality
Our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award goes to the Ultimaker 2+ for its consistent, reliable and stellar print quality. This printer is so precise that you can hardly see individual layers in your finished models. The Ultimaker 2+ 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 four extra swappable nozzles of different sizes so you can optimize the printer 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 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 even less-advanced users can assemble and use this 3D printer.
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 for beginners or school use, check out our budget 3D printer review. We also have a 3D printer 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. If you’re curious as to how 3D printers work or what type you should be looking for, check out our latest articles on 3D printing.
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.
Printers 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. This 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 accurately 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 2+ 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 printer knows where to lay each layer of filament. For a more in-depth look, read this article about how 3D printing works.
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, and you can read about others in our future of 3D printing articles.
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 ridge-like surface. Like paper inkjet printers, home 3D printers have an inverse relationship with 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 2+ is the best 3D printer for resolution control, as it comes with four different nozzle sizes.
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. You can learn more about working with models in these articles about 3D printer files.
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-kg filament spool (2.2 pounds) from the manufacturers on our lineup typically cost 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. 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.
Types of Filament
The two most common types of filament are PLA and ABS. PLA is usually cheaper than ABS; it is environmentally friendly and shiny, and it has the general consistency of a Lego. ABS is extremely tough and resilient but produces a strong burning plastic smell. Different projects call for different materials – ABS is best for high-quality, intricate models, whereas PLA is great for mass production and draft pieces. If you want to learn more about filament, check out this article about 3D printer materials. In addition to plastics, many other materials may work with your 3D printer, including nylon, copper, wood and specialized plastics. For instance, the Airwolf 3D AXIOM works with over 30 different materials such as flame retardant ABS and NinjaFlex, which has the flexibility of a football.
Best Budget 3D Printer
If you’re looking for the best cheap 3D printer, we recommend the Top Ten Reviews Budget 3D Printer Gold Award Winner, 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 printers 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.
Despite common misconceptions, 3D printers are becoming easier and easier to use. There are certain features that smooth the printing experience. We recommend printers with the following features, all of which let you spend more time printing and less time fussing and fixing.
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 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’ll 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 that can stand up to high temperatures, is easy to clean and won’t scratch.
Best 3D Printer for Wireless Printing
Not only is the Type A Series 1 Pro a Wi-Fi printer, but it’s also controlled using an online platform. Using this platform, you can watch the feed from your 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 it and modify it 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.