best pocket nc alternatives

In search of the perfect Pocket NC alternative?

While Pocket NC is one of the most popular 5 axis CNC machines on the market, the limitations in working area (4.3 x 5 x 3.5”) and the price relative to your average hobbyist CNC router might leave you wanting more

In this guide, I’ll share my hands-on experience with the most popular Pocket NC alternatives, like X-Carve (our top pick), the reliable Shapeoko 4, the versatile Carbide 3D Nomad 3, and the all-in-one Snapmaker 2.0 A350T.

We’ll compare them across factors like size, price, and that all-important 5-axis functionality, so you can decide if you’re better off sticking with the original Pocket NC after all.

The goal is to make sure you have access to the features you need without overspending – so with that in mind lets, compare the pros and cons.

Top Picks

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X-Carve – Popular Router with Impressive Software 

X Carve

Pros

Has a dust collection plate.

Easy to use.

Comes with an X controller to stop the machine.

More than 5 times larger than Pocket NCs.

Cons

The setup process is pretty advanced.

The X-Carve is one of the most popular CNC routers on the market and is a budget-friendly Pocket NC alternative with a generous working area.

This machine has a 29.5×29.5×4” cutting area, more than 5 times as large as the Pocket NC, so you have plenty of room for working on both small and medium size projects.

One of the highlights of the X Carve is its software package – you get a three-year subscription to Easel Pro, which is one of the most user-friendly CNC software out there.

Easel Pro is an all-in-one software for creating designs, converting them into code, and running your machine, so you don’t need to find your own CAD software like you do with the Pocket NC. It’s also compatible with a wide range of file types, whereas the Pocket NC only runs off .ngc files.

This CNC machine comes with a Makita RTO701C router included; one of the most popular on the market. This powerful router, combined with the X Carve’s great stability and smooth axis motion, means you can cut a wide variety of materials including aluminum.

The X Carve is also a very customizable machine, with the ability to add a laser module and axis, belt, and motor upgrade kits, which add an extra 2” Z axis clearance and increase the router’s overall performance.

Inventables X-Carve 1000mm CNC Machine
$2299

Just in case you need to cut thicker wood that a laser isn't ideal for - here's our top CNC router pick.

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Shapeoko 4 – Reliable Budget Pick

Shapeoko 4 

Pros

Good cutting area.

Intuitive control.

Powerful spindle.

Available in three different sizes.

Cons

No dust collection plate.

The Shapeoko 4 is another very popular CNC machine among hobbyists. It’s similar to the X Carve in many ways, such as in the firmware and linear motion system, but there are some key differences that make it a strong Pocket NC alternative in its own right.

For starters, the Shapeoko 4 is available in three different sizes in contrast to the X Carve’s one, and each gives you a significantly larger working area than the Pocket NC. You can choose from 17.5×17.5×4”, 33×17.5×4”, and 33x33x4”, with the price increasing by around $300 with each size you go up.

One of the best things about the Shapeoko 4 is that it’s one of the best hobbyist CNC routers for cutting aluminum. The Carbide 3D YouTube channel has various videos showcasing its metal cutting ability, and it’s even been shown to cut wood up to twice as fast as the X Carve

This is largely due to the wide belt drive, which improves the stiffness and rigidity of the Shapeoko 4, in addition to the large and heavy aluminum extrusions which mean this CNC router is incredibly stable and precise. 

You get a full software package included with the Shapeoko 4, made up of Carbide’s own Carbide Create CAD/CAM software and the Carbide Motion control software. While not as quite impressive as Easel Pro, this is still a solid solution.

Tough CNC Router For Metal
Shapeoko 4 CNC Router – XXL – Hybrid Table
$2300

One of the most well-made CNC routers, ideal for cutting tougher woods and metals like aluminum.

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Carbide 3D Nomad 3 – For Tougher Materials

Carbide 3D Nomad 3

Pros

Aimed towards cutting tough metals.

Compact, keeping the price down similar to Pocket NC machines.

Comes with a full enclosure for safe and clean working.

Cons

Doesn’t have the 4-axis or 5-axis capability.

While the X Carve and Shapeoko 4 are somewhat similar machines, the Nomad 3, also manufactured by Carbide 3D, is a different beast altogether.

For starters, it’s a mill rather than a router, meaning it’s aimed at cutting tough metals rather than softer materials like wood and plastics. You can use the Nomad 3 to cut ferrous metals like steel and titanium, which CNC routers aren’t capable of, so in this sense it’s more similar to the Pocket NC, which has been tested up to G5 titanium.

Mills are generally expensive, so similar to the Pocket NC, the Nomad 3 keeps the price down by being very compact with a small working area of 8x8x3”, though this is still a fair bit larger than the Pocket NC.

While the Nomad 3 doesn’t have 4-axis or 5-axis capability, it does have some upgrade components that make it great for working with circular and 3D shapes. 

For example, the low profile vase is made for securely clamping cylindrical workpieces, while the flip jig allows you to cut both sides of a material with perfect alignment, which is helpful when making 3D models. So, the Nomad 3 is a very flexible hobbyist CNC mill.

Like the Shapeoko 4 and unlike the Pocket NC, you get a full software package included with the Nomad 3. This consists of Alibre Workshop and Carbide Create for CAD/CAM and Carbide Motion for operating your Nomad 3.

The Nomad 3 comes with a full enclosure for safe and clean working, but the see-through panels and internal lighting make it easy to monitor your work.

Carbide 3D Nomad 3 CNC Machine

It is the ideal desktop mill for cutting both soft and hard metals because it is so small and compact. 

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Snapmaker 2.0 A350T – Router, Engraver and 3D Printer

Snapmaker 2.0 A350T

Pros

Works as a CNC router, laser engraver, and 3D printer.

Lots of models are available for beginners and advanced users.

Comes with a rotary module.

Cons

Relatively loud.

The Snapmaker 2.0 is the most unique entry on our list due to its three way functionality – this is a CNC router, laser engraver, and 3D printer in one!

There are actually four models from Snapmaker’s latest generation of machines – the F250, F350, A250T, and the A350T. The F models are more budget and beginner-friendly, with the A series being more advanced and the A350T being the largest with a 12.5×13.7×13” working area.

I personally have the A350, and really like it. It’s really easy to switch it from a CNC to a laser or 3D printer, and despite not being a 5-axis machine like the Pocket NC, the rotary module turns it into a viable 4-axis CNC.

Snapmaker 2.0 4 axis CNC
We used the 4-axis CNC to carve an accurate chess piece in our workshop.

This rotary fourth axis greatly expands the flexibility of your machine and is ideal for working with cylindrical objects and for creating intricate 3D models. I was able to carve very detailed 3D pieces using the 4th axis CNC carver.

Snapmaker A350 using the rotary module 4th axis on the laser engraver also.
Using the rotary module 4th axis on the laser engraver also.

The latest Snapmaker range of machines, including the A350T, are all made completely of metal. This provides a lot greater durability and stability than the previous range, and with 0.005mm repeatability, they provide solid accuracy and are capable of cutting aluminum.

Pocket NC 4 axis alternative the Snapmaker 2.0 laser engraving on curved surfaces such as this cylinder gift box
You can also use the 4-axis rotary module with the laser engraver.

This unique machine has its own software which provides functionality for each application, including both design and operation, so you don’t need to use any external programs with a Snapmaker. 

Snapmaker Luban is surprisingly easy to use, and is one of the best software programs I’ve used for rotary cutting. Most other software are far more complex.

You can learn more about our experience from when I tested the Snapmaker 2.0 CNC and laser and rotary module

Top 3 in 1 Pick
Snapmaker 2.0 Modular 3 in 1 3D Printer A350T/A250T
$1199 ($600 off!)

Want to 3D print, CNC cut, and laser cut and engrave all in 1? Snapmaker machines are the best 3-in-1 machines around.

Snapmaker here Our Review
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Things to Consider When Choosing a Pocket NC Alternative

Do You Really Need 5 Axes?

5 axis is the most advanced form of CNC machining, above 3 axis and 4 axis machines. The higher number of axes greatly increases the flexibility and efficiency of your machine and allow you to work on complex shapes – industrial 5 axis CNCs are used in the making of car molds and aerospace parts, for example.

5 axis CNCs are generally made for industry and extremely expensive, so the Pocket NC is an alternative aimed at advanced hobbyists.

However, it’s still out of budget for most CNC enthusiasts – with the cheapest model starting at $6,300 – and the majority of people do not need 5 axis technology.

So our recommendations are high-quality 3-axis CNCs with larger build volumes – for a larger 5-axis machine you’re looking at a five-figure sum, and should seek a more industrial solution. Though you can turn these into 4-axis CNCs with a rotary add-on.

ProductAxes
Pocket NC5-axis
X-Carve3-axis
Shapeoko 43-axis
Carbide 3D Nomad 33-axis
Snapmaker 2.0 A350T3-axis (4-axis with optional module)
Pocket NC Alternatives Axis Comparison

What Size Work Area Do You Need?

When it comes to selecting a CNC machine, the size of the work area can greatly influence the scope of projects you can undertake.

For instance, the X-Carve by Inventables boasts a considerable working area of 29.5×29.5×4”, making it an ideal choice for those needing space for both small and medium-sized projects. Its expansive working area, which is over five times larger than the Pocket NC, provides the freedom to work on diverse projects.

For more compact solutions, there’s the Carbide 3D Nomad 3. This CNC mill, aimed at cutting tough metals, keeps a smaller footprint with a work area of 8x8x3”. Although compact, this is still considerably larger than the Pocket NC, making it a feasible choice for those with limited space.

On the other hand, the Shapeoko 4 offers varied work area size, depending on your requirements from a Pocket NC alternative. You can choose from 17.5×17.5×4”, 33×17.5×4”, and 33x33x4”.

CNC MachineWork Area Size
Pocket NC5.0 x 4.55 x 3.55 inches
X-Carve29.5 x 29.5 x 4 inches
Shapeoko 4Various – up to 33 x 33 x 4 inches
Carbide 3D Nomad 38 x 8 x 3 inches
Snapmaker 2.0 A350T12.5 x 13.7 x 13 inches
Pocket NC Alternatives Work Area Comparison

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Alan Lewis

Alan is an expert CNC writer who has provides product reviews, guides, and comparisons for CNCSourced.

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