Last year, I bought a 3D printer. Since then, 3d printing has become a bit of an obsession. I’ve owned quite a few printers over the last year and I figured it’s time to do a run-down and some recommendations. In this post, I’m looking at the MatterHackers Pulse XE
Summary: Just buy a Prusa. The Pulse is a very expensive and poorly built i3 clone with bad software and clueless support
The Pulse XE is a clone on the Prusa i3 concept, modified heavily by the folks at Matterhackers. The “XE” is for “extreme” as it is intended to handle the most extreme materials, including NylonX. The bed size is average and it features an all-metal hotend and Bondtech extruder.
At the time I got the Pulse, it was the only pre-assembled high-end i3 clone on the market. The parts list was impressive and lined up with my desires at the time, specifically moving into PETG and more interesting filaments than PLA. I ticked almost all the upgrade boxes and almost every single one of them was a mistake. The whole purchase was a mistake. I learned a lot about what I want in a printer and I’v been able to trick the Pulse into putting out decent prints for a long time now. I’m mostly just trying to make myself feel better about this expensive wasteful purchase.
Let’s get this out of the way with. Holy fuck the Pulse XE is expensive. With no upgrades, the Pulse costs, at time of writing, $100 more than the Prusa MK3S with similar hardware, though lacking a magnetic plate. Once you start upgrading, the Pulse XE can run you close to $2k.
The Pulse in the store today differs from mine in three ways. First, the current Pulse offers an upgrade to a Mosquito hotend which was not available when I bought mine. Second, the base extruder has changed from a SeeMeCNC EZR to a Bondtech BMG, and the option to upgrade to a Bondtech QR has been removed. Third, my Pulse has a power brick on a cord while the new Pulse has integrated the power supply into the frame. Also, interestingly, it seems they’ve dropped the filament sensor.
Given the new changes, I’m going to skip talking about some of the upgrades I got and why they were such a bad idea. It seems MH has decided they were a bad idea too so you can’t get them anymore. Some major problems are still outstanding and most can’t be resolved.
A Bowden Tube? Really?
Let’s start with the most simple. The Prusa i3 design is a direct drive system. The motor and extruder are integrated into the hotend and the filament is fed directly into the top. In the standard Prusa designs, the filament spool is mounted on top, allowing a straight path into the extruder, even for flexibles.
The Pulse design moves the extruder to the top right of the frame, converting the system to a Bowden tube. The tube itself forms an upside-down U. The spool is mounted on the side.
This design choice alone makes the Pulse a hard sell over a Prusa. The introduction of the bowden tube introduces stringing issues, backlash problems, retraction concerns, and difficulty with flexibles. The upside-down U design causes the extruder to lose most of its force trying to push the filament around that curve. In previous models, this caused the bowden tube to get forced out with rough or overly stiff filaments. Newer Bondtech BMGs have a much better clip so this might be solved. Regardless, the U design can also allow the bowden tube to come in contact with the frame, rubbing up against it and causing drag and damage to the tube.
What’s interesting here too is that typically a manufacturer will convert to a bowden tube so they can use smaller motors on the hotend axis or move extra fast. MatterHackers has done neither. The Pulse is only rated for 60mm/s and they use standard sized motors. So it’s a bit of a mystery.
The “32-bit” Upgrade
By default, the Pulse comes with an 8-bit RAMBO processor running Marlin. An upgrade to a “32-bit” board is possible though expensive. The board in question is an Azteeg X5 GT running Smoothieware. I’ll put more details on these remarks in the following sections but this expensive upgrade is worthless. Thanks to MatterControl. the Azteeg’s features and those of Smoothieware go completely unused. Matterhackers does almost no configuration of the Azteeg, prefering to pass everything on to MatterControl. Further, MatterHackers support has no idea what to do with the Smoothieware board. Their help docs assume the Marlin board and they can’t answer questions. Again, their assumption is that you’re using MatterControl and will never touch the board.
If you’re buying the Pulse for the hardware alone, the Azteeg board itself is decent. Smoothieware is a competent software package and works fine on its own. If you’re going the supported route, however, it’s a waste of money.
Which brings us to…
MatterControl is a bespoke 3d slicer by Matterhackers. Version 1 was a modified version of Cura but, as of version 2, it has been completely rewritten. (If you care about such things, it was rewritten in c#). Why does their slicer matter? Well, the Pulse is designed to be run using only MatterControl. Everything is built and configured to be software-driven, using none of the features of the control boards, instead passing that up to MatterControl. Even on a board like the Azteeg that supports one-time mesh bed compensation and leveling using the BL Touch probe, leveling and mesh bed is handled by MatterControl in software.
MatterControl is built under the assumption that it will be run on a machine shackled to the printer, one with keyboard/mouse/monitor. There are no remote control features. There is a “cloud” app that lets you see the progress bar for the print and hit stop but no other status.
The app itself is GPU accelerated and struggles on lower-spec machines. I tried running it on an rpi and failed badly. Luckily, I had a windows laptop sitting idle. Less fortunate folks with a single machine are going to find themselves tethered to their printer.
My understanding is that this is how MatterHackers staff use the Pulse. The printer sits on their desk and is tethered to their workstation. Any other use case is lost because this is not how they use their own printers.
The actual slicing software is really strange. Probably the weirdest part is that you can’t save your modifications to disk. Load up an STL, make changes to the print settings, and you can’t save them to a dedicated file. The assumption seems to be that you will set up print profiles that work for general use cases and always print your models with one of those profiles, making no changes. Again, this is how MatterHackers uses their printers internally and they have not considered those of us who prefer to obsess over our prints.
For those of us who really dislike MatterControl, Matterhackers has one suggestion. Slice the models in your favorite software and then load the gcode into MatterControl to do the actual printing. MatterControl will then apply its notion of mesh bed compensation and print the model. To be fair, this does work. However, now I’ve got a real computer shackled to the printer and its sole job is to pretend to be a control board, and do it with a fancy computer and absolutely no remote control options. And then I also have to properly configure a second slicing package.
On top of it all, the help documentation for MatterControl is nearly non-existent and web searches almost always find the docs for version 1.
I’m not going to rant too hard about support but it is important to comment that they aren’t very knowledgable about an upgraded Pulse XE. They have no training or understanding of the Azteeg board, can’t help with most hardware issues, and can only really talk about the “printer on your desk with a desktop computer” method of using the printer. I found them to be less than knowledgable about MatterControl too. They are good folks and I’ve never had a negative interaction with their support people. I was not often actually helped though.
MatterHackers also has support forums but their staff doesn’t seem to come around much. Bizarrely, the forums are full of folks with lots of hate for Pulse printers and most of their suggestions are “this is an awful design; get a different printer” or “replace all those parts with better things”. While I agree with the sentiment, folks aren’t coming to the forums to get ranted at.
It’s been about a year since I got the Pulse and it’s been active most of that time, mostly out of my desire to squeeze utility out of an overly expensive badly chosen purchase. I’ve gotten some good prints out of it but I always feel like I had to trick the printer.
In short, the Pulse is an i3 clone that manages, with every design decision, to be worse and more expensive than the original. Particularly now that the Prusa MK3S can come pre-assembled, folks should just get a Prusa. If you want an upgrade, look into the Bear Prusa kits.