Best CAD Software of 2018

Rebecca Spear ·
Digital Photo Editing & Small Appliance Writer
Updated
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We have been evaluating CAD software since 2011. In our most recent comparison, we spent 80 hours looking at 11 programs to determine which ones were best suited for budget-conscious beginners and intermediate users. We found that AutoDesk AutoCAD 2019 is the best software overall since it is easy to use, inexpensive and packed with plenty of learning resources and support. Lots of industries and companies use this software for multiple facets of design, from 2D drawings to constructing lifelike 3D models.   

Best Overall
AutoCAD 2019
AutoCAD gives you all the tools you need to create everything from blueprints to photorealistic rendered models. The software is easy to use and doesn't cost as much as similar software.
View on AutoDesk
Best Value
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.
View on TurboCAD
Easiest to Use
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.
View on SketchUp Pro
Best Overall
AutoCAD is mid-level CAD software that is easy for beginners to learn and 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 represent 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, looking 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 feel proficient. To help make your work more efficient, you can rearrange your tool bars to simplify access to your most commonly used tools, and you can create and employ macros. The command line gives you access to plenty of commands to help your project move more smoothly. This program also has impressive file compatibility, which gives you plenty of importing and exporting options. 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. Mac users, rejoice! This is one of the few CAD programs in our comparison that can work on Apple computers as well as PC.
Pros
  • It's easy to use and learn.
  • It comes with unlimited technical support.
  • It offers impressive photorealistic rendering capabilities.
Cons
  • You can only use this software through subscription.
  • It might not be a good pick for more complex 3D projects.
  • It takes some time to learn how to use the software.
US$195/moAutoDesk
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Best Value
TurboCAD Deluxe 2018 is one of the best beginner-friendly CAD programs due to its low price and relatively powerful 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 newcomers. 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 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, which 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 compatible with a variety of files including AutoCAD, SketchUp and 3D printing files, so there are many importing and exporting options available to you. More advanced users 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.
Pros
  • Its inexpensive.
  • It’s compatible with Mac computers.
  • You won’t have to pay extra for technical support.
Cons
  • There is no command line.
  • The user guide doesn’t contain specific information for the Deluxe version.
  • It doesn’t have as many tools and functions as more advanced software.
US$149.99TurboCAD
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Easiest to Use
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 tool palettes so you can access the ones you use most often.
The tools themselves are easier to use than many other programs, but they still require some practice before you can become an expert. You can use this software to create believable and intricate 2D designs as well as 3D models. SketchUp Pro provides plenty of materials for adding texture to your creations. We also found the photorealistic rendering to be professional and well done, so you can help your clients visualize your creations. It is compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems. Unfortunately, this software doesn't offer a wall tool or house wizard, which can slow down the learning process. While this program is by no means the most expensive in our comparison, it isn't the least expensive either. You should expect to pay around $700 for your initial purchase, and you'll need to pay extra for a technical support subscription if you want it. 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. While it is compatible with many file types, this software doesn't work with DWF, DGN or STEP files, which limits your output options.
Pros
  • It's much easier to use than most other CAD software.
  • It creates believable photorealistic rendering.
  • It works on both Windows and Mac operating systems.
Cons
  • Technical Support is subscription-based.
  • It has some limited file compatibility.
  • It’s somewhat expensive.
$649.00SketchUp Pro
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Designed and Developed by Dassault Systèmes, the imaginative and innovative minds that brought us CATIA and many other high-end programs, SolidWorks 2018 is a powerful software that is easier to use than many other advanced CAD programs on the market.
You will still need professional training, it will just be easier to pick up. The Factor of Safety Wizard examines your designs for any structural weaknesses, letting you isolate any problems and improve upon it before any 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 costing for a program of this level, but still expect to spend a few thousand dollars a year for a subscription, which will include technical support. You will need to request a quote to know how much the software will cost you. Unfortunately, this program isn’t available on Mac so Apple users will need to choose a different program. SolidWorks has a vivacious user community, so if you ever get stumped or want to get opinions from other users just interact with them on the official forum. If you're a student, SolidWorks sells its software at a discount of only $99.95. You'll need to contact a SolidWorks salesperson to get this discounted acquisition started.
Pros
  • This program helps you look for weak areas in your designs.
Cons
  • It isn't available for Mac.
Get QuoteSolidworks
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CATIA is a program for expert and advanced designers and engineers. It is known as being both one of the most powerful program on the market as well as the most expensive.
Additionally, among the CAD-using community, this program is notorious for being difficult to use because of all of its quirks and commands that 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. Now that I've frightened you half to death, let me just say that this is the preferred program for many engineers. It gives you more creative freedoms with design options and you will have more control as 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 the best choice for a hobbyist. If you happen to be in high school or college, check out the student edition, which only costs $99.00. You will still need to get in contact with a CATIA salesperson in order to get the student edition.
Pros
  • It is one of the most powerful CAD programs on the market.
Cons
  • It's one of the most expensive CAD programs.
Get Quote3DS Catia
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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 mechanical engineer of four years living 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, that doesn’t mean it works well. We 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 convenience features or standout tools that propelled a program above others was graded higher than its competitors. For instance, some programs can help you run simulations to discover any weak points in your designs before any physical prototypes are made. These programs scored higher in our comparison.

We evaluated the 3D capabilities of each software by comparing photorealistic rendering results. Software that is 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. Programs that work for both Mac and PC scored higher. Similarly, software that offers 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 them very different from any other CAD program. Fortunately, many of the software we evaluated provide at least basic training on their websites or YouTube channels. You can 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 upon the level of computer aided design you are planning on doing. The most basic programs for beginners only cost between $100 and $1,000. But the professional programs used by large corporations and design professionals will cost thousands of dollars a year in subscriptions. Many programs only come with a limited amount of free technical support, then require you to pay a subscription for continuing technical support. 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.

Many manufacturers offer student edition licenses that last a year, either at discounted prices or for free. You will need to check with each company to see if you qualify.

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, house wizard, comprehensive video tutorials and a few others were all included with the best CAD software.

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, software or computer chip design. So you need to make sure you choose a program that best fits your needs.

Since each CAD software tends to have 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:

Warning
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.

Design Tools
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. It takes the information you provide and creates a preliminary design that you can then revise to your liking.

Photorealistic rendering is another important feature that enables you to see what your finished designs will really look like. Some programs produce more powerful rendering abilities than others and can help your designs look more professional. 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.

Editing Tools
CAD packages should come with many different editing tools. Point markers and layer managers can help you keep your designs organized. Text and color editing allow you to keep notes and distinguish between different elements and pieces of your project. A snap tool allows the shapes and lines that you draw to be snapped to a specific point on your drawing so that they are placed exactly where you need them. Some programs also come with 2D and 3D symbols and include models so you won't have to create each small element individually from scratch. 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. The mechanical engineer we spoke with said that SolidWorks' powerful error finding tools are one of the reasons why he uses that program every day.

Compatibility
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. For 3D printing, an STL export feature is handy. For printing or emailing read-only files, look for PDF and various image file formats for easy transfer.

User Interface
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 in response – and the ability to import existing designs from another location. The best programs also have a setup manager that lets you change the settings on your document, and macro recordings, which let you consolidate and easily access frequently used command strings, to save you even more time.

Help & Support
Both 3D and 2D CAD software 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 best 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 find a wealth of helpful instructional videos on YouTube that will help you refine your skills in using the software.