3D printer reviews

Review: New Matter’s MOD-t 3D printer is ingeniously simple (with video)

The MOD-t is slow but produces decent-quality models for a beginner-friendly price.

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In a consumer market filled with entry-level 3D printers, startup New Matter was able to garner nearly twice its crowdfunding goals last year (and raise $6.5 million in a series A funding round) to begin production of its minimalist 3D desktop printer -- the MOD-t.

So when offered the opportunity to review the MOD-t, which retails for $399 (Amazon price - What's this?), I jumped at the chance. And while I wasn't blown away by its value or quality, I was impressed with what I found to be a true plug-and-play 3D printer that doesn't take much desk space, offers Wi-Fi connectivity, and is easily ignored as it goes about quietly printing simple objects.

The MOD-t can make an object as large as 6 x 4 x 5 in. It has a compact Apple-inspired design and weighs 12.5 lb. It can print as fine as a .05mm layer height, which is pretty standard.

Simplicity and ingenious design

When it comes to hardware design, the MOD-t stands head and toes above other sub-$500 printers. New Matter teamed up with international design firm Frog Design to develop the all-white, contemporary look of the MOD-t, which exudes simplicity.

This time-lapse video shows the MOD-t in the process of creating two identical chess pieces. They took four hours to print.

Even the setup -- which takes about five minutes -- is simple enough that a first-time 3D printer user would have no problem doing it. After removing the printer from its box and downloading the firmware via New Matter's setup page, users can follow along with a series of GIFs on that same page that walk them through installing the reel of filament and the printer's build platform.

It is the build platform that I found to be the most impressive part of the printer. The platform isn't attached to anything. You simply lay it atop a couple of x- and y-axis gear rods, and you're done. The bottom of the build platform has tracks that ride on the gear rods during a build.

The platform also has a flexible plastic cover that slides off and allows you to bend it to remove printed objects; there's literally no need to scrape objects off of the build platform with a spatula as is so often required with other printers.

After you install the build platform, you hang a plastic filament reel holder on the back of the printer, feed the filament through a hole in the rear of the machine until it comes out of the machine's filament guide tube and hit "Load Filament" on the software. That's it. You're done.

The MOD-t prints with standard 1.75mm PLA filament, one of the most common polymers on the market for fused filament fabrication machines. While it may support other polymers, New Matter does not list any of them.

This is a relatively quiet machine -- not the quietest I've used, but certainly not a distraction even when you're sitting next to it. The only noise comes from the unit's fan, located in the printer head housing, and the print platform rolling across the gear rods.

There are no LCD screens or cursor pads on the MOD-t, as some other 3D printers offer. Instead, there's a single start/stop button that flashes when a job is ready to begin and can be pressed again to pause a print job or held down longer to stop it completely. That's it.

The printer comes with a small kit that includes a brass brush for cleaning the print head, a scraper for removing models from the build platform, a pair of snips for removing excess plastic from models and a replacement extruder head; including an additional extruder head is highly unusual for a $400 machine. The extruder head is also extremely simple to change out, requiring the removal of a single hex nut (the wrench for which is supplied).

A sub-$500 printer with a social network

While there are more and more sub-$500 3D printers appearing on the market today, what makes this printer really unusual is that it uses a browser-based interface to connect users to the company's 3D printing software and marketplace, where you can upload or share a printable object file as simply as sending a text message.

All the processing of STL or OBJ object files, from uploading to print commands to slicing and print generation, is performed on New Matter's online servers. The printable file then gets uploaded to the 3D printer on your desktop. You can also download your own STL files from any number of unrelated online sites and send them to the MOD-t printer from your computer.

The MOD-t does not have onboard storage in the sense that you cannot store files in its internal memory. What it does allow you to do is upload the file, begin the print job and then unplug it from your computer. Once you power off the MOD-t, however, it will forget the last design, and you will need to re-transfer the file to the printer.

A user community

MOD-t owners sign on to become part of an online community that allows users to upload and download STL files to New Matter's online marketplace, and even charge for designs. They can send messages to other users with links to print files; when the other users get notifications, they can chose to accept them (and print the objects), ignore them or reject them.

All of the objects uploaded to New Matter's servers are vetted to ensure they work well with the printer. In contrast, sometimes objects downloaded from other online marketplaces such as MakerBot's Thingiverse don't print well on all machines.

If you want to tweak your designs, popular software such as Tinkercad, AutoCAD or Adobe Photoshop CC allows 3D printer users to perform simple manipulations of objects before printing.

You can also fine-tune your designs in the cloud using New Matter's CAD software, though just how much you change an object is severely limited based on preset commands. If you're printing objects based on files from the New Matter Store, you will unfortunately not be able to manipulate them or their placement on the print platform. However, you can choose good, better or best (recently updated to "high speed," "balanced" and "high quality") print resolutions, which represent layer thicknesses ranging from .4mm to .05mm in height. You can also turn print supports on and off (supports are scaffolding added to the design to temporarily hold up portions of an object while it's being printed).

New Matter recently rolled out new advanced settings so that users could perform slightly finer customization of print jobs through the New Matter Store. Once an object is uploaded, a "custom settings" menu allows you to choose adjustments such as incremental layer height, temperature (from 160 to 220 degrees Celsius) and print speed (from 10mm to 80mm per second).

Slow and sometimes difficult software

While the MOD-t can print at up to 80mm per second, which is a typical speed, I still found the printer to be remarkably slow. For example, on the "balanced" setting, it took five hours to print a simple 3.25 x 1.75 x 1.5 in. hippopotamus figurine; it took 1.5 hours to print an octopus that was 3 in. in diameter and .75 in. high., which has taken as little as a half hour on other printers.

It was in New Matter's online software, however, that I discovered the greatest flaws. Its lack of ability to manipulate print jobs -- from not being able to adjust their placement on the print bed to the inability to inspect the layers prior to a print -- left me wholly unimpressed and at times downright frustrated.

Additionally, I found the software was often slow to get print jobs started. At times, it even took several minutes for the software to recognize that my computer was connected to the MOD-t via the USB cord. Using my MacBook Pro laptop, I often got Apple's spinning wheel icon indicating that New Matter's online software was not responding.

hippo print Lucas Mearian

This hippo figurine was uploaded to the MOD-t from New Matter’s online store. It took five hours to print with the machine set to its “balanced,” or average, print quality setting.

Lastly, I didn't find the software very user-friendly. Nothing's obvious, as it should be with a plug-and-play machine. For example, if you want to start a print job by uploading a model file, you have to discover a small icon in the shape of a person's bust at the top right corner of the Web page. Icons need labels if they're not obvious.

After uploading a file for printing, sometimes it shows up in a virtual print area to adjust settings, and sometimes it doesn't. I'm not certain why that happens. I suppose over time, I'd learn how to manipulate the functions more easily, but with an entry-level machine, every function should be obvious.

Print tests

My initial print with the MOD-t was of the hippo figurine whose design I uploaded to the printer from New Matter's network. As I stated earlier, it took a whopping five hours to print, but the quality was good.

Next, I printed a chess piece, a "Pokemon queen." The piece is relatively small -- about 4 in. high and 1 in. in diameter -- and it took two hours to print. Again, the quality was good.

However, when I gave this printer its most difficult task -- to print a 5-in.-high Eiffel Tower -- it failed miserably and didn't come close to reproducing the object accurately. The extruder was unable to create the intricate scaffolding, and it went off track about halfway through the build, leaving me with a spaghetti mess of filament.

To be candid, I wasn't surprised. Only higher-end, over-$1,000 desktop 3D printers are typically able to recreate the intricate latticework of the Eiffel Tower -- and even then they're few and far between. I've even had 3D printers that cost over $2,000 fail the task, so in this case, I kept my fingers crossed. Put simply, it isn't a 3D printer capable of producing great detail.

My last test for this printer was to create multiple objects at the same time. Unfortunately, because you cannot manipulate where on the platform an object prints, you must upload chess pieces in sets. I chose a set of two.

pair of printed rook chess pieces Lucas Mearian

The MOD-t 3D printer is capable of producing multiple pieces at the same time, such as these two chess rooks, which took four hours to print. 

The two chess pieces, each about 5 in. tall and up to 2 in. in diameter, took four hours to print, which was extremely slow. They were both adequate in quality.

Bottom line

If I were to compare this printer to any other, it would be the da Vinci Junior 1.0, an entry-level machine from XYZprinting that retails for $295 (Amazon price) and that I reviewed a year ago.

The da Vinci has far more functionality than the MOD-t. For example, it has an SD card slot that allows you to store STL and OBJ files for printing. And all XYZprinting 3D printers - from the $1,500 Nobel 1.0 stereolithography printer to the da Vinci Junior 1.0 -- use the same, higher-functionality, downloadable software. The da Vinci also has an onboard LED screen and control panel for basic printing functions.

Otherwise, the two 3D printers are similar. Like the MOD-t, the da Vinci Jr. is fully enclosed, so it's relatively quiet. And the da Vinci Junior, like the MOD-t, cannot accurately print complex objects such as the Eiffel Tower and is slower than many other 3D printers.

When it comes to looks, however, the MOD-t kills it. I really liked the appearance of the machine as well as how simple it was to use.

So when choosing between the two machines, a user must consider the MOD-t's aesthetics and hardware simplicity versus the da Vinci Junior's greater functionality.

While I cannot highly recommend the MOD-t, I can say it's a decent machine that a beginner would be able to adapt to fairly easily, and with a $400 price tag, you're not breaking the bank to try your hand at 3D printing.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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