Whether you are looking for the right software to fuel your latest design project or picking the best engineering program for a company or class, here’s the best 3D modeling software — and what makes them such popular picks.
Keep in mind, however, this software can be taxing on your system. It’s a good idea to carefully examine the required specifications for running the software in question, before making a final decision. Many developers provide both a “minimal” and “recommended” set of specs. The minimal set will allow you to run the software, but, depending on your computer’s configuration, you may not have access to all the features that you need. Try to focus on recommended or optimal specifications and make sure your hardware can handle it.
Blender continues to be one of the most user-focused design programs available, especially if you’re still a little new to modeling and want a free option where you can learn, play, and then get to work once you’ve familiarized yourself with the program. Because it’s such a large, open-source project, it can do a bit of everything, allowing you to tackle modeling, rigging, animation, simulation rendering, motion tracking, full-game creation, and more. There’s a strong “by artists, for artists” philosophy behind it, which makes it particularly well-suited for independent creators.
Unlike some software on our list, Blender excels at multi-stage development, and is able to handle many different steps toward a completed product. However, while you can learn a vast amount about modeling from both the software and its robust user community, it’s not easy to jump right it. Even preliminary modeling requires a bit of patience, so prepare to spend some time learning the tools — including a few of Blender’s odd control choices.
Cinema 4D ($3,495+)
Maxon’s Cinema 4D software has a tight focus on advanced 3D modeling, which makes it ideal for conceptual product design and those times when you need to add more complex layers to artistic projects. It’s also very slick. The interface is filled with detailed tools, everything has a “help” option associated with it, and the system goes through careful quality control before updates are released, making it more dependable than some alternatives. There’s also a rudimentary version available for less-intensive projects, but it’s good to keep in mind that even the full version doesn’t branch out much beyond detailed 3D modeling. It’s great modeling software, but its limited applications make it less useful for some creators. You’ll also need a Maxon license to use Cinema 4D.
Autodesk Maya ($1,470 annually)
Autodesk’s Maya animation software was recently updated with a new, user-friendly interface that features drop-down menus and highly visible icons. The company has also done a lot of work to integrate tools from Autodesk Mudbox (previously from Skymatter), allowing for more deft polygon sculpting, and letting you reap the benefits of two types of modeling software from a single application. The amount of detail you can achieve in Maya is quite impressive, and the 3D modeling software is ideal for detailed texturing and modeling, along with those with an eye for animation (Maya was integral in the making of Kubo and the Two Strings, for example). Future editions should be even better, too, given Autodesk will likely integrate more Mudbox tools.
AutoCAD ($1,176 annually)
AutoCAD is an Autodesk classic. That said, we’re putting two Autodesk entries in a row to highlight their differences. AutoCAD’s 2D and 3D modeling is designed specifically for engineering, architecture, and product design. Graphic designers and artists won’t find this software very useful, but engineers often learn it while perusing their degree, rendering it a familiar choice for many. The company has also worked to actively update the software, and has added greater customization and a slew of useful sharing tools — including an accompanying mobile app — which make it a great pick for companies. Opting for the free trial may be a good idea if you’re thinking about using the software professionally and want to ensure it has everything you need.
ZBrush traditionally is used as a “sculpting” tool, one that lets you to add greater details after nuts-and-bolts 3D modeling. However, in recent years, a number of updates have come to the system to improve how it works and what it does, including additional tools that allow creators to start building directly in the system and even apply rendering after the sculpting phase. This has turned ZBrush into an excellent, general-purpose tool for artists who need to carefully detail their work and would rather not jump between expensive platforms to get it done.
3DS Max ($1,470 annually)
For those invested in creating high-end productions that will really impress the public, 3DS Max is worth a look. The software — which was used to create graphics for Assassin’s Creed, among other projects — is focused on modeling, ultra-detailed animation, and rendering via Arnold, V-Ray, Iray, and other commonplace tools. Like Autodesk’s other software, the latest updates are pushing further integration and compatibility with 3DS, while focusing on making the software as VR-friendly as possible for developers. However, if you’re more interested in basic modeling than the progression toward full video animation, you may want to look elsewhere.
While modeling software can be notoriously difficult to master, SketchUp is designed for the real world, with feature made for beginners, learners, and more flexible workplaces. The modeling software includes a “3D Warehouse,” which is used to store and share models with the community, as well as a number of extensions that add different pre-built shapes. However, this simplicity also limits the reach of SketchUp; it’s primarily used for architectural modeling, interior design, home planning, and similar projects. There are several versions available, though, each of which is based on your goals, along with both personal and professional use.