Creality Ender-3 S1 3D Printer Review: Easy Setup Makes for an Ideal Starter 3D Printer
It's easy to assemble and easy to use if you download the right software.
Updated Sept. 9, 2022 4:00 a.m. PT
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Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
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ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
The Creality Ender-3 S1 had been sitting in a box by my desk for some time before I dared set it up. I had been reluctant, having heard stories about the the popular Ender-3 line requiring a huge investment in time and effort to assemble.
For example, the mainstream Ender-3 V2 is considered a great 3D printer for under $300, but not necessarily a great one for beginners. It requires a lot of hand assembly from building the frame to attaching the individual motors and sensors. Even after that, most Ender enthusiasts strongly suggest swapping out some of the default hardware for aftermarket upgrades, which adds further complexity.
At $399, the S1 version of the Ender-3 is about $100 more then older versions but includes so many upgrades and quality of life features that it qualifies as a great beginner-friendly, plug-and-play printer. Mostly.
Opening the box, I was pleasantly surprised to find the entire gantry preassembled (that's the two side and one top support pieces). The base comes mostly preassembled and prewired; assembly took maybe 15 minutes, versus the couple of hours I'd heard previous models require.
The print size of 220 by 220 by 270 millimeters isn't huge, but it should be big enough for many hobbyists. The nozzle temperature can go up to 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit), which isn't the highest -- but again, good enough for standard PLA/ABS/PETG/TPU printing. Those initials all refer to different types of 3D filament, which are described in more detail here in our 3D printing filament guide: If you're starting out, basic PLA is what you'll probably be using. It's inexpensive, nontoxic and easy to work with.
One key step-up feature is that the system runs off a direct drive extruder, rather than one with a Bowden tube. That means the filament you use goes directly into the extruder and right to the nozzle. In a Bowden system, the filament goes into an extruder, which then forces it through a thin plastic tube to the nozzle. Both are fine, but the direct version removes extra parts and potential complications from the signal chain and is considered more reliable. A good analogy is a direct drive turntable versus a belt drive one.
There's also a little sensor box the filament runs through that tells the system when you run out of material, which is premium-feeling extra.
Another feature you don't always find in budget 3D printers (and in previous Ender-3 models) is auto-leveling. The system will drive itself through a routine to probe and adjust so the print bed is completely level. Likewise, previous models usually included a simple glass bed to print on, the S1 version has a flexible metal sheet that attaches magnetically to the base. That's my preference, since it makes removing prints from the bed much easier.
A few disappointments
The Ender-3 S1 includes many features I'd consider premium, but it's also missing a few I'd like to have. The color display isn't a touchscreen, but is instead operated by a single knob used to scroll through menus. It's a pain that feels needlessly archaic.
There's also no Wi-Fi, which for a hot minute felt like it was on its way to becoming a standard feature in 3D printers (as it should be). Instead, you have to transfer files via SD card (one is included) or direct USB connection. There are ways to connect a separate simple Raspberry Pi mini-computer and use that to get online, but it's far from simple.
Make sure you have a spool of filament handy when getting started, the box only includes a small sample loop, not even on a plastic spindle.
The S1 in action
Once the printer was set up and leveled, I tried one of the test files included on the SD card. It came out great, but when I loaded new files onto the card and tried to print them, I ran into problems. It felt like the nozzle was not getting close enough to the plate for the filament to stick, no matter how much I adjusted the Z-axis in the system menu.
I was using the stock version of Cura, the popular free 3D-slicing program (slicers are used to prep 3D models for printing), and the default settings were clearly not fine-tuned for the Ender-3 S1. Creality offers a custom version of that software, renamed Creality Slicer, and using it solved the problem immediately. I still intend to go back and get the regular Cura settings adjusted as well, though.
I tried a few different 3D models, some sculptural and some more structural. Since I was burning through a spool of green PLA material, my choices tended to lean toward the Yoda/Hulk side of things. Print quality even out-of-the-box was excellent, although a lot of that comes down to having good models to work from. I'd call it as good as print quality from some $500-$600 printers I've tried.
The Ender line has always been known for good value and excellent performance in a budget printer, but it's also been criticized for not being beginner-friendly enough. That's why I usually recommend printers like the Anycubic Vyper for first-timers, which is both inexpensive and easy to set up.
With the Ender-3 S1, Creality has a high-quality, low price 3D printer that's as easy to set up as any I've tried. There's also an S1 Pro model (for another $100-$150) that upgrades the machine's hot end assembly to an all-metal one that supports higher temperatures, adds an LED light strip to the top, upgrades the flexible surface bed and adds a touchscreen. You can find a full list of the differences here.
In the $300-$500 range, I still like easy-to-use printers like the Anycubic Vyper or Prusa Mini Plus, but the Ender-3 S1 has just leapfrogged to the top of my recommendation list.