Over the years, we’ve tested dozens of 3D printers, so we have a good idea of what’s good and what’s not. But despite years of claims of great cheap 3D printers, there aren’t too many out there that meet our high standards for quality prints.
The best one out there is still a Formlabs printer. The Form 2 was an outstanding printer, but the newly released Form 3 is even better. It has a slightly larger build area, and the prints that come out of this machine are even smoother and more precise than its predecessor, which is impressive in and of itself. But it’s still $3,500, out of the reach of most of us. There are a ton of more affordable options, however, so if you’re in the market for something more budget-friendly, keep reading.
Read on for some great 3D printer deals later on in the post, which we update continuously with the best current deals out there.
The Form 3 from Formlabs isn’t cheap by any means; neither was its predecessor, the Form 2. But you get what you pay for, right? None of the rest of the printers on this list even come close in quality. And surprisingly enough, it’s super easy to use.
It’s worth noting that the Form 3 isn’t your average FDM printer. It’s a different breed entirely. Instead of heating plastic filament and squirting it through a nozzle to build objects layer by layer, the Form 3 uses a laser projection system to “grow” objects out of a pool of UV-curable resin. As the laser flashes over the resin tray, it causes a thin layer to solidify on the build plate, which is slowly drawn upward for each new layer.
Now to be clear, the Form 3 isn’t the only 3D printer that uses this method — but it’s the easiest to use of the bunch. Formlabs stuffed it with a boatload of great features that make resin-based printing less of a hassle, like an auto-filling resin tray, and an ingenious print feature that makes objects easier to remove from the build plate. There’s even a web app that lets you check the status of your print when you’re nowhere near the machine.
There are a lot of printers on the market that cater to beginners, but very few of them do it correctly. One thing that’s become increasingly common among “beginner-friendly” printers is to strip away the available choices in favor of a watered-down, over-simplified UI. Often, you’ll have only three different resolution options (high, medium, or low) and zero access or control over “confusing” settings like extrusion speed, infill density, or hot-end temperature. This lack of access makes the machine more straightforward to operate, but it also limits what you can do with your 3D printer in a big way. It’s the lazy way to make a printer “user friendly.”
Lulzbot does not take this lazy approach. Instead of stripping away advanced options, Lulzbot’s software lets you choose your level of complexity and control. There is a Basic interface for when you need to adjust only simple settings (temp, speed, layer height, etc.), but also an Advanced tab that gives you more granular control over printing parameters. These features are great for beginners because it’s simple and straightforward when you’re still learning things, yet it also doesn’t prevent you from going deeper, increasing your knowledge, and getting more out of your 3D printer.
The Lulzbot Mini 2 adds a few new key features over its successor; it looks the same on the outside, but inside lie big changes. Printing speed is much faster, and this printer now supports a variety of materials thanks to an all-new printhead. With the original one, we were already getting some pretty good quality prints, so in theory, the new printer should be even better. And you can upgrade this printer rather than grow out of it, which you will with many cheaper competitors.
As far as we can tell, Monoprice’s Mini Delta is one of the cheapest 3D printers you can buy that’s not a kit — but that’s not the only reason we picked it. In addition to being fully assembled and ready to print straight out of the box, this machine also comes with a heated bed, something we believe is a crucial feature for FDM printers. This helps prevent warping and drastically reduces your potential for misprints — and it’s usually only found on printers that cost over $1,000. This one costs $180, which is mind-blowing.
The Mini Delta also has a variable temperature hot end, which allows you to adjust settings and print with a wide range of materials. This includes basic filaments like ABS and PLA, and more advanced materials like conductive PLA, wood and metal composites, or dissolvable PVA. On top of that, the heated bed is also self-leveling, which means you’ll never have to calibrate the machine manually before initiating a print.
Monoprice certainly gives you a lot of bang for your buck here, but the Mini Delta isn’t perfect. Novices should expect a steep learning curve and be prepared to troubleshoot once in a while. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean that it’s good for beginners.
Read our full Monoprice Mini Delta review
Up until very recently, consumer-level stereolithography printers were essentially the unicorns of the 3D printing world. For years, there were only a few of them for sale to consumers, and they were typically far too expensive for most 3D printing enthusiasts to afford. The Anycubic Photon changes that, and now is nearly as cheap as some lower-end printers.
Now less than $250 at most retailers, this printer is capable of producing insanely high-detail objects. This is largely thanks to its SLA/DLP printing process, which allows the machine to print with extremely thin layers. We’re talking less than a tenth of the width of a human hair. Make no mistake — the Photon’s prints are even more detailed than those from the most high-end FDM printer we’ve ever tested.
Be warned, though. This detail does come at a price. Unfortunately, the Photon also has a woefully tiny build envelope, so you can’t print anything over 4.5 × 2.5 × 6.1 inches (115 × 65 × 155 millimeters). It’s also a pain in the ass to work with the printer’s sticky, stinky, and mildly toxic resin. You have to wear gloves to avoid touching it and soak finished parts in isopropyl alcohol to remove any uncured goo. It’s not nearly as convenient or low-maintenance as the average FDM printer.
So while the Photon is a budget-friendly beast in terms of print performance, it’s also not for everyone.
Read our full Anycubic Photon review
Up until Monoprice vaulted into the 3D printing arena, it was hard to find a sub-$1,000 printer that had a large build area, a heated bed, a stable frame, and an extruder that could handle lots of different materials. Near impossible, honestly. Now there are plenty of options in this price range, and the MP Maker Select Plus is arguably the best of the bunch — unless you’re willing to get a kit and build the printer yourself.
Most printers in the sub-$500 price range have build areas that are no larger than 6 inches in length/width/height — but the MSP boasts a large build envelope that’s 7.9 × 7.9 × 7.1 inches, which is nothing to scoff at. This means not only that you can print bigger parts, but you can also fit more small pieces on the build plate, which cuts down on production times.
This build plate is also heated, which helps prevents the extruded filament from cooling, contracting, and warping the shape of your printed object. This feature is crucial (especially if you’re printing with ABS), drastically reduces your chances of getting a misprint, and eliminates the need to print with a raft, which uses up additional filament.
Read our full Monoprice Maker Select Plus review
To test the various 3D printers we get in for review, we print a carefully selected set of objects. This suite includes 3DBenchy, the ctrlV v3, a warp test, and a few others. Together, these objects have just about everything that printers generally struggle with: low-slope surfaces, overhangs, unsupported spans, fine details, and a bunch more. If a printer isn’t good at something, these shapes will highlight it.
Since you can never be sure, we test the printer six more times. We print documents and photos needed by staff at the time, giving us a more thorough test of the printer’s functions. If we tested the printer through the same task over and over, we could possibly miss issues other tasks might expose.
When we complete testing, we perform a few more test prints and take some high-res photos so you can see how they turned out. We use a micrometer to measure parts of the print to determine the physical models accuracy compared to the digital model.
Resolution and accuracy are not the only factors. When we have finished printing, we access the machine’s relative level of repairability and upgradability. We make sure you can take apart the printer and fix it if something is wrong. We also ensure you can upgrade components when newer parts become available. Lastly, we check that the printer won’t be obsolete in a few years. We work to ensure that everything is figured out for you before you buy.
Helpful terms to know
- FDM: Filament Deposition Modeling. Also known as FFF or fused filament fabrication. It’s the most common style of 3D printing and works by melting a thermoplastic filament, squirting it through a nozzle, and then depositing it layer by layer to form an object.
- SLA: Shorthand for stereolithography. It’s a style of 3D printing that uses a laser projection system to “grow” objects out of a pool of UV curable resin.
- Hot end: The heated nozzle that plastic filament is extruded through in a FDM printer.
- Heated bed: This refers to a build plate that is heated, which prevents the first few layers of extruded plastic from cooling and warping. If your project warps, it often leads to misprints.
- ABS: It stands for Acylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. An oil-based plastic that’s commonly used as 3D printing filament. It’s a strong, sturdy material that’s commonly used for constructing things such as plastic car parts, musical instruments, and the ever-popular Lego building blocks. ABS has a high melting point, and can experience warping if cooled while printing. Because of this, ABS objects must be printed on a heated surface, which is something many at-home printers do not have.
- PLA: Poly Lactic Acid is made from organic material — specifically corn starch and sugarcane. This makes the material easier and safer to use, while giving it a smoother and shinier appearance that’s more aesthetically pleasing. However, while PLA might seem like a better overall choice at first glance, it features a far lower melting point than ABS. This means that using PLA printed parts for mechanical operations, or even storing them in high-temperature locations, can result in the part warping, cracking, or melting.
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