With a robust, portable design, the Printrbot Play is the ideal 3D printer for beginners. Thomas Sanladerer explains why in this Printrbot Play review.
Note: This Printrbot Play review originally appeared on Thomas Sanladerer’s YouTube Channel and is subject to copyright. Text and images have been reproduced with the author’s permission.
So here it is, the Printrbot Play! It’s Printrbot’s cheapest printer, which they consider entry level — and that means it sells at $399. I don’t usually start out with the price of a printer, but it is kinda relevant as to why I think that the Play is Printrbot’s best printer so far… and maybe even the overall best 3D printer on the market right now.
The Play is the printer that is replacing the Simple Maker’s kit, a printer that was a bit cheaper, but really just a minimum viable product — take anything away from the Simple Maker’s Kit, and it’s not a usable printer anymore. And it’s not like it was a particularly well-performing machine anyways. It printed, and that was about it.
The Play is a totally different story here — it feels like a genuinely premium printer, even though you can tell that every single part of this machine is super cost-optimized. And cost-optimized doesn’t just mean cheap, it also means you’re getting more for your money. The Printrbot Play is actually a really massively-built printer.
Printrbot Play Review: The Play has a Sturdy Design
The frame is cut, folded and powder coated steel, mine is red because it’s a pre-production model, but all the internal components have been upgraded to the same parts that are used for the retail version, which comes with a white or black frame.
The assemblies used for the X-axis and the extruder carriage also build on sheet metal, this time made from aluminum because they’re moving parts, and, wow, are these pretty. This is some of the most intricate sheet metal work I’ve ever seen, and it not only makes the assembly of the printer a lot easier, but it also takes out so many possibilities for mistakes, misalignments and failures down the road. (If you don’t want to assemble it yourself, you can also buy the Printrbot Play pre-assembled for the same price.)
And that simplicity doesn’t end there. Since, like all Printrbots, the Play uses a bed probe to automatically adjust for a slanted bed surface, there’s no need to have the bed adjustable — so the bed assembly is literally just a slab of aluminum, bolted to the motion parts. The only thing that’s adjustable there is the belt tension, everything else is done in software.
The entire base of the printer frame is a single part with mounts for the electronics, stepper motors, linear bearings and the Z rods. For linear motion, Printrbot also did not cheap out and went with actual precision 8mm rods and matching LM8UU bearings that get bolted to the frame with injection-molded plastic parts and CNC machined Delrin fittings. And all that makes for a very sturdy motion platform, especially if you’d compare it to one of the Printrbot Simple models, but because the axis are as short as they are, the Play is overall already more rigid than a regular full-size printer like the Prusa Mendel.
Even though the Play’s Z-axis is only driven on one side and the bearing structure isn’t exactly perfect for keeping it from jamming on the other side, jamming or backlash are absolute non-issues thanks to that aluminum backbone that keeps both sides synchronized. You can even pick this machine up and move it around while printing without affecting the print result too much.
Printrbot Play Review: Print Quality is Incredible
And boy, does it print well. And that’s not just a “good for $400 printer”. I’ve seen printers that cost four times as much and didn’t print this well. Look at this, this is my Play’s very first print, using the included clear PLA and the stock Cura profile for the Simple Maker’s kit, so basically for the wrong printer, too. But those two are similar enough to the slicer to be interchangeable.
Before printing this, the only thing I adjusted was the nozzle height over the bed’s surface, which is done in the firmware. Everything else, like extrusion widths, speeds, extruder calibration and such were completely untouched. And this print looks better than what my main printer, a big custom Mendel90 produces.
It’s not quite as super-consistent as, say, an Ultimaker or one of the other highest-end machines, but it’s more than impressive for an entry-level printer. Things like overhangs, bridges, corner sharpness, surface quality, small detail reproduction, and all that kind of stuff… That’s all there and up to par, right out of the box.
Printrbot Play Review: Notes on Hotend and Extruder
The version of the Printrbot Play I have here still uses a classic UBIS hotend, but I’ve heard that the Play and the rest of Printrbot’s lineup will eventually be upgraded to an all-metal UBIS, and the printer carriage is already prepared for that. It has two fans in the front, one pointing downwards at the print, providing ample cooling for printing PLA at decent speeds, the other facing inwards towards the hotend and extruder block, which serves as an additional heatsink for the hotend.
Under this fan shroud, the classic UBIS hotend already needed that extra fan blowing over the cold side, as I’ve found that it has a tendency to clog with PLA if you leave it sitting heated up with no filament movement for too long. During printing, when the fan is spinning after the first layer, it worked pretty much flawlessly, all the time. Printrbot is already working on changing this to have that top fan always spinning, independently of the part cooling fan.
The extruder itself is a direct-drive-type Alu Extruder v2. Take note, it doesn’t actually extrude aluminum, it’s just made from aluminum. Basically, it’s an improved and simplified version of the proven Alu Extruder v1, which is used in the rest of Printrbot’s lineup right now. It’s still using a spring-loaded lever with adjustable tension and a stainless steel drive gear, which is about as good as it’s going to get these days with a “normal” extruder.
Printrbot Play Review: Flaws, but not Dealbreakers
There’s a few downsides about this particular setup. One is that the idler tension is not adjustable unless you take off the fan shroud, which can be somewhat annoying until you figure out a tension that works for your filament.
Another is that you have to be kinda careful with the screws that hold everything together here. They thread directly into the aluminum faceplate of the stepper motor, and those threads are fairly easy to strip out. This is an issue all extruders have that are built like this, with everything mounted to the motor, it’s just that you have to be a bit careful when assembling it to get it to last. And use threadlock. Lots of it.
And with this shroud over the printhead, ah, while it does do a decent job of keeping fingers away from the moving and hot parts, it also keeps you from seeing the object building, at least for the first few layers. Maybe, I don’t know, there might eventually be one made from acrylic.
Now, one of the things that I’ve always complained about with every Printrbot was the absolute lack of proper cable management. Sure, there were a few cable wraps and stuff, but a bunch of wiring always ended up being tied to, for example, a stepper motor’s wiring and was straining that last bit of wiring inside the motor. Not anymore!
Not with the Printrbot Play — check it out, the wiring that’s the most strained is the one going from the extruder carriage to the X motor, and not only is the entire wiring sleeved, but there’s now even things like a little Delrin flap there to support that last bit of wiring closest to the carriage where it bends the most.
It was a bit challenging to keep the wiring from sliding over the bed too much, but that last bit of the bed is not used anyways, so it’s not a huge deal. Still, this is something that Printrbot should, and probably will, improve on. And it’s fairly easy to fix yourself, just reorient that flap to point a bit further upward.
Printrbot Play Review: Let’s talk about the Build Volume
So other than that, the one thing that usually comes up with low-price printers like these is flexibility. There’s two, or maybe three, limitations to what the Printrbot Play can do. Number one, it is kinda tiny. I’ve seen Kickstarter printers that are even smaller than the Play’s 10x10x13 cm or 4x4x5 inch build volume, anything smaller than that this might just be too small, but I think the Play’s build volume is big enough. Well, big enough for me, at least. I never used the huge build space my main printer used to have, so made that one smaller, because I just didn’t need it that big.
Let me visualize the Play’s volume for you — I didn’t actually print, like a loaf of bread to fill the entire build volume, that would have taken way too long, so I’m just going to use what I have at hand. This is the size of the build area of the Play, it really doesn’t look that big, but this is the kind of object that fits inside that build volume. Obviously, this mug wasn’t printed. Or this failed buddha from my other printer, this is printable on the Play! Look at that, that fits perfectly.
So, personally, I’d be happy to use a printer that size. Totally fine with me.
Printrbot Play Review: No Heated Bed, so No Printing with ABS
The other two things that are a limitation of the Printrbot Play are that, firstly, it doesn’t have a heated bed, so ABS and some other plastics are very challenging (if not impossible) to print. Secondly, the hotend tops out at 240-ish degrees Celsius, so the higher-temperature plastics are a no-go as well. Now, PLA prints pretty well on unheated blue tape, but if you really want one, a heated bed is pretty easy to add on — you can just stick a heater to the bottom of the aluminum build plate, and that should be good to about 80 degrees celsius, maybe.
The Printrboard, which controls the entire printer, already has everything you need to add a heated bed, the only other thing you’ll need to get is a better power supply. The one that’s included is perfectly fine for the Play out of the box, but doesn’t have the headroom to also power the bed.
And that other thing about the hotend, well, if they do start shipping with the all-metal UBIS, then you can print just about anything. Until then, it still works with PLA, Nylon, any of the wood- or metal-filled filaments, and, if you have that heated bed, even with ABS. Though, I guess the Play is going to be used for PLA 99.9% percent of the time anyways, and that’s totally OK.
Printrbot Play Review: Final Verdict
So what’s left to say about the Printrbot Play? Not much, actually, when you look at the printer itself. We’ve already talked about the price a bit: I still think that what you get for your money here is exceptional.
It does cost the same amount for a build-it-yourself kit or for an assembled one. I’ve enjoyed building the Play, so I’d personally go for the kit again, and would recommend you doing the same if you like assembling fancy tech and have about four hours to spare. But if you don’t and would rather skip right to the ready-to-go printer, that’s cool, too, and it’s not going to cost you anything extra.
Printrbot has also promised to publish all their printer design files as Creative Commons again, and is manufacturing the largest amount of parts for their printers in the United States of America. So you’re not just getting some anonymous Chinese Prusa i3 Clone, you’re actually getting a product that stands for something. I’m not sure if I’m making sense here, but I’m sure you get my point.
Anyways, overall, the Printrbot Play is highly recommended if you can live with the relatively compact build space. It’s well-built, it prints nicely, it looks good, it’s cheap, it’s fire-and-forget-reliable — what more could you want?