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So, you got a 3D printer for the holidays, and you’re excited to dive in. Chances are, you’re not sure where to begin. What can you print? What’s fun? What’s useful?

Justifying the purchase of a 3D printer isn’t hard. Not only are entry-level printers fairly cheap now, but while there’s a lot to learn, it’s also just plain fun to take a 3D model you can see on a computer screen and turn it into something you can hold in your hands. 3D printing is also great for learning new skills and spending quality time with your kids.

There is a wide range of options for 3D printers suitable for beginners, but it can be overwhelming to navigate the setup, printing and finishing process. Thankfully, It’s a big hobby, with a devoted fan base that’s quick to offer advice if needed. But be warned: There is a steep learning curve. Here’s everything you need to know before you buy.

What is 3D printing?

There are three components to 3D printing: the printer, the material and the software.

The printer is key. And though the technology has been around for decades, the core of it, as far as home hobbyists are concerned, is simple. The printer takes material, like a spool of plastic filament in many cases, threads it into a heated print nozzle where it melts and lays it down on a flat surface — very precisely — over and over and over again. The thickness of these layers is measured in fractions of millimeters. The finer the slice of the material, the more detailed your model will be.

This process is called fused deposition modeling (FDM), and is probably the most common for home users. Stereolithography apparatus (SLA) is another technology that builds up the layers by flashing liquid resin with laser or UV light to harden it. And though SLA can produce incredible detail compared to FDM, resulting in prints with very fine details and smooth surfaces, it’s not as simple to use. We suggest sticking to FDM printers because they also offer more options, use a wider range of filaments, do not require a resin tank and are less sensitive to environmental factors such as humidity.

FDM filament comes in several varieties, but common ones are polylactic acid (PLA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polyethylene terephthalate (PETG).

PLA is the most common filament you’ll encounter as a beginner, since most printers will come with a starter spool. It’s easy to print with, melts at a lower temperature than ABS and doesn’t warp as easily when it cools. And unlike ABS, there’s also no odor or other fumes. But best of all, PLA is available in almost every color or style you can think of. Want a translucent blue? It’s there. A rainbow filament that gives your prints a multicolored tint? Yep. There’s even glow-in-the-dark PLA filament. And because it’s plant-based, it’s also the most environmentally friendly filament on the market. You can’t compost it at home, but it will biodegrade under certain conditions.

Lastly, PETG is what you get in plastic water bottles. As such, it’s nowhere near as environmentally friendly as PLA or even ABS, but it can be recycled. It’s known for its durability to UV light, high temperatures and chemical solvents. If you need to print something durable, you may want to consider working with PETG.

Once you’ve figured out your filament, you’ll need to choose the proper 3D software, called a “slicer.” This takes a 3D file, like the menorahsaurus below, and tells the printer how to print it.

Choose your 3D software

It does this by slicing it into the horizontal layers the printer lays down. Some of the most popular are Cura from Ultimaker, PrusaSlicer from Prusa Research and Simplify3D. Cura is popular among beginners because it’s got a user-friendly interface and a wide range of customization options. It’s also open-source and thus free. This is the software I spent most of my time in. PrusaSlicer is also popular and offers even more customizations than Cura. It’s also free. Simplify3D offers powerful customization and can be used by both power users and beginners alike, but it costs $199.

There are a lot of variables involved in slicing, from the material you’re printing with to the complexity of the model, just to start. You need to consider how you will support the overhanging parts of the model while it’s printing, what density you want to print at and how fast and detailed you want the printing to be (as with most things, there’s always a trade-off between speed and quality).

Getting ready to slice in the free Cura software.

I spent a month fiddling with every possible control in Cura, and there is no real “one button, one print” solution. In the beginning, this will be frustrating for newbies wanting to get in on 3D printing. You will need to tinker, experiment and, yes, pull out some hair over failed prints and wasted filaments.

3D printing: Starting at the beginning

I chose to test the AnkerMake M5 ($799), one of the newest FDM printers on the market. Its slicer software, AnkerMake Slicer — based on Cura — is in beta and has a number of missing features. At the time, Cura and PrusaSlicer didn’t even offer official AnkerMake M5 drivers and profiles yet, although that’s coming soon.

The M5 has impressive specs. It can print up to 250mm/s, which the company says is up to five times faster than other printers on the market. It has a built-in camera and AI that is supposed to alert you when something has gone wrong with the print (which happens a lot). In my experience, however, the AI was useless, simply offering false alarms and never telling me when there was an actual problem.

The AnkerMate M5 3D printer

You can print wirelessly and from your phone, although that, too, has some caveats. You must sign up for an online account, and you can’t print unless you’re signed in to your account. When the company’s servers went down a couple of weeks before I wrote this, I couldn’t use the printer at all until its servers came back up. I also don’t know who controls the account servers. Can they see what I’m printing? I’ve asked Anker for answers to some of these questions, and I’ll update this piece if I hear back.

I found the printer relatively easy to assemble and get printing. You get a small filament spool with the printer, but I quickly ran through that as I slowly learned how to get decent prints. You can always order more from Amazon, but this can add up quickly as you can choose a seemingly infinite number of filament options. As a beginner, you’ll want to stick with PLA or PLA+, an improved but more expensive version of PLA.

For my first print, I chose poorly. I wanted to print a figurine for a D&D game I’m in, so I loaded up the 3D model, hit print and watched the printer turn a hero into a spaghetti monster.

A big mess on the first print.

I had neglected to add supports for parts of the model, like arms, that overhung into empty space. The resolution was too low and the speed too high. Argh.

Over time, I got better at it, but I often found using the M5 printer a frustrating experience. I would usually start a long print at bedtime and let it print overnight, waking up to a spaghetti mess when I woke up the next morning because the print did not adhere to the printing bed. This leads me to believe it’s not ready for primetime, at least for beginner users at home.

Waking up to an overnight 3D print.

As Paul LaRosa, a 3D printing enthusiast, told me, “I don’t believe [the AnkerMate M5] will be the printer to break the barriers to home printing. The software is atrocious, and while I’m comfortable tweaking a PrusaSlicer profile … that shouldn’t be expected of a beginner.”

I had to dip into Reddit forums and Discord servers to get basic information about printing stuff. Because while the printer is easy to set up, the documentation that comes with it ends there. There is nothing about where to start with 3D printing in the docs. The printer comes with some 3D models in its onboard memory, but they’re pretty basic and more of a demo showcase than anything useful.

What you can print

The total lack of information on how to get started is a real shame, because the potential for in-home manufacturing is as endless as your imagination. I’ve spent the past month burning through filament, printing a spiral tree planter for my partner (still a work in progress, sadly), more successful miniature figurines for tabletop role-playing games, ship models and little decorations for around the house.

But that’s just my own wish list. You can see the potential if you go on any of the big 3D model sites like Printables, Thingiverse, Cults and MyMiniFactory. Thingiverse alone has more than 1.5 million free models to download and use, while MyMiniFactory has a strong RPG and tabletop games vibe. Some of the top models available are snap buckles, sanding blocks, watch stands, a working combination lock, a midcentury modern lamp and, at the time of this writing, lots and lots of holiday ornaments.

“My primary use case for my printers has been cable management, brackets and, more recently, toys for my children, which is my primary use case for the AnkerMake,” says LaRosa. “The AnkerMake has been quite busy printing stocking stuffers for the three of them in its first week of service.”

Another enthusiast, Joel Grimes of Holly Springs, North Carolina, uses his printer to help his kids with school projects. His daughter is on the robotics team in school, and the team uses the printers at home and school to build jigs to drill holes for their projects and print prototype parts for fit and function checks.

“That’s extremely powerful for kids’ learning curve,” he says. “It’s a very quick, iterative project on the development side of things.”

The drawbacks to keep in mind — and the best 3D printers to start with

Like all 3D printers, the AnkerMake M5 can be challenging to use for beginners. Many were the prints that were spoiled because they came loose from the adhesive print bed, or the print head snagged a curled-up bit of plastic and yanked the whole model around. Often early steps at including supports — essentially printed scaffolding that buttresses overhanging parts of a model — left the model in tatters as the supports fused to the model and wouldn’t come off.

And, in general, FDM printers are not great at fine details. They’re just not designed for it. The M5, given its speed, is particularly ill-suited to small detail work as you’d get on a D&D figurine. I had to slow it down to get moderately detailed prints, which eliminated one of its main selling points: speed. Printing larger, simpler geometric shapes was usually much easier. For example, I had very good luck printing some nesting organizing boxes for the kitchen junk drawer, pleasing my partner immensely.

Though we chose to review the M5 because it is new and more advanced, it is also expensive. You can get into 3D printing for a fraction of the $800 price tag with any of the printers listed below, which are all great starter printers.

Monoprice Maker Ultimate 2: This is a mid-priced ($335) option that is easy to use and has a small footprint, making it a good choice for those with limited space. It’s also fully enclosed, so that helps cut down on drafts and temperature fluctuations that can ruin prints. It also keeps the noise down.
Creality Ender 3 V2 Neo: This printer has a good balance of price ($319) and performance and is widely regarded as a solid choice for beginners. If you like DIY tinkering, you’ll love this printer, as every part can be replaced or upgraded.
FlashForge Finder 3: This printer has a user-friendly interface and a compact design, making it a good choice for those new to 3D printing. While a bit more expensive ($499) than the Mini Delta or the Ender 3, it’s still a great beginner’s printer.

Bottom line

So, is 3D printing for you? Given the generally low cost of entry, it can be a creative, fun hobby if you’ve got the room, the patience, an aptitude for tinkering and a high tolerance for failure. While the AnkerMake M5 is not a recommended printer for beginners, given its price tag and the unfinished nature of its slicer software, other printers mentioned can be good alternatives.

And there’s no question it’s an almost magical feeling to have something existing in pixels on a screen that within a few hours becomes something you can hold in your hand. There’s a sense of creator’s pride that doesn’t necessarily come from ordering something similar online.

“I wanted my kids to envision something, create something in a 3D modeling space, and hit print and have something tangible in their hands,” Grimes says. “We didn’t have that when we were kids, but kids today do.”

Printer specs

Price

$799

$335

$319

$499

Max Speed

250mm/s

150mm/s

100mm/s

180mm/s

Materials

PLA/PETG/TPU/ABS

PLA/PETG/TPU/ABS

PLA/PETG/TPU/ABS

PLA/PETG/TPU/ABS

Print Volume (LxWxH mm)

235 x 235 x 230

200 x 150 x 150

220 x 220 x 250

190x195x200

Print Precision

±0.1 mm

±0.1-0.4 mm

±0.1 mm

±0.2mm

Extruder

Direct

Bowden

Bowden

Direct

Print Bed

Heated PEI Soft Magnetic Steel

Heated Glass Plate

Heated PC Spring Steel Magnetic

Heated glass or PEI Soft Magnetic Steel

Dimensions

502 x 438 x 470 mm

380 x 340 x 420mm

420 x 410 x 470mm

469 x 406 x 416mm

Weight

27.8 pounds

33.1 pounds

17.2 pounds

34.39 pounds

Software

AnkerMake Slicer (macOS, Windows), Simplify 3D, Ultimaker Cura, PrusaSlicer

Wiibuilder, Cura, Simplify 3D, Slic3r, KISSlicer

Creality Slicer, Cura, Simplify3D

Cura, Simplify3D, FlashPrint

Connectivity

Wi-Fi, Type-C USB Flash Drive

USB, microSD card

MicroUSB/TF card

USB, Wi-Fi

Price $799 $335 $319 $499