In this list, I have compiled a list of the top 3 3D Design/CAD programs that have shined in one way or another. The list is in no particular order, as each program is a gem of its own. I call them “best” by comparing them to other programs at the same price point, and with the same target audience (amateurs or professionals).
The list is separated in two parts: One for Sketch-based programs (called Industrial Design programs) and one for sculpting programs. The first is used for high-precision programs that are usually dimension driven and require precision and accuracy. The second is used as a virtual piece of clay, which one can shape however they want.
TOP 3 INDUSTRIAL DESIGN PROGRAMS
I could go on for days on end about SolidWorks. It is truly my favorite program and the one I started with 4 years ago. It is strictly sketch-based, meaning that almost every action you take in the program is defined by a sketch. SolidWorks has a high skill ceiling, as one can choose to work with basic features, or try to make more complex parts with Surfaces.
SolidWorks also features a bunch of extra features in the full version, such as Rendering, Circuitworks, Flow Simulation, and many more. It is the perfect program for simulation research and engineering projects.
It also comes with in-depth tutorials that guide you through the different capabilities of SolidWorks, and because the tutorials are integrated in the program, it can highlight specific buttons, should you not find them.
The two negatives two SolidWorks are the most severe: its hefty price and the lack of compatibility. To explain myself, the full version of SolidWorks costs $3995, which is more than what most have available for a program. But, if you are a student, the school may offer you a free Student Edition of the program, which is nice. The other negative, the lack of compatibility, concerns primarily STL files, as SolidWorks has to create and render each surface, which takes a lot of time for most models, and brings my PC to its knees.
Another problem that I encounter is that files from future versions cannot open in old software versions. For example, I have the SolidWorks 2014 Student Edition program at home, but the school has the 2016 version, meaning that I cannot take my work back home, which is somewhat of an inconvenience, since saving it to STEP files and back solves this.
TL;DR: SolidWorks: Great for professionals/people who want to take CAD design seriously. Some inconveniences apply.
First time I met 3ds Max was in a time lapse of a guy making modeling a tank, and at first sight, I know why so many people prefer this over SolidWorks. To explain myself, SolidWorks has a strict sketch-defined policy, meaning that everything must be created from a sketch, which in turn, must be created in a plane. Plus, making simple alterations to certain objects can be a real hassle because of this policy. 3ds Max corrects this by utilizing both a sketch policy but also a freehand policy, meaning that the user is free to drag, pull, push, or enlarge any object he or she creates, in an instant.
Also note the fact that 3ds Max can also animate, and much of the program’s popularity comes from this fact, as many game designers prefer it as it is all inclusive. It has a great many set of extra features, similar to SolidWorks.
Cost-wise, it has a subscription model, or roughly $1600 per year (the price changes according to the plan you choose)
Tinkercad is simply awesome. It is an online service, meaning that there is no installing required. It loads extremely fast compared to the other programs here, which is handy when you have to design a simple shape, like a cylinder. It follows the philosophy of 3ds Max, meaning that it can be used with dimension and drag & Drop features.
It has a social feature built in, where people are free to showcase and download designs that other people have created, much like Sketchup’s Warehouse feature. Plus, you can download said designs in STL, OBJ, and other colored versions to 3D Print. If you don’t have a 3D Printer, it can also directly connect you to 3D printing services, such as 3D Hubs. It also has the peculiar feature to download your creation to Minecraft. To be honest, I have not tried this yet, but it sounds really interesting.
And, the best part is, it is absolutely FREE, just sign up and you are all set. Go through the tutorials and start off, not CC required!
TOP 3 ORGANIC DESIGN PROGRAMS
Z-brush packs a lot of features in addition to the refined but still fundamental controls of Organic Design. Many a time-lapse have been created that show how incredible detail and beauty can be made in a few hours, and in some simple steps. There is not much to be said about Z-brush, other than it is the most reliable Organic Design program available. The price point is what such a king of software deserves, of $795.
Meshmixer made it easier than ever to, as the name suggest, mix meshes together to create something unique. I still remember how it was introduced: with a competition where the best mix of 2 objects wins. It is a really, plain, and fun program to use. It has some more specific variables and functions that raise its skill ceiling quite a bit. All in all a great, FREE software to buy if you want to start sculpting, or just want an easy way to edit STL files. It also has a “create supports” option which some people use instead of the slicer-generated supports, worth a try.
I really do not know at what phase Sculptris is now, I tested it back when it was in Alpha phase. But even then, this was THE simplest program to use for sculpting. Some sliders, some tools, some smoothing and some mesh tools, and that’s about it. It was a really powerful although simple and limited program. I believe that right now most crashes are fixed, and some weird design choices (for example, due to the way it was constructed, when trying to close an unsaved sculpture and pressing the button saying “Yes” instinctively, it deleted it…) It also crashed a lot, but that is forgivable due to its Alpha nature at the time. Actually, it didn’t crash all that often even at the Alpha phase. It is an all round nice, small, FREE, and beginner-friendly program.