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?
check out our filament explainer.)
Stereolithography printers can print at high resolutions and eschew filament in favor of photosensitive (UV-curable) liquid resin, which is sold in bottles. Only a limited color palette is available: mainly clear, white, gray, black, or gold. Working with liquid resin and isopropyl alcohol, which is used in the finishing process for stereolithography prints, can be messy and odiferous.
How High of a Resolution Do You Need?
A 3D printer extrudes successive thin layers of molten plastic in accordance with instructions coded in the file for the object being printed. For 3D printing, resolution equals layer height. Resolution is measured in microns, with a micron being 0.001mm, and the lower the number, the higher the resolution. That’s because the thinner each layer is, the more layers are needed to print any given object, and the finer the detail that can be captured. Note, however, that increasing the resolution is sort of like increasing a digital camera’s megapixel count: Although a higher resolution often helps, it doesn’t guarantee good print quality.
Nearly all 3D printers being sold today can print at a resolution of 200 microns—which should produce decent-quality prints—or better, and many can print at 100 microns, which generally delivers good-quality prints. A few can print at higher resolutions still, as fine as 20 microns, but you may have to go beyond the preset resolutions and into custom settings to enable resolutions finer than 100 microns.
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. Today, manufacturers of 3D printers have integrated these programs into seamless, user-friendly packages, many of them building on the Cura open-source platform to support their printers. Some 3D printers also allow you to use separate component programs, if you prefer.
So, Which 3D Printer Should I Buy?
Below are the best 3D printers that we’ve reviewed recently. They cover a wide range in price, features, and printing methods, but they all represent quality. For more information on what 3D printing is, and how it works, our 3D-printing primer is a good place to start. And be sure to check out our roundup of the best overall printers.