3D printing is still kind of a niche thing; a mysterious and complicated dark alley of the whole maker movement seemingly kept behind a gated wall of complexity, janky hardware and imposing lingo and community. Admittedly, you can buy a 3D printer very cheaply. The most popular one out there, the Creality Ender 3, has models starting around $100 or so.
While there are always those who claim their cheapo printer worked perfect straight out of the box, the general consensus is you’ll have to work and spend more to get them operating with any degree of reliable success. What if you wanted a printer that just, you know, worked nearly out of the box though? For that, you’re edging up to between $500-$1000 or more, which is where the $800 AnkerMake M5 comes in.
While we didn’t expect Anker, a company more known for mobile charging accessories, to release a solid contender for making 3D printing something almost akin to mainstream, the M5 does a lot right. It’s clearly trying to be something “normal” people can use. Where so many other printers look a bit like industrial construction equipment with metal bars and wires out, the M5 looks positively sleek and modern. It looks like something that can stylishly fit in your home office alongside a regular printer.
The M5 comes in two main pieces, a hefty base platform and the gantry frame that holds the printing head. Using the actual packing foam inserts to help keep the assembly steady, you just attach the parts with the included screws, plug in some wires, set it upright, attach the filament holder, and use the mobile app to get it going.
Admittedly, the physical installation isn’t without problems. The two pieces are surprisingly heavy and it’s a little awkward to get everything in place and tightened. Just the same, it only took about 15 minutes and was an overall breeze compared to other printers I’ve put together. Once it’s powered on, you use the app to get the M5 connected to your wi-fi, let it run through its automatic bed leveling procedure, load the filament, and you’re off to the exciting world of 3D printing.
The box comes with a small sample roll of PLA+ filament and a handy toolbox with various things you might need. The arm that holds the printing hot end is capped with a box on one end where you feed in the filament and on the other with a touchscreen interface and built-in camera that watches the print bed. The solidly-sized 235×235×250 mm print bed itself uses a thin flexible, magnetic-coated metal sheet. It’s easy to take off and bend to free any prints that might stick to it.
3D printing in general is a real open-source community sort of activity, because the most popular printers are generally the ones where people immediately replace parts and upgrade them with other stuff. There is an array of printer hot ends (the part that streams the hot filament through a nozzle to actually make whatever it is you’re printing), controller boards, operating systems and virtually every other part on these machines. Cheaper printers are meant to be tweaked and played with, enabling users to learn all about how they work.
This is fine if you’re the sort of person who likes seeing how everything works, tweaking and refining settings repeatedly and dealing with frustration and failures fairly often. The AnkerMake M5 is not meant to be a customizable printer. For the price, it probably shouldn’t be. The printer is designed to work exactly according to its hardware specs and while you probably could upgrade some of it, at this point it’s not recommended.
Thankfully, this isn’t likely to be a concern, because the M5 just worked right from the start. Using the custom AnkerMake Slicer software on your PC (or Mac, although there’s no Linux version), you can wirelessly send the model you want to print to the printer. The Slicer software has built in profiles for certain types of material, but here’s where things get a little complicated.
A slicer program takes a 3D model and essentially turns it into a series of instructions for the printer to follow in order to create that object in real space. This is called slicing and there are a number of third-party slicers available (Cura, PrusaSlicer, IdeaMaker, Simplify3D, to name a few). The M5 can use these if you create a custom profile for the printer and there are valid reasons to do so, but we didn’t test it much with them.
One of the selling points of the M5 is that it’s fast and intelligent, and based on the company’s claims, a lot of the intelligence specific to the M5 is in how it slices models with its proprietary slicer. The Slicer seems like a customized version of Cura and while it’s not as feature laden, it still offered a ton of options for tweaking most aspects of the print.
The default simple profile choice for PLA filament worked exceptionally well overall. PLA is the most popular material to use in 3D printing. It’s forgiving, easy to work with filament that comes in a vast array of styles and colors. You can get gorgeous shiny silk filaments, wood-infused PLA, glow-in-the-dark, rainbow, and more, usually for around $20 a roll for 2 KG, which will print a lot.
PLA is generally what most prints are made with, because it’s the all-around easiest and most versatile material to use. It’s not the toughest or most flexible though, so understanding materials is important to 3D printing. Here is where some of the issues with the M5 cropped up. Testing three different, yet common types of material yielded different problems.
PLA is the baseline-it created smooth, accurate, easy prints-but it’s far from the only thing to print with. In our case, TPU and PETG are also favorite types of filament. TPU is magical stuff. It’s like rubber spaghetti on a roll and can create amazing things. Squishy, bendy, absurdly strong objects are possible with TPU.
PETG is a lot like PLA, but stronger, a little more flexible, and good for making useful parts. It shares a lot of qualities with ABS filament, except it doesn’t shrink or make toxic fumes while printing. I personally love PETG for making all kinds of things, from custom planters and gardening parts to shelf hooks, and a myriad of other random things.
The first experiment with TPU was a disaster. Using the stock TPU profile in the AnkerMake Slicer turned out to be a bad move simply because it didn’t account for the fact that TPU needs to be printed far more slowly than the M5’s normal preferred speed. TPU can be legendarily hard to deal with on most printers, and loading it into the M5 was a bit of a trial. It took several attempts to get the rubbery filament to properly lodge into the extruder part of the hot end so it could spool it through.
Once the speed was adjusted down to something reasonable (from the stock speed of 250mm/s to 40-60mm/s, which is still fast for TPU), it worked great. It was the easiest time I’ve ever had getting TPU going properly, which is impressive.
With that confidence in the machine, I switched to PETG and things fell apart a bit. PETG is a little odd with its starting layer as it can be very trying to get it to stick to the printer bed, but I generally had good luck with it on my previous printer. Here though, I have yet to find the magical sweet spot where it smoothly prints the first few layers without having some unsightly bumps, spots, and stringing of material that just isn’t sticking right.
The odd thing is, when printing something like test cubes, the M5 produced the smoothest vertical walls with PETG I’ve seen. The reasons why one material might be a problem are many and varied. Most likely some slicing setting is off, it’s too fast, the layer height isn’t right, the temperature needs to be adjusted, etc. The filament itself could be the problem. Different rolls react to the same settings differently. One brand and color of PLA might like to print at 195 degrees C, while another likes 205, for instance. Other times, problems can crop up because the filament has literally absorbed too much moisture and needs to be dried out.
Sometimes when a print screws up, it’s because the actual 3D model you’re printing has an error. There are a lot of potential culprits for why something doesn’t work in 3D printing and keeping track can be boggling.
During our testing, the biggest problem that cropped up were clogs and I’m pretty sure they were caused by lingering filament getting caught in the hot end’s plastic “throat” pipe when changing to a different material. In both cases, I had to replace the hot end nozzle to finally solve the issue and it made me appreciate the value of cleaning filament to get excess material out of the hot end.
One issue specific to the M5 is the much-touted AI analysis features that are supposed to monitor your print and alert you to problems. Honestly, at this point it just doesn’t work reliably. The printer would repeatedly tell me there was a problem with the first printed layer when it looked just fine and the camera particularly seems to hate low lighting, when it would register errors for no reason. The filament detector works well though, pausing the print and sending an alert to the PC, printer screen, and the mobile app, to let you know to reload filament.
The app and slicer are geared toward letting you send files wirelessly to the printer, although the app can’t actually slice (yet). This remote app access would make more sense if you leave the printer on all the time, but that in itself has issues. The main complaint is the cooling fans around the hot end are strangely loud and never actually turn off. From the moment you switch the printer on, those fans start going and don’t stop even if the printer is completely idle. It’s a minor annoyance, but annoying nonetheless.
A lot of the problems I encountered over a couple months of testing could be worked out purely on the software end. Better built-in slicing profiles will help immensely and the printer itself has been getting regular firmware upgrades. That said, 3D printing is still complicated and requires effort to learn and troubleshoot.
The M5 is certainly the easiest printer to use I’ve encountered, but I’ve also had a few years of experience with the technology as a whole. It’s still not like printing with paper or even with more user-friendly crafting machines like a Cricut. Just the same, you can do incredible and cool things with 3D printers that make the effort worthwhile and the M5’s slick design makes that initial learning curve a lot easier.