3Doodler review: a $99 3D-printing pen just in time for the holidays

I've spent a fair bit of time trying to explain the WobbleWorks 3Doodler to people over the past year or so. My descriptions generally alternate between the company's slightly misleading "3D-printing pen" to "sort of like a hot glue gun that melts plastic, so you can write in the air." Makes sense, right? The company didn't have much trouble getting the message across, though: it raised an astounding $2.3 million on Kickstarter after initially aiming for just $30,000. And really, it may be precisely the product's strangeness that made it a runaway hit with the crowdfunding community in the first place.

In a world of lookalike smartphones, tablets and even 3D printers, the 3Doodler offers something unique, letting users create strange new works of art -- and it does so with a seemingly reasonable price of $99. The pen looks like it may have the "tech gift for the early adopter who has everything" title pretty well wrapped up (though only backers will get it in time for the holidays -- the rest of us will have to wait for a belated early 2014 arrival) But crowdfunding videos aside, how well does it actually work? Is it really a smart way to spend a Benjamin? More importantly, is it actually any fun?

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3Doodler review

Hardware

As the saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes there's a manual 3D printer trapped inside. On the whole, not much has changed to the 3Doodler's shell since its creators first brought an early prototype by our offices back in February. The oblong device is covered in a hard, black plastic casing. It's lightweight and easy to hold between your thumb, index and middle finger, kind of like a stubby pencil. Up top, you'll see two rubber arrow buttons. These will help you control the speeds at which plastic extrudes from the pen. Above this is a small LED that lets you know when the 3Doodler is heating up (solid red) and when it's reached the right temperature for printing ABS (blue) and PLA (green) plastics. On top, you'll also find a big fan -- a bit of a necessity for a hand-held product designed to heat things up to 464 degrees Fahrenheit.

Flip the pen over and you'll see a pectoral fin-like outgrowth, which is where you'll be plugging in the power cord when you're ready to get going. This being a first-generation product, it's not all that surprising that the company had to keep the device tethered. The inclusion of an internal battery would have no doubt added significantly to the weight and footprint of the device. To the left of the power port is a hefty power switch. There are three settings here: Off, PLA and ABS, letting the 3Doodler know how hot it needs to get to print the type of plastic you've loaded in. To the left is a three-pin control port. By using this, and the external mount below, it's possible to mount the 3Doodler to a CNC machine, to help the device truly realize its 3D printer potential.

At one end of the device is a metal tip. It goes without saying (at least it should) that the thing gets hot. Really, really hot. Like plastic-melting hot. So you're going to want to avoid touching that bit when the device is in use. Just in case, though (and to help it earn that 12-and-up designation), the shipping version of the product features a rubber cap that slips over the tip, protecting your delicate artist fingers from most of the blazing-hot metal. Even with the cap on, however, there will still be a bit exposed, so definitely use caution, especially when using the 3Doodler with kids. On the backside, meanwhile, is a small hole for feeding in the plastic strips.

Getting started

The first step of 3Doodling? Plugging the pen in, naturally. The included cord is around six feet long, so you'll either have to find a flat surface next to an outlet or invest in an extension cord. Next, it's time to heat this party up by flipping on the power switch. As mentioned above, the pen works with either ABS- or PLA-type plastics -- both common choices for most commercial 3D printers. When you buy a 3Doodler, you'll have to specify which you want. Mine came with three packs of ABS, which is better for drawing in the air -- a big part of the appeal of the device, obviously. PLA, on the other hand, is better at sticking to surfaces and is a bit more environmentally friendly, being derived from cornstarch (this also means it gives off a less offensive smell went melted). Additional packs of plastic will run you ten bucks a pop.

Heating the device to ABS levels (around 450 degrees) takes just under a minute -- 55 seconds, to be precise. Leave the 3Doodler idle long enough and it'll automatically start cooling off again, but you can get the temperature back up by flipping it off and on again. Once the light's turned blue or green (depending on your material preference), grab one of the plastic sticks and feed it into the loader slot in the rear, pushing it in until you can't push any more. Then press one of the extrusion arrows to start the process. I counted roughly five seconds before I started seeing any plastic flow from the nozzle, but once it starts, you're off to the races.

Drawing

I suspect I'm not blowing any minds here when I tell you that drawing a 3D object isn't easy. My first attempts were shaky at best. I tried drawing a rabbit, only to produce something that looked more like a melted pile of Dali-esque surrealism, or that scribbled Picasso drawing of Don Quixote left on a car dashboard in mid-July. Drawing on a flat surface is simple enough, however, and tracing seems a pretty good place to get started with the new tool. Lay a thin piece of paper over a well-defined image and go to town. I also took a shot at drawing the new Engadget logo freehand and am reasonably pleased with the result -- a basic outline filled in with plastic scribbles.

The trouble starts when you attempt to draw in the air. You're essentially creating the support structure as you draw, designing something to support the plastic as it hardens and dries. It's a sort of race against gravity that will almost certainly result in a lot of frantic scribbling, hence the aforementioned melting effect. There are two extrusion settings, as mentioned above, but I spent pretty much all of my time on the lower setting. I'll have to draw a few more bunnies before I feel comfortable shifting into second gear. I also had some trouble with the dangling bits of plastic that remain when you've halted the extrusion. Do this too many times, and you'll have a bit of a mess on your hands.

Above: Look, a bunny rabbit!

The 3Doodler itself doesn't get too hot, thankfully, though the fan does blow a fair amount of warm air on your hands, which, on a cold December day, isn't entirely unpleasant. The thing did get a bit loud, however. It's not deafening by any stretch, but if your computer's fan started making noises like this, you'd probably check around for an all-night repair shop. And then there's the smell. It's not overpowering, but WobbleWorks should probably avoid sinking its fortunes into the perfume business.

When the plastic piece has run out, the extrusion will slow down and then stop. Just toss another piece in the back and you'll be ready to go again after a few seconds. I was a bit surprised at how quickly I burned through the plastic. You'll want to order a couple of bags while getting started. The 3Doodler won't magically extrude drawing skills if you don't have any artistic ability, so you're likely going to go through the stuff at a pretty rapid clip. When you're finished with a color, you can just pull it out the back if there's still some poking out. If it's all inside the pen, however, you'll have to wait until it's fully extruded.

Wrap-up

As for how fun the 3Doodler actually is, well, that depends entirely on you. I found myself putting the pen down a couple of times out of frustration at my inability to make 3D objects look the way I wanted them to -- a combination of my inexperience with the device and the fact that I'm not even great at drawing the old-fashioned way. Artistic types will likely find some really fascinating applications for the product. I don't, however, see the 3Doodler becoming a tool for business purposes like prototyping -- the results are just too uneven.

If you've got $100 to spare or need a gift for a notoriously hard-to-buy-for friend or relative, the 3Doodler's certainly worth a look. It's pretty well-baked, as far as first-generation crowdfunded products go. Hopefully the company will ditch the cord in future builds, and maybe there's something that can be done with the runoff strands. As for making it easier to use, well that will just take time, practice and a lot of bags of plastic.

85
WobbleWorks

3Doodler

Pros

  • Innovative
  • Affordable
  • Simple setup

Cons

  • Tough to master
  • Tethered connection
  • Can get old fast
Summary

The 3Doodler is fully unlike any product we've seen. Be warned, however: It's easy to use, but hard to master.