Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Let’s face it: while we may say we put more emphasis on value over price, most of us will look at the price first anyway. That’s no different with 3D printers, although up until recently the idea of “cheap” in this market was still well north of $1,000 – likely not your definition of “cheap.” Thankfully, things have changed.
Budget-friendly models such as the Monoprice Maker Select Mini v2 and the M3D Micro have ushered in a new era of 3D printing which nearly everyone can afford with a little savings. These new low cost 3D printers have also put downward pressure on higher end models, so we’re even seeing some high end printers drop down closer to $1,000 too. Our point? 3D printers are no longer strictly reserved for hardcore makers and hobbyists.
Budget-based 3D printers aren’t without setbacks, though. Even the best of them can be loud and prone to the occasional software bug, or require expensive filament and procure high maintenance costs no amateur hobbyist should have to contend with. That said, there’s never been a better time than now if you’re just looking to try your hand at 3D printing, even if you will want something more capable down the line. And trust us, once you get started – you eventually will.
Why should you buy this: It has all the important features you need in a filament-based 3D printer, and it sells for well under $500
Who’s it for: Anybody looking for a reasonably-priced printer that has all the crucial features
How much will it cost: $399
Why we picked the Monoprice Maker Select Plus:
It’s really difficult to find a sub $1,000 printer that has a large build area, a heated bed, a stable frame, a touchscreen, and an extruder that can handle lots of different materials. Until recently, it was damn near impossible, honestly. Therefore, if you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck, Monoprice’s Maker Select Plus is the way to go.
Most printers in this price range have build areas that are no larger than 6 inches in length/width/height — but the MSP boasts a build envelope that’s 7.9″ x 7.9″ x 7.1″, which is pretty damn spacious for a printer this cheap. This means that not only can you print bigger parts — you can also fit more small parts on the build plate, which cuts down on production times.
This build plate is also heated, which helps prevents the extruded filament from cooling, contracting, and warping the shape of your printed object. This feature is crucial (especially if you’re printing with ABS), drastically reduces your chances of getting a misprint, and eliminates the need to print with a raft, which uses up additional filament.
The best for kids
Why should you buy this: It’s outrageously simple to use, and offers a good introduction to 3D printing
Who’s it for: Anyone who’s new, inexperienced, and curious about 3D printing
How much will it cost: ~$315
Why we picked the M3D Micro:
The M3D Micro has been out for a few years now, and its price has dropped down as the company shifts its focus onto newer products, like the higher-end M3D Pro. But at the price it is now, this 3D printer is perfect for the youngest creators among us — especially those we might not exactly trust with expensive hardware.
While you won’t be able to print large 3D projects with this little guy, and it’s definitely not setting any land speed records for printing, it’s more than sufficient for the budding 3D printing enthusiast. As an added bonus, the software is extremely easy to learn as well, so you won’t have much trouble preparing and printing simple projects with this machine.
The Micro touts resolution ranging between 50 and 350 microns, with the ability to print objects up 4.6 inches in height and work with either 1.75-millimeter PLA or ABS filament. The lack of a heated print bed makes printing with the latter difficult, but resulting PLA prints are still impressive given the cost. Just understand you’ll have to wait a bit for those prints to complete.
The best for buyers on a budget
Why should you buy this: It’s obscenely cheap, but still has a number of high-end features
Who’s it for: Budget-minded buyers who still want high-end features, and don’t mind a small build envelope.
How much will it cost: $160
Why we picked the Monoprice Mini Delta:
Let’s just put it out there – the price of the Maker Select Mini V2 is pretty crazy considering what the average 3D printer costs. Of course, the old adage “you get what you pay for” applies here, but in our tests we were actually surprised at what this little beast can do. It comes loaded with a heated bed (which the M3D Micro does not), an adjustable temperature hot end, WiFi connectivity, and even a full color LCD screen to navigate the printer’s settings.
These features are something you’d find on printers that are much closer to that $1,000 price point, which seems to split the consumer grade from the prosumer grade when it comes to 3D printing. While its build area isn’t a whole lot larger than the M3D Micro, we’re going to safely assume those most attracted to the Mini Delta aren’t really looking to build huge projects.
If you don’t mind a little bit of post-print cleanup, the Mini Delta preforms admirably in nearly all aspects of printing. Its heated bed does an excellent job of mitigating warping, it has good (but not great) dimensional accuracy, and prints unsupported spans/overhangs just as well as printers that cost 20 times as much. By all the measures that count, this pint-sized printer definitely punches above its weight.
The best build-it-yourself 3D printer kit
Why you should buy it: It’s a great printer for less than $700 — if you don’t mind building it yourself
Who it’s for: Tech-savvy DIY types looking to save some money by assembling a printer themselves
What you’ll pay for it: $700 or less
Why we picked the Prusa i3 MK2:
There are a lot of 3D printer kits out there, but none are as tried-and-true as the Prusa i3 MK2. Born out of the open-source RepRap project, the printer’s design was developed over years and years of testing, tuning, and perfecting from thousands of different 3D printing enthusiasts — so it’s a pretty solid little machine.
In terms of standout specs and features, this guy boasts a spacious 9.84″ by 8.3″ by 8″ build envelope, a variable temp hot end that can handle a huge range of materials, and some awesome bed-leveling software that compensates for skewed axes. Basically, this means that even if you screw up the build somehow and it’s not perfectly aligned, it’ll still print reliably for you.
The Prusa i3’s biggest asset, however, is its massive user base. Because this has long been one of the most popular RepRap builds, there are more people using the i3 than nearly any other 3D printer — so if you ever run into a problem or need to ask a question, you’re practically guaranteed to find a solution on the i3’s many user forums.
The best dual extruder
Why should you buy this: It’s the only dual extruder under $1,000
Who’s it for: Those looking to do more complex prints in less time, and not break the bank
How much will it cost: $550
Why we picked the XYZprinting da Vinci 2.0 Duo:
You might be asking, “what in the world is a dual extruder, and why would I want it?” Well, with a dual extruder, you can use two types of filament at the same time, meaning more complex prints are possible without the need to change the filament halfway through. This speeds up the printing process for these types of projects considerably, and at a price of $550 for the base model, is the only one we’ve seen that can do it for less than $1,000.
This printer also features cloud storage, so the design files are stored remotely without the need for you to worry about where your files are, or worse yet misplacing them. It also applies firmware upgrades on it own, and automatic maintenance features like print bed detection and automatic nozzle cleaning.
Now there are some downsides to the da Vinci 2.0 Duo that we feel are important to point out. One is the fact that the filaments are proprietary, something the first generation da Vinci was knocked for, and its sheer mass. This sucker weighs 65 pounds, so don’t buy this particular 3D printer if you’re looking for any kind of portability.
How we test
To test if the printer lives up to its claimed specifications, we run it through our own unique testing protocol. This consists of a number of different tests, each designed to quantify and approximate the printer’s performance from a different angle. To start out, we print a simple shape: a 1 × 1 × 1 centimeter cube. We do this twice, once at the lowest speed/highest resolution setting, and another time at the highest speed/lowest resolution. This gives us a good idea of how quickly the printer prints, in cubic centimeters per minute.
Next we print something amore complex — the jolly little 3D printing torture test known as 3DBenchy — a tugboat-shaped torture test that helps us tease out all the printer’s strengths and weaknesses. The tugboat has low-slope surfaces, overhangs, unsupported spans, fine details, and a bunch of other things that 3D printers often struggle with. If the printer isn’t good at something, this shape will highlight it. When it’s done, we break it off the build plate and snap a few high-res pictures of it, so you can see for yourself how the print turned out. We also measure certain parts of the print with a micrometer to see how accurate the physical model is in comparison to the digital one.
But of course, speed and accuracy aren’t everything. After we’re done printing stuff, we also assess the machine’s relative level of repairability and upgradability. Can it easily be taken apart and tinkered with if something goes wrong? Can you upgrade the printer’s components when newer, better ones become available? Will it be obsolete in a few years? We get under the hood and figure everything out for you.
Helpful terms to know
FDM: This means Filament Deposition Modeling. Also known as FFF or fused filament fabrication. It’s the most common style of 3D printing, and works by melting a thermoplastic filament, squirting it through a nozzle, and then depositing it layer by layer to form an object.
SLA: It is shorthand for ‘stereolithography.’ It’s a style of 3D printing that uses a laser projection system to “grow” objects out of a pool of UV curable resin.
Hot end: The heated nozzle that plastic filament is extruded through in a FDM printer.
Heated bed: This refers to a build plate that is heated, which prevents the first few layers of extruded plastic from cooling and warping. If your project warps, it often leads to misprints.
ABS: Short for Acylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. An oil-based plastic that’s commonly used as 3D printing filament. It’s a strong, sturdy material that’s commonly used for constructing things such as plastic car parts, musical instruments, and the ever-popular Lego building blocks. ABS has a high melting point, and can experience warping if cooled while printing. Because of this, ABS objects must be printed on a heated surface, which is something many at-home printers do not have.
PLA: Poly Lactic Acid is made from organic material — specifically corn starch and sugarcane. This makes the material easier and safer to use, while giving it a smoother and shinier appearance that’s more aesthetically pleasing. However, while PLA might seem like a better overall choice at first glance, it features a far lower melting point than ABS. This means that using PLA printed parts for mechanical operations, or even storing them in high-temperature locations, can result in the part warping, cracking, or melting.