Barely a decade ago, 3D printers were hulking, expensive machines reserved for factories and well-heeled corporations. They were all but unknown outside the small circles of professionals who built and used them. But thanks largely to the RepRap open-source 3D printing movement, these amazing devices have become viable and affordable products for use by designers, engineers, hobbyists, schools, and even curious consumers.
If you’re in the market for one, it’s important to know how 3D printers differ from one another so you can choose the right model. They come in a variety of styles, and may be optimized for a particular audience or kind of printing. Preparing to take the plunge? Here’s what you need to consider.
What Do You Want to Print?
Tied into the matter of what you want to print is a more fundamental question: Why do you want to print in 3D? Are you a consumer interested in printing toys and/or household items? A trendsetter who enjoys showing the latest gadgetry to your friends? An educator seeking to install a 3D printer in a classroom, library, or community center? A hobbyist or DIYer who likes to experiment with new projects and technologies? A designer, engineer, or architect who needs to create prototypes or models of new products, parts, or structures? An artist who seeks to explore the creative potential of fabricating 3D objects? Or a manufacturer, looking to print plastic items in relatively short runs?
Your optimal 3D printer depends on how you plan to use it. Consumers and schools will want a model that’s easy to set up and use, doesn’t require much maintenance, and has reasonably good print quality. Hobbyists and artists may want special features, such as the ability to print objects with more than one color, or to use multiple filament types. Designers and other professionals will want outstanding print quality. Shops involved in short-run manufacturing will want a large build area to print multiple objects at once. Individuals or businesses wanting to show off the wonders of 3D printing to friends or clients will want a handsome yet reliable machine.
For this guide, we will focus on 3D printers in the sub-$4,000 range, targeted at consumers, hobbyists, schools, product designers, and other professionals, such as engineers and architects. The vast majority of printers in this range build 3D objects out of successive layers of molten plastic, a technique known as fused filament fabrication (FFF). It is also frequently called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), although that term is trademarked by Stratasys, Inc. (Although they are not strictly 3D printers, we also include 3D pens—in which the “ink” is molten plastic and the user applies it by drawing freehand or using a stencil—in this roundup.) A few 3D printers use stereolithography—the first 3D printing technique to be developed—in which ultraviolet (UV) lasers trace a pattern on a photosensitive liquid resin, hardening the resin to form the object.
1. Original Prusa i3 MK3S Best 3D Printers
- Exceptional print quality
- Advanced calibration and print monitoring
- Excellent support and involved community
At a shade over $900, the Original Prusa i3 MK3S offers exceptional value for money. Excellent print quality out-of-the-box – that in many cases outperforms printers multiple times its price – is empowering, and a wealth of inbuilt calibration routines and error detection and mitigation systems make it one of the most intelligent printers going.
2. Peopoly Phenom
- Massive build volume
- Easy print plate leveling
- Responsive UI
Large desktop resin 3D printers are becoming a thing. Pitched at professionals and professional tinkerers, or anyone that wants to supersize their home resin 3D printing, the Peopoly Phenom is arguably the first to tick a lot of the right boxes.
Offering a print volume scarcely seen in desktop resin printers, the Peopoly Phenom can print objects up to 400 mm high, giving an overall print volume about 14 times larger than the likes of Elegoo Mars and similar budget resin printers. As if that wasn’t reason enough, the Phenom convinces with its ease of use and, at ~$2,000, competitive price.
There are also two other Phenom printers, the L and Noir, which both offer further fanciness in an even larger build volume, and the ability to print super fast, respectively. But at and above $3,000, they’re a bit pricey.
3. Artillery Sidewinder X1 V4 Best 3D Printers
- Well-designed machine
- Superfast heating
- Whisper silent
A large 3D printer designed to print big and fast, the Sidewinder Artillery X1, despite having a name only an overexcitable seven-year-old could love, is a well thought through 3D printer that offers a few advantages over similarly sized and styled printers. For starters, it has a Volcano-style hot end which allows for a higher flow of molten filament – ideal for printing thicker layers, should you equip it with the correct nozzle to do so (it ships with a 0.4 mm nozzle as standard).
4. Original Prusa Mini
- Removable full metal print bed
- Quality hard- & software
- Excellent print quality
Take the award-winning Original Prusa i3 MK3S, sprinkle in some future-facing improvements, and cut ~$450 off the price, and that’s what you get with the Prusa Mini. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Handily, it’s not, and for that, it’s a rock-solid budget recommendation for those that want to bank on that impeccable Prusa reputation, but can’t quite stretch to the inarguably premium price of the MK3S.
5. Phrozen Sonic Mini Best 3D Printers
- Crazy fast printing
- Simple printing experience
- Budget, but uncompromising
Desktop resin 3D printing is all the rage. Offering high detail prints and fewer variables that their thermoplastic melting counterparts, resin 3D printers are the answer to low effort, high detail 3D printing (providing you have the space for them – they stink).
Available for closer to $200 than $300, the Phrozen Sonic Mini keeps costs low with a plastic shell and resin vat but takes a giant leap over the competition with a monochromatic LCD display that, while lowering print resolution (by a diminutive, unnoticeable amount), allows it to cure a layer in as little as two seconds. It’s that fast.
Compatible with ChiTuBox out of the box (ha), the print experience is akin to that of the majority of current budget desktop person 3D printers; easy to use, effective, and more than enough to hit the ground running with high-detail prints.
7. Creality Ender 3 V2 Best 3D Printers
- High-quality prints
- Excellent price-to-performance
- 32-bit board with TMC2208 drivers (read: it’s quiet)
Not so much an overhaul of the Ender 3 that came before, more a refinement; the Creality Ender 3 V2 takes the uncomplicated design that served the original so well, and sophisticates it with useful additions that make it more workhorse-like and comfortable to use.
The build volume remains the same as the Ender 3 before it, at 220 x 220 x 250 mm. Similarly, the Bowden style extruder and ability to print your typical consumer filaments such as PLA, PETG, and, when carefully managed, TPU, remains. New for the Ender 3 V2, however, is the addition of belt tensioners, updated electronics that include a 32-bit board and print-silencing TMC2208 stepper motor drivers, an integrated tool storage drawer, touchscreen UI, and myriad other improvements.
What Software Do You Need?
Today’s 3D printers come with software on a disk or as a download. It’s Windows-compatible, and in many cases can work with macOS and Linux as well. Not long ago, 3D printing software consisted of several parts, including a printing program that controlled the motion of the extruder, a “healing” program to optimize the file to be printed, a slicer to prepare the layers to be printed at the proper resolution, and the Python programming language.
These components were derived from the RepRap open-source tradition, which was what spurred the development of low-cost 3D printers. But today, manufacturers of 3D printers have integrated these programs into seamless, user-friendly packages. Some 3D printers also allow you to use separate component programs, if you prefer.