Amie, Let me start with a little overview of the software toolchain, then I’ll fill in the answers to your questions.
To start, you need a digital 3D model in STL format (some slicers can also handle AMF but that is not a widely adopted file type yet). STLs are what you download from Thingiverse and other sites. You can also use a CAD program to create your own model and then export it to STL. Most CAD apps have STL export capability built in.
Next, you need to slice this STL file into gcode. GCode is specific to the machine configuration as well as the final product’s quality (settings like layer height that you select). The gcode file is the actual set of instructions - a program - that your printer uses to print the object. There are a few major slicers available:
Cura, Slic3r and MatterSlice are all open source.
KissSlicer is a dedicated slicer and has a free version and a pro version that costs $42
Simplify3D is a commercial product that costs $149 and does not have a free trial. I can not endorse this product as I’ve had bad experiences with both the software and the owner of the company.
Next you need some sort of host or “control” application. At the simple end, you can print directly from a memory (SD) card inserted into the printer control board or display panel. There are other control applications and one point of confusion is that these control applications often integrate with one or more slicers to create an “all in one” approach. I personally prefer to slice my models separately and then print them from a control application or SD card. You have much more flexibility that way I believe. One reason for this partly addresses your 1st question - the all-in-one approach tends to hide the ini files that control the slicer configuration. They are there if you know where to look for them but the control application uses it’s own user interface for you to set these and this looks very different from the native slicer interface.
Common control applications are:
Repetier Host - free but not open source - integrates with Slic3r
Pronterface - open source
MatterControl - open source - integrates with its own MatterSlicer, Cura and Slic3r
Cura - open source and integrates with Cura or Slic3r slicer
Simplify3d - commercial and only uses it’s own slicer
It is very easy to use any of the above with a Taz printer.
Finally, the last piece of the software chain is the firmware that runs on your printer’s controller board (RAMBo for Taz printers) and interprets the gcode file to move the print head, extruder, turn fans on/off, etc. The Taz printers use Marlin firmware. While it is possible to change to another flavor of firmware, this is an advanced topic. Marlin is open source, repetier firmware is/was open source and these are the common options for Arduino based controllers like the RAMBo.
Shew! I hope that was more helpful than confusing! I frequently see users confused by the relationship between the slicer and controller because of the all-in-one approach. Think about each part of the process separately even if you use an integrated control application. On to the questions…
partially dressed above but: gcode is the actual output from the slicer and is the program that tells the printer exactly what to do to print the model. The slicer needs to know about the printer, the filament being used, and the slicing parameters that define the quality of the finished part and the speed at which it prints (speed is typically inversely proportional to quality). INI files are simply configuration files that Cura uses to store this information to help it generate the gcode. Each slicer has a different way to do this. KISS and Slic3r also use INI files but the contents and names of these are different between the slicers. Simplify3D uses its own thing - a factory file.
All of the host applications have the ability to load and print gcode files rather than use the control application’s built in or integrated slicer. Usually a function like Load gcode under the file menu. Once loaded, you print the gcode exactly as you would if you sliced the model in the host application. So, to use this, you run the slicer application stand-alone like you did with Slic3r. When you slice the object, you save the gcode file somewhere - I have a directory with all of my projects organized in subdirectories that hold the gcode and the original STL for each object. The point is, you need to know where the gcode file is located so you know where it is to load into the host application.
As I presented above and as you are probably now aware, Slic3r (like KISS) is purely a slicing application and does not have controller features. It is a dedicated slicer. It is also commonly integrated into host controller applications because it is open source and has an interface that allows this integration.
- Pronterface is simply an open source control application. You can use Cura, Repetier Host, print from the SD card or even Simplify3D to print the gcode file output by Slic3r. Hopefully that makes sense now.
Pronterface can either be built from the source directly or you can download a ready to run version for Windows, Linux or Mac OSX. More on Pronterface here: http://www.pronterface.com and you can download the ready to run application here: http://koti.kapsi.fi/~kliment/printrun/ for Windows and OS X.
In practice you really only need to think about 1 or 2 applications to print - an integrated slicer/controller or the individual slicer and the host control applications. If you design your own models, then you also need CAD. My recommendation is to pick a control application (Repetier Host is very stable and quite nice) and slicer (KISS is my go-to slicer) and generate your gcode from the standalone slicer. It will go a long way to help your understanding of what the slicer can do.