3D Systems Cube review review: Locked-down, underfeatured Cube underwhelms

The contact that tells the Cube whether you've installed the print cartridge.
The contact that tells the Cube whether you've installed the print cartridge. Sarah Tew/CNET

The other challenges with the Cube's output come largely from its software.

Most desktop 3D printers involve a combination of software programs, usually one program for customizing printer settings like build speed and extruder temperature, and another with a graphical interface for positioning your model on the print bed and translating the design for the printer. This translation step is called slicing, since it essentially involves carving your model up for the printer to lay down in slices.

The Cube's Cubify software (which, confusingly, shares the same name as the Web site) performs some of those tasks, but in such a simplified manner that it hurts the printer's appeal.

On its surface the Cubify software seems like a welcome improvement to the sometimes overwhelming complexity of other 3D-printing software. An icon-based system guides you through the process of importing a 3D design file, positioning it on the build surface, and preparing it to print.

Of the Cubify software icons, you might spend the most time with "Orient & Scale." The scaling feature works easily enough, but translating (moving an object along the platform's X and Y coordinates) and rotating are both unintuitive. Unlike MakerBot's older ReplicatorG software, Cubify doesn't let you use a mouse to move the object in real time, and its rotate option in particular feels unwieldy.

The extent of your options for adjust the Cube's print settings.
The extent of your options for adjusting the Cube's print settings. Screenshot by Rich Brown/CNET

Worse than any awkwardness in its model manipulation, the Cubify software completely lacks more in-depth printing options. Unlike other printers, with the Cube you can't customize the height of printed layers of plastic, nor can you tweak the speed at which the extruder travels or the density of the infill material (the denser the infill, the more plastic you deposit in the portions of a print that aren't visible from the outside -- more gives you a stronger object, less saves material).

One thing I do like about the Cubify software is that it lets you send your prints to the Cube via Wi-Fi. It's easy to set up, too, since the printer establishes its own ad hoc wireless node. You can also use Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), assuming your router supports it.

Before I get into print quality, it's important to consider the source of the Cube's design files. Out of the box, you get a USB key with three printable files in 3D Systems' proprietary CUBE file format. You also get a code to download 25 designs from Cubify.com.

If you want to print other objects, you have a few options. You can pay for more files from 3D Systems' Cubify site; you can download free files from MakerBot's Thingiverse site or other online 3D design repositories; or you can make your own designs, either with a 3D modeling application or by scanning a real-world object.

The Cubify Store makes no obvious distinction between printable objects and objects-to-order.
The Cubify Store makes no obvious distinction between printable objects and objects-to-order. Rich Brown/CNET

Finding designs to print from Cubify is more like taking part in a study of confusing site design. A drop-down menu under the Cube 3D Printer tab at the top of Cubify brings up a list of "Creations for Cube," 17 designs that 3D Systems certifies are printable with the Cube. But then if you look at the main Cubify store, you will see seven different categories of printable objects. They're just not all necessarily printable by you.

Of Cubify's master list of 610 objects, some you can print with the Cube, others, like this $7,700 hanging light, you have to have 3D Systems print for you on its higher-end commercial 3D printers. 3D Systems calls this to-order print business its Cubify Cloud 3D print service. If you're only looking for objects to print at home, the site currently has no way to filter user-printable designs from the objects you have to order.

By failing to make that separation, 3D Systems has created a muddled, confusing user experience. If I'm looking for objects I can print out on my home printer, having to sift through expensive housewares to find them seems incongruous and frustrating. The fact that those to-order objects are 3D-printed provides some weak thematic glue, but you would have to arrive at the site with an extremely open consumer mindset for the Cubify shopping experience to have any relevance.

And while 3D Systems says it is working to Cube-certify all of the user-printable objects on its site, right now it does not. What that means is that there is no guarantee the Cube will successfully print the plans you pay for. The site does at least offer a few utilities in its Cube Creation Apps section (although the first two listed are for-pay printing services), but the designs there aren't very inspired.

Even if the Cubify site isn't that useful for Cube owners, you still have a treasure trove of object designs available from MakerBot's Thingiverse. This community-support 3D object repository requires no registration, and all of the more than 23,000 object files are available to download for free.

Thingiverse provides no guarantee at all that its objects will print correctly. What you will sometimes find are specific printer settings recommend by the object designers. But because of the Cube's oversimplified software, you can't try these settings out for yourself. I had mixed results with plans from Thingiverse, although I only tried a handful of them.

You can clean up the wisps, but the Cube wouldn't print the supports at the bottom of this chair correctly. Sarah Tew/CNET

On a tiny, intricate model of a Windsor chair, the Cube had difficulty stringing material across certain gaps. It also couldn't get the sizing correct on the interlocking parts of a gear mechanism. I had better luck with a devil horns model, which seemed like a simpler design overall.

It's in these failures that the lack of software settings hurts most. A "Heal" function in the Cube software is supposed to adapt models for Cube printing, but it had no effect on my results with the chair. Adjusting the layer output height or the print speed might help, but without those options for the Cube, I'll never know.

I had better luck with these horns.
I had better luck with these horns. Sarah Tew/CNET

When the Cube does achieve a successful print, the quality looks great. A sample castle piece has intricate internal details and good-looking external textures. A sample napkin holder made from an organic lattice design printed flawlessly. It has the same 250-micron layer height as the MakerBot Replicator's default setting, and it also uses the same 1.75mm extruder head.

Where the Replicator is a powerful enthusiast's tool, though, allowing you to tinker with and expand its hardware, or to print with PLA and even more-exotic materials, the Cube and its locked-down design offer no such possibilities.

This castle design, provided by 3D Systems, printed with no problems, and has impressive detail inside.
This castle design, provided by 3D Systems, printed with no problems and has impressive detail inside. Sarah Tew/CNET

As much as 3D Systems insists that this is a consumer-focused product, the fact is that the Cube still has to compete with dozens of other 3D printers in its same price range. Few of those printers look as polished as the Cube, and, true, many of them still rely on a patchwork of clunky software. But the problem for 3D Systems is that desktop 3D printing is still an exercise in trial and error.

Anyone who picks up 3D printing will inevitably spend time interacting with the enthusiast community on user forums, blogs, Thingiverse, and elsewhere to find out why a certain print didn't work, or to track down an interesting new design. 3D Systems might one day draw in and retain more passive consumers as 3D printing becomes more automatic, but for now, a nonenthusiast 3D printer user will soon feel as if he has wasted a lot of money.

Other criticisms aside, the Cube's easy-to-remove build platform is a design highlight.
Other criticisms aside, the Cube's easy-to-remove build platform is a design highlight. Sarah Tew/CNET

Compared with the many open-source, eminently adjustable 3D printers in its price range, the Cube is too locked down, with too few settings exposed in its software. Its ABS print cartridges are also overpriced.

There are some things to like about the Cube. Installing the cartridge and general setup is easy. Being able to send prints via Wi-Fi is useful. The glue-based adhesion system and the removable printing platform ensure that prints stick to the platform, and make it easy to remove them when a print is finished. I hope 3D Systems maintains and improves these features in any future desktop 3D printers. But before the Cube becomes something recommendable as a consumer device, 3D Systems needs to reckon with the competitive pricing realities, and offer users more power to make successful prints.

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