I've been doing 3D work for awhile now. There are a lot of different software packages out there, both free and paid, and they all tend to focus on slightly different areas related to 3D modeling.
3D Coat is, without a doubt, my new favorite package.
It's not a workhorse like 3DS Max or Maya. It does lack animation, and if you aren't big into sculpting, then it also lacks a good way to create a basic mesh to work from.
The things it does do:
- Sculpt models using voxels, which are extremely fast and get MUCH better results than traditional sculpting methods.
- retopo a sculpt into a mesh, which can be exported into the common formats.
- Import and work on meshes from common formats.
- Unwrap UVs right in the program.
- Paint directly on the model using a wide variety of tools and brushes, which can be created an imported with ease.
- Paint using PHOTO REFERENCE.
- The paint mode works like Photoshop, and has a lot of things you can do with layers
- export normal maps, ambient occlusion, displacement maps, and more
- Create high levels of detail with little effort
- See normal maps AS YOU PAINT.
- Edit UVs
The thing that makes this package seriously rock is that everything it does, it does WELL.
The software is still early in development(V3 was just released), so it does have a few crashes here and there. It doesn't get along well with certain programs running at the same time(Steam, for example), and if you aren't sure what you're doing it can be quite the memory hog - you should have at least 2GB of ram.
There isn't a defined workflow that must be followed - you are free to create your own. This is both liberating and, if you're a beginner, slightly confusing.
That being said - you can learn to use the software competently with a couple of looks at the manual and about a week of playing around with it.
Also, it's inexpensive - it costs less than a semester's worth of books for a valuable tool that you will want to do as much of your time modelling in as possible. When I purchased it, the price for the full pro version was $200, although I believe that has increased to about $300 since then.
If you have ever used ZBrush, Deep Paint, or any other sculpting/painting solution, 3D-Coat kicks the hell out of all of them, hands down.
The developers frequent the forums actively, and add requested features frequently if they feel they are good ideas, so the community is very important to them.
The downloadable demo is full-featured, and did not install any spyware or malware on my system. It's good for 30 days, after which you should certainly have made up your own mind.
I can't recommend this 3D software highly enough! A definite MUST TRY.