We have been evaluating CAD software since 2011. Most recently, we spent over 80 hours comparing 11 programs to find the best software for novice and intermediate users. After all of our research and testing, the AutoDesk AutoCAD 2019 came out as the best overall. This software costs much less than other high-level CAD programs while still giving you access to plenty of tools and learning resources. The support features are also impressive, making it ideal for beginners.
AutoDesk can be used to create many different types of designs, including 2D drawings and 3D models.The software also allows you to find weak areas in designs, making AutoDesk AutoCAD 2019 a great program for architects and engineers. It’s also a good option for students, since the company offers a decent academic discount.
TurboCAD Deluxe 2018
TurboCAD Deluxe 2018 is a basic and easy-to-use CAD program that is perfect for beginning to intermediate CAD users. While it doesn’t contain as many tools and functions as more advanced software, it is a powerful tool that can help you create 2D and 3D designs.
SketchUp Pro 2018
SketchUp Pro is a great CAD program for beginners since it offers a simple and customizable interface while giving you the tools you need to create 2D and 3D designs.
Summary: AutoCAD 2019 gives you all the tools you need to create everything from blueprints to photorealistic rendered models. It’s also easy to use and doesn't cost as much as similar software.
AutoCAD is a mid-level CAD program that is easy for beginners to learn, and it doesn't cost as much as similar products. It offers 2D and 3D drawing tools and allows you to add annotations, hatching and lighting effects to your designs.
You can use this software to change the transparency of specific elements or adjust the lighting to present your creations to their advantage. You can also use photorealistic rendering to help your coworkers and clients visualize your projects better.
The 3D tools are impressive and help to render models that are more life-like than other inexpensive programs. That being said, this is intermediate software, so it might not be the best pick for more complex 3D designs.
The interface is designed to be user friendly with large icons and a relatively intuitive layout. However, since there are so many functions to learn, it will take some time and training before you can navigate proficiently. To help make your work more efficient, you can rearrange your toolbars to simplify access to your most commonly used tools. You can also create and employ macros.
The command line gives you access to plenty of commands to help your project move smoothly.
This program also has impressive file compatibility, which gives you plenty of importing and exporting options, and the AutoDesk user community is very active, so you'll be able to find plenty of help from the official user forum or from user-made tutorials. Additionally, this is one of the few CAD programs in our comparison that can work on Apple computers as well as PCs.
TurboCAD Deluxe 2018 is a basic and easy-to-use CAD program that is perfect for new and intermediate CAD users. While it doesn’t contain as many tools and functions as more advanced software programs, it’s a powerful tool that can help you create 2D and 3D designs.
TurboCAD Deluxe 2018 is one of the best beginner-friendly CAD programs available, due to its low price and functions.
This software costs under $200 and includes unlimited technical support, so you won’t have to pay additional money once it’s purchased.
The simple design and large icons make it a great choice for beginners. However, it does lack some tools and features that can be found in more advanced software – the most notable being the lack of a command tool, which is standard for most CAD programs and gives you more control over your projects.
Its 3D rendering capabilities, while not the best, are impressive for the price and can help you make lifelike designs. The toolbars are also customizable so you can rearrange them to make your workflow more efficient.
There is a user guide within the program, but unfortunately, it contains information for all TurboCAD versions, and the information doesn’t always apply to the Deluxe version.
This software allows you to apply hatching and control lighting effects on your 3D models. It is also compatible with a variety of files, including AutoCAD, SketchUp and 3D print files, so there are a lot of importing and exporting options available to you. More advanced users may find this software limiting and less powerful, but it is a great starter program for both Mac and PC users, especially given its low cost.
Easiest to Use
SketchUp Pro is a great CAD program for beginners, since it offers a simple and customizable interface while giving you the tools you need to create 2D and 3D designs.
SketchUp Pro offers a simple interface with large icons to help you quickly find and use the tools you need. You can also rearrange and customize the tools so you can easily access the ones you use most often. Although, unfortunately, this software doesn't offer a wall tool or house wizard, which can slow down the learning process.
The tools themselves are easier to use than many other programs, but they still require some practice. You can use this software to create believable and intricate 2D designs as well as 3D models. SketchUp Pro also provides plenty of materials for adding texture to your creations, and we found the photorealistic rendering to be professional and well done.
It is compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems, but it doesn't work with DWF, DGN or STEP files, which limits your output options.
And while this program is by no means the most expensive in our comparison, it isn't cheap. You should expect to pay around $700 for your initial purchase, and you'll need to pay extra for a technical support subscription.
At the time of this review, SketchUp Pro is using a beta version of its cloud subscription, so you can use it for free if you've already purchased the program. You can also test the regular version for 30 days using the free trial.
Designed and Developed by Dassault Systèmes, SolidWorks 2018 is powerful and easier to use than many other advanced CAD programs on the market.
You will still need professional training, but it will be easier to pick up. The Factor of Safety Wizard examines your designs for any structural weaknesses, letting you isolate any problems and improve them before physical designs are made. This can save you and your company lots of money when it comes to creating prototypes and testing.
It is also relatively low cost for such an advanced program; however, you should still expect to spend a few thousand dollars a year for the subscription, which will include technical support. You will need to request a quote to see how much the software will cost you specifically. But, if you're a student, you might be eligible for a one-year subscription to their student software for about $100. You'll need to contact a SolidWorks salesperson to get this discount.
Unfortunately, this program isn’t available on Mac, so Apple users will need to choose a different program. SolidWorks has an active user community, so if you ever get stumped or want to get opinions from other users, just reach out on the forum.
CATIA is a program for expert and advanced designers and engineers. It is known as being both one of the most powerful programs on the market as well as one of the most expensive.
Additionally, among the CAD-using community, this program is notorious for being difficult to use because of all of its quirks. For example, some commands need to be done in a specific order. If you are planning on using this program, you will need professional training, either through school or through the company's learning courses.
In spite of its quirks and being a difficult program, it is actually the preferred program for many engineers. It gives you more creative freedoms with design options, and it allows you to edit specific sections of your creations.
You will need to contact a CATIA salesperson to determine how much this software will cost you. Just know that it will cost several thousand dollars and isn't a good choice for a hobbyist. If you happen to be in high school or college, there is a student edition, which only costs $99. You will still need to get in contact with a CATIA salesperson in order to get this student edition.
Why Trust Us
While we did not test this software ourselves, we did seek help from professional users to gain insights on each program. We contacted a 26-year veteran electrical engineer in Arizona and a 4-year veteran mechanical engineer in Utah. They gave us tips and told us about CAD usage in their fields, which helped us better understand what to look for and how to evaluate each program. Top Ten Reviews seeks to create unbiased and helpful reviews by researching and comparing the best affordable products on the market.
How We Evaluated
We compared the programs against each other to see which ones provided the most creative freedoms. Programs with more tools scored higher. Of course, just because software offers a tool, doesn’t mean the tool works well, so we also evaluated the power and function of specific tools to determine which ones worked the best. To do this, we scoured the internet, looking at forums and user reviews. This helped us learn what users liked and disliked most about each software and which disciplines used specific tools most.
Any features or tools that made a program more helpful earned the program a higher grade than its competitors. For instance, some programs had the ability to run simulations to discover any weak points before making physical prototypes. These programs scored higher in our comparison.
We evaluated the 3D capabilities of each software by comparing photorealistic rendering results. Software that was more realistic looking, rather than looking like an old video game, scored higher in our comparison. We also downloaded each program’s trial version to see how easy the interface was to navigate. Most CAD programs today provide large icons and easily navigable menus so you can find the tools you need quickly. But some have maintained a dated interface and are harder to use. We gave more points to programs that offer a more navigable layout. We also looked at the file and operating system compatibility of each software program. Programs that worked for both Mac and PC scored higher. Similarly, software that offered more importing and exporting options was rewarded with higher scores.
To test the responsiveness of each software’s support, we sent an email to each company. We evaluated how quickly they responded and how helpful they were at answering our questions. Each of the companies responded quickly to our emails, and they were equally helpful and courteous in their replies.
When we asked an electrical engineer of 26 years what tips he had for new CAD users, he simply stated, "Get training." He elaborated by saying, "Almost every CAD tool has some idiosyncrasy where you can design something completely wrong, so you need to get training. Whether that's online or taking a class – whatever it is, just get the training. Don't think that without any knowledge in the subject matter you'll be able to intuitively use the tools."
Since CAD is such complex software, it would benefit you to attend a training course for any program you use, especially since most programs tend to have quirks that make using each program different from every other program. Fortunately, many of the software programs we evaluated provided at least basic training on their websites or YouTube channels. You can also find additional training on learning websites like Lynda.com or Udemy, although these courses aren't free.
How Much Does CAD Software Cost?
The answer to this question really depends on the level of computer aided design you are planning on doing. The most basic programs only cost between $100 and $1,000, and many manufacturers offer student edition licenses that last a year, either at discounted prices or for free; however, professional programs – the kind used by large corporations and design professionals – will cost thousands of dollars a year in subscriptions. Many programs also only come with a limited amount of free technical support before you’re required to pay for a subscription. These costs can add up over time, so keep that in mind when choosing your software.
You will need to contact a sales representative to initiate the purchasing process for professional-level software and to check your eligibility for student discounts.
What Are the Different Types of CAD?
As you look at various CAD software programs, you’ll quickly realize that some programs specialize in a specific type of CAD. You want to make sure the program you buy matches the type of work you want to do. There are two basic types of CAD: 2D CAD and 3D CAD.
As the name suggests, 2D CAD mainly works with two-dimensional drawings using basic geometry like lines and shapes. According to DesignTech Systems, 2D CAD was first developed in the 1970s for engineering companies. This type of software is helpful when drafting architectural blueprints, product schematics and other 2D engineering layouts.
3D CAD introduces the z-axis, so you can create more realistic models of your plans. It can be broken into three categories: wire-frame models, surface models and solid models.
Wire-frame models are best explained by picturing the 3D look of the original Tron movie. Elements of your designs are displayed as lines, and the background is visible through the design. This style isn’t as popular as it used to be, but it still has its uses, such as for artistic effect.
Surface models allow you to add textures and surfaces, such as shiny, metal car bodies, to your designs. Indovance states “it lacks the 'watertight' feature of solid modeling because if you were to cut into the design, it would be hollow.” Surface modeling is mainly used for aesthetic purposes and visualization.
Solid models apply the same attributes as surface models but also take into account weight, volume and density. This helps engineers understand how their designs work in the real world, taking into account things like gravity. This type of CAD is necessary when calculating any weaknesses or errors in your designs. For this reason, solid models are usually considered the most important and helpful category of 3D CAD.
CAD Software: What to Look For
When shopping for computer-aided design software, a few features and tools stand out as key indicators of good software. During our research, we found that tools like a command line and the house wizard were included with the best CAD software. They also often had comprehensive video tutorials and a few others.tools that helped make them more useful.
You should look for CAD tools that facilitate your specific interests. If you want to create architectural designs, for instance, you will want the best 3D modeling tools you can find. You should have the ability to create textures for different floor plans, as well as a high-functioning wall tool that makes creating walls simpler. If you don’t have a lot of experience, the house wizard is an invaluable tool that walks you through the process of building a virtual structure.
CAD programs often cater to a specific field, whether that be architectural, electrical, mechanical or technical, so you need to make sure you choose a program that best fits your needs.
Since each CAD software program has its own strengths and weaknesses, it isn’t uncommon for engineers and designers to work in multiple programs during the course of a project. You’ll just need to decide which ones work best for you. Here are some things to look for when deciding on the right program:
The professional engineers we spoke to both warned us that free CAD software – and sometimes even purchased CAD software – sends data back to the manufacturer, which allows them to steal your technology and designs. You should check into any company before using their programs, especially if you want to protect your work.
Designing 2D and 3D models is the essence of any good CAD program, so you'll want to be sure your choice has all the right tools. Some programs are only for 2D drawings or 3D modeling, but the best software has plenty of features for both.
For architectural designs, look for a wall tool and house wizard that do some of the work for you. The wizard will guide you through a step-by-step process to design a house by taking the information you provide and creating a preliminary design that you can then revise to your liking.
Photorealistic rendering is another important feature. It enables you to see what your finished designs will look like. Some programs have more realistic and powerful rendering than others and can help your designs look more professional.
All of these tools come with a learning curve, however. The engineers we spoke to told us that since CAD programs offer so many tools and have so many features, you can expect it to take one to two years to learn how to use advanced programs like CATIA or PTC Creo. Simpler programs might take less time, but it will depend on how often you use the software and how much training you receive.
CAD packages should come with many different editing tools. Point markers and layer managers can help you keep your designs organized, and text and color editing allow you to keep notes and differentiate between various elements and pieces of your project. Another editing tool is the snap tool, which allows the shapes and lines that you draw to be snapped to a specific point on your drawing.
Some programs also come with 2D and 3D symbols and include models, so you can use the model as your base rather than creating each small element from scratch.
Some programs also come with an editing tool that allows you to virtually test models for weaknesses. The electrical engineer we interviewed informed us that the best programs allow you to "simulate the living daylights" out of your designs to find and fix any weaknesses before physical production begins, and the mechanical engineer we spoke with said that SolidWorks' powerful error finding tools are one of the reasons why he uses that program.
Whether you're working with a team or by yourself, you'll need to be able to present and utilize your designs. File compatibility is one aspect of CAD drawing software you don't want to overlook. DWG (a file format used in 2D and 3D drawings), DXF (Drawing Interchange Format), DWF (Design Web Format) and DGN (used for large scale projects and similar to DWG) are the most important formats to look for if you're working with AutoCAD.
Additionally, an STL export feature is handy for 3D printing. And for printing or emailing read-only files, look for PDF and various image file formats.
Many programs have resources and features to make the learning process easier. The best programs have customizable tool palettes, a command line – where you type in a command like “symbol” and the program will pull the appropriate menu or dialogue box – and the ability to import existing designs from another location.
The best programs will also have a setup manager, which lets you change the settings on your document, and macro recordings, which let you consolidate and easily access frequently used command strings.
Help & Support
Both 3D and 2D CAD software programs can be hard to learn, so it’s nice to have a support network to walk you through the process. Email is the main source of direct contact with many CAD software manufacturers, but the some companies offer phone support as well. Also, some technical support is only included for free for a limited time, so be sure to read the fine print before you install your software.
Video tutorials, an in-program manual and community forums are also convenient sources for additional help. Many of the websites have video tutorials and PDF manuals you can download. You can also find a wealth of helpful instructional videos on YouTube.