Hi, my learning curve has been steep but very rewarding, so for what it’s worth I’ll share my experience as a recently new x-carve owner and total newbie to CAD/CAM.
I was fixated on machine accuracy even before I built the machine so acquired a decent digital caliper and digital micrometer for the Z axis. There are a couple of very helpful YouTube videos on calibrating the stepper motors which I would encourage you to watch early on. It can be very disheartening to carve pieces and find the dimensions are off (which I experienced several times before calibrating). Here is the tutorial I followed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzkoMbb9pO8
I tried a number of design packages from Rhino 5 to Inventor Pro, Inventor Pro HSM and Fusion 360 but found them very complex, and I wanted to start carving as soon as possible. I settled on Adobe Illustrator to design in 2D, and sent SVG files to MakerCam, which I found much better suited to my workflow. MakerCam is normally an online only tool but if you save the webpage you’ll find you have a standalone Flash version of the tool, which allows it’s use without an internet connection. MakerCam produced my Gcode, which I sent to the x-carve using Universal Gcode Sender (a tip if you’re new to UGS; if you can’t get it to connect to the x-carve straight away check your com port value and set the baud rate to 112500…it took me far too long to figure that out).
MakerCam worked well for a while but I found it increasingly frustrating having to re-key all the tooling parameters for each toolpath, so stumped up the cash for Vcarve Desktop, and it’s changed everything beyond measure.
Vcarve isn’t cheap but it’s not expensive, considering I’ve just shelled out 1,500 quid on the x-carve I am now annoyed that I didn’t purchase it straight away. My workflow has been cut to a fraction of the SVG/MakerCam route, and I can save all of my jobs which you can’t using MakerCam. I have so much more faith in the jobs I’m sending to the machine, particularly because Vcarve allows me to simulate the milling process before creating the Gcode.
I’m experimenting with Cinema4D (I produce 3D CG work) to create the 3D models for sending to Vcarve, but may yet revisit Rhino 5 when I’ve time enough to learn all of the powerful, yet complex design capabilities.
Calibrate your machine (regularly), experiment with Easel, MakerCam and Estlcam 8 if you can. If you can wrap your head around Fusion 360 (which is free to the hobbyist) it should do a great job, though you do need an active internet connection to use it. If you can afford some of the more expensive packages be prepared to spend a good deal of time learning how to use them well. They are very, very capable, which is reflected in the price.
Best of luck!