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Top 8 3D CAD Software

As a student, just going into my third year at university studying Engineering, I feel it’s about time I get proficient at using CAD software. I had a look around for the best software to practice with and I thought I’d share my findings, hopefully to make someone else’s life easier when they might find themselves in the same situation.

Here is, from what I could gather on google, the Top 8 mechanical design software out there:



♦ $875 one-time payment (you get a perpetual license for the software)

It’s very easy to pick up how this software operates if you’re already familiar with CAD.

Most reviewers say this software is expensive for the capability it can offer.

Only available for windows.

#7 TinkerCAD

♦ Free

The tutorials are really good! They are thorough and easy to follow.

However the software is very basic- you move around shapes to create new ones. This software isn’t really appropriate for anything other than learning the basics of 3D design. I could see it being really great for kids though- teaching them the concepts and inspiring them.


#6 TurboCAD (Deluxe 2D/3D) Professional by IMSI Design

♦ £119 one time cost

This is one I hadn’t heard of before…

Using this software you can do a lot: design, draft, detail and model. The level of surface modelling, photorealistic rendering, lighting and materials is very high.

Reviewers repeatedly said it was hard to learn how to use the software to start with. Some users have had slow booting issues and loading/ processing speeds.

Compatible with Mac and windows computers. Not very advanced (doesn’t have as many tools and functions as advanced software).



♦ Cost varies for what functionality you want..

Has a reputation for being the most expensive but student edition is $99- if not a student it costs several thousand pounds (not ideal for a hobbyist)

Apparently CATIA is incredibly powerful with good tools for large  assemblies and complex products.

It can feel very complex, with many different commands and ways to do things.

Users say the graphics are a bit outdated.

With figuratively approx. 50 different types of license levels, you often find yourself switching between environments and licenses, just to perform very simple tasks.

Requires professional training – through school/ company’s learning courses.


#4 SketchUp Pro by Trimble

♦ Costs around $700 per year. Technical support isn’t free- have to pay for it.

This got rated third highest on Capterra (

No annotation functionality.

Too basic at times- need to use a different software for anything particularly complex.

Doesn’t work with DMG, DGN or STEP files- so limits output options


#3 SolidWorks

♦ You have to get a quote. Student and professional licenses are available, from what I can see it’s about $1295 per year

This is the software that my University uses. Ironically it has a very steep learning curve.

The ‘Factor of Safety Wizard’ is amazing- it looks for fault in your design and will help you isolate structural weaknesses/ any problems and show how to improve it.

My university pays for a license for all their students to use but that means we have to use the School of Engineering’s computers to access the software and even our designs. Which means at home, in the library and out of term time, I can’t practice my CAD skills.

Not available on Mac.


#2 AutoCAD by AutoDesk

♦ $1470 a year, $185 a month (only available through subscription)

I feel like AutoCAD is a very familiar name to me, one that is well established in the engineering world.

I’ve never actually used it but reviewers say it is easy to use and learn, and it has really good photorealistic rendering capabilities

Not ideal for very complex 3D projects but a really good CAD software none-the-less.


#1 DesignSpark

♦ Free

Professional, easy to use and supported with loads of training material (video tutorials, written material and a forum to ask any questions).

It has a huge library of 3D CAD models and RS Component parts.

Being a student, DesignSpark Mechanical is favourite choice, not only because it is free (being perfectly honest, that is a big part of it) but reviewers say it is very professional, easy to learn how to use and, as an active member of the DesignSpark Community already, I know there are a lot of helpful people who can support me if I get stuck.


Other Reviews

Anything techy, innovative, new, exciting- I'm there! Engineering Business Management Student from Warwick University

23 Sep 2018, 14:08


September 25, 2018 07:43

Hey Jess!

A pretty well-written article & review of the different options. I think your article is something worth bookmarking.

In line with the plans of DesignSpark & OLS to help bring more dedicated learning content about the DS-related software tools in the near future, you can definitely look forward to learning a lot more tips, and possibly good practices to follow.

I'm a nerd by the way, so I'm not going to pretend to be humble about it. As a matter of fact, over the past 10-15 years, I have been learning about tools like Solidworks, AutoCAD and a no. of other 3D Modeling tools (some that were one-hit wonders for awhile). Plus I also had the privilege of applying those skills for a number of years.

You can stay tuned to this community's news and articles. I will be publishing content here regularly to keep everyone up to date on the potential learning content on OLS.

Anyway, good job on the article!

Keep it up!

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September 25, 2018 07:44

Hi Jess

Thanks for the review and we are glad you like using DesignSpark Mechanical. It’s a great tool and will support you well in University and beyond into your professional work.

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September 24, 2018 08:20

I've used SketchUp, an older version of AutoCAD 3D, TurboCAD Deluxe 2D/3D, and DesignSpark Mechanical. I concur on limitations of SketchUp. AutoCAD was decent among the choices at the time (a number of years ago), but expensive for an individual. TurboCAD was affordable (I've upgraded it several times over the years), and strong on 2D, but using the latest Deluxe version I kept getting frustrated by searching for features, eventually finding them in the 2400+ page manual, but then finding that they were only available in the more expensive versions (Expert at $500, or Pro Platinum at $1500 or $500 annual). One place I worked uses SolidWorks, and from what I saw, I agree it is expensive but impressive, especially some of the analysis capabilities built in.

I spent more time with DesignSpark Mechanical recently when I got frustrated with the missing features in the affordable version of TurboCAD. Those features were present and easy to use in DesignSpark Mechanical. I'm still climbing the learning curve on it, but it seems the best choice so far for 3D work for those who don't have the deep pockets for SolidWorks.

Three more observations:
I've also used Hexagon (from DAZ 3D). It was inexpensive and powerful, but seemed to crash more often than other packages. I haven't looked real recently, but last time I looked it seemed like it was becoming an orphan (in terms of no ongoing development of the program). It seemed strong in the areas of manipulating meshes, so I'd still consider it for some types of application. (Just as I'd still consider TurboCAD for a lot of 2D work.)

I think I read that AutoCAD has recently revamped their pricing and product tier strategy, so might be more affordable now.

A final point - the more capable 3D CAD programs have many features and tools. Depending on what you are designing with them, these features can be very necessary and time-saving. But they come with a learning curve. And unfortunately, manuals these days are mostly digital-media-only, and oriented towards describing the features (which most of them do reasonably accurately), but not as much towards giving you an overview of how tools work together. DS Mechanical has some nice video tutorials, but it would be nice if there were more, including some for explaining common pitfalls and how to get out of them. Kind of a by-task-or-problem set of documentation to go alongside the by-function documentation.

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