10 ‘Affordable’ 3D Printer Options Reviewed

Visitors look at a 3D printer printing an object, during 'Inside 3D Printing' conference and exhibition in New York, April 22, 2013. The exhibition features on April 22-23, 2013, tutorials and seminars offering blueprints on how to invest and utilize 3D printing in coming years, as well as leading manufacturers and developers displaying their latest 3D printers and services. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo by Emmanuel Nunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Emmanuel Nunand/AFP/Getty Images

Whether you have years of experience with 3D printing or are itching to begin experimenting with the technology, there’s never been a better time to buy a 3D printer. But there have also never been more options to choose among, and it takes some research and consideration to find the 3D printer that’s right for you.

You have to weigh the print and build quality versus the price, factor in the costs of printing materials, and consider what kind of printer is most appropriate for the setting where you hope to operate it. On top of that, you have to decide what kind of 3D printing experience you’re looking for. Do you want a printer that will generally work out of the box? Do you want one that will enable you to make modifications? Are you on a strict budget, or looking to invest a sizable amount of money into a tool that you (or your children) can learn with for years to come?

Considering these questions seems to get more complicated when you look at the array of 3D printers available on Amazon, or rated by research engines like FindTheBest. And new 3D printer models are being announced all the time, with TechRepublic reporting that CES 2015 featured the event’s first 3D printing pavilion, where manufacturers debuted machines sporting simpler software, wider ranges of compatible materials, and better machines for small businesses and educational applications.

The differences among these machines come down to a few fundamentals. Most 3D printers intended for consumers  use a technique called fueled deposition modeling (FDM) or fused filament fabrication (FFF). These printers push plastic filament through an extruder, which forms the object you want to make layer by layer. The materials that machines print with vary, usually among three different plastics: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). Higher-end, professional machines can use techniques called digital light processing (DLP) and stereolithography (SLA) to print with liquid resin.

The material that your printer is compatible with factors in to what kind of objects you can print, as do the size of the build area and whether the printer features a heated platform. Whether or not the machine is open source determines how much leeway you’re afforded for modifications and experimentation, and whether you choose to build your printer yourself or purchase one pre-assembled determines how much you’ll learn about the underlying technology.

Drawing on 2,279 reviews, 1,623 years of collective 3D printing experience, and 317,000 3D prints made on the reviewed printers, the team at the Amsterdam headquarters of 3D Hubs — a global community of 3D printing enthusiasts and printer owners — explored what makes a great 3D printer in the 2015 3D printer guide. Looking at print quality, ease of use, build quality, reliability, failure rate, customer service, community, running expenses, openness, software, and value, they determined not only which are the best, tried and true 3D printers on the market, but which are the best for five diverse categories of users.

To find the best of the best, we drew on the 3D Hubs guide and chose the two best 3D printers for each of these five user categories, arranging our selections by the rating 3D Hubs assigned based on the experience of thousands of verified 3D printer owners and users. This means that you’re looking at the 3D printers that have been tested and approved by hundreds of real users — not those that performed satisfactorily during a reviewer’s tinkering or the latest, flashiest technology that hasn’t yet been tested by more than a handful of users.

The first category of user for which the 3D Hubs community makes its recommendations is the enthusiast. Enthusiast printers are for users looking for a reliable machine that consistently produces high-quality prints. Printers in this category accommodate upgrades and modifications, but as 3D Hubs notes, if your tinkering with one of these machines goes astray, you’ll be able to find an active and knowledgeable community to help you troubleshoot. According to 3D Hubs, the printers in this category are best suited for hobbyists, designers, and even small businesses, and its ratings in the category prioritized openness, upgradeability, print quality, and community over factors like ease of use.

MakerGear M2 3D printer

Source: Makergear.com

1. MakerGear M2

Category: Enthusiast

Price starts at: $1,475

3D Hubs rating: 9.0

The 3D Hubs community’s top pick for enthusiasts is the MakerGear M2, which is manufactured in the United States. MakerGear was founded in the U.S. in 2009 and is already on its third generation of printers. The M2 is available either as a kit or pre-assembled and is built on a solid metal chassis and features a heated platform, which can print objects up to 8-by-10-by-8 inches. You can customize its performance with optional on-board controls and interchangeable nozzles, and the 3D Hubs community found that it produces high-quality prints right out of the box.

MakerGear recommends that owners use the Simplify3D software, but you can choose to use your favorite software instead. 3D Hubs says that MakerGear’s customer support team is extremely helpful if any issues arise, and users will find an abundance of online tutorials and an active community around the M2. Among the downsides of the M2 are the level of experience needed to take advantage of its full potential, and its relatively noisy operation, which keeps it from being ideal for all environments. MakerGear is expected to release an upgrade kit to enable dual extrusion.

3D Hubs characterizes the M2 as one of the best printers available for users with minimal 3D printing experience, and notes that it has great potential for more experienced users, as well. Among 3D Hubs reviewers, 100% of current owners would recommend the printer, which starts at $1,475 for the basic kit.

FlashForge Creator Pro

Source: Flashforge-usa.com

2. FlashForge Creator Pro

Category: Enthusiast

Price starts at: $1,349

3D Hubs rating: 8.7

The FlashForge Creator Pro is the community’s second pick for enthusiasts, and is a step up from the original FlashForge Creator with a metal frame and an enclosed chassis. Other upgraded features are an improved platform leveling system, and a metal build plate and guide rod designed to help with stabilization and durability. Owners characterize the Creator Pro as the best value for the money, and say that the printer offers the ideal balance between ease of use and complexity.

It’s considered reliable and consistent, and is extremely versatile thanks to its ability to print with a wide array of experimental materials. 3D Hubs considers the $1,349 price tag a major selling point, especially considering its extremely high print quality, which beats many printers that sell for more than $2,000.

While the Creator Pro requires some fine-tuning in order to live up to its full potential, 3D Hubs says that the only real complaint from owners is that its loud operation might make it less than ideal for home or office use. The Creator Pro is considered an excellent choice not only for beginners, but also for advanced users on a budget. Ninety-three percent of current owners would recommend the printer on the grounds of its great value.

Other top choices for enthusiasts are the Ultimaker 2, which is considered one of the most precise FDM printers; the Witbox, which offers best-in-class build volume and a range of unique features; and the Lulzbot Taz 4, which has options for a wide range of customizations and features one of the largest build volumes of any of the top-rated 3D printers.

The next category of 3D printers are “Plug ‘n’ Play” printers, which are the easiest to use straight out of the box, and therefore are recommended for beginners. The printers in this category are characterized by reliable print quality, low failure rates, and excellent customer support. While the printers in this category are more limited when it comes to room for modifications and experimentation, but reliability and ease of use are generally more important for beginners. The 3D Hubs ratings for the printers in this category put an increased weight on reliability and ease of use, as well as the availability of excellent customer support.

Zortrax M200 3D printer

Source: Zortrax.com

3. Zortrax M200

Category: Plug ‘n play

Price starts at: $1,990

3D Hubs rating: 8.9

Zortrax’s M200 is among the 3D Hubs community’s top choices for reliability, and launched on Kickstarter in 2013 with the promise of delivering ease of use combined with professional quality. The M200 was rated the highest overall in build quality and reliability of all 3D printers surveyed by 3D Hubs, and the M200’s owners reported the lowest rate of failed prints, at an average of just 6%.

The M200 is made of aluminum, and while it prints only with ABS, the build platform is perforated in order to counteract the material’s tendency to warp. The printer offers a high level of precision in calibration and printing thanks to automatic platform leveling and a system of dual X and Y axes. These features make the M200 a great choice for users who want high quality prints without significant setup. It produces reliable and accurate prints without the need to tinker with control settings.

Users like its ease of use, though it offers fewer options than other printers to those who want to customize and experiment with their machine. The M200 is closed source, and its software lacks temperature control. When problems do come up, fixes are offered by an active community, which 3D Hubs characterizes as a very loyal fan base. More than 96% of M200 owners would recommend the printer, and 80% of them would only exchange it for the next version of the M200.

BEETHEFIRST

Source: Beeverycreative.com

4. BEETHEFIRST

Category: Plug ‘n play

Price starts at: $1,699

3D Hubs rating: 8.9

BEETHEFIRST is the first 3D printer by Portuguese company BEEVERYCREATIVE and demonstrates the company’s priority on customer experience. The setup for the printer is easy to set up and operate straight out of the box, and offers the print experience that many beginners are looking for. You simply level and calibrate the bed, attach the filament, install the software, and start printing. 3D Hubs reports that the instructions are clear, and if you run into any issues, the community rated BEEVERYCREATIVE’s customer service the best of all manufacturers. Another major plus is BEETHEFIRST’s portability.

While 3D Hubs characterizes the printer as a solid first-generation model, the community thinks that there’s still room for improvement. Its build volume is on the smaller side, and customization is limited. It uses a proprietary filament system, which translates to high running costs, and its software and connectivity could use improvements as well. However, the 3D Hubs community chose BEETHEFIRST as the easiest to use among all the printers reviewed, and its print quality is also among the highest of the printers surveyed.

A third top choice in the plug ‘n play category is the UP Plus 2, a printer known for its ease of use and value. It’s recommended for beginners and intermediate 3D printers who want to 3D print without having to deal with any technical challenges.

The next 3D Hubs category is Kit and DIY printers, which are intended for users who want to assemble their own printer and have the ability to add a wide range of upgrades and modifications. The open source community is integral to the experience of working with one of these printers, and 3D Hubs notes that users who buy one of these printers should expect to invest a considerable amount of time and effort, and anticipate the “ups and downs of a committed relationship” in learning to work with their printer. When reviewing the printers in the Kit and DIY category, 3D Hubs placed an emphasis on the community aspect of each printer, and placed less of a priority on ease of use.

Rostock MAX 3D printer

Source: Seemecnc.com

5. Rostock MAX

Category: Kit and DIY

Price starts at: $999

3D Hubs rating: 9.0

The Rostock MAX by SeeMeCNC originated with a campaign on IndieGogo, where it raised 777% of its initial target of $10,000. The primary advantage of the Rostock MAX is the Delta style robot system it uses instead of the traditional Cartesian system used by most others. The system offers a much higher printing speed and level of positioning accuracy than any other machines, which 3D Hubs reports results in smoother curves. The Rostock MAX achieved an extremely high rating for print quality and for customer satisfaction.

The printer requires more time than others to set up and calibrate, and the Rostock MAX is larger in proportion to its build volume than most Cartesian-type printers, which is a potential drawback if space is tight. However, the 3D Hubs community thinks that this printer is an excellent kit for both intermediate and experienced users looking for a precise machine with a large printing volume.

Mendel90 3D printer

Source: 3dhubs.com

6. Mendel90

Category: Kit and DIY

Price starts at: $785

3D Hubs rating: 8.9

The Mendel90 is an updated version of the Mendel Prusa, which some consider the first consumer 3D printer. 3D Hubs reports that the Mendel90 kit is an excellent choice for users who want to learn more about the technology behind 3D printing (and don’t mind completing extensive assembly). The Mendel90 is a RepRap project, so has an active community online to help you get started with the machine. The printer offers excellent value for its price tag, and the heated bed opens the possibility of experimenting with materials prone to warping, like ABS. The print quality of the Mendel90 is highly rated.

As with any kit printer, some familiarity with the technology is recommended. Users need to use basic electronic skills, including soldering, to set it up. They also need to use two different types of software — Slic3r & Pronterface — to get started. These requirements amount to a level of complexity that may be off-putting to users who are hoping for a simpler setup and printing process. However, the Mendel90 offers extensive upgradeability, and 3D Hubs reports that it’s an excellent candidate for getting started with 3D printing because it can evolve along with your needs as you progress.

Two other top-rated choices in the Kit and DIY category are the Kossel, which uses the Delta robot style that’s common commonly used in packaging factories due to its high speed and accuracy, and the Ultimaker Original+, which is an upgraded version of one of the earliest players in desktop 3D printing and still represents a solid option for those who want to build a printer from a kit.

The next category of printers that the 3D Hubs community reviewed was budget printers. Budget printers are simply those 3D printers that are ideal for anyone who wants to get started in 3D printing without breaking the bank. Students, beginners, and even families can get a feature-rich printer that provides excellent value for the money. In choosing the best printers in this category, 3D Hubs considered only those printers that are assembled by the manufacturers and cost less than $1,000. The ratings within the category placed a strong focus on the value these printers offer for the money. 

Printrbot Simple Metal 3D printer

Source: Printrbot.com

7. Printrbot Simple Metal

Category: Budget

Price starts at: $599

3D Hubs rating: 8.6

Printrbot is another early pioneer of desktop 3D printing, and the Simple Metal is the upgraded version of the entry-level Printrbot Simple. It features a powder-coated steel frame, an aluminum extruder, and an auto-leveling probe that simplifies Z-axis calibration. The standard version prints only with PLA, but the Simple Metal is upgradeable with a Mic 6 aluminum, which also works for ABS.

3D Hubs reviews saw the Simple Metal rated within the top 10 printers in terms of build quality. It’s open source and is one of the most upgradeable printers available, with a wide array of add-ons and open source software. Another advantage is Printrbot’s strong community, and you can find answers on anything from basic technical support to help with advanced modifications on the company’s forum or in its guides.

The initial setup and calibration of the printer requires a few hours, and even though the documentation is thorough, 3D Hubs says that it’s helpful to have some experience with the technology. It also has a few minor issues with reliability, including nozzle jams and feeder issues. However, 92% of current users would recommend the Simple Metal, and it offers 3D printing beginners and students an excellent platform to begin to learn about the different aspects of 3D printing. The community numbered it among the top 3D printers for its value.

Sharebot KIWI 3D printer

Source: Sharebot.it

8. Sharebot KIWI

Category: Budget

Price starts at: $860

3D Hubs rating: 8.6

The Sharebot KIWI is a compact printer with powerful features. While Sharebot has been traditionally unknown to most customers outside of Italy, 3D Hubs reports that it’s delivered some of the best 3D printers for those on a budget. Arduino announced that it will begin selling a rebranded version of the KIWI globally under the name of the Arduino Materia 101 printer.

Setup of the KIWI is straightforward, and it ships with config files for the popular open-source Slic3r engine, which opens up the possibility of more advanced printer settings. 3D Hubs says that no other printer considered in the budget category came closing to matching the KIWI’s rating in print quality. The printer also boasts above-average reliability, excellent build quality, and a low failure rate, with users reporting that on average, 92% of their prints with the KIWI succeeded.

One limitation of the KIWI is its small build volume, and the absence of a heated bed further restricts the objects that users can print with it. However, 3D Hubs considers the printer a solid choice for students and beginners, and 92% of current owners would recommend the machine.

Two other top choices for users looking for a budget 3D printer are the FlashForge Creator, a modified version of the Makerbot’s original open source Replicator in a laser-cut wood frame, and the UP mini, an entry level printer that features a closed enclosure and a perforated heated build plate, which offers both ABS and PLA compatibility.

The final category of printers examined by 3D Hubs is comprised of resin printers. 3D Hubs places resin printers in a category all their own because they work differently from the other types of printers reviewed. Resin printers use an optical power source to cure liquid resin into a solid object, and resulting in unmatched print quality and precision. Resin printers are ideal for professionals, who can put them to use for tasks ranging from jewelry casting to device prototyping. 3D Hubs placed more weight on the ease of use and machine reliability of the resin printers rated, noting that both are highly important factors given the fact that operators of resin machines are working with hazardous materials.

Form 1+ 3D printer

Source: Formlabs.com

 9. Form 1+

Category: Resin

Price starts at: $3,299

3D Hubs rating: 8.4

The Form 1+ is the next generation of 3D printer from Formlabs, and is equipped with a faster and more powerful laser than the original Form 1, which raised almost $3 million in a 2012 Kickstarter campaign. The Form 1+ uses stereolithography to produce highly detailed prints of liquid resin. 3D Hubs says that the printer is as beautifully designed as its predecessor, and produces professional quality prints.

PreForm, the proprietary software from Formlabs, is rated as excellent, and reviewers say that the firmware of the printer itself is easily updated. Formlabs’ customer service is reportedly among the best for 3D printer manufacturers, and the Form 1+ has an active online community.

Some of the drawbacks of the Form 1+ are that its prints require more work in post-processing than a typical FDM print. The resin can get messy if it isn’t handled correctly, and the machine requires proper maintenance to keep it running well. 3D Hubs reports mixed reviews on the reliability of the Form 1+, as some users experience regular print failures. The price of resin can make printing costly, but the printer is a powerful machine that’s highly recommended for professionals, designers, and architects. 3D Hubs reports that even its hefty price tag is a bargain compared to some of the industrial printers for which it can easily substitute.

B9Creator 3D printer

Source: 3dhubs.com

10. B9Creator

Category: Resin

Price starts at: $3,490

3D Hubs rating: 8.4

The B9Creator also got its start on Kickstarter. It uses a video projector to project slices as images onto a vat of UV curable resin in a process known as digital light processing, or DLP. The B9Creator is on version 1.2, and updates have largely eliminated problems users experienced with previous versions of the printer. The new version features an HD projector for higher resolution prints. The high build quality and excellent software are two other strengths of the printer.

However, the community did rate the printer with a low score on ease of use. Users experience a steep learning curve and deal with beta software and a tedious initial calibration process. 3D Hubs notes that these difficulties can be overcome with the help of the active community, which helps newcomers with the process of assembling and configuring the printer.  The printer is aimed at professional users, and is noted as an asset for jewelry makers and digital sculptors. One potential drawback is that only two colors of material are currently available: red and cherry.

If your head is still spinning with all of the possibilities, you can view our comparison chart (and click to enlarge).

3D Printers Comparison

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