If you're following 3D Systems (DDD -1.40%) and Stratasys (SSYS 1.22%), you might know that both companies' desktop 3-D printer units are growing rapidly, and the desktop market in general is expected to continue experiencing brisk growth. The company that offers products that most please its end users will have an edge on the competition, which will likely result in an edge in financial performance. With this in mind, let's look at how 3D Systems' Cube and Stratasys' MakerBot unit's Replicator printers stack up against each other, according to reviews on Amazon.com. While this is hardly a perfect methodology, it should still provide investors with some insight.

Desktop 3-D printers vs. consumer 3-D printers
First, it's important for investors to distinguish between "desktop 3-D printers" and "consumer 3-D printers." These terms are commonly used interchangeably, though the products are not the same. All consumer 3-D printers are desktop models, but not all desktop models are used by consumers.

Stratasys' MakerBot printers are popular among hobbyists, or "makers," who are consumers, but are generally more mechanically and technically inclined than the average Joe and Jane Consumer. Additionally, Stratasys sells its MakerBot printers to schools -- the education market is one of the company's target markets -- and businesses. 3D Systems, on the other hand, solely targets mainstream consumers. So, not surprisingly, Statatsys' marketing emphasizes features, while 3D Systems' marketing focuses on ease of use.

Three takeaways from reviewing the reviews of 3-D printers on Amazon
I went through ratings and read reviews for many of the 3-D printers available on Amazon, including those made by companies other than 3D Systems and Stratasys. There were quite a few ratings from those who said they had experience using several brands of printers. I gave special attention to these ratings when they sounded legitimate and reasonable. Three quite clear takeaways emerged:

  1. Stratasys' MakerBot printers garner considerably better ratings than 3D Systems' Cube printers.
  2. There is a learning curve for all 3-D printers, and buyers should have decent mechanical or technical abilities or they'll likely end up frustrated.
  3. 3-D printers sold by select private companies are worth exploring.

Here are the ratings for a MakerBot Replicator 2 and a Cube second generation. Keep in mind that these models aren't comparable, as the Replicator is pricier. I chose the models with the most reviews, as the majority of Cube printers only have a couple reviews (almost all poor), which means that just one review can really skew the average rating.

MakerBot Replicator 2

  • List price: $2,199.00
  • Price on Amazon: $1,999.00
  • Number of reviews: 64
  • Average rating: 3.8 stars (out of 5)

Source: Stratasys.

Cubify Cube 3D Printer 2nd Generation

  • List price: $1,299.00
  • Price on Amazon: $969.99
  • Number of reviews: 21
  • Average rating: 2.6 stars (out of 5)

Source: 3D Systems.

Most reviewers were quite satisfied with the Replicator 2, with half (32) rating it 5 stars and 13 giving it 4 stars. Eleven reviewers had major complaints and rated the product 1 star, while four reviewers rated it 2 stars and another four gave it 3 stars. There was much greater divergence in ratings for the Cube. Of the 21 reviews, 10 people gave this product 1 star, while six gave it 5 stars, and a few each gave it 2, 3, or 4 stars. I'm not going into the various features of the printers, as this article is geared toward investors, not those buying 3-D printers.

While the Replicator is the clear-cut winner here, there are two caveats. First, there aren't many reviews for the Cube, which makes the average less meaningful. Second, 3D Systems targets the mainstream consumer, while MakerBot has traditionally targeted "makers," who are likely to be handier than the average consumer. This could lead to more negative reviews for Cubes, as some users could be part of the issue.

There's one negative common denominator that came up quite a bit with both companies: subpar customer service. Given that these are pricey products, it's likely that major frustration occurs if they don't function properly. It is possible that some customers are expecting too much regarding "instant" help. This issue came up enough, however, that consumers considering purchasing a 3-D printer should fully investigate warranty, repair, and return policies.

This snippet from one review echoed the feelings of many: "Don't buy this or ANY 3D printer if you don't have the time to work with it." The review was referring to an entry-level "plug-and-play" model, but this same thought was expressed over and over with respect to very basic models and on up. Most folks who don't want to have to tinker with anything should probably pass on 3-D printers for now.

There are several private companies that make 3-D printers that received very solid reviews. Various Flashforge models -- which are reportedly similar to MakerBot's Replicators, but less expensive -- scored well, as did the UP! Mini 3-D printer, which is priced at only $600. However, Flashforge is a Chinese company, which means the company's return policy could be an issue, or at least a perceived issue, to some consumers. While the UP!'s average score, based on 23 reviews, was a strong 4, a couple reviews echoed this reviewer's experience: "the print head has a very nasty tendency to clog." Additionally, the build box is smaller than that of the full-sized Replicators and Cubes. 

The Foolish takeaway
Some (mostly in the industry) would have us believe that the "3-D printer in every home" scenario is around the corner. While consumers will surely increasingly adopt 3-D printing, it's going to take a while for these gadgets to become quite mainstream, in my opinion. I don't think they'll ever become as ubiquitous in homes as 2-D printers.

Stratasys appears to be in a better position than 3D Systems given the much broader target market for its desktop 3-D printers, not to mention the considerably better reviews its MakerBot printers garner.