When you finally do use the software to guide you through loading the print material, you can choose to set the printer for either ABS or PLA plastics so that it knows what temperature settings to use for the extruder. Unlike 3D Systems Cube and CubeX printers, the H479 can print with any spool of 1.75-millimeter filament. Afinia recommends you purchase plastic directly from it, but I tested the H479 with ABS from MakerBot, and a spool of ABS from an online retailer, as well as Laywoo-D3, a wood-and-polymer based material (the PLA setting worked fine here), all of which printed with no clogs or other problems.
The automated temperature control is convenient, and it does work well enough. True granular control of the extruder and build platform temperatures would be preferable, though.
Manipulating 3D model files in the Afinia software is also easy. You can send common STL files directly to the H479, saving you file conversion time and the added complexity that comes with 3D Systems' proprietary file format. The 3D representation of the model on the virtual printing platform makes sense, and the real output matches what you see onscreen.
Afinia makes it easy to add additional copies of a model, via an Insert Copy function. You can also load a different model to the same print, and the software automatically arranges the models on the platform. True manual placement control seems to be absent from the software, but the automated function worked well.
The biggest shortcoming of the Afinia software is that it forces you to have some kind of support material on overhangs. You can minimize the support to overhangs of only 80 degrees or greater, but even then, over a small-enough span you don't always need support. The support material is generally easy to remove, but not always, and a particularly fragile or complex object might not survive the removal process. Afinia says the option to shut off support entirely is one of its more requested features, and that a software update is in the works.
When you finally execute a print, Afinia's software performs the "slicing" (translating the 3D model to layer-by-layer coordinates for the printer) itself, keeps track of the layer in progress while you're printing, and provides an accurate time estimate before you confirm.
The quality of the output from the H479, as with other printers, depends on a multitude of variables, including the material, the model, and the settings you choose. Each material has its particular quirks, but in general the H479 makes the best prints I've seen from a 3D printer costing less than $2,000.
One of the trickier problems in 3D printing is ensuring that the object sticks to the build platform throughout the course of a print. Heating the platform so that the plastic retains its adhesiveness is part of the solution, but maintaining a high-enough temperature throughout a multihour print can be a challenge. Vendors rely on a variety of tricks to deal with this issue -- MakerBot uses heat-conductive Kapton Tape on its Replicator, 3D Systems uses a water-soluble glue -- but neither method is foolproof. Objects can peel up from the edges, or dislodge from the platform entirely.
Afinia's method with the H479 is not perfect, but it's one of the more reliable designs I've seen. Included with the printer are three FR-4 perfboards, the same stuff you use to make circuit boards. To use the perfboard on the H479, you clamp it on top of the metal build platform with the included binder clips. Again, the clips work well enough, but they do take up some build area. You also need to be careful to make sure the extruder doesn't travel over them during a print. It's for these reasons, more than their garage-hack aesthetic, that a purpose-made clamping solution would be better.
For model adhesion, though, the perfboard works amazingly well. It's the only solution I've seen so far that eliminates peeling over the course of a long print. You can always clamp the same perfboard to one of the other printers and calibrate your nozzle height accordingly, but Afinia makes this easy by including three boards in the box.
The downside of the perfboard technique is that it means you often have a lot of post-print cleanup to deal with. Because the print material fills the perforations, when you pry your object off, the surface resting on the platform will have lots of little posts attached to it, which you then need to scrape off. Printing objects with a raft -- laying down a few layers of plastic as a bed on which to print your object -- can eliminate this effect, but due to Afinia's aggressive raft settings, you then have to scrap the raft itself from the object, which also gives you an uneven bottom surface.
Removing the posts or the raft material can be a hassle, or even fatal to fragile prints if you're not careful. All those tools and the work gloves included with the H479? You will mainly use them in this post-print cleanup process, scraping, prying, and slicing support material and raft material away from your printed object. Even with the tools, your prints don't look as polished as they might if you printed them directly on a smooth surface. If you want a 3D printer for mere functional parts, this rougher finish shouldn't be an issue. If you're looking for output with a more professional look to it, you can look into sanding, buffing, or treating any rough surfaces with acetone.
Afinia says that you can print on the H479's build platform directly if you use painter's tape, but for me that introduced the same adhesion issues that I found with the MakerBot Replicator. I would much rather deal with the post-processing than worry about whether the print will stick. Just be ready to give your objects some post-print TLC, and you'll come to love the perfboard.
The other thing you will love about the H479, especially if you've used another 3D printer, is how quickly it becomes ready to print. Part of this is a function of the perfboard: because it saves you from waiting for the build surface to come to temperature, you only need the extruder to heat up, which happens very quickly. One of the more painful quirks of the Replicator is not only that it can take forever to come to temperature -- 15, 20 minutes or more depending on the ambient temperature of your work area -- but if it can't hold that temperature, you've only waited long enough for a botched print that won't stick to the platform. With the Afinia and its perfboard, printing starts quickly, and when it does you know your print will stay put.
The time required to actually make a print with the H479 will vary with the size of the object, how densely you choose to print the interior material, and the quality of the exterior, as usual. Afinia has quality settings, Normal, Fast, and Fine, which regulate extrusion speed. Generally, the slower you print, the better the output quality. For layer height, the H479 deposits material in .15mm, or 150 microns. That's not as detailed as MakerBot's most current 3D printer, the 100 micron-capable Replicator 2, but that printer sells for $2,199, and supports only PLA.
3D printer vendors often promise consumers a push-button future of effortless object making. This is not the reality for any 3D printer I've used or seen, including the Afinia H479. Where this printer does deliver is in its deft balance between ease of use and output quality. Yes, you need to put time into cleaning aggressive raft and support material, or the perfboard residue from objects printed without a raft, but overall the output is sufficiently precise, and prints for the most part are easy to clean up.
Among other printers that have not made it through our lab, I have not yet tested the 2013 edition of the 3D Systems Cube, nor the more recent Replicator 2. The new Cube in particular might give the H479 some competition in terms of usability, but as long as 3D Systems relies on its proprietary filament cartridges, open-feedstock printers like the H479 will remain the better economic bargain in the long run.
In terms of up-front costs, though, the Afinia H479's $1,599 asking price will be a challenge for many would-be 3D printer owners. You can find a much cheaper entry-level 3D printer, but in its $1,000-to-$2,000 price range, the H479 is one of the best.