Make magazine has released its 2015 3D buyer's guide ranking of 18 3D printers, and for the first time CNC milling machines.
The third annual guide called out top-performing 3D printers, including LulzBot's Taz 5, SeeMeCNC's Rostock Max, PrintrBot Play, Ultimaker 2 Extended, as well as CNC (Computer Numerical Control) mills such as the ShopBot Desktop and the CrawlBot.
The machines make great gift options because of their ease of use, smaller footprints, and attractive prices, Make stated.
Make ranked the machines by 10 categories: best overall 3D printer, best value, best for schools, most portable, outstanding open source software, best SLA 3D printers, best large format printers, best large format CNC mills, best mid-sized CNC mills, and best desktop CNC mill.
In the past two years, Make had a tendency to retest printers that it had already tested. This year the magazine only tested models that were new to market, or if existing 3D printers were tested, they had to have significant upgrades, according to Matt Stultz, who runs Make's 3D printer group.
"Every year we try to do a better job of making our testing an empirical scientific process... not something based on our own personal feelings," Stultz said.
The best overall 3D printer was the TAZ 5, LulzBot's fifth version of the $2,200 machine.
"LulzBot is one of the few companies continuing to improve all aspects of 3D printing," Stultz said. "It also makes a quieter running machine."
Computerworld also reviewed a LulzBot 3D printer, and like Make, it found the ability to remove printed objects from the print bed easier than most other machines. LulzBot uses a bed made of polyetherimide or PEI, which helps parts adhere to them while printing, but detach easily after a job is done.
The Zortax 3D printer and the Rostock 3D printer also received accolades across several categories, including "Best Value" and "Outstanding Open Source."
The Zortrax M200 3D printer was called out for having exceptionally high quality prints and reliability.
The Rostock Max 3D printer took third place in the "best overall" category and was noted for being able to produce "massive" sized prints. The printer is 48 inches tall and 18 inches in diameter.
The Make editorial staff, along with independent "experts," tested the fabrication machines across several price points, pitting them against one another to evaluate their quality based on user experience out of the box, performance on the test script, value and overall product aesthetic.
Each 3D printer was required to create nine objects. Not all printers create objects of equal quality, so a printer that can reproduce an excellent model of the Eiffel Tower might not be able to create a good smartphone case.
For the first time, the Make staff tested CNC machines, the newest entry in the world of home digital fabrication with a number of desktop mills making the grade. A CNC mill is a machine that uses a robotically controlled router head to remove material from wood, metal or other materials.
The judging also included a look at the emerging market for resin or stereolithography (SLA) printers, as well as identifying machines best suited for the classroom.
As in years past, the Formlabs' Form 2 SLA 3D printer took the top spot with its large print area, auto resin fill tank and Wi-Fi connectivity.
In the CNC category, the $4,000 Crawlbot mill from Printrbot took top honors for best large format machine. In the CNC midsize category, the Shopbot Desktop took first place, and the best desktop CNC went to the Nomad 883.
Stultz said that one notable improvement on most of the 3D printers tested was the ability of the print bed to self level. Self-leveling ensures an object will print properly, and in the past the function required a manual calibration by the machine's user.
Other notable improvements among machines were their reliability and simplification. Many 3D printers allow one-button printing, and they are adopting standardized slicing software, such as Cura. Slicing software takes a printable object file and slices it into the many layers needed before a 3D printer can create it.