Here I am consolidating a lot of recent research I have done as far as getting the best bang for your buck when buying a 3D printer. While not a comprehensive list by any means, I break down what I believe is the best 3D printer value at three price points: $200, $500, and $1000, and add a few qualifiers depending on your needs.
Updated January 2019
- Best 3D Printer Under $200
- Best 3D Printer Under $500 (for printing large)
- Best 3D Printer Under $500 (for printing small and detailed)
- Best 3D Printer Under $1000 (for consistent quality and upgradability)
- Best 3D Printer Under $1000 (for features)
Best 3D Printer Under $200
Creality Ender 3
Introduced in early 2018, the Creality Ender 3 has become known as a very solid and capable Prusa clone at an affordable price point. The price as of January 2019 comes in at around $199-$240 depending on the supplier, but it has gone on sale for as low as $180.
Over the past year, the Ender 3 has gained a huge online community with many examples of quality prints produced. It is widely considered the best bang for your buck in the $200-300 price range.
Creality has also produced a slightly pricier Ender 3 Pro. The “Pro” designation is mostly marketing speak, as this version basically offers some minor upgrades and design tweaks. It adds a magnetic bed—which some people love and some people hate—as well as some more solid 4040 extrusion for the base, and a new extruder.
The Ender 3 comes mostly assembled, but you will need to connect a few of the larger pieces. Assembly time is estimated at about 20 minutes.
You aren’t going to be guaranteed the quality level of components like you would with an Original Prusa, but Ender seems to have avoided going super cheap in any particular area, a problem with low-end clones in the past. My main concern was that the original units not shipped with thermal runaway protection enabled in the stock firmware. The supplier Comgrow claims that newer units have it enabled by default, but it is always a good idea to double-check yours to help avoid a potential fire hazard.
A little over two years ago, I got my start in 3D printing with a Tevo Tarantula at roughly the same $200 price point. The Ender 3 improves on the Tarantula in many ways, and I were shopping for a similar starter printer today, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick this one up.
Best 3D Printer Under $500 (for printing large)
The CR-10 from Creality is another Cartesian-style 3D printer that offers a large 300x300x400mm build area. First available in 2016, it quickly gained popularity in 2017 and has a strong following to this day.
It features a simple design and can produce consistent high-quality large prints while also handling small details quite well. Like the Ender 3, the CR-10 comes mostly pre-assembled, with an estimated 20 minute assembly time.
This printer excels at many things, but its large size can add some difficulties. The control box, while nicely contained and easy to use, is mounted off to the side and adds to the footprint of the CR-10’s already large frame. It is not easy to enclose, for instance if you want to print ABS, and its large bed size means it takes longer to warm up.
Also, this is no fault of the printer, but it is important to consider how long it really takes to print large objects. For example, doubling the size of a cube in the X, Y, and Z dimensions will not take twice as long to print, but roughly 8 times longer.
There is also an upgraded version, the CR-10S, which adds dual Z-axis lead screws, a sensor that will pause your print in case of filament runout, and print recovery capability, which in theory will resume your print where you left off if power gets interrupted.
Best 3D Printer Under $500 (for printing small and detailed)
Anycubic Photon UV LCD 3D Printer
I personally have no hands-on experience with UV LCD resin printers. Instead of melting and depositing plastic, this class of printers uses a resin bath which is cured by UV light, layer by layer, to create a solid object.
They can be complicated to setup, use messy chemicals, and they don’t print very large, but for some use cases, they have no competition in the FFF (fused filament fabrication) space.
If you need to print small, high-resolution, detailed items, such as figures for role-playing games, or models for jewelry prototyping or lost wax casting, the AnyCubic Photon may be a good fit. With a layer resolution of roughly 25-100 microns (0.025-0.1mm), this printer can create objects with virtually no visible layer lines.
The AnyCubic Photon UV LCD is about as affordable an LCD resin printer can get at this time and still be generally usable. It’s not perfect by any means, and there is a learning curve for UV/resin printing in general, but it is capable of very high-quality, detailed results once set up correctly. The build volume is 115x65x155mm—not very large, but enough to print the types of things for which it was designed.
The main competitor in this space is the Wanhao Duplicator 7 (D7), but the Anycubic Photon is generally the more recommended choice due to its superior 2K LCD masking screen and sturdier machined bed.
Best 3D Printer Under $1000 (for consistent quality and upgradability)
The Original Prusa i3 MK3
The Original Prusa i3 MK3 is the latest iteration of the highly-influential i3 Cartesian design by Josef Průša. This is widely known as an excellent workhorse printer—the machine you would want to have to produce prints in larger quantities, as a hobby business or semi-professionally.
The Prusa Cartesian design is widely cloned now by other manufacturers, but the phrase “often imitated but never duplicated” comes to mind. The MK3 was released in September 2017 with an array of upgrades to keep it very competitive.
It now features 24V wiring with a new “Einsy” control board, a sturdier Y axis, new temperature sensors and bed leveling sensors, filament runout detection, and power interruption recovery. In addition, it has new, quieter fans and stepper motors, added 128-step microstepping drivers, and a magnetic heat bed that can be used with PEI sheets.
Prusa i3 printers consistently win “best print quality” awards. The Prusa MK3’s immediate predecessor, the MK2S, won the MAKE: Magazine 3D Printer Shootout in both 2017 and 2018.
The i3 MK3 has a respectable 250x210x210mm build volume. On the software side, it is designed to work with Slic3r Prusa Edition, which has excellent profiles ready to go out of the box, but also works well with Cura and Simplify3D.
The Prusa model line is also known for being future proof. Every new release from Prusa has had a hardware upgrade path available for the previous version.
The primary downside of the Prusa i3 MK3 would be cost. At $699 for a kit and $999 for an assembled unit, this printer is priced out of the affordability range for many. Also, it lacks some additional features seen in other printers in this price class, such as an integrated enclosure for printing ABS, and multi-material extruders and hot ends (although a multi-material add-on is now available). I would argue that what it lacks in features, however, it makes up for in consistent quality and reliability.
Where to buy: Prusa3D
Best 3D Printer Under $1000 (for features)
FlashForge 3D Printer Creator Pro
The FlashForge Creator Pro is a Chinese printer that closely resembles the MakerBot Replicator 2X. Currently retailing at around $900, it comes in at just over 1/3 the price.
It is a solidly-built printer and the only one in this list that is designed from the ground up to print ABS. It has a built-in heat chamber and a solid 6.3mm aluminum build platform designed not to warp under high heat. According to FlashForge, it can print a wide range of filament types, including: PLA, ABS, PLA Color Change, Pearl, ABS Pro, Elastic, PVA, HIPS, PETG, TPE, TPU, Conductive Filament, Flexible Filament, Metal Filled Filament, Wood Filled Filament, and PP.
The Creator Pro has a 225x145x150mm build volume—a bit on the small side, but pretty standard for enclosed printers in this class. It also comes with dual extruders, making multi-material printing a compelling option.
FlashForge recommends using their proprietary Flashprint software, or the commercial Simplify3D with their printer. While software like Slic3r and Cura can be made to work, the lack of first-class support for open-source options may alienate some users.
It would be easy to dismiss the FlashForge Creator Pro as a mid-range MakerBot clone that tries to squeeze in as many features as it can at a sub-$1000 price point. Well, maybe, but it happens to do this quite well. Print results are very good, and the community as a whole seems very happy with it. FlashForge has continuously improved this class of printer over their previous designs—for example, adding greater rigidity and a thicker Z-axis to this 4th-generation design.