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3D Systems Cube 3 review: An excellent compact printer for making small 3D objects

The 3D Systems Cube 3 is a great little machine for those wanting to make their own little 3D objects. Here's CNET's full review.

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Dong Ngo
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Dong Ngo

SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

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9 min read

The 3D Systems Cube 3 is one of the most compact dual-extruder 3D printers I've seen. The machine is well-designed and capable of calibrating on its own, which means it's ready to work right out of the box. It's also very easy to use and can print objects of high detail.

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8.2

3D Systems Cube 3

The Good

The 3D Systems Cube 3 is well-designed and easy to use. The printer builds small objects excellently and is inexpensive for a printer that can print with two materials in the same job.

The Bad

Printing large objects can randomly fail halfway through the process, and the printer needs to cool down after a job before it can print again. The machine uses 3D Systems' expensive proprietary filament cartridges.

The Bottom Line

If you don't mind sticking to small print jobs, the Cube 3 is as good as it gets for a compact 3D printer.

It's far from perfect, however. At times during my testing period, large print jobs failed half-way through the print cycle, and the printer takes a long time between jobs to cool down. The machine also uses 3D Systems' proprietary -- and expensive -- filament cartridges.

If you're on the market for a compact 3D printer to make small objects, you'll enjoy what the Cube 3 does. And at the current price tag of $999 (which converts to around £655 and AU$1,285; actual prices in those countries aren't available at this time), it's also one of the most affordable dual-extruder machine on the market. Keep in mind, however, that the total cost of ownership will climb steadily as you replenish printing supplies.

If you don't mind something larger in physical size, I'd also recommend the single-extruder XYZPrinting Da Vinci 1.0 AiO, which is cheaper but also supports 3D scanning.

Though compact, the Cube 3 can print fairly large objects. Josh Miller/CNET

Excellent design

As the name suggests, the Cube 3 -- short for third-generation Cube -- looks like a cube, and a compact one, at that, measuring just 13.2 by 13.5 by 9.5 inches (33.5 by 34.3 by 24.1cm). Note that this is the shape of the printer with two filament cartridges already loaded inside the two recessed cartridge holders on its left and right sides.

To fully appreciate the design, you have to look at many other 3D printers where the filament holders protrude from the printer itself. With the Cube 3, when all parts are installed, its surface is mostly flush and smooth, giving the printer an almost perfect cube shape.

The printer doesn't have a lot of surface, however, since its front and back side are open, allowing you to view and work with the print platform easily. The Cube 3 is the first 3D printer I've worked with that employs an active print platform. During a print job, the platform moves backward and forward as well as up and down. This means the print-head on top just needs to move sideways. (In many other 3D printers, the print platform only moves up and down, requiring the print-head to move in all other directions.)

This kind of mechanism reduces the amount of space needed, allowing the printer to be compact, yet still have quite a large print platform. Indeed, despite the small physical size, the Cube 3 can print objects of up to 6 by 6 by 6 inches (15.25cm cubed). Judging from what we saw at CES 2015, the active platform is a new trend in 3D printing, with many upcoming printers sharing this design.


3D System Cube 3 specs

Extruder Dual-extruder
Plate Removable plate
Print Technology Fused Deposition Modeling
Build volume 6 x 6 x 6 inches (15.25 x 15.25 x 15.25 cm)
Layer thickness 70 microns; fast mode: 200 microns
Printer control Color touchscreen
Printable materials ABS, PLA
Power source 230 V / 120 W
External dimensions (WHD) 13.2 x 13.5 x 9.5 inches (33.5 x 34.3 x 24.1 cm)
Weight 17 lbs (7.7 kg)
Inputs Wi-Fi, USB thumbdrive
Operating system supported Windows 7 or later, Mac OS 10.8 or later

The printer has a removable print plate, which is the top part of the print platform. The fact you can remove it means you can easily clean the surface after a job, or prepare it with glue before starting one. The plate attaches to the platform via a magnet, making it very easy to work with since there are no latches or screws to deal with.

The proprietary cartridges fit the printer really well. Josh Miller/CNET

Proprietary and expensive filament cartridges

Out of the box, the Cube 3 is mostly assembled. You just need to remove the packaging and install the two included black and green filament cartridges.

Filaments are the raw material for fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printing, which is the technology used in most consumer-grade 3D printers. Think of them as the equivalent of ink cartridges in inkjet printers. They come in different colors and are basically easy-to-melt, quick-congealing plastic strings that are fed through the print head's nozzle during a print job. The print head then heats up and extrudes (that's why it's called an extruder) melted plastic onto the print platform below to create the 3D object.

Since the Cube 3 is a dual-extruder printer -- that is, one with two nozzles -- it can work with two sources of filament at the same time should you want to print objects of two colors.

Filaments always comes rolled up in spools. Many printers use open spools and allows users to pick filament of their own. The 3D System, however, put the Cube 3's spools inside its proprietary plastic cartridges. And this is both good and bad for consumers.

Good because the cartridge fits snugly into the printer as mentioned above. On top of that, each cartridge comes with a sensor that enables the printer to automatically recognize the type of filament being used (PLA or ABS), how much filament is left, and what color it is. In my testing, installing and replacing the filaments on the Cube 3 was the easiest of all 3D printers I've worked with. Each of the cartridge has a print-jet, which is the head of a filament feeding tube, that fits perfectly on top of the print-head. I didn't have to deal directly with the filament strings at all.

The printer's touchscreen makes working with it a walk in the park. Josh Miller/CNET

The downside is you have to get the filament cartridges directly from 3D Systems, and they cost $49 each. You can't refill the filament in each cartridge; rather, you have to buy a new cartridge entirely. The Cube 3 also has its own type of cartridges that are not even compatible with other 3D printers from 3D Systems, such as the CubePro for the Cube first and second generations. In testing, I couldn't print a large number of objects with one cartridge. Roughly speaking, an object that takes about 10 hours to print would use up about a fifth of a cartridge. On average, you can print about a dozen iPhone 6 Plus cases per filament cartridge.

To 3D Systems' credit, the company takes back empty cartridges for recycling and includes a return shipping label for each of them. You do have to pay the shipping cost, however.

Easy to operate, Wi-Fi printing supported

On its front, the Cube 3 has a power button and a small touchscreen for you to manage its operation. You can use this screen to control all the functions of the printer, from printing to calibration to installing and replacing the filaments. Whatever action you pick, it will walk you though it, step by step.

It's important to note that the Cube 3 can calibrate itself. Calibration is an important process: you make sure the print platform's entire surface is leveled and at a perfect distance from the print head's nozzle. If it's not set correctly, the printer won't produce an object that accurately reflects the 3D model, or even just pump out plastic strings. Many printers require manual calibration; the Cube 3, however, will handle that by itself. In the rare case that it needs your interaction for this process, the touchscreen will display clear instructions as to what you need to do. In my experience, the Cube 3's calibration process was only as difficult as pressing buttons on the screen a few times.

Using the screen, you can also connect the printer to a Wi-Fi network. Once that's done, you can initiate a print job from any computer connected to the same Wi-Fi network. 3D Systems says that it will soon release mobile apps for Android and iOS for printing directly from a mobile device. Alternatively, the printer has a USB port that you can connect a thumbdrive to. If the thumbdrive contains standard 3D Model files, you can then print them using the touchscreen. A 2GB thumbdrive is included with the Cube 3, but you can use any drive of your own.

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With a simple interface, the Cubify software is very easy to use. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

Activation needed

You definitely need an Internet connection to use the Cube 3, at least initially.

The first time you turn the machine on, it asks you to activate it with 3D Systems. This process involves going to the activate page, creating an account, and typing in the machine's serial number. It will then provide you with an activation code, which you must enter into the printer via the touchscreen. Once that's accomplished, you can start using the machine.

After that you can download and install the Cubify printing software if you want to print directly from a computer that's connected to the same Wi-Fi network. The software will send the 3D model file to the printer, which can take up to 10 minutes, depending on the size and complexity of the object. After that, the printer will print the object on its own without the need for the computer.

Note that if you choose to print from a computer, the printer will not retain the 3D model on its internal storage so you can print the same thing again. For this reason, it's a better idea to use the software to export the model to a thumbdrive, then print from the printer's USB port. This way you can make as many prints of the same model without having to use the software or the computer again for that item.

The software offers standard customization, including scaling, layer thickness, filling patterns, the level of filling (hollow or solid), and so on. You can also use the software to connect to your account and get more 3D models from the Cubify community. Like all other printing software, Cubify also works with 3D models downloaded from other sources, such as Thingivers.

The Cube 3 supports standard 3D model files, which means you can also use other 3D printing software to export the models to a thumbdrive before printing them out via the printer's USB port.

Performance

On the whole, the Cube 3 worked well in my testing. It also was quite fast for a 3D printer, taking just 10 minutes or less to print a standard iPhone 6 case. It took longer to print a two-color object, but that's not surprising. And even then, I had no problem printing objects that took a few hours to finish.

Here's a large object that failed halfway through. Josh Miller/CNET

With larger objects that took 10 hours or more, however, it was a different story. More than once in my trials (though definitely not always), the object printed halfway just fine, but then failed completely. Then, I'd get a plastic string as if the printer hadn't been properly calibrated. Beyond being time-consuming, those failures wasted a lot of filament. And even more puzzling, the same job would be successful when I started over even though I hadn't recalibrated.

I've experienced such inconsistency before with other printers, and so far haven't haven't found a good reason why. That said, it's a good idea to check on the printing process once in a while when printing a large object.

My only other complaint about the Cube 3's performance is that it always needs to cool down its print head before you can resume printing again. Since printing a 3D object requires the print head to be heated to melt the filament, the cool-down phase is not only a waste of time, but also a waste of energy if you want to make multiple prints in a row.

Other than that, the printer is very well built, with an excellent mechanism. All of its parts are well put together with sharp and precise movements. The Cube 3 is a bit noisier while operating than other 3D printers I've reviewed. It isn't deafening, but it's still loud enough to be distracting if you use it in a quiet room.

Conclusion

There's much to like about the Cube 3, especially its design, its printing mechanism and ease of use. In fact it would make the best 3D printer I've worked with if there was no issue with the large objects randomly failing in mid-job.

And while I don't like the cost of the proprietary filament cartridges, I really enjoy how they make using the printer a much better experience, comparable to using an inkjet printer. 3D Systems has put a lot of good ideas into the Cube 3 and most of them are successfully realized.

All things considered, the printer has enough to justify its $999 price, which is one of the lowest for a dual-extruder printer. For this price, and at the current stage of consumer-grade 3D printing, the Cube 3 is almost as good as it gets.

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8.2

3D Systems Cube 3

Score Breakdown

Setup 9Feature 8Support 7Performance 8
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