3D printing is the talk of the town at the moment. Stories are flooding the press about how people are making everything from replacement Lego bricks to full working guns to wearable clothing and prototypes for the latest gadgets.
But it's not just restricted to the professionals - you can get in on the action too, and that's where the second-gen Cubify Cube 3D printer comes in. It's not cheap, but it undercuts the ultra-expensive devices out there and makes 3D printing at home a reality. Is it any good?
Printer ink this isn't
The Cube 3D printer works by enabling you design a three-dimensional product, and then send that design's instruction to the printer, either via Wi-Fi from your computer or by plugging in a USB stick. Unlike a "normal" printer you can't plug in directly to the computer by physical wires - that's reserved for firmware updates only.
Once it's got the instructions, the Cubify gets to work building up your object by printing fine layers of PLA or ABS materials on top of each other. Printer ink this isn't - ABS is the same material used by Lego.
The material comes out of a cartridge hot, but quickly dries into a hard resin and the printing plinth moves up and down accordingly as it builds up those layers. It looks very cool.
While you can get industrial-sized 3D printers that are the size of a cupboard and are used by the likes of Microsoft to design the Xbox One, the Cube is a lot more suited to a home user or someone starting out.
It is fairly small and can easily be put on your desk in an office. It looks a bit like a sewing machine in some respects - not like a standard printer. It sits taller than a standard paper printer too, but takes up about the same amount of desk space.
The Cubify 3D is available in Silver, White, Magenta, Blue or Green finishes - rather than the boring beige standard - for a bit of added personality. Fun stuff.
At £1200 it is still expensive, though, but that's about as cheap as you can buy at the moment.
Within that price bracket there's a limitation to the size of an object that you can create - anything within a cubic 140mm square, hence the name. That's a maximum 140mm tall, deep and wide.
That might sound small but that still gives you plenty of options to make things that you can use to litter your home with. Teacups, chess pieces, Lego parts, jewellery, dinosaurs, the list is endless if your imagination is.
The Cube doesn't come complete with creation software - that's an additional cost - but does include 25 free 3D files designed by professional artists to get you started. It's really helpful in helping you get to grips with what is possible and means that you can be printing something almost as soon as you've got it out of the box. Sometimes a blank canvas can be a stumbling block.
The Cube 3D printer is compatible with the industry standard STL file format. This carries the three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) content that defines the geometry to be printed. This is the typical file type output of a 3D design program or software tool. Something like MeshLab will work, or Adobe has added compatibility with the format in the latest Photoshop CC software.
Preparing the print
The Cube 3D printer does comes with its own dedicated printing software for both Windows and Mac. We used the Mac version and it's fair to say that it's clunky. This is very much a preferable PC application.
The software is centred around making sure your object is able to fit on the printer's printing plinth and therefore making sure you don't go beyond those pre-defined boundaries. A bit like "the margins are outside the edge of the page, are you sure you want to continue?" Microsoft Word prompts then.
Once you import your design you can view it from all angles to make sure the print will work, scale and orient it and then send it to the printer.
The printer prints in both ABS and PLA but you can only print with one material at a time and only in one colour. That also has to come from Cubify, the company that makes the printer - it's not a case of popping to the shops and buying a budget replacement cartridge.
There are 16 different colours to choose from and the cartridge system, which is easy to install, will also let the machine know if you've got enough material for printing your object.
Unlike paper printing there's no "Fast Draft" option: the 3D print process is not quick. In one of our tests we printed a rook chess piece - one of the free designs that is included - and it took 90-minutes. Thankfully it involves little effort from you although you'll be mesmerised for the first couple of goes because it does look very, very cool. It's science fiction stuff.
Just as we were fairly stunned when we printed out our first dot matrix print on paper all those years ago, you'll get that feeling of amazement all over again with a 3D print. Not that we're typically ultra-excited by printing but, you know, this is incredible stuff. It's the future right here.
Our rook now sits pride and place on our desk. It represents that moment; preserved in our own personal tech history - alongside the recently launched Back to the Future Lego set, naturally.
The Cubify Cube 3D printer makes 3D printing in the home a reality and certainly gives you a starting block that's ideal to explore what's possible.
Yes, there are limitations - but for the most part these are to be expected and at the entry-level position the Cube 3D printer pitches itself at.
Be warned though, there is the strong opportunity for this to be a five-minute wonder where you print whatever you can find on the internet and then the printer sits on your desk for the next six months doing nothing.
If you're serious about it and know your CAD software then there's stacks of potential - it just needs to end up in the right hands. Which we expect it will, because at £1200 it's no casual purchase that's for sure. If you want to explore, or are actually looking to use the Cubify for prototyping models, game pieces, or something else on a regular basis for your work, then the Cube 3D printer is perfect for that.
The second-gen Cubify Cube 3D printer is the future, right here, right now - the journey starts here and when 3D printing is as commonplace as any other printing in the future we can all look back, fondly, at where it began to infiltrate the home environment.
Kindly loaned to us for review by uk.dynamism.com