There are a lot of 3D printers available nowadays. Which one do you buy? It really depends a lot on who you are and what you wish to use it for. Generally the more you pay for a 3D printer the more capable it becomes and the more reliable it is. There are quite a few machines out there that are essentially nonfunctional, however. Increasingly, though, there are also machines that are good value and give good performance. In order to help you choose we’ve made a handy overview of some available 3D printers. We’ve divided them into a few categories: low-cost 3D printers, mid-level 3D printers and “Pro” 3D printers.

The short version of this guide is this: if you want a printer that delivers on performance for $400, get a Printrbot Play. Easier to use but more limited in performance you could opt for an XYZprinting Minimaker or Flashforge Finder. If you have time, get a Monoprice Select Mini which is not very good, but for $200 it is. If you have time and you want to extend the functionality of the printer, get a Printrbot Simple. If you have $1000 and time and want the best prints at any price category get a Prusa i3. Otherwise get a CraftBot. If you want the best printer and you are looking for fine surface quality and smooth parts, get a Formlabs machine. If you need tough parts, get an Ultimaker.

Low-Cost 3D Printers

Low-cost systems start at around $169 and range until $800. Don’t expect a lot of performance. Expect issues with reliability and parts. These systems can have low-quality stepper motors and other parts. In terms of surface quality they are also limited. They tend to have poor repeatability as well, so expect a disproportionate number of your prints to fail. They are however the cheapest printers on offer today. Some printers in this category are very easy to use, such as the da Vinci line. Some others such as the Printrbot Play and Simple Metal are extremely good value for money. The Prusa i3 is one of the most popular printers in the world and if optimized can give you extremely good prints. You can get Prusa i3 kits at this price point. The MakerSelect Mini does require a lot of hand holding but with some TLC it is a 3D printer that works for $220.

Do Consider These If: you are looking to get started with 3D printing and want to spend the least amount of money possible. You don’t mind tweaking and spending a lot of time getting your 3D printer to work. If you like hacking and want to learn more about 3D printing by figuring out how to improve your printer then this is a good example.

Don’t Consider These If: you need to do production, manufacturing, workshops or want a plug-and-play 3D printer.

 

Assembled Printrbot Simple, Smalls and Play

The Printrbot Simple starts at $599 and the heated bed version is $749. The design has been optimized to use very little material and parts and for a number of years has been leading the low-cost category in value and affordability. An elegant value engineered design that does use metal parts means that this nifty little printer just works. It has also built up a good track record over the years. Printrbot itself is a company that cares about users and this shows in their customer support, manuals and how they deal with their community. Their online installation and troubleshooting guides are excellent as is their forum based and direct support.  

Its beautiful in a raw metal way

A sturdy little monument to value engineering and minimalism: the Printrbot Smalls.

  • Build Volume X-Y-Z: 100 x 100 x 130 mm
  • Print Resolution: 50 Microns
  • Auto Leveling: Yes
  • Print Bed: Not heated but can be upgraded
  • Software: Cura
  • Filament: Open

Alternatives From The Company: Printrbot also offers the Printrbot Play. This doesn’t have a heated bed and is less easy to hack and upgrade. At $399 though it represents very good value. The Play has an incredibly robust metal frame which helps the print quality. The Play has the best reliability and print quality of any 3D printer under a $1000 (save for highly optimized Prusa i3 kits). The Printrbot Smalls is a $398 value engineered version of the Simple. The Smalls again represents very good value for money but with less of the track record of the Simple.

When it isn’t doing anything the Printrbot Play just kind of waves at you.

Recommendation: If you want a 3D printer for a family, school or institution of some kind and are willing to give it a little Tender Loving Care the Printrbot Play is one of the best value 3D printers out there. I highly recommend the system. Other printers costing significantly more have higher reliability, repeatability and surface quality. At a sub-$1000 price point, however, the performance of the system is unmatched.

If hacking and extending your 3D printer is what you wish to do then the Simple is a proven highly tweakable motion stage that also gives you good value for money. I’ve not yet tested a Smalls but given the design and metal frame coupled with Printrbot’s track record I’m highly optimistic about its performance.

Particularly Interesting For: If you’re a school on the budget then the Play is the cheapest system that will work for you, but it will require care. If you’re a research scientist looking for the cheapest motion stage for your experiments then I would recommend the Simple. If you are someone who sees themselves repurposing their printer to 3D print chocolate, expandable foam, circuits or a completely new material then the Simple is an excellent choice as well.

 

XYZprinting da Vinci Jr. 1, da Vinci miniMaker, da Vinci Mini

None of the XYZPrinters are shrinking violets, bright colors every one.

XYZprinting is a company that is really trying to bring the costs down in 3D printers. Its da Vinci Jr.3D printers are $234, the da Vinci miniMaker is $224 and the Wireless DaVinci Mini is $269. The build quality of these systems and part quality is low. XYZprinting customer support, online documentation and tutorials were very limited initially but are improving. The systems are less hackable and upgradable than a Printrbot Simple or Prusa i3. The print quality is limited and whereas you can get excellent print quality with an upgraded and tweaked Simple or i3 your ability to tweak these systems is low. The XYZWare software is OK but can be buggy at times. Until recently you were also limited to using only XYZprinting filament, which increased your cost and limited your filament choice. This is rumored to be changing soon however. The XYZ printers are however very easy to use. Out of the box you can find yourself printing within the hour and reliability is actually quite good for this price point. Good surface quality can be obtained straight out of the box also. Ease of use of these systems is excellent for this price point. 

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 140 x 140 x 150 mm
  • Auto Leveling: Yes
  • Print Bed: Not heated
  • Software: XYZWare
  • Filament: Proprietary

Alternatives From The Company: The da Vinci Jr. is an older design and generally the newer miniMaker and da Vinci Mini give better print results.

Recommendation: If you have a child who wishes to have their own 3D printer then the da Vinci miniMaker is the easiest to use printer in this price category. If you wish to get started quickly with 3D printing then the ease of use of these systems are also unsurpassed in the category. The build volume is also larger than the smallest Printrbots. Reliability, repeatability and surface quality are actually quite high given the price point. If you do not wish to tweak your printer but want something that prints straight out of the box then this may be a good choice for you.

Particularly Interesting For: Kids and adults who want to get started with 3D printing.

 

Flashforge Finder

Flashforge originally got started selling clones of other systems, rolling out the Dreamer and Inventor.

The Finder.

With the Finder they released a $499 system that was inexpensive and easy to use. The Finder works straight out of the box and is easy to use. Print quality is slightly better than the XYZ printers but reliability is slightly lower and the XYZ printers are $100 or more less expensive. Tech support is quite good and the FlashPrint software is OK and less buggy than XYZWare. Traditionally with Flashforge the problems have arisen after a few months of use. The company has used low-quality stepper motors, axes, bearings and other parts in their printers. This means that Flashforge 3D printers have had very limited lifespans. The filament is proprietary meaning you will be limited in your filament choice and be paying more than others.

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 140 x 140 x 140 mm
  • Auto Leveling: Yes
  • Print Bed: Not heated
  • Software: FlashPrint
  • Filament: Proprietary

Alternatives From The Company: Flashforge also sell Dreamers and other printers for around $1000 but at that price point I would recommend going for a CraftBot.

Recommendation: This printer is one of the easiest to use 3D printers straight out of the box. The Finder is easy to use and the print results are actually quite good given the price point. A Printrbot Play will however significantly outperform a Finder in print quality and reliability, at $100 cheaper.

Particularly Interesting For: Kids and adults who want to get started with 3D printing.

 

Monoprice Select Mini

Beautiful electronics and simple but thoughtful design.

At $220 this 3D printer is one of the least expensive systems that one can buy. The printer is actually a rebadged Malyan M200 sold by Monoprice. It will probably not work straight out of the box for you. You will have issues and need to tweak it for it to work properly. The support from the company is limited and at times abysmal. There is however a lively Monoprice Select Mini group on Facebook. Print results, reliability and repeatability aren’t great. With upgrades and tweaks however and the help of the community the print results at this price point represent a very good value for money. It is a very tweakable printer. Less upgradable than a Simple it does have more features such as a heated build plate. The printer is less easy to use than the Finder and XYZ printers but you can use any filament or software that you want. If you want to get started with 3D printing and wish to spend quality time learning then this a great system to start with.  

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 120 x 120 x 120 mm
  • Auto Leveling: No, manual
  • Print Bed: Heated
  • Software: Not bundled; can be used with Cura, Simplify, Slic3r etc.  
  • Filament: Open

Recommendation: This is for people who want to put in the time and want good value for money.

Particularly Interesting For: People who wish to tinker but not necessarily extend the functionality of the printer a lot (e.g., print chocolate, add three print heads).

 

Mid-Level Printers

This category of 3D printers is the most competitive. Printers priced from around $750 to $2500 should offer higher reliability, repeatability, ease of use and better print results. Fewer prints should fail, surface quality should be better and one would expect a better frame, better part quality and a better build quality on the machine. Typically metal powder coated frames, 200 x 200 x 200 mm build volumes, WiFi, color/touch screens are becoming standard. I qualify my statements here with a lot of “shoulds.” I say this because there are a lot of crap 3D printers out there at this price point. Essentially I don’t recommend buying anything in this price category with two notable exceptions. If you’re a business user then higher-priced Pro printers will give you better reliability and quality with less finicky fuss. If you’re a home user then I would recommend spending $1000 more on a Pro printer to get better results and less annoyance. Conversely save money and buy two entry level printers. Yes the things you can make with the entry level systems will be smaller but it will be more fun, more tweakable and more upgradable. You can hack one of your entry level systems and make it into something entirely new and worry less about breaking stuff generally. Or save money, get an entry level system and then after two years upgrade to a Pro printer. With the Printrbots, XYZprinting machines, Finder and Select Mini being so incredibly affordable I simply don’t think that most offerings in this price point make sense. You are extremely unlikely to find anything that prints better than a tweaked Prusa i3. The features and performance of these Mid-Level systems simply don’t warrant investing in them. If you have the time and this is a hobby then buy a Low-Cost printer. If you are a business user then the increased investment in a Pro system will more than pay for itself in saved time.  

So whereas I would not generally recommend anything in the $750 to $2500 price category there are two printers available in it that are some of my favorites. They are each very reliable and offer incredible performance for the price point. They also have significantly larger build volumes than low-cost systems.

 

Prusa i3

The Prusa i3 is probably the most prevalent and popular 3D printer design in the world. Available in kit and assembled form from $180 to $1000 this open source design has been sold in the tens of thousands. Many vendors produce Prusa i3’s and the quality amongst them is highly variable. The BQ Hephestos and Wanhao i3 are some of the most well known kits. There is however a big quality difference between those and the kits and assembled printers sold by Josef Prusa’s own company, Prusa Research. This kit is by far the best and provides incredible print performance for the money. The Original Prusa i3 MK2S fully assembled 3D printer is available for $899.

The Prusa i3.

A tweaked Prusa i3 can give you the best surface quality and print quality at any price point on the desktop. There are a lot of open source 3D printing people who can support you and many detailed manuals, guides and discussions to help you. Support from Prusa Research is good. There are many tweaks and upgrades available for these printers. More expensive systems provide higher reliability and more features. The CraftBot is far easier to use however.

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 250 x 210 x 200 mm
  • Auto Leveling: Automatic
  • Print Bed: Heated
  • Software: Slic3r
  • Filament: Open

Recommendation: This is for people who wish to obtain the very best print results at an affordable price. Outperforms low-cost 3D printers easily and outperforms many more expensive systems as well.   

Particularly Interesting For: People who have the time to tweak and improve their systems.

 

CraftUnique CraftBot 2

Bright red is just one of the colors that you can get your Craftbot in.

The CraftBot 2 is not a very well known system but is a great value for a $1200 printer. Its colorful metal frames provide stability and the color touchscreen is very easy to use. Build quality, finish and parts on the systems are good. The CraftWare software is simple as well and lets you easily learn more about 3D printing. It is not as good as highly optimized profiles in Cura or Simplify but works very well and is easier to use. Customer service from the company is good. Print and surface quality are very good. Reliability and repeatability is very high for this price point. The Prusa i3, with tweaking, gets higher-quality prints. But, straight out of the box the CraftBot outperforms anything at a lower price point and many printers costing double. The ease of use, reliability and bigger build volume make it a good system for someone starting out or wanting to upgrade from a simpler system. It is not as tweakable and hackable as other systems.

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 250 x 210 x 200 mm
  • Auto Leveling: Automatic
  • Print Bed: Heated
  • Software: Slic3r
  • Filament: Open

Recommendation: This is for people who wish to get good performance and print results and value ease of use.

Particularly Interesting For: Schools and people that want to print things without encountering issues.

 

Pro 3D Printers

Starting at around $2500 Pro desktop 3D printers are those that have the highest performance and reliability. Full featured, they are made for businesses and the most demanding of users. They should be easy to use and reliable. Touchscreens, WiFi and dual extrusion are becoming commonplace in this category.

BCN3D Technologies Sigma R17

How cool is your local charitable foundation? 3D Printing cool?

The Sigma is a metal frame dual extrusion 3D printer with two independent nozzles that is available for $2600. It has a color touchscreen and delivers excellent print results and surface quality. The printer has the ability to 3D print support but testing indicates that this is often finicky. The printer is reliable but not as reliable as the TAZ or Ultimaker. Customer service and online support are OK but generally the TAZ and Ultimaker have larger, more active communities and better support.

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 210 x 297 x 210 mm
  • Auto Leveling: Automatic
  • Print Bed: Heated
  • Software: Cura
  • Filament: Open

Recommendation: This is for people who wish to get good performance and print results and value ease of use.

Particularly Interesting For: Schools and people that want to print things without encountering issues.

 

Aleph Objects LulzBot TAZ 6

The TAZ 6.

The TAZ 6 is a $2500 sturdy metal frame 3D printer with excellent 3D print results, reliability and repeatability. Dual extrusion is available but this works less well than on the Ultimaker. LulzBot really wants to put out a good product and this shows in the workmanship, parts and support. This highly reliable system consistently prints well and is easy to use.

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 280 x 280 x 250 mm
  • Auto Leveling: Automatic
  • Print Bed: Heated
  • Software: Cura
  • Filament: Open

Alternatives From The Company: The LulzBot Mini is a well regarded $1250 printer.

Recommendation: Recommended for business users or people who wish to pay extra to reduce downtime.

Particularly Interesting For: Manufacturing.

 

Ultimaker 3

The Ultimaker 3.

The Ultimaker 3 is a very easy to use reliable 3D printer that offers excellent print results. The printer achieves the highest surface quality as well. The Ultimaker 3 has the highest tested reliability and repeatability as well as the most reliable dual extrusion capability. Its $3500 price point does make it significantly more expensive than a TAZ for example, which also has a larger build volume. With a very active user community and highly regarded support the Ultimaker is a good printer for business or people who wish to reduce the downtime of the printer. Increasingly support has to be done through resellers however and their the support can either be excellent or limited depending on the reseller. Ultimaker 2

Alternatives From The Company: The company offers a less expensive single extrusion Ultimaker 2+ and an Ultimaker 3 Extended for $4200.

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 215 x 215 x 200 mm
  • Auto Leveling: Automatic
  • Print Bed: Heated
  • Software: Cura
  • Filament: Open

Recommendation: Recommended for business users or people who wish to pay extra to reduce downtime.

Particularly Interesting For: Manufacturing.

 

Formlabs Form 2

All previous 3D printers on this list are Material Extrusion printers. Also called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) / Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), they produce parts by melting and depositing plastic filament. These make tough parts that can readily be used for real world applications. Formlabs uses the Vat Polymerization process (also called stereolithography or SLA) this hardens a resin using a laser. On the upside this means that one gets highly detailed and very smooth parts, much smoother and more detailed than FDM with a better surface quality. On the downside, care has to be taken to handle resins and support material must be removed by hand. If the beauty or looks of your final part are of the utmost importance then the Formlabs Form 2 system is an excellent choice. These parts also lend themselves well to molding and casting so if this is important then it is a good choice also. If your parts have to be functional however then FDM and the other systems on this list are a better choice. Cost per part is also significantly lower there.

The Formlabs Preform software is a breeze to use and provides the best user experience of any 3D printing software. A recent software update has made things easier still as well as significantly improving print results. The models are fine, detailed and very smooth. The printer itself is highly reliable and offers the best user experience as a device as well. Cleaning parts and removing support by hand is tedious however. Essentially an excellent choice for people making prototypes or things that have to be molded and cast.

  • Build Volume X Y Z: 145 x 145 x 175 mm
  • Software: Preform
  • Resin: Proprietary

Recommendation: Recommended for business users or people who want the best smoothness and surface quality. Not recommended for children since handling the resins requires care.

Particularly Interesting For: Manufacturing.

 

For additional thoughts on 3D printers out there, you can still check out our previous 3D printer buyers’ guides from 2016 and 2015, as well as thoughts for a first-time 3D printer purchase from 2014. There are many desktop 3D printers available, and this guide only touches on 10 options. There’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re in the market for a 3D printer, so be sure to do your research before investing in any of these technologies.

Share your thoughts in the Buyers’ Guide forum at 3DPB.com.

 

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