A Month with the Printrbot Simple Metal 3D Printer

Posted by Scott on Sep 28th, 2014

Over the last month I’ve had the opportunity to borrow/rent a 3D printer from a friend of mine. This was a healthy thing for me, since I had recently joined a local hackerspace (Brainsilo) to have access to a 3D printer a member kept there. With all the hype and excitement around 3d printing, I quickly got caught up in the possibilities and was overwhelmed with all the amazing things I could now potentially create, either of my own design or from sites like Thingiverse.

Having to actually go to Brainsilo to kick off prints was just inconvenient enough, and my ethusiasm just manic enough, that I started to seriously consider buying a printer of my own. Based on my research, one of the best values in 3d printing appeared to be the Printrbot Simple Metal, which you can buy for $539 in kit form or $599 assembled (plus shipping). Thankfully before I gave in to the desire to impulse-buy one of these, I worked out an arrangement to borrow this same model from a friend of mine who was starting to get a bit bored with it. In the end I worked through my obsession and gained more realistic expectations about what 3d printing could offer me.

I’ll reveal the conclusions now: it’s not useful enough for me at this time, but may be worth re-examining what options are out there in another year or so. But I will also say that the Simple Metal does live up to being one of the best value printers you can get for under $1k – I advise getting the heated bed accessory for it (another $100) and setting up an Octoprint networked print server.

My hope was to be able to use this printer to create useful things. A lot of people seem to use them for creating figurines and toys, but I wanted to build enclosures for various embedded boards I had (especially the RaspberryPi). I was disappointed with the results in a number of ways. First of all, printing anything thin-walled or with narrow standoffs wasn’t working for me, because it turns out that PLA is too brittle. Nearly all of the RasPi cases I tried printing fell victim to something snapping or cracking as I tried to fit the board into the case.

RaspberryPi Cases with Broken Parts

RaspberryPi Cases with Broken Parts

The solution here is likely to print with ABS plastic instead of PLA. That requires a heated bed, and the fumes of ABS are not something I wanted to deal with in my home office setup. Another issue which I assume would have been resolved with a heated bed was warping. I saw a lot of warping of anything that had a large surface area (especially embedded board cases). Printing with a brim mitigated this slightly, but still not enough. Printing with a raft fixed the warping issues, but as much as I tried to tweak the raft settings in Cura, the raft was always too strong and more or less ruined my prints when I tried to remove it.

3d printing is still pretty far from a simple usability experience. You have to learn the nuances of your printer, slicer, and even tweak print settings for every kind of filament you’re using. Hmmm….can I get away with printing this without support structures? Often you’ll waste hours trying a print without them and end up throwing it away. The process is quite tedious and iterations are slow.

I did have a few nice successes in printing, though. This particular RasPi B+ case from Thingiverse came out well (at least, the case doesn’t have any parts broken off of it yet, though I did have to tolerate some warping in the print). I have a solid set of parts to build this bulldozer battle bot. And I had fun with one of my neighbor’s kids building this 3d printed walking robot.

3d Printed Parts to Build a Bulldozer Robot

3d Printed Parts to Build a Bulldozer Robot

Overall I’d have to say it’s still worthwhile to wait and see how the technology advances. We’re still in the infancy of 3d printing, and improvements in quality, convenience, and price will be substantial over the next few years. Printing in PLA is mostly useful for toys and prototyping things to eventually make in ABS. Without the ability to print ABS conveniently in my home, I think a 3d printer is still too much of an expensive toy, and if I want a 3d printed item, I’m better off finding a local printer a site like makexyz.com and having them print in ABS and apply the specialized knowledge they have about how to optimize prints with their printer.

Building a Quiet PC

Posted by Scott on Jan 13th, 2012

I recently decided it would be worthwhile to see if I could quiet my computer. It seemed like a good return on investment, given that I spend most of my waking moments sitting next to it.

I’ve always built my desktop systems from components, and generally pick quiet CPU coolers. My curiosity was peaked when reading about PC cases which are specifically designed to quiet sound. They tend to include sound-dampening material on all sides, as well as use specially-designed hard drive trays which isolate vibration from hard drives using rubber grommets. They also use larger intake and exhaust fans, which spin more slowly and quietly.

The best review site I’ve found for quiet components is silentpcreview.com. Having settled on the Fractal Design Define R3 case, I ordered it and figured it would just be a matter of moving the guts of my current system into the new case.

After spending a few hours performing the transplant surgery, I powered the system up and was shocked to find that it sounded even louder than before. It didn’t take me long to determine that it was my video card that was making the most noise. Somehow the quietness of the new case lowered the noise level of every other component, so the video card’s cooling fan was now the primary source of noise.

I haven’t played video games in years, and my current graphics card was likely overkill for running a handful of Compiz effects on my desktop. A bit more research led me to discover that there are a number of passively-cooled graphics cards on the market. Ironically, the one I chose is even more powerful than the fan-cooled one it replaced!

Today I installed the new video card, and the difference is too good to be true. My workstation is for all practical purposes silent – I have to strain to hear the fans. In my excitement I thought I’d share the relevant components I used:

Case: Fractal Design Define R3 w/ the two stock fans
Power Supply: Corsair VX550W
CPU Cooler: Zalman CNPS9900ALED
Graphics Card: Zotac ZT-40606-20L nVidia GeForce GT430

Computer Transplant
(This photo shows the build with my old, actively cooled video card in it)

Oh, and did I mention my CPU runs 5 degrees C cooler than it was in my previous case? You don’t need to cook your system to run it quietly with the right components.

Review of the Sony Reader Wifi (PRS-T1)

Posted by Scott on Oct 19th, 2011

As mentioned in my previous post, I now have a Sony PRS-T1 ereader – my first e-ink device. Rather than run down the specs of it and cover the same things everyone else mentions in their reviews, here are some links you can follow to other reviews which I found useful:

Engadget Review: Sony Reader Wifi

MobileTechReview’s video review

Gadget Review: Sony Reader Wifi Review

I’ve been reading ebooks on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7″ Android tablet for a while now, and never realized until now how much nicer an experience it can be to read using an e-ink device.

Here are a few observations I haven’t seen mentioned in other reviews…

A lot of reviewers prominently note that the device uses a full refresh when turning pages. This is true. However, the Sony is capable of doing partial page refreshes, and does so when bringing up menu items or when using the browser. I’ve noticed some mild “ghosting” effects when partial page refreshes occur, and I’ve heard that this is a common problem on other ereaders which do partial page refreshes. The full page refresh when turning pages doesn’t bother me in the least, and I actually prefer it knowing that it prevents the ghosting problem from occurring.

One thing I have been disappointed about is the Google Books “integration”. I originally assumed that the Reader had the actual Google Books Android application. This is not the case. Instead, when you click on the Google Books “app”, it actually loads the Sony Reader application, but brings you to a section of their site where you can search for the free Google Books. You cannot retrieve or purchase ebooks directly from Google Books using the device. I can however download my purchased books from Google Books and then sync them to the Reader using a PC.

I do find it quite handy to have access to a web browser, even though scrolling on it is cumbersome with the e-ink refreshes. Here’s a tip – don’t use your finger to scroll the web page. The prev/next hard buttons will perform a page up/page down action on the web page, minimizing the refreshing latency.

The glossiness of the plastic bezel hasn’t really been an issue. It does attract fingerprints, but I also don’t really notice it that much. These issues could be resolved by getting a thin gel case if they really bother you. My guess is the type of people who get worked up about such things are also the type who can’t stand to break in the binding of an actual paperback book they’re reading. 🙂

Apart from the unwelcome surprise of the Google Books non-integration, I’m quite happy with this device. Also, there is news that the Reader has already been rooted, so in a short time I look forward to having the ability to install arbitrary android apps on the device. Google Books will certainly be one of them, as will ReadItLater.

A Review of the Archos 43 Internet Tablet

Posted by Scott on Apr 3rd, 2011

After blogging that I bought the Archos 43 to replace my Archos 5 IT, I promised to write a short review of the A43. Well, here it is.

First of all, I am much, much happier with Android 2.2. I’ve found it to be an order of magnitude more stable and responsive than 1.6 was on the Archos 5. I don’t have to worry about app compatibility, and the wifi and power management are rock-solid. I still use it primarily for recreational browsing, ebook reading, checking transit arrival times, etc.

I never thought I’d make use of the camera – which definitely isn’t of high quality – but I actually find it kind of fun to take spontaneous photos of places I’m at or meals I’m eating. The slim form factor and 4.3″ screen make it very pocketable, and I find I don’t miss the larger screen of the A5 as much as I thought I would. Archos has been releasing firmware updates every month or so, and I’m glad they are actively supporting this device.

My biggest (and just about only) beef with the Archos 43 is the resistive touchscreen, which is many times worse than the one on the A5. It seems that Archos tried to make the touchscreen as sensitive as possible, but this results in “ghost” presses and scrolling unreliability unless you are very careful to always use the edge of your fingernail (or a PDA stylus).

The behavior when you try to use the pad of your finger is so bad, I uploaded a video of it to demonstrate:

Unfortunately the section of the video where I was scrolling a web page did not come out (too much constrast), but the Screen Test Toolkit demo made the same point.

I’m never buying a tablet with a resistive touchscreen again, that’s for certain. This problem makes it so I can’t hold the tablet in one hand and scroll web pages with my thumb – everything is forced to be a two-handed effort.

Overall I am happier with the A43 but I feel it still has a serious flaw that I have to continually work around.

A Review of the Archos 5 Internet Tablet

Posted by Scott on Jan 16th, 2011

My interest in internet tablets started when Nokia announced the N770, a really innovative tablet (long before the existence of smartphones) that ran an open source software stack called Maemo. Unfortunately, the N770 was a toy and far too underpowered to be particularly useful. Some time later I upgraded to a Nokia N800, which again was annoyingly slow to use. But it was also just useful enough that I started bringing it with me to read a web article or PDF while taking public transit.

As time went on, a few Android-based web tablets started hitting the market, and I decided to buy an Archos A5IT several months ago. This is a quick review of the device.

Archos 5 Internet Tablet

The Good:

  • It runs Android. Now I could find out what the Android phenomenon was all about (to this day I still don’t own a smartphone)
  • The screen quality is outstanding – very bright and crisp
  • It has decent battery life, and can stand up to multiple days of heavy use before needing a recharge
  • The web browser is decent (the Maemo web browsers were way out of date and incredibly buggy, having something that worked consistently was a big step up for me)
  • It’s a great ebook reader. I use the Aldiko ebook reader and have bought a few DRM-free books in ePUB format.
  • It’s reasonably fast. The usability in terms of application speed is comfortable.

I use this thing daily as an mp3/ogg player, read ebooks and articles on the web, check the weather forecast, and keep up with twitter. I’ve even occasionally used Instant Messaging with it. And of course I played Angry Birds when it was back-ported to Android 1.6.

The Bad:

  • It runs Android 1.6, with no OS updates on the horizon. Archos occasionally releases firmware updates (which are simple to apply over a wifi connection), but Android 1.6 is extremely dated. Bugs I feel are related to Android 1.6 are:
  • The wifi frequently does not re-associate when waking from sleep, about 20% of the time. I then have to go into the settings and manually turn off/turn on wifi to work around this.
  • Everything slows to a crawl as it runs out of RAM. The use of Advanced Task Killer helps in this regard, but doesn’t clean up apps automatically the way I’d like it to. I have to use it to kill apps manually when I notice the slowdown.
  • I can’t run Mobile Firefox, which requires Android 2.x
  • It has a resistive touchscreen, which is generally annoying to use. Every smartphone I know of has a capacitive touchscreen, which requires less pressure.
  • The screen size is unusual, even today with more tablets on the market. The screen measures 4.8 inches diagonally, and for whatever reason some apps like Aldiko and InstaFetch don’t always apply margins correctly, causing odd layout and overlapping issues.
  • The GPS is useless. I’ve tried several times to get it to sync up with the GPS satellites, but even after a half-hour with a good view of the sky it doesn’t even appear to get a full lock on one of them.

I give Archos credit for making an attractive tablet at a reasonable price, and I rely on this thing just about every day. But now that the market is really heating up with non-smartphone tablet options, I can’t recommend it any more. Especially due to the ancient version of Android it still uses.

In fact, I recently decided it’s not worth putting up with these shortcomings any longer, and with a bit of apprehension just ordered an Archos 43 tablet, which is the new generation from Archos, runs Android 2.2, and addresses most (but not all) of the shortcomings I mentioned above. After a few months with the Archos 43 I’ll do a similar review and let you know what I think of it.

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