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Best 3D printer 2021: The best cheap, mid-range and high-end 3D printers

Joe Coombs
1 Dec 2021
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Our pick of the best 3D printers that you can use from the comfort of your own home

3D printing isn’t the stuff of science fiction – nowadays, anyone can produce physical items on demand. You can use models freely downloaded from the internet, or design your own custom toys, ornaments and practical household accessories.

There are a lot of printers on the market though, at a very wide range of prices – and there are a few technical points you should understand when choosing one. Here’s our guide to picking the perfect model.

How to choose the best 3D printer for you

3D printing isn’t quite as straightforward as regular paper printing. It’s a slow process – expect to wait an hour for even fairly small objects to emerge – and you may need to trim off excess plastic and generally finish up your model by hand once the printing process is complete.

Things aren’t guaranteed to go smoothly every time, either. With a poor-quality printer you may hit problems such as the plastic not sticking where it ought to, or the whole model collapsing half-way through printing. It’s important therefore to look for a printer that can be relied on: the ones we’ve recommended below are all excellent performers, and if there’s something specific you want to know you can always check customer reviews before you make your purchase.

How big is a 3D printer and what type is best for the home?

3D printers come in all sizes and shapes, and some are too large to sit neatly on a desk – so if you want a printer for home use, be sure to check the dimensions. Smaller printers may be limited to producing models of around 10cm in each dimension, but that’s not necessarily a problem as very few of the things you’re likely to want to print will be bigger than that.

Another question is whether you want a neatly self-contained printer or one where the workings are exposed for all to see. The latter style is easier to maintain, and if you’re into engineering and gadgetry you may prefer the look. However, 3D printing involves moving mechanical parts, and the extrusion unit can heat up to above 250°C – so an enclosed model is more appropriate for a domestic setting. An enclosed design will also minimise the noise from whirring motors and cooling fans.

How does a 3D printer work?

Most 3D printers produce their output using a process called fused deposition modelling (FDM), which basically means building up your model by squirting out molten plastic in a succession of layers.

There are two main plastics used for this, namely polylactide (PLA) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). PLA tends to produce cleaner results, while ABS models are physically stronger; the difference isn’t huge, though, and most printers can use both. Many can also use filaments that are mixed with other materials, such as wood or copper. This lets you produce items with more aesthetically pleasing textures, and which may even be electrically conductive, if that’s useful to you.

If you want to make a model out of more than one material (or in more than one colour) you can often pause the printer part-way through a print job, switch filaments, then resume printing. In this way you could, for example, print an object with a red bottom and a blue top. If you want to combine colours more intricately than this, you’ll need a printer with a dual extruder head, which can switch between two different filament feeds as it prints each layer.

The main alternative to the FDM process is stereolithography (SLA): instead of plastic, this uses liquid resin which is hardened by exposure to a laser. SLA isn’t ideal for domestic use, as it produces unpleasant odours and the models need to be bathed in alcohol once the print process is complete – but the end results can look cleaner, with more fine detail than you’d get from a comparably priced FDM machine.

Where can I get 3D models to print?

There are literally millions of 3D models available for free download from sites such as thingiverse.com or cults3d.com. Every 3D printer comes with software that can import such files and drive the printer to turn them into physical plastic items. You can normally assume that this software will be offered for both Windows and macOS, and some printers support Android and iOS as well.

It’s worth checking what file formats the supplied software can read, however. The most common types are STL and OBJ files, but there’s plenty of others out there. If your 3D printing software supports a wide spread of formats, that means you can find and print cool 3D object files from a broader range of sources.

Note too that the supplied software doesn’t normally offer a complete set of tools for designing your own 3D objects. It might allow you to make basic alterations to downloaded models, but if you want to go further you’ll want to look into a dedicated 3D modelling or CAD application – just make sure it can output files in a format that’s compatible with your printer software.

What type of connections does a 3D printer use?

Some 3D printers can connect directly to a PC or Mac over USB, while others are designed to be driven over a network (either wireless or wired). It’s worth checking this before you buy: a network model is ideal if you want to share your printer across multiple computers, but might not be the most convenient for personal use.

Even if your chosen 3D printer doesn’t support direct USB connection, it may well still have a USB socket. This is to allow you to plug a flash drive or external hard disk containing model files; you can then use the printer’s built-in browser to select a file and start the printing process with no need for a computer connection at all. Some printers have a microSD card slot for the same purpose.

Does the nozzle size and print resolution make a difference?

Most 3D printers squirt their molten plastic out of a standard-sized 0.4mm nozzle. This is fine enough for all but the most intricate models: we’d hesitate to use it for small gaming figurines, but it’s absolutely acceptable for ornaments, tools and knick-knacks.

The nozzle diameter doesn’t tell you the whole story, however. You should also check the print resolution, which tells you how precisely the plastic can be positioned. In many cases, although the plastic itself has a diameter of 0.4mm, the printer can lay it down with an accuracy of 0.1mm. It’s worth checking this before you buy, as print resolution can vary substantially between different printers, and it can spell the difference between bumpy, rough-looking prints and smooth, professional-looking results.

The best 3D printers to buy in 2021

1. Qidi Tech X-Pro: The best all-round 3D printer

Price: £559 | Buy now from Gearbest

The Qidi Tech X-Pro looks almost like a regular printer, save for its futuristic colour scheme. It’s neatly self-contained, compact enough to sit on your desk at home and easy to operate thanks to its 4.3in touchscreen.

In use the X-Pro consistently produces smooth, clean models – and its twin extruder design means you can feed it two reels of different filament and produce multicoloured items that look far more attractive than the usual single-colour lumps of plastic. Despite this, it’s a very easy printer to set up, with a quick-start guide included and no mechanical assembly required – just a simple levelling procedure for the printing plate.

While the X-Pro doesn’t support direct USB connections, it’ll connect to any network over Ethernet or Wi-Fi. For £549 it’s a superb choice for beginners and regular hobbyists alike, delivering high-quality, visually appealing results with a minimum of fuss.

KEY SPECS – Printing type: Dual-extruder FDM; Print materials: 1.75mm ABS, PLA, PETG; Nozzle diameter: 0.4mm; Print resolution: 0.1mm; Quoted printing speed: Not stated; Print volume (WDH): 230 x 150 x 150mm; Printer dimensions (WDH): 550 x 360 x 550mm; Interface: 4.3in colour touchscreen; Connectivity: Micro USB, Ethernet, Wi-Fi

Buy now from Gearbest


2. Monoprice Select Mini V2: The best budget 3D printer

Price: £185 | Buy now from Amazon

For the price you might be expecting an assemble-it-yourself-kit, but this 3D printer comes ready to roll right out of the box, so you can start turning out models in minutes. Though it only has a single extruder head, it’ll work with regular ABS and PLA, plus wood, copper, steel and bronze-filled filaments, so you can create items with a good range of different appearances and physical characteristics. It’s easy to use too, thanks to a large 3.7in colour LCD screen and intuitive control wheel.

The print base is only 120mm square, and the maximum print height is 12cm, so it won’t do for big, ambitious projects, but on the plus side, the printer itself only has a footprint of 287 x 190mm, so it’ll won’t dominate your desk. You don’t necessarily even need to connect it to a computer, as the Select Mini V2 can print directly from an SD card – or you can use its built-in 2.4GHz Wi-Fi receiver to operate it remotely.

KEY SPECS – Printing type: Single-extruder FDM; Print materials: 1.75mm ABS, PLA, wood fill, copper fill, steel fill, bronze fill; Nozzle diameter: 0.4mm; Print resolution: 0.1mm; Quoted printing speed: 55mm/sec; Print volume (WDH): 120 x 120 x 120mm; Printer dimensions (WDH): 287 x 190 x 343mm; Interface: 3.7in colour LCD display, control wheel; Connectivity: Micro USB, microSD, Wi-Fi

3. Dremel Digilab 3D45: The best enthusiast 3D printer

Price: £1,360 | Buy now from Amazon

The Digilab 3D45 isn’t cheap, but it comes from a respected brand and has numerous features to satisfy 3D printing devotees. For one, it can print models of up to 254 x 152 x 170mm in size, and its fully enclosed design emphasises safety and keeps the noise to a minimum.

This unit itself is fairly large, with a footprint of 645 x 406mm, but built-in Wi-Fi allows you to locate it wherever’s convenient, without having to worry about trailing cables from your computer. It even has a built-in camera, so you can keep an eye on your printing progress while it’s whirring away in another room.

With its 4.5in colour touchscreen the 3D45 is a breeze to use, and you can share it across multiple computers too – the supplied software supports both Windows and macOS – making it ideal for workshops and educational settings.

KEY SPECS – Printing type: Single-extruder FDM; Print materials: 1.75mm ABS, PLA, PETG, nylon; Nozzle diameter: 0.4mm; Print resolution: 0.05mm; Quoted printing speed: Not stated; Print volume (WDH): 254 x 152 x 170mm; Printer dimensions (WDH): 645 x 406 x 404mm; Interface: 4.5in colour touchscreen; Connectivity: Micro USB, Ethernet, Wi-Fi

4. Anycubic Photon: The best resin printer

Price : £320 | Buy now from Amazon

This mid-price personal 3D printer comes ready to work out of the box, and has a super-fine lateral print resolution of 0.047mm and just 0.01mm in the vertical plane – so you can produce prints with astonishing levels of detail.

The catch is that this is achieved via the use of liquid resin rather than plastic filament, which makes the printing process a bit less user-friendly. The printer generates toxic fumes while working, so you might not want it sitting on your desk, and once you’ve finished a print you’ll need to bathe your creation in isopropyl alcohol and clean out the printer itself. Maximum print size is limited too: the base plate measures 115 x 155mm, but the maximum print height is a relatively dinky 65mm.

Another thing to note is that the Photon doesn’t connect directly to a computer: rather, you have to save your models to a USB flash drive (one’s included in the box), then plug that into the Photon and select the file you want to print. Still, this is easy to do, thanks to a 2.8in colour touchscreen – and the end results are stunning, especially for the price.

KEY SPECS – Printing type: Stereolithographic; Print materials: UV resin; Nozzle diameter: N/A; Print resolution: 0.047mm lateral, 0.001mm vertical; Quoted printing speed: 20mm/hr; Print volume (WDH): 115 x 155 x 65mm; Printer dimensions (WDH): 220 x 220 x 400mm; Interface: 2.8in colour touchscreen; Connectivity: USB

5. Original Prusa i3 MK3S: The best build-it-yourself 3D printer

Price: £699 | Buy now from Prusa


3D printing attracts creative, technical types – so there’s a definite draw to the idea of assembling your own 3D printer. Despite the branding, the i3 MK3S wasn’t the original DIY 3D printer kit, but that’s no bad thing as it benefits from the latest extruder design and all sorts of modern features such as an anti-rust coating, layer-shift detection, robustness against power interruptions and near-silent printing.

You don’t need to be an expert engineer to put it together, either: no soldering is required, all cables come pre-cut to length, and there’s an active online forum where you can ask questions and draw on other users’ experiences. And whenever the MK3S’ next-generation successor is released, Prusa will even help you buy and fit the necessary parts to upgrade your existing unit.

As you’d hope, once you’ve put it together, the Original Prusa works admirably as a 3D printer, with automatic self-calibration, a handy LCD display and a decent print volume of 25 x 21 x 21cm. If you just want to skip to the good stuff you can also by the i3 MK3S preassembled for £899.

KEY SPECS – Printing type: Single-extruder FDM; Print materials: 1.75mm ABS, PLA, PETG, flex, composite filament, Ngen, HIPS, polypropylene, nylon, ASA, PC-ABS; Nozzle diameter: 0.4mm; Print resolution: 0.05mm; Quoted printing speed: 200mm/sec; Print volume (WDH): 250 x 210 x 210mm; Printer dimensions (WDH): 500 x 550 x 400mm; Interface: 4-line LCD with control knob; Connectivity: microSD, USB

Buy now from Prusa


6. MakerBot Replicator+: The best high-end 3D printer

Price: £2,506 | Buy now from Amazon

Designed for workshops and schools, the Replicator+ is one of the fastest 3D printers around. It offers great accuracy and quality, and it can produce large objects with footprints of up to 295 x 195mm.

Like the Dremel Digilab, the Replicator+ includes a built-in camera so you can monitor your print progress from afar. Support for 20 different file formats means you can work with pre-designed models from any number of sources, and in addition to built-in Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections there’s also cloud support, so you can manage print jobs over the internet – perhaps using the MakerBot Mobile app for Android and iOS.

The catch is that you’re obliged to use MakerBot’s own PLA filament – if you try to save money by using cheap unbranded material you could void your warranty. There’s also no support for ABS at all, and while MakerBot’s own Tough PLA makes a great alternative it’s pricier, costing around £80 for a 750g reel.

Still, while the Replicator+ isn’t a budget choice, its speed and versatility are impressive: if you’re looking for a 3D printing workhorse, it’s well worth considering.

KEY SPECS – Printing type: Single-extruder FDM; Print materials: 1.75mm PLA, MakerBot Tough PLA, bronze fill, copper fill, wood fill; Nozzle diameter: 0.4mm; Print resolution: 0.1mm; Quoted printing speed: Not stated; Print volume (WDH): 295 x 195 x 165mm; Printer dimensions (WDH): 528 x 441 x 410mm; Interface: 3in colour LCD with control dial; Connectivity: USB, Ethernet, Wi-Fi