Of the three 3D printers I've used so far, the $1,599 Afinia H-Series H479 is my favorite. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but it's a more precise, and more flexible machine than 3D Systems' first-generation Cube printer, and it's significantly easier to use than the first-generation MakerBot Replicator.
The high price of this printer will remain an issue for many consumers. Post-print cleanup with certain materials can also be a hassle. The fact that you can achieve good prints so easily and so quickly, though, makes the H479 easy to recommend. If you're willing to spend more than $1,000 on a 3D printer, the Afinia H479 should be at or near the top of your list.
|Printer||Afinia H-Series H479||3D Systems Cube (2013)||3D Systems Cube (2012)||MakerBot Replicator (2012)|
|Price (at time of review)||$1,559||$1,299||$1,299||$1,799/$1,999 w/ dual extruder|
|Material(s) supported (officially)||ABS, PLA||ABS, PLA||ABS||ABS, PLA|
|Build platform size||5x5x5 inches||5.5x5.x5.5x5.5 inches||5.5x5.x5.5x5.5 inches||8.9x5.7x5.9 inches|
|Minimum layer height||150 micron||200 micron||200 micron||150 micron|
If the H479 looks familiar, it's because Afinia licensed the design from Chinese manufacturer Delta Micro Factory, maker of the UP! 3D printer. You can find the Up for sale from various international resellers, including U.S.-based PP3DP. Afinia's version looks similar to the Up printer, but the H479 ships as a fully assembled product, and, according to Afinia, has improved wiring to minimize static shock.
In outward appearance, the H479 fits somewhere between MakerBot's plywood-framed Replicator and the injection-molded plastic chassis that houses the 3D Systems Cube. It looks for the most part like a professionally made product, with a folded steel housing painted a pleasing dark red. An exposed ribbon cable leads up from the internal electronics to the extruder head, which looks a little unfinished.
More incongruous with the idea that this is a professionally manufactured product are the extruder cover and fan mount, a cable clip on the back on the printer, and the arm for mounting the spools of printing material, all of which are made themselves from 3D printed plastic. Downright amateurish are the binder clips you use to secure an included special printing surface to the printer's build platform.
The 3D printed parts look a bit rough, but they're all functional, and I've had no trouble with them after using the H479 for over a month. I suppose there's something thematically appropriate (and also cost-saving) about incorporating 3D-printed hardware into the printer. The open-source RepRap 3D printer project relies almost exclusively on printed structural parts for its designs.
Picky consumers might balk at the unfinished-looking printed components. The binder clips, like the cruddy rubber tubing that serves as "feet" for the MakerBot Replicator, are a bigger offense. They suffice, and they're easy to replace, but a purpose-built mechanism would be more appropriate to a finished consumer product.
In addition to the printer, inside the H479's packaging you're met by a 1.5-pound spool of ABS plastic filament to print with (in my case, blue), and a box of accessories. Afinia deserves credit for supplying you with almost every conceivable tool you might need to interact with the printer and your prints. Included are an X-Acto knife and an assortment of blades, a sharpened scraper, a giant pair of tweezers, a small socket wrench, a pair of snipping pliers, three hex wrenches, a plastic tube, and a pair of work gloves, along with the power brick, power cables, and a USB cord.
Why do you need all of those tools? For initial setup, you only need the hex wrench, which you use to attach the plastic support arm that holds the filament spool. The rest of the tools come in later.
The remainder of the setup process more or less follows that of other 3D printers, with a few exceptions. A one-sheet quick-setup guide gives you the basics. The box also contains a longer manual.
Unlike the MakerBot and 3D Systems printers, the H479 has no built-in control, nor can it read design files from a USB key or an SD card. The H479 does have built-in memory, which means that while you need a PC or Mac for setup and to send files, you can disconnect the PC once the print is in progress. Other vendors like to tout their products' ability to print without any help from a computer, but I'm not sure how important that capability really is to most users.
I connected the H749 to a Windows 7 PC and both the printer and the software worked as expected. Afinia's software embodies a reasonable compromise between ease of use and the power to customize printing options. It could be a bit more intuitive. The calibration and support-material option screens in particular are difficult to understand without reading the manual. Advanced users might also wish for more granular control, like the option to turn off support material (coming in a future update, says Afinia), or to load settings profiles to the printer.
One useful feature of the software is that it tracks material usage. If you tell it how much your spool weighs when you first load it, it will log how much material you've used from that spool from print to print. This is handy for a number of reasons, among them that it enables the printer to tell you if you don't have enough material left to print a certain object.
Overall, Afinia's software is better than that of 3D Systems, but it doesn't seem as powerful as MakerBot's MakerWare. Afinia does many things 3D Systems didn't do in its first-generation Cube software--letting you customize object density, print resolution, and the characteristics of the support material, for example. MakerWare, on the other hand, does that and more in its Advanced Settings.
Good PC software is particularly important for the Afinia printer, because it drives all of your interactions with the printer, from loading the printing filament to dealing with the extruder to leveling the build platform and calibrating the nozzle height. The setup sheet walks you through all of those steps. The last two are the only ones that take a significant amount of time, and they're similar to the same processes on the Replicator, requiring you to manually adjust a series of screws underneath the build platform, and then gauge the space between the nozzle and the platform with a piece of paper.