Which Firmware Is Better?
You will need to keep in mind many considerations when selecting the firmware for your 3D printer. This article seeks to give you the details of Marlin and Smoothieware, two very popular firmware on the market today. With these facts, you can make an informed decision about your firmware and improve your 3D printer.
By using firmware like Marlin or Smoothieware, you can bypass the usual need to keep your computer hooked up to the printing process printer. All you need is the SD card with the correct G-code that the firmware reads and then translates for your 3D printer. We explain more about firmware in the section below.
The benefit of using open-source firmware is that everything is well-documented, and there is no shortage of community members who can help you if you run into a problem. Forums like Reddit and StackExchange offer many archived remedies for people learning to work with the firmware and who might experience common issues.
In comparing the two trendy options, Marlin was found to be the superior firmware for 3D printers. Marlin’s stepping is much smoother, even at higher accelerations than Smoothieware. Smoothieware has more ringing and sometimes even skews layers from missed steps due to bugs in the code that have not yet been fixed.
- Large support community
- Higher baud rate not well supported
- Over 250 commands
- Easy interface
- Compatible with RepRap systems
- Needs text editing software
What Is Firmware?
For the 3D printer, the firmware is responsible for understanding the G-code sent by the slicer and translating it to the stepper drivers, which control the motors. Simultaneously, the firmware also controls the temperature, flow, acceleration, speed, and other aspects of the 3D printing process while it proceeds.
In essence, firmware translates between the software and the hardware. The software is the written code that developers create in languages like Python, Ruby on Rails, Sapphire, or C++. The hardware is the actual device that performs functions. In this case, the hardware is the 3D printer itself: the nozzle, the printing bed, the arms, etc.
The firmware allows the software to tell the hardware what to do. Whether the commands are coming directly from a programmer modifying the printing process or being read off an SD card, the firmware interprets that code into instructions that the hardware can understand and then follow.
The firmware allows code to become electrical signals or impulses that your hardware processes and then perform. In simple terms, the firmware tells your printer the steps to take when extruding the filaments through the nozzle and continuing through your project as the nozzle moves along the X, Y, and Z-axes.
Marlin and Smoothieware are both classified as open-source, meaning that they are free to use. The open-design movement has brought many inventors and people together to brainstorm and create innovations, like both of these firmware, without any kind of compensation for their time other than the support of other creators like them in the community.
Without the limitations of a private company controlling the inventions to make a profit, creators are free to experiment with everything their hearts desire. It can be incredibly freeing for creators who can afford to create without worrying about whether the product will sell or be popular on the market.
The internet brought creators together worldwide to bring their creations to life by consulting with each other via chatrooms and forums. The presence of these forums is often why open-source software is so easy to use for newcomers. The documentation is extensive, and with so many people in the community, support comes from all sides.
In addition, updates come quickly because so many people are continually working on them. Bugs and other code errors are noticed right away since community members are always awake and ready to try it out and see if they can make any improvements themselves. Coming together to create is a powerful tool.
The type of controller board you plan on using or have access to is one of the most important factors to consider as not all boards are compatible with all kinds of firmware. The controller board essential controls the 3D printer and is the functioning brain of the machine. Without a controller board, your printer would not be able to do anything.
Your controller board will need to be compatible with the firmware you choose, so you might need to reconsider your preferred firmware if it is not compatible with your current controller board. It is possible to switch controller boards if you are very determined to use a different firmware or notice an issue with the board.
Marlin is compatible with RAMPS variants and Arduino/Genuino boards through a process called pin-mapping. Pin-mapping is when the firmware interprets the difference between the code names assigned to individual pins and the CPU hardware’s physical ports. In doing so, Marlin can translate the G-code commands for those ports and direct the movements.
Smoothieware is compatible with most open-source controller boards but was made specifically to take advantage of the Smoothieboard by the same developers. The Smoothieboard has multiple versions on the market, which each has different advantages and disadvantages. They are also easy to modify for whatever uses you aspire to.
Firmware executes on a microcontroller, which is located on the controller board. A microcontroller is a small computer chip that contains one or more memory cores. Laptops and other computers rely on microprocessors instead of micro-controllers, which are used in tools, toys, and other devices that do not require as much RAM.
They are made specifically for embedded systems, which are different from computers in that they often have no keyboard, mouse, or other means of directly interacting with the system. In the case of 3D printers, we can interact with the process through G-code and the screen for entering new instructions or calibrations of the printer.
Micro-controllers are the brain of the controller board, although sometimes the controller board is called the brain of the machine. Each micro-controller understands different types of commands and relays those instructions to different parts of the machine. As a whole, a controller board might have many micro-controllers working together.
However, because micro-controllers do not have very much memory individually, they can only remember simple programs and their settings. When you want to do anything different from normal, you cannot work within the micro-controller using G-code commands and then expect it to remember the complexity of the code on its own.
G-code is the name for computer numerical control or CNC programming language. This language is used to write commands for programs to execute specific functions. Even the simplest of mechanical processes needs a plan to tell all of the components what to do and how to perform the operation.
Typically G-code tells a machine where to go and how fast to perform the function. It also outlines the path that the machine must take during the process of performing whatever function or service the machine was programmed for. Although first invented in the 1950s, G-code has come a long way in the decades since.
G-codes or preparatory codes work by explaining what movements are needed by the machine’s various components to perform the task. That might mean instructing a certain part to heat up or move an inch to the left, depending on the task and the machine being instructed by the G-code commands.
For a 3D printer, the G-code will tell the printer nozzle where to move, how much filament to extrude, and how hot the temperature needs to be to keep the filament in a melty state. The purpose of firmware like Marlin and Smoothieware is to interpret these commands in the software to electrical impulses that the printer can understand.
Marlin is the most popular firmware for 3D printers around the world. When most 3D printing enthusiasts think of firmware, Marlin comes to mind. One reason Marlin is so famous is that it uses cost-effective 8-bit Atmel AVR microcontrollers. These microcontrollers are used by the well-known Arduino/Genuino platform.
Although previously, Marlin did not support 32-bit boards, Marlin 2.x now supports them. The community makes Marlin, and it tries to be compatible with plenty of different modifications and controller boards. They want it to be compatible with as many controller boards as possible so that everyone will feel comfortable switching to Marlin.
Whether you are looking for something low maintenance and easy to understand or more complex, Marlin can fit your needs. Marlin can run on a RAMPS or a RUMBA board, but not on a Smoothieboard or a Duet. If you are switching out the controller board with a new product, you might need to switch firmware just to stay compatible.
You can easily add features to your 3D printer and Marlin can keep up without a problem. The default baud rate is 250,000. Because this baud rate is directly derived from the usual 16MHz clock, it has less jitter and, therefore, fewer errors than the usual 115,200 baud. Still, the higher baud is also not supported nearly as well by drivers and host environments.
- Enormous development team
- Bug-free code
- Supports 32-bit boards
- Over 250 commands
- Interrupt-based movement
- Cannot run on a Duet or Smoothieboard
- Higher baud rate not well supported
- Some companies refuse to share
Smoothie is a free, open-source, G-code interpreter, and CNC control system. It was designed to be a high-performance option for the powerful Smoothieboard 32-bit controller. Smoothieware was created to be user-friendly so that you would not have to spend long hours overcoming a steep learning curve when dealing with the C++ code.
Many people enjoy Smoothieware because of the low barrier to entry and the allowance for customizations. It can even handle using the board for things other than 3D printing if you feel like dabbling in laser cutting. In addition to handling custom configuration, Smoothieware is a fast-growing firmware that has recently seen a lot of improvement.
For hackers, the modular design allows you to add new features without changing the existing core easily. Plus, when you create new code and want to share it with the community, Smoothie’s website gives you fast feedback and has multiple other developers check the code for any bugs that should be removed before it is shared with everyone else.
Smoothieware was created to work on Smoothieboards, a type of controller board that is compatible with many 3D printers. A Smoothieboard is a fantastic board that was made by the developers with unique customizations in mind. The Smoothieboard is not open-source, so it does cost money to buy, but it is the best way to run Smoothieware.
- Support 32-bit boards
- Easy interface
- Compatible with RepRap systems
- Needs text editing software
- Smaller community than Marlin
- It runs best on a Smoothieboard
If you have been using one type of firmware for a while and have decided that it is time to make a change, you might be wondering how to switch. For example, if you have been using Smoothieware and now want to switch to Marlin after reading this article, you should be aware that it may not be as simple of a process as changing out the SD card.
Some of this may depend on why you want to change the firmware. If you just read that one is better than another, but you have not noticed any trouble with your current firmware, you should strongly consider leaving it the way it is. Sometimes changing the firmware can be more trouble than it is worth, especially if your printer is fine as is.
In fact, you might go through your printer and do some troubleshooting if you have noticed sloppy print jobs or other issues with your printing process. Because of the nature of the machine’s components, there are plenty of delicate, tiny mechanisms that might have been knocked loose while the printer was shipped from the warehouse to you.
If all you want to do is continue using your 3D printer for the same types of projects you have made in the past and just need the prints to be a little less sloppy, try checking out one of the multitudes of troubleshooting or calibration guides. It may simply be an issue of needing to recalibrate the nozzle for the new brand of filament you bought.
Reasons to Change Firmware
Typically, people decide to change their firmware for reasons other than ‘my printer’s products don’t look very nice’ because it is such a time-intensive task. It also requires a fair amount of technological expertise, which could result in spending a lot of time browsing StackExchange and Reddit forums for instructions.
One of the major reasons people decide to switch from one firmware to another is that they want to expand their horizons and create projects with special, unique configurations that are not possible with their current firmware or would be exceedingly difficult. Finding a firmware that is more user-friendly for those projects is understandably appealing.
Another reason is that it is a non-Cartesian 3D printer, like a CoreXY or Delta. The measurements and calculations made inside a Cartesian printer are simpler than non-Cartesian printers, and it may be that your current firmware and/or controller board are not up for the challenge of computing for a faster printer.
However, if the latter reason is why you want to change the firmware, it is recommended that you look into whether your current firmware has had any recent updates that you might have missed out on and, again, going through some troubleshooting. You may also need to upgrade or replace the current controller board.
Considerations For Change
However, if you are bound and determined to change your firmware, you will need to ensure a few things before selecting the firmware and possibly a new controller board while you are at it. You will have to take the following things into consideration when you are considering what firmware you want to use and how you will implement it:
- Controller board and firmware compatibility
- Your printing parameters
- What you want to accomplish
- Your ability to prepare and install new firmware
Controller Board And Firmware Compatibility
As stated in some of the sections above, not all firmware is compatible with all controller boards. In fact, depending on what firmware you are planning to install, they might work better on one specific type of controller board. For example, Smoothieware was specifically designed to take advantage of the Smoothieboard’s capabilities.
If you want to run Marlin firmware but previously owned a Smoothieboard, you will find that you cannot mix and match as you please. In general, whatever firmware you want to install will come with recommendations for the types of boards the firmware is compatible with so that you can make the purchase without any reservations.
Unlike Smoothieware, most firmware is not designed for one specific type of controller board. It is both a pro and a con of Smoothieware that it was designed that way. On the one hand, it does mean that you can be confident that your firmware will always work in tandem with the hardware and not be at risk of damaging it in any way with new updates.
However, if you decide later on down the line that you want to switch to a different firmware system, you are somewhat limited. This is the case with most controller boards, however, and Smoothieboards do permit the use of a few other firmware with it, with the caveat that your 3D printer maybe a little more jittery.
Your Printing Parameters
Before you do anything, you need to know what kind of controller board and firmware you are currently running. You can probably get this information from your printer or by looking up the printer’s specifications on a consumer website or the manufacturer’s website. It is generally easy to determine what you are currently using.
While you are there, you should take the time to download the firmware files from the firmware already installed on your printer, assuming you have not configured it at all since you set up the printer. It will make the transition process much easier in the future and give you all of the information you need when choosing a new firmware.
A word of caution: if you are using an industrial printer, you cannot change the firmware. Your business is likely using a trademarked controller board and firmware, and you will not be able to change out the firmware from whatever is currently running on it. Although most firmware is open-source, some of them cost money.
While it might be technically possible to change the firmware by installing a new controller board, it is not recommended because it could damage the printer if the manufacturer made it with this specific firmware in mind. You could end up causing some irreparable issues for the future of the 3D printer that your boss will certainly not appreciate.
What You Want to Accomplish
As noted above, accomplishing things with unique setups might be more suitable for a less-conventional firmware or one that is more than just open-source but is made specifically for innovators. To a certain extent, all open-source firmware allows for customizations on the part of the user, but some do that better than others.
For example, the Marlin community is quite large, and the chances are high that what you want to accomplish is not unique. Someone has likely done it before and has documented their process. Even if they do not have a step-by-step guide (which they might), someone on the numerous forums has likely discussed some potential pitfalls to avoid.
If your idea is truly original, the support community can still be a great boon. By going onto the forums and suggesting your idea, you might inspire others to try it or give you some ideas about implementing your customization. They might be so excited to try it that they help you write the G-code needed to make your ideas work.
The best part is that you can have other people to share both your successes and failures with. Regardless of what open-source firmware you choose, there are plenty of dedicated fans who will be anxious to know what happened with your installation and what kinds of interesting modifications you made, as well as how you made them.
Your Ability To Prepare And Install New Firmware
Knowing your limits is important in every aspect of life, but, as we said above, you will have to go through the long and arduous process of preparing and installing new firmware. Like Smoothieware, some firmware is deliberately designed with beginners in mind and have a low barrier to entry, but the barrier still exists.
You will need to estimate how technologically savvy you are before you start this complicated process. It is recommended that you read through multiple guides and explanations before starting anything in the process to make sure you thoroughly understand what you are getting into. You will need some knowledge of the process to do it correctly.
If your printer is currently working fine and you just want the latest and greatest firmware for your own peace of mind, it is strongly recommended that you leave the printer be for now. You might end up messing with it to a point where you cannot fix the printer, and you could have avoided that if you left it alone in the first place.
That being said, you should never underestimate your own abilities. If you can read through instructions and really understand both the software side and the hardware side of things, then go ahead and change out that firmware. You might be able to enable your printer for laser engravings or add another arm to extrude separate filaments.
If you have been wondering which firmware to use for your 3D printer, you have likely heard of both Marlin and Smoothieware, two popular contenders on the open-source market. After analyzing each’s pros and cons, Marlin is the clear victor for a supportive community now that it can support 32-bit boards.