|“PC Plus”, UK
Feature Reviews: Mid-Priced CAD
Is AutoCAD LT Release 2 still the best mid-priced CAD program? Tim Baty compares LT with its rival, Visual CADD
Whenever a program appears which defines a new type of application, it isn’t long before someone releases a low-cost clone of the original. AutoCAD’s huge popularity in Computer-Aided Design (CAD) has spawned a host of programs with similar specifications but at lower cost. One of the oldest and best-established was Generic CADD, which over the years gained a substantial band of loyal customers.
Autodesk bought Generic CADD about 3 years ago, in order to quickly gain a presence in the burgeoning mid-priced market. When AutoCAD LT appeared last year, though, it owed little to Generic CADD – instead, LT was a simplified version of AutoCAD Release 12 for Windows. Many Generic CADD users became uneasy when Autodesk froze further development of Generic CADD, offering competitive upgrades to encourage users to switch to LT. The Generic CADD design team subsequently left Autodesk, and developed Visual CADD as the semi-official Windows version of Generic CADD. Most committed Generic CADD users will naturally favour Visual CADD over LT – it’s also reasonable to assume that Visual CADD’s developers want to compete with LT as strongly as possible.
How good is Visual CADD? Is its ancestry in Generic CADD enough to ensure success, or have the newer budget-priced offerings outstripped it? In particular, how well does it compete with AutoCAD LT Release 2? When we first reviewed LT (Issue 92, PC Plus Verdict 8/10), we liked its extensive range of professional-standard draughting tools – it’s certainly been successful, contributing significantly to Autodesk’s recent increase in profits. However, more and more competition has appeared in both the mid-priced and budget sectors, and Autodesk hope that LT Release 2’s new features will help it stay ahead.
Both high-end and budget programs are squeezing the mid-priced CAD market. Budget applications are now crossing over into professional use, but mid-priced software can’t simply pile in extra features because this pushes hardware and training costs sky-high. The way forward might be to give mid-priced programs a clear role by concentrating on specific issues like 3D rendering or parametrics.
We’re surprised that AutoCAD LT’s CD-ROM is used solely for program distribution, and doesn’t include any extra material to fill up all that CD space. AutoCAD Release 13 included its manual (all 2,600-odd pages of it) in electronic book format – surely this could have been done with LT’s modest 700 pages?
Like most business applications, CAD benefits enormously from being networked. Besides simplifying technical support and upgrades, the ability to share libraries and data transforms users’ efficiency. Features like OLE and AutoCAD’s external references ensure all data is up-to-date – vitally important when several designers are working simultaneously on the same project.
|AutoCAD LT Release 2
|Visual CADD 1.2
|CD and 1.44Mb floppy disks
|1.44Mb floppy disks
|386, Maths Co-processor, 8Mb RAM, 16Mb hard-disk space + 16Mb permanent swap-file, Mouse, MS-DOS 3.31 or later, Windows 3.1, running in 386 enhanced mode
|386SX, 4Mb RAM, 15Mb hard-disk space, Windows 3.1
|Printer or Plotter, Additional RAM
|Maths Co-processor or 486DX, 8Mb RAM, >20Mb hard-disk space, Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Printer or Plotter, WinTab-compliant Graphics Tablet
|2D or 3D:
|3D + shading
|Internal + externally-referenced
PostScript Type 1
|DWG, DXF, EPS, WMF, BMP, ASCII text
|Generic CADD, DWG, DXF, ASCII text
|DWG, DXF, EPS, WMF, BMP, ASCII text, OLE 1.0 Server
|Generic CADD, DWG, DXF, ASCII text, OLE 2.0 Server
|Vector Graphics Systems Ltd.
This 2D system includes a well-designed icon-based interface, with plenty of tools to satisfy professional users. Unlike other mid-priced programs, you organise drawings by placing features within UNIX CAD-like hierarchical patterns.
|FastCAD Europe Ltd.
Also from FastCAD, Cadvance 6.0 is a 2D/3D program with a feature-list well-suited to architectural work. It’s well-stocked with tools for networking and groupware, and it includes a strong suite of database links.
DesignView is an unconventional yet easy-to-use program based around parametric dimensioning – CAD’s answer to spreadsheets. When you edit DesignView’s dimension text, drawn features are re-calculated with it. Although it’s rather lightweight regarding general-purpose draughting, it’s well-suited for calculation-intensive design tasks where the solution is severely constrained by factors such as structure or material behaviour.
|Softcover International Ltd.
A likeable budget program, ChoiceCAD includes several innovative features which address common problems in real design offices. Its add-in applications, tailoring ChoiceCAD to suit specific industries, are particularly praiseworthy.
The surge of activity in the budget CAD sector over the last 12 months has put real pressure on mid-priced software, with several highly competent programs now available for under £150. In consequence, mid-priced programs need to offer a lot more than budget programs to justify their prices. It’s now reasonable to expect mid-priced CAD programs to offer features such as 3D, network-awareness, database links, and advanced customising tools as a matter of course. Above all, sheer draughting muscle is essential – most potential customers for this class of program will be full-time professionals producing complex and demanding drawings.
Visual CADD is undoubtedly a competent program. It’s robust and easy to use – the tutorials make the business of drawing and editing feel simple, which enhances new users’ confidence. But is this enough to ensure Visual CADD’s success? The simplicity is a virtue for new users, but there’s a lack of breadth in the tools on offer which ultimately limit its attractiveness to professionals. Full-time CAD users quickly realise that the key to success is not drawing lines and circles quickly, but how you structure the content of the drawing – Visual CADD just doesn’t offer the necessary richness of features in this vital area.
AutoCAD LT Release 2 isn’t a dramatic upgrade from its predecessor, but it adds a welcome gloss to an already well regarded product. Its advanced features show a genuine understanding of the demands of full-time professional draughting – dimension styles, user co-ordinate systems and model- & paper-space offer data-structuring resources which go way beyond the capabilities of simple tools like layers and symbol-libraries. The program isn’t perfect by any means – users face a significant learning-curve, despite the improved help facilities, and missed opportunities such as the lack of AutoCAD Release 13 file compatibility are frustrating. On balance, though, AutoCAD LT Release 2 is still good value – serious users on a budget should put it near the top of their lists.