When you need industrial-style control for your CNC at hobbyist pricing, Mach 3 control system is probably what you need.
Mach 3 software turns an average PC into a 6-axis CNC controller.
Unlike other hobby CNC control software programs, Mach 3 has been around for more than a decade and is a proven solution for running your CNC.
Mach 3 CNC software in combination with Ethernet SmoothStepper and Gecko G540 is a classic combination used widely by hobbyists everywhere.
Highly popular CNC brands such as Avid CNC use Mach 3 for controlling their CNC machines.
This article is all about Mach3 to help you understand if it's the right choice for you.
I review it comprehensively considering all the different features Mach 3 offers, and its limitations. I also compare Mach 3 with Mach 4 to help you make a decision between the two.
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Mach3 Software Review
In this section, I'll evaluate and review Mach3 CNC software in detail. I'll be talking about its various features, support, compatibility, and more.
Mach3 control software has a simple and customizable User Interface (UI) that looks somewhat similar to Windows XP UI because of its block-like buttons, high-contrast colors, and the old-school text format used.
Though the interface may look tightly packed with buttons and numbers, you will get used to its workflow as you use it.
Its initial interface has mainly eight parts that help you navigate to and fro across the software to do different operations.
These are the G-code window, Digital Read Out (DRO), tool cut path, interface procedures, tool information, feed interface, spindle speed control interface, and Mach3 tabs.
There are six tabs across the topmost section of the Mach3 interface, these are program run, Manual Data Input (MDI), toolpath, offsets, settings, and diagnostics.
I'll give you an overview of each of the interface windows in the features of Mach3 section of this article.
For the optimum display of Mach3 UI, you'll need to use a screen with a minimum of 1024 x 768 pixels of screen resolution.
|Compatible Operating System
You need to have a PC with Windows OS to run Mach3 software. It's available for both 32 and 64-bit Windows versions.
If you are planning to do machine control utilizing the parallel port of your computer, you can only use the 32-bit versions of Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7.
For controlling your CNC router with an external controller, you can use both 32 and 64-bit versions of Windows OS.
In such a case, you can use Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 10.
Mach3 requires a minimum of 1GHz processor, 512MB RAM, and 32MB VRAM. For running large files, especially 3D files, you'll need to have a dedicated VRAM of 512MB or higher.
How to resolve the parallel port dilemma in Mach3?
Mach3 uses the parallel port to interface with the CNC router. Since it uses a parallel port, the data transmission is fast and can control CNCs in real-time.
However, most computers and laptop manufacturers do not use parallel ports in their builds.
You can use external controllers like the SmoothStepper from Warp 9 which uses the USB or ethernet port of your computer.
The Smoothstepper has USB and Ethernet versions, choose them depending on how you want to connect it to your computer.
Alternatively, you can use an add-on parallel port card as a workaround if your computer doesn't have a parallel port.
I would suggest you get a dedicated PC. You can get old PCs having parallel ports cheaply on local or online (eBay) secondhand markets, they cost less than most of the 3-axis compatible controller boards.
- Simulates three standard parallel port interfaces.
- Operate a CNC machine from an Ethernet connection.
Features of Mach3
|Features of Mach 3
|6-axis CNC control
|Regulate Feed and Speed rates
|Supports CAM features using LazyCAM plugin
|Supports offline mode
|Customize M-codes and macros
1. Turns your PC into a 6-axis CNC Controller
A noticeable feature of Mach3 is its capability to control your CNC router using a computer. It can convert a standard PC into a 6-axis CNC controller.
Using Mach3 software you can map controls and buttons like E-stop onto your keyboard.
2. Tweaking Feed and Speed Rates
By using the conversational menu you can feed in the type of material you are going to work on your CNC router.
Once you select the material, Mach3 will suggest recommended feeds and speeds depending on the operation you select (mill, drill, 4th axis, pocketing, etc).
You can also override the feed rate and spindle speed that was originally programmed in the G-code to make little adjustments to your work.
The toolpath tab gives you a detailed idea of the highest and lowest axis values, rapid moves, and feed lines.
Mach3 has real-time cut feedback which shows the toolpath in green color as it cuts which gives you an idea of what's coming next and prevents any damage.
It also shows the estimated time to complete a job.
The tool information box on the program run window shows the tool number, diameter, and length.
It also has a tool change indicator that flashes when the tool has been used for longer than the duration calculated by Mach3.
You can even reverse the program so that it runs backward, it'll be a helpful feature for plasma cutter users as it helps recover plasma faults.
4. CAM Operations on Mach3
Mach3 is not CAM software, however, you can use plugins to achieve CAM capability.
LazyCAM is one such plugin that can generate G-code from .dxf, .bmp, .jpg, and .hpgl files directly within Mach3.
The G-code display box shows the loaded program, you'll be able to navigate through each line of the code and view its tool path.
5. Offline Mode
Mach3 has an offline mode that prevents any output from going to the motors in case you want to run a simulation.
To access the simulations feature, you'll have to uninstall the parallel port drivers which means you can no longer control your CNC.
You'll have to install the drivers again to control your router.
6. Customizable M-Codes and Macros
M-codes are used to run Macros which lets you control various external devices like coolant pumps and vacuums.
It's achieved by using relay outputs on the breakout board which can be enabled from the settings "Config" > "Port and Pins" > "Output signals".
You can import and use G-codes from most third-party CAD software. You can even edit them, but it does so by using the help of the Windows Notepad editor.
When you press edit on the G-code window in Mach3, it opens up a notepad window with the G-code for you to work on.
Mach3 software installed on a Windows PC can do standalone control operations with or without making use of a controller board.
It can be used in conjunction with many different electronic components like a parallel breakout board or even an external controller.
Mach3 can control CNC machines like Lathes, Mills, Routers, Lasers, Plasma, Engravers, Gear cutters, and more.
Mach3 was developed by Artsoft which is a division of Newfangled Solutions.
It is currently sold by a lot of box distributors and one of them also sells through Amazon.
When purchasing from box distributors cross verify them with the distributors on the official list of Artsoft. You can find more details on the "partners and resellers" page of the Mach support website.
If you're purchasing from Amazon you'll get a genuine CD that's specifically issued under your name. It is sold by BuildYourCNC, who's one of Artsoft's US-based official listed sellers.
- Converts a Standard PC to a Fully Featured, 6-Axis Cnc Controller.
- Allows direct import of DXF BMP JPG and HPGL, Visual G-Code Display
Mach3 software has a dedicated "help" button from which you can access video and document resources about different software tools and their functions.
Artsoft provides a detailed user manual and training videos to give you a clear overview that covers every aspect of the software.
The only thing that may confuse you when you start using Mach3 software is that it has many different controls and numbers tightly packed together.
It's recommended to learn about the controls before you tweak them.
There are a lot of documentation and tutorial videos about Mach3 available on the internet that can help you learn the software easily.
With some practice, most beginners can learn Mach3 easily.
Being an active participant in the CNC market from the year 2001, Artsoft has a large and trusted community.
Mach3 is used by a lot of people and has active customer engagement happening on Artsoft's official forum and Yahoo groups. Users are also active on Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube.
Most of the time, an issue you face with Mach3 would have happened before to someone else, and there is a high chance of finding solutions to the exact problem from one of these forums.
Through these forums, you can flag your issues and get replies from Mach3 customers or directly from Artsoft support staff.
Artsoft only extends technical support through their forums and Yahoo groups, they don't provide phone support to their Mach3 customers.
When updates are available for Mach3 or any of its add-ons, you can download them from the downloads and update page on their website.
Before updating, make a backup of your software settings so that you don't lose all the settings and configurations that you were using.
Artsoft has a contact us page on their support website through which you can raise your issues and connect with their support team.
Mach3 software has been around for a long time in the world of CNC control and is still very popular.
It is used by a lot of hobbyists and business owners as it perfectly does what it's designed to do.
Another great reason to choose Mach 3 is the large userbase of the software, which results in great community support when you need it.
Mach3 is still widely used by a lot of people even though Artsoft has released Mach4.
Mach3 vs Mach4 - What's new?
Mach4 is the latest version available in the Mach series and is made to stay on par with time by providing users with more simplified controls.
It's made from scratch and Artsoft claims that Mach4 only uses less than 1% of Mach3's original program code.
Like Mach3, it only runs on Windows OS. But Mach 4 has a smoother UI than Mach3, which requires at least 512MB of graphics memory and 1GB of RAM for the program to load.
When using an external motion controller, you can work with a laptop or desktop of your choice using a USB connection.
If you're using your computer itself as a controller, you'll need to use a PC with a parallel port and have to install the 32-bit version of Mach4 in such a case.
You can also overcome the parallel port requirement by using the Smoothstepper mechanism to connect with your laptop or desktop without a parallel port.
Like Mach3, Mach4 can also import and edit G-code files from most of CAD software to control your CNC machine. You also have the option to add LazyCAM as an add-on plugin.
LazyCAM plug-in will help you build G-code files directly from .dxf, .bmp, .jpg, and .hpgl files making Mach4 CAM compatible.
Mach4 can also run machines with a 6-axis system but are available in many different versions as per your need of usage.
For hobbyists and small businesses, you can go for the "Hobby" version of Mach4. It has enough features you may need for your operations.
The "Industrial" version lets you customize your software as per your need and you can get on-time support from the Artsoft provider if any software problem occurs.
A detailed comparison between Mach3 and Mach4 can be found here - Mach3 vs Mach4 for CNC Control
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the major difference between Mach 3 and Mach 4?
The major between Mach3 and Mach4 software is that, unlike Mach3, Mach4 has a unified Graphical User Interface which allows you to use a wide range of hardware within one unified interface. Mach4 has a built-in screen editor that Mach3 doesn't have. It allows you to create custom controls in the form of LUA Panels.
Will I get software updates for Mach3?
Yes, you'll get software updates for Mach3 once you purchase the software. Update files are regularly put on the "downloads and updates" page of the Mach Support website, you can download it for free from there.
Can I design 2D/3D components in Mach3?
You can't design 2D/3D components on Mach3 as it doesn't support CAD operations. But you can use third-party software like Fusion 360 or SOLIDWORKS. You can then import it into LazyCAM, which is an add-on plugin that can be integrated into Mach3 for doing CAM operations.