3D printing,, is one of those technology things that always seems to be on the cusp of going mainstream, without ever quite crossing over. Even though we've seen the concept play out for years on TV and in movies (what do you think a Star Trek replicator is doing?), having a 3D printer at home is still considered wildly exotic outside of a small enthusiast audience.
Last year, I started playing around with 3D printing, less commonly known as additive manufacturing, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, with an unexpected result. I'm now completely addicted to 3D printing. Over the past several months, I've searched for the best 3D printer and tested several models, from rock-bottom Monoprice printers to step-up resin printers that produce a truly professional-level print for prototyping.
Below are printers in the lower-cost price range that we tested in the CNET Labs, and close-ups of one of our comparison test prints, a bust of Abraham Lincoln. All 3D prints require a little smoothing and filing with a hobby file to look their best (you can also prime and paint them, fill gaps with filler compound and so on) -- but the Abes presented below are right off the print bed, no touch-ups.
One printer I have not tested yet, but hear a lot of good feedback about, is the Creality Ender 3, which currently costs $230 and has a large community of dedicated fans who claim it's the best 3D printer. Just note that some more assembly is required than with these other printers.
For what to print and how to start printing, including materials (e.g., polylactic acid vs. ABS plastic), printing technology and software, see my latest tips and advice for 3D printing. Note that CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of products featured on this page.
Despite the low price, this is a pretty damn full-featured 3D printer, and a favorite first step for testing the 3D printing waters. Monoprice also sells a slightly less expensive entry level design, called the Mini Delta, but this is superior in just about every way -- and it's often on sale for $199, or even a little less.
But it's also a good deal harder to set up and use than some of the more expensive models. One of the cons is that the print surface is exposed, so your prints are more vulnerable to the elements (or cats, or children), and it took much tweaking, calibrating and troubleshooting to get good print quality results. Despite the beginner price, it's not as beginner-friendly as I'd like it to be. That said, it does come with a pre-loaded sd card and we got some very nice prints from it, eventually.
This is my go-to printer for balancing price, ease of use and print quality. Flashforge is the manufacturer, and sells this as the Adventurer 3, while the Monoprice Voxel version is the same hardware, just sold under a different name (the Voxel screen even says "Adventurer 3" when you turn it on). It's not the fanciest of 3D printing, but it has a fully enclosed print area, a touch screen interface and a flexible heated print bed that lets you pop off quality prints with ease.
The most important thing about this pair of printers (and I tested both versions) is that the setup was easy, and I was up and printing in less than 30 minutes after opening the box and gathering materials. I did find the Wi-Fi connection could be finicky at times, but at least there's a USB port right on the front panel for importing your files to the machine via thumb drive. My other complaint -- the enclosed filament housing only takes half-size 0.5kg rolls, not the more common 1kg rolls.
The Inventor II is a step up in quality from the Adventurer/Voxel, even though it's roughly the same size and close to the same build volume. The larger color touch screen is a huge improvement, making it much easier to tap in Wi-Fi passwords. The enclosed space means 3D printing will pause automatically if someone opens the door, and the removable heated print bed is hefty, with a clever flexible top surface that peels off magnetically.
The manufacturing speed was a little faster than the Adventurer, with more calibration and fine-tuning options for 3D printing. But despite the faster speed, it also gets the same knock, an enclosed filament housing that only fits smaller 0.5kg spools, which are less economical and harder to find. In our Abe Lincoln test, it had the cleanest, most detailed print of the filament-based printers with a resolution of 50-400 microns.
No matter how fine, most 3D prints are still just plastic layered one drop at a time. That means layer lines, surface imperfections and a look that's not as clean as professionally molded plastic. Resin printers are the next step up in design when you want your print to look as high quality as anything made in a factory. Instead of 3D printing your object with a hot nozzle depositing bits of plastic filament, resin printers use UV light to cure liquid resin, one paper-thin layer at a time, on an upside down print bed that slowly rises from a vat of semitoxic slime.
Yes, it's as unpleasant as it sounds. The resin smells bad and requires rubber gloves to handle (and a well-ventilated room for printing). You'll also need isopropyl alcohol to wash the prints after they come out, and a UV lamp to finish the curing process. It's a lot of work and mess. But the printed model we got from the Anycubic Photon was simply amazing. (Resolution is 25-100 microns.) Cured resin feels almost like glass, and holds quality detail. The results are astounding -- just be prepared for what you're getting into.