The Best CAD Software of 2023

Looking to take on a career or hobby with computer-aided design? Whatever the case may be, these are the best CAD software programs on the market for beginners to professionals.

By Tom Scalisi | Updated Apr 13, 2023 12:34 PM

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The Best CAD Software Options

Photo: istockphoto.com

Long gone are the days of sketching, erasing, and tracing designs on large drafting tables under uncomfortable fluorescent lighting. Today’s designers take a much more convenient and sophisticated approach, using CAD (computer-aided design) software to create, modify, and simulate products and structures, and the process is much faster with far more flexibility.

While computer-aided drafting is an excellent skill set to have, finding the best CAD software to fit a person’s particular needs should be a top priority. Building those skills and creating those designs comes next. This guide will help explain the best CAD software programs on the market.

  1. BEST OVERALL: Fusion 360
  2. RUNNER-UP: Rhinoceros
  3. BEST FOR BEGINNERS: SelfCAD
  4. BEST FOR ARCHITECTURE: AutoCAD
  5. BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: FreeCAD
  6. BEST FOR BUSINESSES: CATIA
  7. BEST USER EXPERIENCE: NX
The Best CAD Software Options

Photo: istockphoto.com

What to Consider When Choosing One of the Best CAD Software Options

Knowing what to look for in a CAD program is incredibly important. Experienced CAD users might have an idea of what they liked or disliked about their previous software, but those who are new to the drafting world might want some guidance. The following sections will explain everything a CAD shopper needs to know to ensure they’re not paying too much for software that exceeds their needs or wasting their money on underpowered software.

Developer

Software is designed and built by developers, and there are essentially three kinds to consider: large developers, small developers, and open-source or community developers.

Large developers have the resources and teams to keep programs updated and offer top-notch customer support, but the programs are typically expensive. Smaller developers might be more affordable and more niche specific, but they don’t have the same resources that larger developers have. Finally, open-source developers or community-developed programs are usually low cost and provide access to forums, reference materials, and videos, and they’re also updated often.

Each type of developer has its merits and drawbacks. For hobbyists and freelancers, smaller developers or open-source software is usually fine. For those building high-tech products or working with powerful clients, it might be best to choose a larger developer.

Tools and Best-Use Cases

The industry the user works in or their intended use for the program will play a major role in choosing the best CAD software. Designers and engineers building parts with high-tech materials and exacting tolerances for the aerospace or automotive industries will need a more powerful CAD program than those who are designing at-home 3D printing projects. Those types of projects may require basic beginner CAD software.

One might think that upgrading to a higher-powered program would ensure that all of their needs are covered, but this might not be the case. Powerful CAD programs aren’t typically beginner-friendly, and they require some knowledge and skill to even get the drawing started. Instead, it’s best to purchase a program that fits the type of projects the user will be creating rather than splurging for all-encompassing capabilities.

Cost

The cost of CAD programs varies widely. Users can expect to pay anywhere from a few thousand dollars for a program to barely anything at all (free programs do exist). Many offer monthly subscriptions that allow for low payments, but users can often save money by paying for the year (or lifetime license) up front.

It’s usually best to find a program that fits the user’s actual needs first. Purchasing a cheap program because it’s affordable only to find out that it can’t handle the project would be a waste of money. Equally as wasteful, however, would be spending top dollar for a high-powered program with capabilities the user doesn’t need.

Operating System, Processor, and Memory Requirements

For a CAD program to work properly, the computer itself needs to have the power and speed to keep up. First, users will want to ensure that the computer’s operating system is compatible with the software. Some programs may work only with Mac iOS, while others may only be compatible with Windows.

Processor speeds and memory requirements will also impact how the program runs. Computers with underpowered processors may experience program crashes when rendering drawings or making changes. There are two approaches for a user to consider: find a program that meets their current system’s capabilities or be prepared to invest in a new machine.

Software Interoperability and Native File Formats

Different programs often need to communicate with one another through the design process. While the CAD program has its own job to do, it may need to be compatible with management software or manufacturing programs.

Also, there are times when file formats have to change during the design and manufacturing process. Whether it’s switching from one software program to another, or a machine that requires a certain file type, CAD users in manufacturing settings will want to find programs that can handle their needs.

User Resources and Support

There are times when, despite best efforts, it seems impossible to manipulate a facet of the project correctly, or a rendering just won’t come out the way it should. In those head-scratching moments, having some support to rely on can make all the difference.

Large developers often have libraries full of blog articles and videos to help users navigate the different tools and features their programs offer, as well as on-staff customer support agents to answer questions in real time. Open-source developers often have a community of folks willing to lend their expertise, acting more like a think tank or cooperative than a user manual. Smaller developers might not be able to offer immediate customer service or support, but they will often respond to inquiries within a day or two.

Our Top Picks

With that background covered on how to choose a computer-aided design software program, it’s time to start shopping. The following are some of the top products on the CAD market.

Best Overall

The Best CAD Software Option Fusion 360
Photo: autodesk.com

Why It Made the Cut: Fusion 360 is a CAD software for Mac and Windows that allows users to combine all of their design, manufacturing, and engineering software needs with one program.

Product and part designers as well as 3D printing enthusiasts looking for one program that can take them from concept to manufacturing will want to consider Fusion 360 from Autodesk. This program can handle CAD, CAM (computer-aided manufacturing), CAE (computer-aided engineering), and PCB (printed circuit board) needs, all of which are available with cloud-based storage.

The software is able to take a 3D CAD software model and flatten it into a 2D drawing, which can be helpful when attempting to pull measurements for manufacturing and material ordering. It also has a library of standard components from brands like LEGO, Mitsubishi, Philips, and more that designers can use in their drawings, saving time and simplifying the design process.

Fusion 360 has plenty of features and power for most users (though older computers may not run the program as efficiently). The program allows multiple users to access and work on the project at one time to optimize collaboration and limit friction. Costs range from $70 a month to $545 a year. Autodesk provides free software to students and start-ups, helping to enrich the engineering and design world out of the developer’s pocket.

Specs

  • Developer: Autodesk
  • Best-use cases: Product/part design, 3D printing
  • Cost: $70/month; $545/year; $1,635/3 years; free for students and start-ups
  • Operating system requirements: macOS Monterey 12.0, Big Sur 11.x*, Catalina 10.15, Mojave 10.14; Windows 11, 10 (64-bit)
  • Processor requirements: x86-based 64-bit, 4 cores, 1.7 GHz or greater
  • Native file formats: .F3D
  • User resources: Blog, self-paced learning, YouTube channel, community forums, technical support

Pros

  • Fully integrated cloud-based CAD, CAM, CAE, and PCB software
  • Facilitated real-time collaboration
  • 3D-to-2D drawing conversion
  • Library of standard components available for import
  • Free for students and start-ups

Cons

  • Reports of occasionally slow operations

Runner-Up

The Best CAD Software Option rhinoceros
Photo: rhino3d.com

Why It Made the Cut: Rhinoceros offers a wide range of design-industry applications and offers a lifetime license, making it a robust choice for almost any user.

Folks looking for a flexible program that they can grow with (and get plenty of value from) will want to consider Rhinoceros. This program is suitable for part design, freeform surfacing, 3D printing, footwear design, jewelry design, and data-driven design. Rhinoceros is flexible and can help users get down to the details, thanks to optimized project organization with distinctive layers. This feature allows users to break their drawing down to track all of the elements individually.

There is a community of folks creating new plug-ins that allow users to tailor their Rhinoceros program to their exact needs. With all of those plug-ins on top of the expansive program also come plenty of shortcuts and hot keys, and they take time to learn. Luckily there will be plenty of time for learning, though, as Rhinoceros users purchase lifetime licenses, which also saves them money in the long run.

Specs

  • Developer: Robert McNeel & Associates
  • Best-use cases: Part design, freeform surfacing, 3D printing, footwear design, jewelry design, data-driven design
  • Cost: $995 for lifetime single-user commercial access
  • Operating system requirements: macOS Ventura 13, Monterey 12.4, Big Sur 11.6, Catalina 10.15.7, Mojave 10.14.6; Windows 11, 10, 8.1, VDI
  • Processor requirements: Intel Mac or Apple Silicon Mac; 64-bit Intel or AMD
  • Native file formats: .3DM
  • User resources: Tutorials, community forums

Pros

  • Wide range of industry applications
  • Optimized project organization by way of distinctive layers feature
  • Active online community
  • Perpetual software license available

Cons

  • Potentially challenging to adapt to software shortcuts

Best for Beginners

The Best CAD Software Option SelfCAD
Photo: autodesk.com

Why It Made the Cut: With a low barrier to entry in terms of cost and user-friendliness, SelfCAD is a top choice for beginner drafters and hobbyists.

CAD software can feel intimidating, especially when it’s designed for experienced engineers and costs more than a mortgage payment. But with SelfCAD, neither of those concerns are an issue. This program is designed for new users learning how to draft and honing their 3D printing crafts. It’s straightforward and features an intuitive user interface, as well as interactive tutorials and a blog to make learning new skills or troubleshooting easier.

SelfCAD doesn’t have all the capabilities of larger, more powerful programs. However, it does have a flexible operating system and processor requirements, meaning users don’t have to worry about upgrading their computers just to run the program. There is a free version as well as monthly or annual subscriptions. Users can save in the long run by purchasing a lifetime license as well.

Specs

  • Developer: Aaron Breuer
  • Best-use cases: Learning, 3D printing
  • Cost: Free; $14.99/month; $139.99/year; $599 for lifetime access
  • Operating system requirements: macOS; Windows 7, 8, and 10
  • Processor requirements: 2+ GHz (2.8+ GHz recommended)
  • Native file formats: .STL, .MTL, .PLY, .DAE, .SVG
  • User resources: Interactive tutorials, blog

Pros

  • Straightforward, intuitive user interface
  • Thorough interactive tutorials available
  • Free and relatively low-cost versions available
  • Perpetual software license available
  • Flexible operating system and processor requirements

Cons

  • Somewhat limited capabilities

Best for Architecture

The Best CAD Software Option AutoCAD
Photo: autodesk.com

Why It Made the Cut: AutoCAD is the industry standard for architects, as it excels at creating and maintaining large, complex projects.

Professional and aspiring architects already know that the AutoCAD program is more or less the industry standard for architecture, but it’s for good reason. If everyone in the industry is using the same software, there are very few issues with compatibility, and everyone feels like they’re speaking the same language.

This program allows users access to controls and functions that many other software do not, allowing users to get into the minute details of very large projects. The software is able to organize all these details and maintain them, making it possible to design and engineer building plans without losing data and compromising the project. Unfortunately, AutoCAD is only available on Windows, but it puts a wide range of commands and functions at the PC user’s fingertips.

Specs

  • Developer: Autodesk
  • Best-use cases: Architecture
  • Cost: $235/month; $1,865/year; $5,595/3 years
  • Operating system requirements: Windows 11 and Windows 10 version 1809 or above (64-bit)
  • Processor requirements: 2.5 to 2.9 GHz (3+ or 4+ GHz recommended)
  • Native file formats: .DWG
  • User resources: Tutorials, community forums, instructor-led training

Pros

  • Widely used, industry-standard software
  • Powerful program with a wide array of commands and functions
  • Capable of managing large, complex projects

Cons

  • Only available on Windows

Best Bang for the Buck

The Best CAD Software Option FreeCAD
Photo: freecad.org

Why It Made the Cut: As the name suggests, FreeCAD doesn’t cost anything and gives users the ability to create concept and part design.

Whether it’s a new user who isn’t sure CAD is for them, or someone who just needs to create a one-off project, FreeCAD might be the right option. This free drafting software program is a community development project, which means multiple folks worked together to create a free program that everyone can benefit from for concept and part design, as well as 3D printing. It’s also considered to be an easy CAD software program to learn and use.

FreeCAD is a 3D CAD open source program that gives users the ability to create their own animation features using Python or C++ coding languages. Also, since the program is community-based, users can share their animation or processes with other members. And while the software itself may be somewhat limited based on its open-share, free platform, the active online community and blog provide a resource for folks looking for answers, support, or new plug-ins.

Specs

  • Developer: Community development project
  • Best-use cases: Concept and part design, 3D printing
  • Cost: Free
  • Operating system requirements: Not specified
  • Processor requirements: Not specified
  • Native file formats: .FCStd
  • User resources: Blog, community forums

Pros

  • Totally free of cost
  • Flexible open-source software
  • Active online community

Cons

  • Somewhat limited capabilities

Best for Businesses

The Best CAD Software Option CATIA
Photo: 3ds.com

Why It Made the Cut: With a multitude of modules for different materials and processes, CATIA is a comprehensive design program that takes the place of multiple other software programs.

When it comes to tools for automotive, aerospace, and other high-tech industries, CATIA may be the best choice. This design program encompasses more than just CAD—it also handles manufacturing and engineering functions, allowing it to potentially take the place of two other software programs.

CATIA gives users ultimate control, with multiple drag points that create a mesh design. This allows users to modify simple and complex geometries easily, making CATIA a fit for the aerospace and automotive industries, as well as product design, engineering, and assembly. And while reports of costs are relatively high (CATIA doesn’t list its pricing), there is a wide array of modules designed to expedite the design process. These modules include sheet metal, composite, tooling, assembly design, drafting, rendering, part repair, reverse engineering from scan data, and aerodynamics, among many others. Potential customers may have to reach out to the company for more information about processor and operating system requirements.

Specs

  • Developer: Dassault Systèmes
  • Best-use cases: Automotive design, aerospace design, product design, engineering, assembly
  • Cost: Not specified
  • Operating system requirements: Not specified
  • Processor requirements: Not specified
  • Native file formats: .CATPart
  • User resources: E-seminars, learning libraries, technical support

Pros

  • High level of user control
  • Advanced manufacturing and engineering supported
  • Wide array of modules available

Cons

  • Reports of relatively high cost
  • Cost, operating system requirements, and processor requirements not specified

Best User Experience

The Best CAD Software Option NX
Photo: siemens.com

Why It Made the Cut: NX’s adaptive user interface is not only easy to use but will also predict commands based on the user’s inputs.

Anyone hunting for CAD software with top-tier user experience might consider NX from Siemens. This CAD program is capable of handling a wide range of projects, including product design, engineering, medical design, automotive design, and product lifecycle management. And it does so with an adaptive user interface and a hybrid modeling approach.

NX’s adaptive user interface tracks the user’s activity and inputs at points throughout the project. It then predicts the necessary commands moving forward, allowing users to create and make changes faster and more seamlessly. Also, the hybrid modeling approach allows users to tweak the project using freeform mesh, solid, or Class-A surfacing methods, allowing for greater flexibility during the design process. Some features might run slowly, and the operating system requirements aren’t specified online, but NX does allow for a wide range of file formats.

Specs

  • Developer: Siemens
  • Best-use cases: Product design, engineering, medical design, automotive design, product lifecycle management (PLM)
  • Cost: $278 to $1,098/month (billed annually)
  • Operating system requirements: Not specified
  • Processor requirements: Not specified
  • Native file formats: .JT, .IGES, .DXF, .DWG, .STEP, Solid Edge, Parasolid, .PLMXML
  • User resources: On-demand webinars, e-books

Pros

  • Innovative hybrid modeling approach
  • Adaptive user interface
  • Wide array of native file formats

Cons

  • Operating system and processor requirements not specified
  • Some features may run slowly

Our Verdict

Our top pick for the best CAD software is Fusion 360. It offers users a one-stop-shop program that handles CAD, CAE, CAM, and PCB applications while remaining affordable (free in some cases). Rhinoceros is another powerful option with a wide range of industry applications.

How We Chose the Best CAD Software Options

Choosing a list of the best CAD software was something we took very seriously. We wanted to ensure that every program we offered provided something unique or simply enough value to warrant consideration.

We performed hours of extensive product research compiling software programs we thought might meet our criteria. We then compared all of the different programs, their features, their best uses, and ultimately their prices to ensure that they offered enough value. Those programs that offered the same features for more money were tossed aside, as were the ones that we felt weren’t up to snuff. The programs that remained were given awards based on their strengths.

Before You Use One of the Best CAD Software Options

Even free CAD programs have tons of potential, allowing users to create interactive renderings of objects, products, and buildings. But before users can truly get the most from their CAD software, they need some baseline knowledge.

These programs can be very complex, so taking a few introductory classes might be in order. Many folks head to local community colleges to take one-off classes on CAD drawing, allowing them to create simple objects quickly. There may also be online courses available, but users will need a CAD program of their own to follow along. Advanced use takes time and plenty of training, so users won’t want to get frustrated. It’s best to stick with it, use the program’s resources, and find an online community of other users who can help.

Cost of Using One of the Best CAD Software Options

Pricing for CAD drawing software options can vary significantly. There are free options that users can employ to create simple designs, as well as those that cost a few thousand dollars each year. Where to fall within that range depends on the user’s needs.

For folks who need a simple design platform for a one-off project, a free program may be best. They’ll want to be sure to choose one with plenty of community support. Folks who need a CAD program for a simple project every month or two may want to look for a model that costs around $15 each month, or around $180 per year.

Pros that need high-output software programs will have to pay big bucks. It’s not unheard of for a CAD program to cost more than $1,500 a year, but some very high-end programs don’t even release their pricing to the public.

The Advantages of Using One of the Best CAD Software Options

CAD is a much faster and more accurate way to create models and designs that will eventually see production. Rather than the user needing to measure and sketch items, shapes, and dimensions by hand, the computer can do the calculating instead.

When a model is designed on a CAD program, it’s often viewable in a 3D format. This can allow the user to get a better understanding of the design and if it will work properly. Knowing that the majority of the design flaws are worked out before a part goes to production, or that the layout works before the furniture is ordered for the new addition, can mean significant money savings.

For teams of people, having a software program that they can all access, reference, and use to create models and drawings improves understanding and collaboration. Even for a DIYer who might be working with a friend or family member on a project, a CAD sketch can help explain an idea and provide a plan to work from.

  • Using CAD software to design a model is much faster and more accurate than hand sketching.
  • A 3D rendering allows the designer to see if their model will work as intended before the product hits production.
  • CAD-generated models allow for better collaboration and understanding of the concepts that a project consists of, thereby giving users the ability to work together with a clearer goal.

FAQs

Even with all of that information on CAD programs, there may be some additional questions that need answering. The following are some of the most frequently asked questions about CAD programs.

Q. What kind of computer do I need to run CAD software?

It depends on the software program. However, you will likely need a PC or Mac, as Chromebooks and other lower-powered devices will likely struggle with the program’s demands.

Q. Do I need a license for CAD software?

In most cases, you’ll receive a license key for the software program when you sign your agreement, whether it be an outright purchase or a monthly subscription.

Q. Is it hard to learn CAD software?

It depends on the individual program’s user-friendliness. Programs designed for beginners will have fewer functions but will teach the user the basics of CAD design software without such a steep learning curve. Advanced software for professionals (like some of the best design software for interior designers) can be very difficult to use when you’re new to CAD.

Q. What kind of education do I need to become a CAD drafter?

The base education requirements for a CAD drafter are an associate of applied science or a technical degree. This relatively low barrier to entry can make CAD drafting a desirable career for many folks.

Q. How do I start with learning CAD software?

You can start learning CAD software by taking some adult classes at a local technical school or community college. It’s also possible to learn CAD online, and some of the best online interior design courses or best online landscape design courses may also teach CAD software. Some specific software, like the best deck design software, best kitchen design software, or best landscape design software, may have tutorials built in.