I've been following 3d printing for a couple of years now. I'm pretty much convinced that it's going to be revolutionary. I recently bought a da Vinci printer to play with.
The da Vinci is the consumer-targeted 3d printer available for under $500. The price, for what you get, is very, very good. Finished (not kit) printers with comparable build volumes typically run $800 or more. I've spent the last two weeks playing with one as a first-time printer user, and want to report on my experiences.
THE FILAMENT CARTRIDGE.
The feature that makes a 3d printer "consumer-targeted", at least as far as I'm concerned, is whether it uses open spools of filament, or has a smart cartridge of some sort. The da Vinci uses a cartridge.
Having a cartridge provides a lot of advantages to both the company and the consumer. Examples include:
Filament calibration can come from the cartridge.
Filament type can prevent printing on the wrong filament.
Estimates of filament left can prevent running out of filament during a print.
Basically, using a cartridge makes life for the consumer easier, which will cut down on support calls and hence costs for the company.
The downside is that you have to either hack the printer in some way, or use only the filaments that the company sells you. In particular, this means you can't use a cheaper alternative filament. Some people immediately assume that such companies are subsidizing the printer cost by overcharging for the filament.
This doesn't appear to be the case with the da Vinci. They charge $28 for 600 grams of filament. MakerBot sells open spools for their printers for $48 for 1000 grams, and Solidoodle sells 907 gram open spols for $43. So the cost per gram for these is: XYZ Printing 4.6¢, MakerBot 4.8¢, Solidoodle 4.7¢.
Bottom line - XYZ Printing is selling their (presumably premium quality) filament for about the same price as some of the most respected 3d printer companies in the business. They may still be trying to subsidize the cost of the printer by overpricing the filament. We'll be able to tell if they start trying to defeat the hacks for using other filament.
The real disadvantage to a proprietary cartridge is that you can't experiment with other filament types. When the choices were PLA and ABS, this wasn't really a big deal. But these days, people are printing in Nylon, and there's this marvelous stuff called NinjaFlex that lets you print flexible objects (like watch bands).
Access to those is why I'm probably going to hack my da Vinci cartridges.
I spent most of the first four days with the printer printing calibration objects, figuring out how to get quality prints out of it. I then started printing things I designed or downloaded from Thingiverse.
As noted, to take proper advantage of a cartridge, the da Vinci has to use proprietary software. They leverage that to skip all the printer-specific calibration settings, and just wire those down for their printer and cartridge. This makes printer much simpler and more straightforward than using open source software.
On the other hand - their software isn't very good. You can add and position objects in it, and that's about it. Most of the interesting settings are missing, some of which affect the quality of the print. For instance, it always starts each layer at the same point, which creates a noticeable ripple in the print. The open source software has an option to start each layer at a randomly chosen point, which eliminates that.
Fortunately, you can work around their software. Either open the printer and copy the gcode file to the SD and print it, or add some comments to the gcode file and load it into their software to print.
Other than that, the software seems to get stuck at various points - losing track of the status of the printer (fixed by power cycling the printer) or having objects in the print that you can't manipulate, including removing. This may be an issue with the Mac version only - I haven't tried the Windows version.
The hardware seems to be of generally good quality. My biggest complaint is that they went with a weird three-knob bed leveling system that is confusing to actually use. Especially when two knobs would have done as well, and been easier to use. The other nasty issue is that it sometimes thinks there isn't any filament loaded, though that may be a cartridge-specific issue.
The software in the printer - on the board that controls it - isn't much better than their host software. It will hiccup into an odd error state that seems to be related to misreading one or more sensors in the printer. Again, a power cycle usually fixes things.
In general, their software works ok for test prints. Issues arise if you have very thin objects, or objects with bridging. In general, you can improve things by rotating your objects to avoid those things, using a slower print speed, and enabling the support option.
Third party software does a better job, but isn't as easy to use. At the bare minimum, you'll have to get a config file that's calibrated for that printer and the filament they use. I think it's worth it for final prints.
I'm very happy with it so far. It wasn't quite unbox and print - I had to calibrate the bed first - but it wasn't far from it. No assembly, and the unboxing instructions were better than some of the assembly instructions I've seen for 3d printer kits.
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT
For your final prints, get slic3r and a da Vinci config for it. Use that to generate a gcode file and then print that. To print the gcode file, you can either move it to the SD card on the da Vinci by hand, or run it through xyzifier or use the web version. Then print them on high quality and make sure the speed is set to low.
While the printer has an extruder cleaner and filament catch basin, they don't work perfectly in practice. Hence XYZ Printing recommends cleaning the extruder and the bed after each print for best results. The bed I'm not so sure of, especially if you're printing small parts and can use different parts of the bed.
The extruder, do clean. Actually, clean it before each print. You have to heat the extruder both to clean it (to melt any filament stuck to it) and to print. Since the printer waits for the extruder to cool before lowering the bed after printing, getting prints out while the extruder is hot is interesting - and not necessarily safe. On the other hand, printing immediately after cleaning the extruder saves having to wait for the extruder to heat up between the two actions.
A FINAL NOTE
I'm more convinced than ever that home 3d printing is going to be revolutionary. I expect it to be bigger than home computing. There are two reasons for that:
When I first bought a personal computer, it gave me a sense of empowerment. I could do anything with my data now! If I could think of it, I could do it! I get the same feeling from the printer, only now it's about matter, not just data.
I bought that first computer in the 70s, and I got two responses from people when they found out about it. They either said "That's cool" or asked "What are you going to do with it". I get the same response about the printer.
The question is - what's going to drive it? Personal computers first showed up in the mid 70s. They got widespread use in the office because of electronic spread sheets and word processors. They didn't really take off at home until the world wide web showed up, making lots of data available (we won't ask what most of that data was).
I don't think designing your own things is going to be any more popular than writing your own software. And sharing or even buying things to print isn't going to drive things, at least not the way it's done now. There are some industries where they're already really popular, and there will be more as time passes, but that's still basically office use. I think something will eventually make these things nearly ubiquitous in the home, I just don't know what it is.