Is sub-standard printing software ruining your new hobby? Don’t worry – here’s our pick of the best alternatives for your 3D printer
If you’ve bought a 3D printer, it almost certainly came with all the software you needed to start printing right away. Unfortunately, most pack-in software that comes with 3D printers can leave a lot to be desired.
The good news is that there are numerous third-party options that are likely a better fit for your needs. You’re not just locked to the software your printer came with!
We’ve picked out some of the best third-party 3D printing apps out there, but before we get to that, let’s look at why having a better printing app really matters.
Best 3D printing software: At a glance
|Autodesk Meshmixer (Free)
|Check price at Autodesk
|Best for CAM hobbyists
|AutoDesk Fusion 360 (From £0)
|Check price at Autodesk
|Best for designing from scratch
|Shapr3D (From £0)
|Check price at Shapr3D
|Best for making models from complex data
|Check price at MeshLab
How to choose the best 3D printing software for you
The main purpose of a 3D printing app is to take a digital 3D model, prepare it for printing and then coordinate with your printer to successfully complete the print. The 3D printing app you use is a critical component in the printing process, and the difference between one app and the next could be the difference between a failed print and a successful one that stands the test of time.
However, it’s common for 3D printing enthusiasts to use different apps to handle the different phases of the 3D printing process, as not every piece of software will offer a full set of features.
What are the key features to look out for?
Ease of use
One of the main reasons people struggle with the software that comes with their 3D printers is a lack of user-friendliness. 3D printers aren’t a niche, geeky product any more, so you shouldn’t be expected to have a degree in engineering to understand what the buttons in your app do.
We’re looking for apps that can get your print going in minutes, while still allowing you to get your hands dirty under the hood and tweak things if necessary.
Compatibility and file formats
If you want to use an app directly with your 3D printer, then the software has to support that printer. Alternatively, if you’ve found a 3D printing app you love but it can’t talk to your printer, then it should at least export your model in a format the printer’s own app can understand.
The most common 3D print file format is .STL, and so we expect any software to work with those files. However, .OBJ files are also common and often imported from sources not intended for printing, so that’s another key file type to support. G-Code and FBX files are worth noting as well.
READ NEXT: Best 3D printers
The best 3D printing software you can buy in 2024
1. Autodesk Meshmixer: Best 3D printing software overall
Price when reviewed: Free | Download from Autodesk
Meshmixer is the go-to app to prepare 3D models before you send them to your 3D printer. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, Autodesk has ceased development of Meshmixer. The program is still an excellent tool, and works just fine, but it won’t be receiving any future updates.
For years, Meshmixer has been an essential tool in the 3D printer kit, letting you prep models for life as real-world objects. You can ensure that a model is solid for slicing, scale it, hollow it out to save on filament, generate support material and more.
Since Meshmixer has been around so long, there’s a wealth of tutorial material on the internet and plenty of community support. Since it’s free, it’s a great place to start if you’ve just bought a 3D printer and aren’t happy with the software (if any) that came with it.
Key specs – Functionality: 3D model preparation and analysis; Supported file formats: STL, OBJ, PLY, AMF, 3MF, OFF; Feature tools: Support structure generation, mesh smoothing, hollowing models; Precision: Variable depending on model complexity; Interface: Interactive 3D model manipulation; Connectivity: Direct export to printing software
2. Autodesk Fusion 360: Best for CAM hobbyists
Price when reviewed: Free to £66/mth | Download from Autodesk
When you visit the Meshmixer website you’ll see a big notice proclaiming that Fusion 360 is where Autodesk is now spending its time. The full-fat professional version of this cloud-based software has a price tag that’s nothing to sniff at, but in typical Autodesk style there’s a free version of the software for personal use.
While the CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) features of this free version are limited, for most hobbyists the smaller set of tools and options might prove to be an advantage. You could work to step up to more complex software, or perhaps this software will prove sufficient and you’ll never need to dive any deeper.
The free version of the software can export STL and OBJ files, and you can print directly from the software if you don’t want to send your model to a separate tool first.
Key specs – Functionality: Full CAD, CAM, CAE with 3D print preparation; Supported file formats: STL, OBJ; Feature tools: Generative design, advanced simulation, 5-axis CAM; Precision: High-precision modelling and simulation; Interface: Cloud-based with comprehensive design tools; Connectivity: Direct 3D printing
3. Shapr3D: Best for designing From scratch
Price when reviewed: Free to £30 | Download from Shapr3D
Shapr3D can take you all the way from a concept sketch to a final 3D model ready for manufacturing. A single subscription covers Mac, Windows and iOS, which means you can go from working on a design at your desk to tweaking it on-site on your iPad.
The free version of the software is limited to just two projects and only supports low-resolution prototyping, so really it’s just a glorified demo, but the annual and monthly fees are both reasonable if the basic version proves to be the right modelling tool for you.
Once you’ve created your model using Shapr3D, you can export it in one of several widely used 3D printing formats and turn your design into a real object. It should be noted that the Pro licence is free for students and educators and it comes with a 14-day free trial, too.
Key specs – Functionality: CAD modelling from sketch to production; Supported file formats: Exports STL and other formats; Feature tools: Direct modelling with Apple Pencil and touch; Precision: High-resolution prototyping and manufacturing; Interface: Intuitive on Windows, Mac and iOS; Connectivity: Cross-device seamless integration
4. UltiMaker Cura: Best for precise 3D model preparation
Price when reviewed: Free | Download from UltiMaker
“Slicing” is a crucial part of the 3D printing process, as the model is broken into virtual layers representing each layer that the 3D printer will physically lay down, one atop the other. That’s what UltiMaker Cura is designed for, with over 400 settings to prep and adjust your 3D model so that it slices perfectly.
Not that you have to mess with any of those hundreds of tweaks; you can prep your model in just a few minutes by using the recommended settings. So if you really don’t know what you’re doing, you should be just fine letting the software make all the important decisions for you.
Key specs – Functionality: 3D model slicing and print preparation; Supported file formats: STL, OBJ, X3D, 3MF; Feature tools: Over 400 settings for slicing customisation; Precision: Layer-by-layer slicing precision; Interface: User-friendly with recommended and custom modes; Connectivity: Compatible with various 3D printers
5. OctoPrint: Best for remote printer monitoring
Price when reviewed: Free | Download from OctoPrint
3D printing is a long and laborious process, and so it’s normal to leave your printer running overnight, or have it running unsupervised in a room where the noise (and fumes) won’t bother anyone. But there’s nothing worse than checking in on a print only to realise it failed hours ago.
Some modern printers include apps that let you monitor how your printer is doing, but OctoPrint takes that to the next level. It’s a totally free and open-source application that lets you control and monitor your printer from anywhere. You can even set up a webcam feed to check on the print’s progress and see stats about temperature, as well as take remote manual control of the printer and update its firmware.
There’s far more to mention than we have space for here, and the learning curve may be moderately steep, but with a great community offering help and additional plugins, this is an indispensable tool. If you use OctoPrint, do consider donating to the project, since that’s the only source of funding for its development.
Key specs – Functionality: Remote 3D printer monitoring and control; Supported file formats: Compatible with G-Code; Feature tools: Extensive plugin system, webcam feed for monitoring; Precision: N/A; Interface: Web interface accessible via browser; Connectivity: Via Raspberry Pi, USB, Wi-Fi
6. MeshLab: Best for making models from complex data
Price when reviewed: Free | Download from MeshLab
MeshLab is fundamentally similar to MeshMixer, but turned up to 11. With this app, 3D data can come from many different sources, and they all need their own unique preparation before you can print a model that works.
For example, a “point cloud” made by using a laser scanner on a real-world object needs to be fused and made solid, then polished before it can be printed with good results. While you can do this with MeshMixer, MeshLab lets you perfect every detail of your model before finally attempting to print it.
A free and open-source application, MeshLab is available on numerous platforms, including Windows, Linux and macOS. While it’s not the most beginner-friendly tool, there are numerous detailed tutorials, notably the Mister P. MeshLab Tutorials, which are linked on the official MeshLab site.
Key specs – Functionality: Processing and editing of 3D triangular meshes; Supported file formats: Various 3D data formats including PLY, STL, OFF, OBJ, 3DS, VRML 2.0, X3D, COLLADA; Feature tools: Editing, cleaning, healing, inspection, rendering; Precision: Detailed mesh processing and refinement; Interface: Advanced with a suite of tools; Connectivity: File export for 3D printing