3d printers

The best cheap 3D printers for 2022

Although we would hesitate to call 3D printing a mature technology, you could say it has reached its teenage years. During their first decade and change, 3D printers dropped in price, became easier to set up and use, and became more reliable. And you may be paying less than expected: many once high-end features have migrated to lower-cost models.

PC Labs has been reviewing 3D printers since 2013. Today, the state of 3D printing is solid, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early years, commissioning one of these printers was often an adventure, not to mention the success of our testing program. The problems with filament-based printers, i.e. fused filament fabrication (FFF) or filament deposition modeling (FDM), were many.

Polaroid Play Smart 3D Printer

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Filament feeders had to be brought in to deliver the filament from the spool to the extruder. The print beds had to be manually aligned. The extruder or hot end needed to be positioned just to minimize the gap between the nozzle and the build plate (the flat surface the object is printed on). Objects often stuck to the build plate and required careful, sometimes unsuccessful, effort to remove. These and other issues required painstaking efforts to resolve, often combined with technical support calls.

Not so much anymore. While they can still be rebellious at times, 3D printers have grown a lot, and achieving the basics of the 3D printer has become much less likely to end in a shouting match over small things.

What to look for in a cheap 3D printer

The big difference is the change to cheaper models. These days, many of those nasty 3D printing problems have been solved (most of the time, anyway), even for mainstream, inexpensive 3D printers. Automatic print bed leveling is standard, and you can usually remove 3D printed objects from heated and/or flexible build plates with minimal coaxing. Most 3D printer manufacturers have either developed and refined their own software or adapted an open source printing platform such as priest(Opens in a new window).

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What separates more expensive 3D printers from cheap (“cheap” defined as $500 or less, for the purposes of this article) printers is often a narrow set of features. These include build volume, frame type, supported filament varieties, software, and connectivity mix. Let’s go through these in turn.

What is the right build volume for a 3D printer?

A 3D printer build volume is the maximum dimensions (HWD) of a part that it can print. (We say “one part” because a 3D printed object can consist of multiple parts that are printed and then glued or otherwise joined.) While the smallest build volume of any 3D printer we tested is 3, 9 by 3.9 by 4.9 inches, we consider any build volume smaller than 6 x 6 x 6 inches to be small, any volume between that and 10 x 10 x 10 inches to be medium, and any printer with at least one build size greater than 10 inches as having a large build volume.

Anycubic i3 Mega S

(Photo: Molly Flores)

Typically, cheap 3D printers have small build volumes, while more expensive ones have larger build volumes. This partly depends on the type of printer. Closed frame 3D printers – and most semi-open models, which have a rigid top, base and sides but are open in the front and, often, the back – tend to have small volumes of construction, while open frame printers, lacking in rigidity a physical structure, often have relatively large build volumes for the price. You will want to weigh the build volume against the types of objects you will be printing.

Should I get an open frame or closed frame 3D printer?

Which brings us to the question of the “form factor” of the frame: open frame versus closed frame. Closed-frame 3D printers are box-shaped devices, with a rigid base, walls (with a transparent door in the front), and a top. Among their advantages? They dampen operating noise, reduce the smell of melted filament (which is potentially a problem with ABS plastic), and they provide some protection for people or pets who might inadvertently touch the hot extruder. One downside: they tend to have smaller build volumes than open-frame 3D printers, which have fewer (often no) walls to squeeze them in.

XYZPrinting da Vinci Mini

(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)

Low-cost 3D printers include both open-frame and closed-frame models, as well as a few stereolithography printers. If relatively large build volume is a priority, you’ll likely get more for your money with an open-frame model. Open frames by definition have obvious drawbacks: they tend to be noisy, emit odors when certain plastics are melted, and provide little protection for someone who might touch the hot extruder.

Anycubic i3 Mega S (open extruder)

(Photo: Molly Flores)

Also, recognize some potential negatives of open frames, depending on the model. Some require assembly, being essentially kits, and most require more setup care than a closed frame printer, as well as more maintenance to keep them running smoothly. Still, these features shouldn’t deter – and may even attract – hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers.

What should I look for in 3D printer software and connectivity?

Gone are the days when DIYers had to tinker with several different programs to make a 3D printer work. Manufacturers include their own 3D printing program or modify an existing platform such as the open-source Cura.

Monoprix Voxel

3D printing software performs three main functions: process an object file (resize it, move it, rotate it and, in some cases, duplicate it), slice it (into virtual layers, depending on the chosen resolution) and print it. These are almost universally combined in a seamless process. Some higher-end printers have software that supports a wider range of settings you can tweak, but even the basic suites at least work reasonably well.

The range of connection options from model to model is more likely to vary among the cheaper set. Almost all of them have a USB Type-A port to fit a thumb drive for printing from document files. Most also have a USB Type-B port to connect directly to a computer, and some also offer Wi-Fi (or as an alternative), while a handful lets you connect via Ethernet to share the printer on a local network.

Some printers support storing 3D files on an SD or microSD card (which may also contain the printer’s system files). Most 3D printer manufacturers (even budget ones) have a mobile app to initiate and monitor print jobs, and a few provide access to cloud services that you can print from.

While high-end 3D printers tend to have an abundance of connection choices, budget models vary widely in their choices. Some are generous and some are basic, so it pays to evaluate what a given template offers.

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What should I look for in filament support?

Filament support tends to be a key area that separates cheaper models from high-end ones. (See our guide to understanding 3D printing filaments for more details.) Inexpensive 3D printers tend to support a limited number of plastic filament types, some of them only PLA and/or ABS .

Filament AnyCubic i3 Mega S

(Photo: Molly Flores)

PLA (polylactic acid) is a plant-based biodegradable polymer, while ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is the same tough plastic as Legos. Objects printed from ABS are durable and non-toxic, although the material can be difficult to work with. ABS can emit a pungent, unpleasant odor while printing, and the bottom corners of objects printed with it tend to curl upwards a bit, especially if you’re using an unheated print bed. This can lead to unsightly prints and/or prints that prematurely detach from the build plate, damaging them.

Many entry-level and low-cost 3D printers stick exclusively to PLA. If you want to experiment with a wider variety of filaments, including water-soluble filaments, wood and metal-based composites, and tough and flexible varieties, you may have to pay more, although a few Discount models support a wide range. of materials.

Should I consider a 3D printing pen instead?

Although they are not printers per se, cheap 3D pens are close to 3D printers – using the same types of filaments and a similar extrusion system – and we include them in the category of 3D printing. Rather than tracing a programmed pattern, you use the 3D pen much like a normal pen, except you’re drawing with melted plastic. You can trace a pattern or draw freehand, and even draw in three dimensions because the plastic solidifies and hardens quickly once extruded.

Juku 3Doodler Create+ 3D Printing Pen Set

Most 3D pens are under $100 and some are $50 or less. At a glance, 3D pens may seem like toys, but some artists and crafters have gotten into it, because it’s possible to make quite intricate and beautiful things with them. If your goal in 3D printing is something closer to freehand design and free expression than computer-centric, structured, repeatable output, you can try one.

So which cheap 3D printer should I buy?

Buying a budget 3D printer does not necessarily mean a world of sacrifice. Many capable and reliable models sell for less than $500, and while they’re not as feature-rich as their more expensive cousins, it doesn’t make sense to pay for things you don’t need. no need.

Many casual 3D printing experimenters will be fine with printing via USB cable or from a thumb drive, and sticking with PLA may be the best choice for a starter 3D printer. If you focus only on the features you want, you might be pleasantly surprised at what you find. Here we present the best 3D printers under $500 that we have reviewed. Also check out our guide to our favorite 3D printers overall.