Pen plotters are niche tools, but they are quite popular in the Hackster community. So when iDraw reached out and asked me to review the iDraw 2.0 A4 Size Pen Plotter, I jumped at the chance.
Disclaimer: iDraw provided me with this plotter free of charge, but this review is as unbiased as possible. iDraw did not pay for this review and these are entirely my own thoughts.
A pen plotter is a machine that draws on a piece of paper by moving a pen around in two axes, as opposed to spraying ink line-by-line like an inkjet printer. A pen plotter is to an inkjet printer what a vector image is to a raster image. Because the machine is physically moving the pen along a line path, it produces clean strokes instead of pixels.
While pen plotters do still have some utility in the engineering world for producing technical drawings, they are now most popular in the hobby crafting world. Because these machines physically move a pen, users can create beautiful drawings using everything from ballpoints to paint markers. And pen plotters like the iDraw 2.0 aren’t limited to paper, which means users can draw onto other materials (like wood, plastic, fabric, and more).
The iDraw 2.0’s biggest competition is Evil Mad Scientist’s AxiDraw line of pen plotters. The iDraw 2.0 borrows many features from the AxiDraw and even seems to use firmware/software derived from AxiDraw’s. But the iDraw 2.0 is significantly cheaper than the AxiDraw, which makes it quite attractive.
There is also a laser engraving head available for the iDraw 2.0, which I will talk about later in this review.
It doesn’t take long to put together the iDraw 2.0. I was taking my time and I was still finished in around 20 minutes. There is an instruction video to follow along with, which makes the process easy. Though it would be nice to also see some thorough printed instructions for those who can’t watch videos.
The machine arrives partially assembled and the end user only needs to attach the X axis rail and plug in some wires. All of the parts fit together well and I didn’t have any trouble with assembly.
The iDraw 2.0 feels very well made, which is what I would expect at this price point. The frame and both rails are nice aluminum extrusion. The drawing platform seems to be some kind of powder-coated steel, which is ferrous so that magnets can hold down the paper. The X and Y axes ride on V-roller wheels with stepper motors pulling the belts. The steppers are generic, but are of decent quality.
The only controls on the machine itself are the power switch and a pause button. I would have liked to have seen some physical controls for basic operations, such as homing or dropping/lifting the pen. As it is, one can only perform those functions through software on a connected computer.
Speaking of the pen, the lift mechanism is simple and effective. A thumb screw secures the pen and a stepper motor moves it up and down. The lift mechanism has a spring, which allows for some flexibility if the configured drop distance is incorrect. The pen mount can accept a wide range of pen sizes and shapes, which is great if you plan to use something other than a typical ball point
The iDraw 2.0 is controlled through Inkscape vector drawing software or LightBurn laser engraving software, though one could probably also use just about any g-code sender software if necessary. Inkscape is a convenient solution, since you can create your digital artwork, prepare it, and control the machine all in the same place.
It is worth noting that the iDraw extension for Inkscape seems to be derived from the AxiDraw extension. In fact, when you use the Inkscape installer provided by iDraw, it adds both the iDraw and AxiDraw extensions. They look and act very similar, and the original version of iDraw Control even says it is based on AxiDraw. That AxiDraw extension is open source, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the connection.
Setting up a plotting job is pretty straightforward once you understand the concept. The software needs to move the pen in strokes, which means it needs paths to follow. This is why Inkscape is ideal, because it is vector drawing software. Inkscape has fundamental utilities to convert artwork or text into a series of paths that the iDraw extension can work with.
Unless you’re already familiar with pen plotters or similar machines, you will probably need to do some experimentation to understand how raster images convert into paths and how those paths look as plotted strokes. But even right off the bat, you should be able to get some nice drawings without too much trouble.
My only real complaint about the software is that it is rudimentary. If you don’t know g-code, then you’re stuck with the built-in commands and those are only for the most basic functions. For example, there is no interface for returning the current coordinates and jogging the machine is clumsy. That can make it difficult to plot something at a specific location on the paper.
The iDraw 2.0 plots quickly and cleanly, which is what matters for such a machine. I couldn’t see any segments in curved lines that would result from poor stepper resolution or coordination. Both axes moved smoothly, and the lifting mechanism worked well.
I did notice that if the pen drop distance was set to a small value, the pen wouldn’t reach the paper in some areas. This suggests that either the platform isn’t completely flat or that the XY axes aren’t completely parallel to the platform. That isn’t a problem for pens, since the lift mechanism’s spring acts as a buffer. But it would be an issue for some tools, like markers, since it would result in a thicker stroke in some areas than in others.
There are laser engraving heads available for the iDraw 2.0 and I was sent one. Unfortunately, I was unable to test this functionality because I believe that it is unsafe. They do supply a pair of protective glasses, but that is all.
A lot of literature is available online regarding laser safety, but suffice it to say that it is irresponsible to operate a laser like this without a protective enclosure. Even with your eyes protected by the glasses, it would be easy for the laser to hit your skin, someone else’s eyes, or simply a flammable object in your home.
You can make your own decisions about whether or not that is worth the risk, but I can’t condone improper laser usage.
The AxiDraw may be iDraw’s most direct competitor, but the real competitors are crafting machines like those from Cricut and Silhouette. Many models from those companies are more affordable than both AxiDraw and iDraw pen plotters, while also offering far more user-friendly experiences and several other tool options.
There are two reasons that you might choose an iDraw 2.0 pen plotter over those crafting machines. The first is that it can work with thick and rigid materials, like wood, instead of just materials like paper. The second is that it is hackable. A crafting machine isn’t meant for modification or tinkering, but the iDraw 2.0 is ripe for hacking.
If you’re trying to decide between an AxiDraw or an iDraw and cost is your primary concern, then the decision is obvious. The iDraw 2.0 is more affordable and doesn’t seem to lack any features that the AxiDraw possesses.
If you just want a machine that can draw on paper or cardstock, then a crafting machine like a Cricut is probably a better choice. It will be cheaper, easier to use, and will have a better selection of tools (such as vinyl-cutting knives). But if you want the ability to draw on something like a plank of wood with a paint marker, then a plotting machine like the iDraw 2.0 is necessary.
If you do decide to buy an iDraw 2.0, you can use this code to receive a 20% discount: idw2vip