With various types of 3D printing showing up in the headlines on a nearly daily basis, there’s never been a better time than 2021 to learn more about this exciting technology and start using it yourself. 3D printing is a rewarding hobby for some, a lucrative career for others, and a fun topic of conversation for almost everyone. You can get one of the best 3D printers and plenty of material for well under $300 in 2021, so consider what you’ll be making with it and read on to learn more.
The two most common types of home 3D printers are resin MSLA (Masked StereoLithogrAphy) and filament FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling). Resin 3D printers use a UV-cured material to form a model layer-by-layer as it rises from a vat of liquid. This style of 3D printing can create very finely detailed models, but it requires more clean-up and post-processing than you might expect. Filament 3D printers use a feedstock material that is fed into a hot nozzle and extruded out layer-by-layer to form a solid model. This style of printing requires little-to-no post-processing, but results in a generally coarser appearance.
There are several factors to consider before buying a 3D printer in 2021, so be sure to consider the questions before making a choice.
Shopping Tips for Best 3D Printers
- Resin MSLA or Filament FDM? The two most popular styles of desktop 3D printing, resin MSLA and filament FDM 3D printers offer various strengths and weaknesses, and choosing the style more suited for your application will help you get better results. Resin 3D printers typically require messy post-processing involving isopropyl alcohol and UV curing, but are capable of highly detailed prints ideal for making miniatures. Filament 3D printers are typically less expensive and the material is available in a wider selection of colors, but the printed parts can be coarse and lack fine detail.
- How much build volume do you need? If you want to print out large parts in a single print, you’ll need a printer with ample build volume. This is usually directly tied to the price of the machine, so a larger printer is going to cost more money. Printers with a 100mm cubed or less build volume are on the smaller side, 150 to 220mm cubed are average, and 250mm inch cubed and above are considered large format.
- Manual or automatic bed leveling? Leveling the bed of a 3D printer is an important part of the printing process, and it can be time-consuming and difficult if you’ve never done it before. Some printers have the ability to automatically level the bed which can get you up and printing faster.
- What’s your experience level? If you’re an absolute beginner to 3D printing, you’ll want to find a first printer that offers a good out-of-the-box experience without too much tinkering. If you’ve already logged some print time, than you might be more interested in printers with advanced or unique features or ones that are open-source and easily modified.
Best 3D Printers 2021
If you ask someone involved with 3D printing what their first machine was, there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it was the Creality Ender 3 Pro. A wildly popular 3D printer, the Ender 3 Pro packs a powerful punch in the form of a low-cost machine that has an almost endless supply of readily available upgrades to adapt it to your specific needs. Whether you want a 3D printer to convert into a laser engraver, a pen plotter, or just a printer to print specialized high-temperature materials, the Ender 3 Pro can accommodate you with no issues.
The Ender 3 Pro arrives as a kit in need of assembly, so you’ll want to put aside at least a few hours to build, calibrate, and possibly troubleshoot your new machine before using it. The Ender 3 Pro has a 350W power supply, so the bed and heated nozzle heat up quickly and keep a consistent temperature when printing.
Creality has released all of the mechanical and electrical schematics for this machine under an Open Source licence, so it’s easy to find upgrades and modifications that have been built using these blueprints. If you love to tinker and can’t wait to turn your 3D printer into a custom build, it’s hard to go wrong with the Creality Ender 3 Pro.
If you want to spend more time printing and less time tinkering, the Flashforge Adventurer 3 Lite offers a lot of bang for the buck. Unlike printers like the Creality Ender 3 Pro, the Adventurer 3 Lite uses proprietary parts (flexible bed, nozzle assembly, etc.) which are designed for easy replacement as opposed to low-cost.
The Adventurer 3 Lite has a modest build volume of 150mm cubed, which is smaller than most printers in this price range. However, it’s clear from the design and experience from using this machine that the emphasis is on reliability and consistent results with the build volume that’s offered. Printing a large part with an FDM printer can be tricky as the plastic tends to curl and warp as it cools, so the enclosed build chamber of this printer allows for consistent and even cooling.
The build platform leveling is semi-automated, and requires manual input as the UI guides you through the process. Once calibrated, we ran print after print on the Adventurer 3 Lite without having to touch the settings. In addition, the built-in Wi-Fi allows you to send sliced models to the Adventurer 3 Lite without having to transport a USB stick or SD card to the machine. If you would rather spend more time printing and less time adjusting the mechanical assembly of your printer, the Adventurer 3 Lite is a great choice.
The Anycubic Vyper is designed for high-throughput 3D printing, and impressed us with its rock-solid build construction and impressive list of features. Silent stepper drivers, dual Z threaded rods and a high-airflow part cooling system are just a few of the many features that make the Vyper an easy choice for anyone interested in printing out large quantities of parts.
The strain-gauge bed leveling system allows the Vyper to quickly and accurately complete an automatic mesh bed calibration. This form of calibration is ideal for anyone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time tweaking or calibrating the printer, and it worked well during testing and didn’t require any further adjustments to get an even first layer.
The Vyper isn’t the cheapest printer on this list, but it earned its place by providing a fast setup and trouble-free operation throughout our testing. The Vyper was designed with an impressive level of attention to detail, and the various areas on a 3D printer that would require adjustment (extruder, X/Y belts, etc.) are all easily accessible and adjustable. The included Cura slicer app is easy to use, but the printer profile that ships with the machine might require some tweaking that beginning users may struggle with.
The Elegoo Saturn is the counterpart to the smaller Elegoo Mars series of printers, which offer solid build quality for a reasonable price. The Saturn takes this formula to the extreme by offering a large 7.55 x 4.72 x 7.87-inch build volume while simultaneously increasing the resolution of the masking LCD. This, combined with the 2.5-second per-layer cure time from the Mono LCD, means that the Saturn can print more parts in the same amount of time as the smaller format Mars series of printers.
Elegoo has developed a two-bolt bed leveling solution for the Saturn that makes the leveling process a quick and painless process. This, combined with the native integration with the Chitubox slicer app, makes setting up and using the Saturn a simple process that is ideal for both beginners as well as experienced users.
The Saturn has a build volume of 280.46 cubic inches, a dramatic increase from the 100.81 cubic inch build volume of the smaller Elegoo Mars 2 Pro. If you’re looking for a resin printer that offers a large build volume but you don’t want to compromise with a lower quality print, the Saturn is an ideal solution but you might have to check Amazon several times before you can find one.
With a bright orange 3D printed LCD enclosure, the Prusa Mini+ is immediately identifiable as a smaller relative of the popular Prusa i3 MK3S 3D printer. Just like the MK3S, the Mini+ is designed with user experience in mind, and the color touchscreen, easily removable build platform, and automatic leveling process all come together to create a seamless process from slicing to printing a model.
Available either as a DIY kit or a fully assembled unit, the Prusa Mini+ is a printer that is designed with trouble-free 3D printing in mind. The automatic mesh bed leveling means you’ll spend less time leveling the bed with a piece of printer paper and more time removing printed parts from the flexible magnetic print platform. Models are prepared using the included PrusaSlicer software, an easy-to-use and capable slicer app designed for the Mini+ and larger MK3S machines.
The small footprint of the Mini+ makes it an ideal 3D printer for use in a print farm or anywhere that desk space is tight. The build volume of 7-inches cubed can accommodate a wide range of geometries, and the high build-volume-to-printer-footprint ratio directly translates into a machine that can be used for pumping out parts without taking up too much shelf space. Prusa has even added an Ethernet port to this machine in anticipation of this use case, something you won’t typically find on most FDM 3D printers.
If you’re interested in printing models with lots of fine detail, the Phrozen Sonic Mini 4K should be on your short list. Using a 4K mono LCD screen, the Sonic Mini 4K is capable of printing high resolution models with a per-layer cure time of just over 2 seconds per layer. This translates to high detail and high speed, but you’ll pay for it in the difference in cost between the Sonic Mini 4K and other MSLA 3D printers like the Anycubic Photon.
In our testing, we found the Sonic Mini 4K’s ability to produce fine features to be as-advertised, so printing table-top gaming miniatures and small sculptures is something this printer excels at. In addition to the high XY accuracy, the Z-stepping is barely visible even at a standard 50-micron layer height due to the software-enabled anti-aliasing provided by the ChituBox app.
Leveling the build platform on the Sonic Mini 4K was a little tricky, and the conflicting information provided by Phrozen can make the process intimidating for a first-time user. The quality of a print can depend heavily on the initial build platform calibration, so be prepared to spend some time getting this printer dialed in.
The Monoprice Cadet is a 3D printer designed from the ground-up with safety in mind and is ideal for a young beginner who is interested in getting started. The motion components are hidden internally in the frame and the heated nozzle is protected by a large metal grille, keeping curious fingers away from the parts of the printer that shouldn’t be touched during operation. The printer includes a bed-leveling probe which allows for touch-free automatic bed leveling, something a beginner will greatly benefit from.
As you would expect for a printer in this price range, the build volume is modest with a roughly 4-inch cube being the largest possible print. The build platform feels like an oversized fridge magnet, and parts detach quickly and easily without requiring hand tools.
The Cadet does have a few quirks to consider before you pull the trigger. For one, the side-mounted filament spool holder is mounted low on the printer, so most standard 1 kilogram filament spools won’t fit. You can mount 500g or smaller half-spools, or 3D print a filament stand to hold full spools. The Wi-Fi feature of the printer is also a little hit-or-miss; we were not able to get it to connect and several other users have noted the same issue online.
If you’re interested in diving into resin 3D printing but don’t know where to start, the Anycubic Photon Mono is the perfect printer to get your feet wet. The Photon Mono uses a Mono LCD to achieve per-layer cure times of around 2 seconds and a masking LCD with a 2K resolution to make printing detailed parts a fast process.
Anycubic ships the Mono with a slicer app called Photon Workshop, which allows for a quick and simple slicing process to prepare your model for 3D printing. The software will automatically generate support material and a raft for the print, but lacks the ability to detect floating pieces of resin that may be created when curing each layer. This certainly isn’t a deal-breaker, but it means you’ll want to pay attention when preparing your models for 3D printing.
The Photon Mono ships with an angled build platform which allows resin to drip off the sides during printing and prevents it from pooling or curing.This attention to detail is indicative of the Photon Mono as a whole, and we can recommend it without hesitation as a first resin MSLA 3D printer.