What 3D Printer Should You Buy? A Simple Buying Guide


Buying a 3D printer is an important step to getting optimal results and making sure you don’t experience many issues that might stop you from getting into 3D printing with enthusiasm. There are some important factors you’ll want to know before buying a 3D printer, so I decided to write an article about it.

What to Look For in 3D Printers – Key Features

  • Printing Technology
  • Resolution or Quality
  • Printing Speed
  • Build Plate Size

Printing Technology

There are two main 3D printing technologies that people use:

  • FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling)
  • SLA (Stereolithography)

FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling)

The most popular 3D printing technology today is FDM 3D printing. It’s very suitable for beginners, up to experts for creating 3D prints. When you are choosing a 3D printer most people will start with an FDM 3D printer, then decide to branch out with more experience.

This is personally how I got into the 3D printing field, with the Ender 3 (Amazon), priced at around $200.

The best thing about FDM 3D printers is the cheaper cost, ease of use, larger build size for models, wide range of materials to use, and overall durability.

It works mainly with a spool or roll of plastic which gets pushed through an extrusion system, down into a hotend that melts the plastic through a nozzle (0.4mm standard), and gets placed down onto a build surface, layer by layer to form your 3D printed model.

It does require some basic knowledge to get things right, but as things have developed, it’s very easy to set an FDM 3D printer up and get some models 3D printed within the hour.

SLA (Stereolithography)

The second most popular 3D printing technology is SLA 3D printing. Beginners can still start with this, but it will be a little more challenging than FDM 3D printers.

This 3D printing technology works with a photosensitive liquid called resin. In other words, it’s a liquid that reacts and hardens to a certain wavelength of light. A popular SLA 3D printer would be something like the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro (Amazon), or the Anycubic Photon Mono, both around $300.

The best thing about SLA 3D printers is the high quality/resolution, speed of printing multiple models, and ability to make unique models that manufacturing methods can’t produce.

It works with a vat of resin placed on the main machine, which sits on top of an LCD screen. The screen shines a UV light beam (405nm wavelength) in specific patterns to produce a layer of hardened resin.

This hardened resin sticks to a plastic film at the bottom of the resin vat, and peels off onto a build plate above due to the suction force from the build plate lowering down into the resin vat.

It does this layer-by-layer until your 3D model has completed, similar to FDM 3D printers, but it creates models upside down.

You can create really high quality models with this technology. This type of 3D printing is growing quickly, with many 3D printer manufacturers starting to build resin 3D printers for cheaper, with higher quality and more durable features.

Working with this technology is known to be more difficult as compared to FDM because it requires more post-processing to finish off 3D models.

It’s also known to be quite messy since it works with liquids and plastic sheets which can sometimes pierce and leak if a mistake is made with not cleaning out the resin vat properly. It used to be more expensive to work with resin 3D printers, but the prices are starting to match up.

Resolution or Quality

The resolution or quality that your 3D printer can reach is usually limited to a level, detailed in the 3D printer’s specifications. It’s common to see 3D printers that can reach a 0.1mm, 0.05mm, down to 0.01mm.

The lower the number, the higher the resolution since it refers to the height of each layer the 3D printers will produce. Think of it like a staircase for your models. Each model is a series of steps, so the smaller the steps, the more details you’ll see in the model and vice versa.

When it comes to resolution/quality, SLA 3D printing that uses the photopolymer resin can get much higher resolutions. These resin 3D printers usually start off with a resolution of 0.05mm or 50 microns, and reach up to either 0.025mm (25 microns) or 0.01mm (10 microns.

For FDM 3D printers that use filament, you’ll usually see resolutions of 0.1mm or 100 microns, down to 0.05mm or 50 microns. Although the resolution is the same, I find that resin 3D printers that use 0.05mm layer heights produce better quality than filament 3D printers that use the same layer height.

This is because of the method of extrusion for filament 3D printers have a lot more movements and weight that reflect imperfections on the models. Another factor is with the small nozzle where the filament comes out from.

It can get slightly clogged or not melt fast enough, leading to small blemishes.

But don’t get me wrong, filament 3D printers can produce really high quality models when calibrated and optimized properly, quite comparable to SLA 3D prints. 3D printers from Prusa & Ultimaker are known to be very high quality for FDM, but costly.

Printing Speed

There are differences in printing speed between 3D printers and 3D printing technologies. When you look at the specifications of a 3D printer, they will usually detail a specific printing speed maximum and an average speed that they recommend.

We can see a key difference of printing speeds between FDM and SLA 3D printers due to the way they create 3D models. FDM 3D printers are great for creating models with a lot of height and lower quality models quickly.

The way SLA 3D printers work, their speed is actually determined by the height of the model, even if you use the whole build plate.

This means that if you have one small model that you want to replicate many times, you can create as many as you can fit on the build plate, at the same time that you can create one.

FDM 3D printers don’t have this same luxury, so the speed would be slower in that case. For models like a vase, and other tall models, FDM works very well.

You can even change your nozzle diameter for a larger one (1mm+ vs 0.4mm standard) and create 3D prints a lot quicker, but at the sacrifice of quality.

An FDM 3D printer like the Ender 3 has a maximum printing speed of around 200mm/s of extruded material, which would create a much lower quality 3D print.. An SLA 3D printer like the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro has a printing speed of 30-50mm/h, in terms of height.

Build Plate Size

The size of the build plate for your 3D printer is important, depending on what your project goals are. If you are looking to do some basic models as a hobbyist and don’t have specific projects, then a standard build plate should work well.

If you plan to do something like cosplay, where you’re creating outfits, helmets, weapons like swords and axes, you’ll want a larger build plate.

FDM 3D printers are known to have a significantly larger build volume compared to SLA 3D printers. An example of a common build plate size for FDM 3D printers would be the Ender 3 with a 235 x 235 x 250mm build volume.

A common build plate size for an SLA 3D printer would be the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro with a build volume of 192 x 80 x 160mm, at a similar price. Larger build volumes are possible with SLA 3D printers, but these can get pricey, and harder to operate.

A larger build plate in 3D printing can save you a lot of time and money in the long run if you are looking to 3D print large objects. It’s possible to 3D print objects on a smaller build plate and stick them together, but that can be tedious.

Below is the list of some essential things to consider whether you are buying an FDM or SLA 3D printer.

How to Choose a 3D Printer to Buy

As mentioned in the previous section, there are a couple of different 3D printing technologies and you need to first decide on whether you are going to buy an FDM or an SLA 3D printer.

Once this has been sorted, it’s time to look for the features that should be in your desired 3D printer to perform your task efficiently and get 3D models of your desires.

Below are the major features according to the 3D printing technologies you are going with. Let’s start from FDM and then move on to SLA.

Key Features to Look For in FDM 3D Printers

  • Bowden or Direct Drive Extruder
  • Build Plate Material
  • Control Screen

Bowden or Direct Drive Extruder

There are two main types of extruders with 3D printers, Bowden or Direct Drive. They can both produce 3D models to a great standard but there are a few differences between the two.

A Bowden extruder will be more than enough if you are going to print 3D models using standard FDM printing materials  while requiring a high level of speed and accuracy in details.

  • Faster
  • Lighter
  • High Precision

You should go for a direct drive extruder setup if you have plans to print abrasive and tough filaments on your 3D printers.

  • Better retraction and extrusion
  • Suitable for a wide range of filaments
  • Small size motors
  • Easier to change filament

Build Plate Material

There are a range of build plate materials that 3D printers use in order for filament to adhere to the surface nicely. Some of the most common build plate materials are tempered or borosilicate glass, a magnetic flex surface, and PEI.

It’s a good idea to choose a 3D printer with a build surface that works well with the filament you’ll be using.

They all are usually good in their own ways, but I think PEI build surfaces work the best with a range of materials. You can always choose to upgrade your existing 3D printer bed by purchasing the new bed surface and attaching it to your 3D printer.

Most 3D printers won’t have this advanced surface, but I’d recommend getting the HICTOP Flexible Steel Platform with PEI Surface from Amazon.

Another option you have is to simply apply an external printing surface like Blue Painter’s Tape or Kapton Tape across your build surface. This is a great way to improve adhesion of the filament so your first layer sticks well.

Control Screen

The control screen is fairly important for having a good control over your 3D prints. You can either get a touch screen or a screen with a separate dial to scroll through options. They both work pretty well, but having a touch screen makes things a little easier.

Another thing about the control screen is the firmware of the 3D printer. Some 3D printers will improve the amount of control and options you can access, so ensuring you have a fairly modern firmware can make things easier.

Key Features to Look For in SLA 3D Printers

  • Type of Printing Screen
  • Build Plate Size

Type of Printing Screen

For resin or SLA 3D printers, there are a few types of printing screens that you can get. They make a significant different on the level of quality you can get in your 3D prints, as well as how long your 3D prints will take, based on the UV light strength.

There are two factors you want to look into.

Monochrome Vs RGB Screen

Monochrome screens are the better option because they provide a stronger UV light, so the exposure times that are required for each layer are significantly shorter (2 seconds vs 6 seconds+).

They also have a longer durability and can last around 2,000 hours, versus RGB screens which last for around 500 hours of 3D printing.

Check out the video below for a full explanation on the differences.

2K Vs 4K

There are two main screen resolutions with resin 3D printers, a 2K screen and a 4K screen. There is a pretty significant different between the two when it comes to the final quality of your 3D printed part. They are both in the monochrome screen category, but provide a further option to choose from.

I’d highly recommend going with a 4K monochrome screen if you want the best quality, but if you are balancing out the price of your model and don’t need anything too high quality, a 2K screen can work just fine.

Do keep in mind, the main measure to look at is the XY and Z resolution. A larger build plate size will require more pixels, so a 2K and a 4K 3D printer could still produce similar quality.

When you have a higher XY & Z resolution (lower number is higher resolution), then you can produce higher quality 3D models.

Check out the video below by Uncle Jessy detailing the difference between a 2K and a 4K monochrome screen.

Build Plate Size

The build plate size in resin 3D printers were always known to be smaller than filament 3D printers, but they are definitely getting bigger as time goes on. You want to identify what kind of projects and goals you might have for your resin 3D printer and select a build plate size based on that.

If you are only 3D printing miniatures for tabletop gaming like D&D, a smaller build plate size can still work well. A larger build plate would be the optimal option since you could fit more miniatures on the build plate at a time though.

A standard build plate size for something like the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro is 129 x 80 x 160mm, while a larger 3D printer like the Anycubic Photon Mono X has a build plate size of 192 x 120 x 245mm, comparable to a small FDM 3D printer.

What 3D Printer Should You Buy?

  • For a solid FDM 3D printer, I’d recommend getting something like the modern Ender 3 S1.
  • For a solid SLA 3D printer, I’d recommend getting something like the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro.
  • If you want a more premium FDM 3D printer, I’d go with the Prusa i3 MK3S+.
  • If you want a more premium SLA 3D printer, I’d go with the Elegoo Saturn.

Let’s go through the two standard options for an FDM & SLA 3D printer.

Creality Ender 3 S1

The Ender 3 series is very well known for its popularity and high quality output. They’ve created the Ender 3 S1 which is a version that incorporates many desired upgrades from users. I have one of these myself and it performs very well right out the box.

The assembly is simple, the operation is easy, and the print quality is excellent.

 

Features of the Ender 3 S1

  • Dual Gear Direct Drive Extruder
  • CR-Touch Automatic Bed Leveling
  • High Precision Dual Z-Axis
  • 32-Bit Silent Mainboard
  • Quick 6-Step Assembling – 96% Pre-Installed
  • PC Spring Steel Print Sheet
  • 4.3-Inch LCD Screen
  • Filament Runout Sensor
  • Power Loss Print Recovery
  • XY Knob Belt Tensioners
  • International Certification & Quality Assurance

Specifications of the Ender 3 S1

  • Build Size: 220 x 220 x 270mm
  • Supported Filament: PLA/ABS/PETG/TPU
  • Max. Printing Speed: 150mm/s
  • Extruder Type: “Sprite” Direct Extruder
  • Display Screen: 4.3-Inch Color Screen
  • Layer Resolution: 0.05 – 0.35mm
  • Max. Nozzle Temperature: 260°C
  • Max. Heatbed Temperature: 100°C
  • Printing Platform: PC Spring Steel Sheet

Pros of the Ender 3 S1

  • Print quality is fantastic for FDM printing from the first print without tuning, with a 0.05mm maximum resolution.
  • Assembly is very quick compared to most 3D printers, only requiring 6 steps
  • Leveling is automatic which makes operation a lot easier to handle
  • Has compatibility with many filaments including flexibles due to the direct drive extruder
  • Belt tensioning is made easier with the tensioner knobs for the X & Y axis
  • The integrated toolbox clears up space by allowing you to keep your tools within the 3D printer
  • Dual Z-axis with the connected belt increases stability for better print quality

Cons of the Ender 3 S1

  • Doesn’t have a touchscreen display, but it’s still really easy to operate
  • The fan duct blocks the front view of the printing process, so you’ll have to look at the nozzle from the sides.
  • The cable at the back of the bed has a long rubber guard which gives it less space for bed clearance
  • Doesn’t let you mute the beeping sound for the display screen

Get yourself the Creality Ender 3 S1 from Amazon for your 3D printing projects.

Elegoo Mars 2 Pro

The Elegoo Mars 2 Pro is a respected SLA 3D printer in the community, known for its reliability and great printing quality. Although it’s a 2K 3D printer, the XY resolution is at a respectable 0.05mm or 50 microns.

I also have an Elegoo Mars 2 Pro and it has been working very well since I started using it. Models always stick securely to the build plate and you don’t need to re-level the machine. The quality output is really good, though it’s not the largest build plate size.

Features of the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro

  • 6.08″ 2K Monochrome LCD
  • CNC-Machined Aluminum Body
  • Sanded Aluminum Build Plate
  • Light & Compact Resin Vat
  • Built-In Active Carbon
  • COB UV LED Light Source
  • ChiTuBox Slicer
  • Multi-Language Interface

Specifications of the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro

  • Layer Thickness: 0.01-0.2mm
  • Printing Speed: 30-50mm/h
  • Z Axis Positioning Accuracy: 0.00125mm
  • XY Resolution: 0.05mm (1620 x 2560)
  • Build Volume: 129 x 80 x 160mm
  • Operation: 3.5-Inch Touch Screen
  • Printer Dimensions: 200 x 200 x 410mm

Pros of the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro

  • Offers high-resolution prints
  • Cures a single layer at an average speed of just 2.5 seconds
  • Satisfactory build area
  • High level of precision, quality, and accuracy
  • Easy to operate
  • Integrated filtration system
  • Minimum maintenance required
  • Durability and Longevity

Cons of the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro

  • Side-mounted resin vat
  • Noisy fans
  • No protective sheet or glass on the LCD screen
  • Less pixel density as compared to its simple Mars and Pro versions

You can get yourself the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro from Amazon today.

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