AnkerMake M5C Review: Great Budget 3D Printer With a Catch
One of our top-rated 3D printers now comes in a budget-friendly variant, with some improvements you can now add to the original.
Russell Holly is a Managing Editor on the Commerce team at CNET. He works with all of CNET to assemble top recommendations as well as helping everyone find the best way to buy anything at the best price. When not writing for CNET you can find him riding a bike, running around in Jedi robes, or contributing to WOSU public radio's Tech Tuesday segment.
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It's been less than a year since AnkerMake surprised the world with its impressive M5 3D printer, the first it had ever made. Things have changed quite a bit since then. Several companies now offer staggeringly fast printers at otherwise reasonable prices, and AnkerMake has worked hard to continuously improve this machine while also lowering its price from the original $800 to a much more competitive $560. Rather than continue to drop that price, there's a new AnkerMake available. The new MC5 drops a few features from the original to cut costs, allowing this version to be sold for $399 (£399 or roughly AU$780). The world is filled with products that become far less capable or worthwhile when features are shaved off for a budget version. The M5C has proved itself to be the exception which proves the rule, thanks in no small part to a superior software experience.
AnkerMake M5C: Small yet important hardware changes
Unless you're reasonably familiar with 3D printers, there's a good chance if you saw an AnkerMake M5 and an AnkerMake M5C side by side, you'd barely notice they weren't the same machine. AnkerMake kept the same basic design with the same color scheme, and the two machines move identically when printing.
In truth, however, the M5C has trimmed quite a bit from what exists on the M5. The touch screen is gone, there's no camera to show you what your in-progress print looks like from far away, and the build plate is smaller. I expected to notice these differences a lot more than I did. In fact I found myself appreciating what the M5C does better than the M5 quite a bit more.
I set this M5C up next to the M5, and the first thing I noticed was how much quieter the new machine was in comparison. The AnkerMake M5 keeps its fans running from the moment you turn it on until you flip the off switch, but the M5C is a lot smarter about using its fans while creating and the difference is immediately noticeable. The build plate also comes with a set of green stoppers. That means you can return the flexible metal to the heated base with one hand -- instead of painstakingly lining it up and hoping for the best, which so many others in this category force you to do. This M5C has also opted for an all-metal hotend, which means it can reach higher temperatures than the M5 to allow for much more than PLA to pass through the extruder. There are only two physical interaction points on this printer: the power switch and a big friendly play-pause button in the front. It's right where the screen would normally be on the M5, and it serves a similar purpose. If you suddenly need to swap out filament or something has catastrophically failed, you don't need to scroll through menus or reach for a computer with the AnkerMake software on it. Separately, if you used the AnkerMake software to slice a file before sending it to your printer, you can use this button to start a new print using the previously loaded file.
The play-pause button would be a lot more useful if the AnkerMake software allowed you to put multiple things in the software and have them print one at a time instead of all at once. It would also be nice if the button worked with any file you send to the printer. But even in its current state it's a useful thing to have on the printer itself.
AnkerMake's M5 got top marks last year because it makes nice prints for fairly low effort, so it shouldn't be a huge surprise to hear the M5C offers a similar, but not quite the same quality, experience. The CNET 3D printer test is specifically designed to show the most common faults of any printer, and in this test, there are some clear points where the M5C struggled. Between uneven towers, stringing and some melting in the overhangs, it was immediately clear this printer isn't doing enough to cool the filament as it prints.
As with all 3D printers, these issues can be addressed with some settings adjustments. But it's noteworthy that out of the box, the M5C does not match the M5 for quality.
Ultimately, AnkerMake's consistent quality is a big reason why I don't feel like the camera being removed is really all that significant. I've been using the M5 long enough to know when I send a file to be printed the chances of that print failing are statistically insignificant. The M5C meets that expectation with no problem. It's a great, reliable little printer that I can set and forget.
AnkerMake M5C: Moving the software to your laptop and phone
If you're new to the world of 3D printing, you really can't do much better than the AnkerMake app experience right now. The included Easy Mode makes it possible for anyone to grab a file from the internet and have it appear before them in a matter of hours with very little instruction. There are a lot of 3D printer apps out there right now, and few of them are designed with novice users in mind without taking away the settings experts look for. Having an app that works for all skillsets makes a significant difference.
On multiple occasions, I found myself starting my day by turning the printer on and immediately leaving the room. From my kitchen I sent the instruction to auto-level the bed, which takes about 10 minutes. As I'm making breakfast I can send the command to retract the current filament in the printer, so by the time I'm back in the room, it'll be ready for me to load the filament I want to use today. I can then go to my office, send the file I want to print over Wi-Fi and be sure that when I come downstairs for lunch that file will be completely printed. Knowing the printer is consistently good is a big part of that experience, but really it's the software that makes it possible for me to avoid constantly hovering over the machine. The AnkerMake app has always worked well on both a laptop and a phone, especially knowing you can use them interchangeably depending on where you are, which is somewhat unique right now. Removing the display from the M5C makes this even more important because now your laptop or your phone is the only screen for controlling this machine. The good news is the apps are a much better overall experience than the monochromatic or overly simple displays found on most other budget 3D printers. I would challenge AnkerMake to go even further and add either desktop or mobile widgets even if all it shows is the countdown to the print being finished to complete the experience.
As great as the wireless and multiplatform experience is here, the AnkerMake app needs to continue growing and improving. In a recent update, this app has started warning against using slicer apps outside of the AnkerMake experience with claims of quality or performance issues. Instead of trying to scare people out of leaving the platform, I would encourage the AnkerMake folks to identify the reasons people are doing so and address them.
I regularly fire up Cura or PursaSlicer to make files for the M5 and M5C largely because I need to use features that aren't included in AnkerMake. If I want to make organic or tree-style supports, or if I want to print multiple items one at a time, I have to go elsewhere. No quality warning is going to stop that for now.
Should you buy the AnkerMake M5C? Probably
If you're looking for a consistently good 3D printer for less than $400, the AnkerMake M5C would likely be my first recommendation. The print quality out of the box isn't quite as good as the less expensive Anycubic Kobra 2, but that can easily be addressed in settings. What can't be addressed in the settings of other printers is a high-quality software experience that regularly receives updates with new features that you can interchangeably access between platforms. And as long as the AnkerMake team keeps delivering on that great experience it will continue to be a significant advantage over a lot of its competitors.