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Ultimaker 2 3D Printer review: Well-designed but overpriced and unreliable

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In the end, after many successful (as well as failed) prints, I wasn't sure if I had ever calibrated the printer properly. It would be so much easier if the Ultimaker 2 had come pre-calibrated like the DeeGreen or the Da Vinci.

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The Cura software is easy to use but doesn't allow for printing to the printer directly. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

Easy-to-use software, direct printing not supported

The Ultimaker 2 connects to a computer via USB, but only to update the firmware. To print, you must use an SD card, so your computer will need to accommodate them too. The entire process is rather cumbersome, honestly. You can create the model on your computer, but then you have to save it to the card in the form of a .gcode file, then transfer the card to the printer to start the print job.

Of course it would be much more convenient if the Cura software also supported printing directly to the printer from a computer. Many computers don't have an SD card slot, after all. Ultimaker says its printers may support Wi-Fi printing in the future, but you're stuck with the SD card for now.

Other than that, the Cura software is easy to use. It allows for standard customization, including scaling, quality (high, normal, fast), print speed, the level of filling (hollow or solid), and so on. Also, you can send multiple 3D model files to a single print job as long as they don't exceed the max print volume. And on the plus side, you can use the .gcode files with other 3D printer and vise versa.

As for what to print, there's a huge collection of 3D object models at Thingiverse that you can use, and you can also find more at Youmagine.com. Of course, you could also invest in a 3D scanner.

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After some 30 hours of printing, including three failed prints, I finally printed this large rocket ship. Josh Miller/CNET

Inconsistent performance

I started by printing a few small objects and was very pleased with the performance. The printer was quick, and on par with the Da Vinci 1.0 AiO in terms of both speed and quality. For example, an iPhone 5 case took about an hour to finish on the normal quality setting. Prints look nice, with very precise detail.

When I moved to larger objects that took hours to print, however, it was a different story. Often, after printing for about 4 or 5 hours, the printer would stop for no apparent reason, or continue printing as if it wasn't properly calibrated. Each time I ran in to this problem, though, re-calibrating didn't better the outcome.

Since each large print job can take hours, it was difficult to get to the source of the problem. As of now, its performance was more inconsistent than other models I tested. From what I can tell, the calibration issue was the most likely reason for a large print's failure. Another reason might be faulty firmware, but I had updated the machine to the latest, and reset to default settings a few times.

Ultimately, if the printer can print small objects without any problems, why does calibration appear to be a problem for larger jobs? This remains a good question. (I informed Ultimaker about this inconsistency and at the time of this review, and the company is looking into it.) Overall, the experience was quite frustrating and the worst part was the fact that I kept second-guessing myself.

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The printer prints small objects very well. Here are some of them (green) next to those printed by a competitior (white). Josh Miller/CNET

Other than that, the printer has excellent mechanics. Every part worked well and movements were sharp and fast. I could also print a lot of objects out of just half of a 1.7 lbs (0.75kg) spool of filament, which Ultimaker sells for about $65 (about £42 or AU$78). This is comparatively expensive, but you might be able to buy the filaments from different sources for less -- just make sure it's the standard 2.85mm consumables.

The printer is almost the quietest 3D printer I've seen. While it's not silent, it is quiet enough to not bother you in a room with medium ambient noise. Also, if you're bothered by the interior light, you can turn that off.

Conclusion

I really want to love the Ultimaker 2. It's the nicest, most compact 3D printer (for the size of its print platform) I've had my hands on and it works well when printing small objects.

However, I just can't see how this printer can cost $2,500 (£1,600, AU$3,000), considering there are other printers on the market with more to offer and which cost about a fourth of the price. To add to the pricing insult, the Ultimaker uses less popular consumables which are more expensive than others.

That said, I don't see why you should buy this printer now. Wait for the price to go down, or at least for the issues with large objects to be fixed via updated firmware. Personally, I would always think twice before buying any 3D printer that requires me to manually calibrate it.

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