MakerBot's Replicator 3D printer is difficult to master, but that difficulty is offset by its vibrant user community and its deeply tweakable software and hardware. The same can be said for cheaper 3D printers, which, like the Replicator, offer expansive possibilities for 3D object-making for those willing to put in the work. 3D Systems' $1,299 Cube 3D printer takes the exact opposite approach.
Printing physical objects, certain ones, anyway, is easy with the Cube, but you will quickly hit the printer's limits. 3D Systems' software is overly simplified in the name of user-friendliness, and its proprietary feedstock cartridge and retail-focused Cubify.com site give you the feeling that 3D Systems is more concerned with monetizing you than creating something you can get the most out of.
If you like the idea of a 3D printer as a consumption device -- using it to print others' designs that you've paid for -- the Cube might hold some appeal. But as soon as you want to get creative with the Cube -- making your own designs, tweaking others' creations, printing with different materials -- you might find that it isn't very accommodating. The Cube has some nice usability features, but you're better off putting the time in with a less expensive, more capable printer to get the most out of this still-developing hobby.
For those who are unfamiliar with the basics of 3D printing, here's the Brief Brief Overview of 3D printing from my MakerBot Replicator review.
1. Acquire a 3D model file via download, by designing a model yourself, or by scanning a physical object.
2. Send that file to the 3D printer, generally via your Windows, Mac, or Linux-based computer.
3. Watch as the printer draws from a spool of 1.75- or 3-millimeter plastic filament, printing your design by building up layers of heated, extruded plastic.
4. Bask in the glow of having brought a three-dimensional object into existence.
Aside from those basics, the Replicator and the Cube are almost totally different from each other.
Comparing the two printers visually, the Cube looks like a far more polished product. It's encased in plastic, not laser-cut plywood. You can't see any operating wires on the Cube, and its build platform, the surface on which the printer forms objects, is a crisp piece of burnished black metal, as opposed to Replicator's aluminum platform, which you might often keep covered in tape.
The two printers share some similarities in their setup process, and the Cube's is both easier and more cumbersome. In order to use your Cube at all, 3D Systems requires that you first register the device on its Cubify Web site. There you create a user account, from which you'll be issued a four-digit activation code to enter into the printer via its touch-screen display. Once it's activated, you may proceed with initial hardware setup.
Neither MakerBot nor any other consumer-level desktop printer maker I know of requires that registration step, and I expect many of the designers and users of the other 3D printers would balk at such a requirement. It seems to serve no purpose other than to funnel you to Cubify, ensuring that you're aware of the various accessories, software packages, and design files 3D Systems wants to sell you.
Once you activate the Cube, you're ready to set up the hardware. As with the Replicator, the Cube's onboard display guides you through loading the plastic filament into the heated print head, and in both cases the process is simple.
In order to ensure that your prints come out properly, you must also level each printer's build platform. Leveling is a hassle on both printers, each requiring you to move the print head around the platform while adjusting a set of bolts or screws. The Replicator is easier since it uses thumb screws. You'll need a small wrench, not included, to level the Cube.
When it comes to actually printing something, 3D Systems has seemingly eliminated at least one major source of botched prints. While the Replicator can print with multiple materials, one of the most common is ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic. 3D Systems says it's open to supporting more materials, but right now it only offers ABS for the Cube's proprietary feedstock cartridges.
ABS is useful for its malleability and its typically low cost (more on that later), but it can be challenging to print with because it doesn't always adhere well to the build platform. MakerBot helps mitigate that issue by heating the build platform and using Kapton tape to provide a smooth, evenly heated build surface, but it doesn't always work, and you may have to clean and replace the tape often.
The Cube has a heated platform as well, and it also uses glue.
You apply the glue to the platform before each print. When the print is done, you remove the whole platform (it's held on by magnets) and drop it in water to cool it and dissolve the glue. The company won't tell me the ingredients of the glue, but it works well. Unlike with the MakerBot Replicator, with the Cube I never once had a print-in-progress ruined because it got dislodged from the build platform.
As with the Replicator, objects with a lot of surface in contact with the Cube's build platform can still be prone to "peeling," aka lifting up off the platform during a print. This is a common problem with ABS, leading to a lot of bad prints, and a lot of time releveling your printer.
Unique to the Cube, though, are its aggressively expensive, proprietary feedstock cartridges.
A typical spool of ABS from other vendors costs $50 for 1 kilogram, or 5 cents per gram. 3D Systems doesn't reveal the specific amount of plastic you get with each cartridge, but a user on a Cubify fan blog found a 320-gram difference between an empty cartridge and a full one.
At $50 per Cube cartridge, that boils down to more than 15.6 cents per gram, making 3D Systems' printing plastic over three times the price of ABS for other printers. Even 3D Systems' best deal for multiple cartridges, five for $219, comes to a comparatively exorbitant 13.6 cents per gram.
You also can't game the Cube with non-3D Systems ABS. A sensor lets the printer know when the cartridge is inserted, and you can't print if the Cube thinks the cartridge is missing. I tried loading the cartridge and feeding a separate spool into the print head. It didn't work. The print head wouldn't feed the outside filament through to the extruder.