Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer Suite 8.0 (*Est. $100) appears to be leading the pack in ease of use. One of the keys to Home Designer Suite's success may be the fact that it was designed for Better Homes and Gardens by Chief Architect, whose primary product is Chief Architect X1, a professional architectural software product priced at just under $1,500 (and that's for the basic version).
Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer Suite 8.0 comes with an extra DVD with over 30 video tutorials. Experts say the videos are especially helpful in getting started with the software. Home Designer Suite lets users start with a particular home style, furnished with default items in a given fashion. From there, users can change and make substitutions. In reviews, experts like this feature because it allows casual users to get started quickly. As with other software, users can also create rooms from scratch. You can preview your finished work with a virtual tour, dollhouse view, and 2D or 3D walkthroughs. Owners posting at Amazon.com rave about the Home Designer Suite's many design tools, online support and ease of use, although we didn't find any reviews at press time for the newly released version 8.0.
If you've ever wondered how your new home will look at night, Home Designer Suite 8.0 allows you to see your design during virtual daylight hours or after the sun goes down. Its landscaping toolbox comes with a library of over 1,500 plants (including a plant encyclopedia) and outdoor items, and it will automatically generate a 3D view of your landscape design. PC Magazine's reviewer Troy Dreier likes that Home Designer Suite (he reviewed an earlier edition) includes a database of 1,500 finished home plans. You can review the plans and even buy them if you like. There are also several other helpful features, such as point-and-click color for walls and floors. Reviewers add that although Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer Suite is easier to use than other software, it's not without an occasional glitch. Owners posting reviews for the previous version to Amazon.com weren't able to make roof adjustments, such as putting a full dormer on a cape house. They also found the stair tools difficult to use. But overall, owners are far happier with Home Designer Suite than with other home design software.
Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer Suite comes with tools for interior rooms (including kitchen design and bath design), along with landscaping design and deck design software. Included are tools for estimating costs and materials. Also available are some less extensive versions of the software that get mostly good reviews from users at Amazon.com. Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer 8.0 (*Est. $60) is a scaled-down version of Home Designer Suite, although it does include cost estimators. Better Homes and Gardens Interior Designer (*Est. $60) , focuses on interior elements, kitchens and baths, but it also includes more items in its furnishings library, along with an Inspiration Gallery, how-to advice on designing, and a cabinet designing tool with over 1,000 samples. If you don't want the interior design options, Better Homes and Gardens Landscaping and Deck Designer 8.0 (*Est. $80) provides just outdoor elements, including templates for decks, landscaping, pools and terrains, and over 3,700 realistic plants.
Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer Professional 8.0 (*Est. $495) is the most complete of all the Better Homes and Gardens programs. It simplifies many of the procedures that are possible but not easy to perform in the less expensive suite. Designer Professional 8.0 is too new to have any reviews, but users of the previous version on Amazon.com report that roofs are more manageable to design in this version. In general, Amazon.com reviewers feel that this version comes very close to being a true professional program. The learning curve is reported to be steep, however, and the price is nearly five times that of the suite.
One more program from Better Homes and Gardens is the Better Homes and Gardens Architectural Home Designer (*Est. $200) , introduced in 2008. This program combines all the features of the suite with all the plants and landscaping capabilities of the Landscaping and Deck Designer version. It also adds a few (although by no means all) of the features of Home Designer Professional, such as the ability to define custom lighting with shadows. One reviewer at Amazon.com says that stairwells are still difficult to do with this program, and feels that this is a teaser product, leading you to the more expensive Home Designer Professional version.
Experts also highly recommend Punch! Professional Home Design Suite Platinum Version 12 (*Est. $100) , although this product is not for the novice. Like Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer Suite, you get both home design and landscaping design software as part of this product. In reviews, experts say Punch! is not as easy to use as Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer, but they add that it offers some more sophisticated tools for more serious or experienced designers. Owners posting comments to opinion websites give Punch! home design software only average scores, complaining that its complexity is frustrating for beginners. They note that it's a good choice for those who know their way around CAD (computer aided design) software, or for those who want to add special details to their homes like wainscoting.
Punch! starts users off with a blank screen rather than using a wizard or any quick-start option. The software lets you build a home from scratch, load predesigned plans or scan in photos. There are also plenty of wizards to help you along. Reviewers are impressed with the level of detail and the realistic images. Software features are well integrated, and the program also includes a Home Estimator tool, which compiles your design information into an Excel-compatible spreadsheet. However, owners at Amazon.com complain that the new version is still a little buggy and it's slow, even on fast systems. However, Punch! Professional Home Design Suite Platinum Version 12 does include many features like LiveView, that updates your design in real time, and more comprehensive tools such as the new aerial views for designing unique homes.
Punch! Architectural Series 5000 Version 12 (*Est. $500) is the company's top-of-the-line home design program. This version incorporates 3D Custom Workshop Pro, which is a modified version of Punch's ViaCAD 2D/3D application. It also adds a bird's-eye view. There are only a few user reviews of this program on Amazon.com, but none of them give this product good marks. One user says that the new workshop feature is unstable and crashes. Another reviewer finds this program too complex and recommends buying one of Punch's
If you're a Mac user, you don't have as many options. The Better Homes and Gardens software isn't available in a Mac version at all. However, Punch! offers a Mac-compatible version of its home design software, Punch! Home Design Studio for Mac (*Est. $100) . The reviews we read at Amazon.com for this software were similar to the comments we found for the PC version -- there is a steep learning curve requiring significant time with the manual. It seems that most people tend to give up on Punch! software, but those who stick with it and learn its nuances are happy with its comprehensive tools. Macworld reviewer Greg Miller adds that "it takes some time and patience to master the technique of placing objects." He does like the software, though, saying it's "great software at a reasonable price." Be aware that Punch! Home Design Studio for Mac only works with Mac OS X v10.4 (Tiger) and higher.
Also available is Punch! Home Design Studio Pro for the Mac (*Est. $160) , which includes 3D Custom Workshop Pro, allowing you to insert your own CAD objects to expand your library. Other new features include a fireplace assistant for creating custom fireplaces and a cost estimator. There are few reviews on Amazon.com, and several note that this is a complex package with a steep learning curve.
Reviews say Punch! Professional Home Design Suite Platinum Version 12 is a more flexible, robust tool, but it's mostly for those who have some CAD (computer-aided design) experience. On the other hand, Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer Suite 8.0 is easier to use, but with less room to grow as your skills progress. So your choice will depend on whether you prefer out-of-the-box ease of use or more flexibility with a steeper learning curve. All told, the Better Homes and Gardens software gets much better overall marks.