AutoCad 2004: a user’s opinion

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In the last issue of AEC magazine we gave our first impressions of AutoCAD 2004, this month we get the perspective of CAD consultant, Nigel Davies, focussing on the new DWF format and the implications of the new DWG.

I’ve never understood why software is released with a date moniker instead of the classic “version”. Is it so that you know you are out of date as soon as that year passes, and rush out to upgrade, or is it simply more acceptable to the general public than a series of numbers? When Autodesk released AutoCAD 2004 in March of 2003 the only reasons I could think of for using “2004” is that it will make users think they are ahead of their time! Strangely, if you take the average upgrade period for AutoCAD as 18 months, this means 2004 will never be out of date: by the time September 2004 comes around, AutoCAD 2005 (or will that be 2006?) should be released. Clever.

So, what does AutoCAD R16 offer us? If the rumours are true, not very much. I’ve been a user of AutoCAD since version 12, at least that’s the version I learned on, back when AutoCAD was clunky and cumbersome in comparison to many of the other solutions, and one thing I’ve come to realise is that you have to give new releases of AutoCAD a while before you appreciate the improvements from the previous versions. Having said that, the new features in more recent releases have been gradually reducing, to the point where each release is more of a consolidation of bug fixes and enhancements than it is a true major release. But the rumour mill said 2002 offered little worth upgrading for, which although it didn’t give many new tools, it did provide a stable and reliable platform, making it one of the best versions of AutoCAD so far. Is AutoCAD 2004 a worthy successor?

Look and feel

The first thing that struck me about AutoCAD 2004 once I’d installed it was the lack of the AutoCAD Today window. “Today” had been introduced in 2000 as a new style interface, supposedly making it quicker and easier for users to recall their files and manage their templates and link to intra- and internet resources. There are very few AutoCAD operators I know who had a good word to say about the Today window, most of whom had simply disabled it and reset the start-up dialogue box to the traditional. Obviously user feedback has been strong on the subject, so with 2004, Autodesk have made the decision to drop it. Pity, I actually rather liked it – or at least the principle. Instead now we are back to the old-style start-up dialogue box and have the Communication Centre introduced, a web-based updates messaging utility that keeps you informed of changes to the product.

Microsoft Office 2002 had no major progression on the interface design from previous versions, but the same cannot be said for AutoCAD 2004. There’s been a lot of work in re-designing the look of AutoCAD 2004. It is quite strange that a few years ago, all software manufacturers were striving to replicate the Windows icons and now it seems they are keen to put their own feel to the somewhat jaded Windows look.

It’s not just about look and feel though; Autodesk has enhanced a number of AutoCAD’s now familiar Palettes. One major problem with previous versions of AutoCAD was the sheer amount of screen space that was taken up by having all the necessary tools open. Once you’d loaded Design Centre, and Properties your actual working area was so small you could hardly do any CAD work at all! AutoCAD 2004 introduces a neat new palette style which allows auto-hiding (similar to the Window’s Task Bar), re-sizing and docking if you so desire (although then you are back into minimal screen space mode). You can now leave these tools permanently open and still have enough space to draw! And even if things do get a little cramped, you have the new Clean Screen command which temporarily closes all open toolbars to maximise your working area – rather like F11 in Internet Explorer.

The Layers tool bar is one that benefits from the redesign as well: finally the actual layers drop-down is wide enough to be able to read the full layer name!

The new Style toolbar is an addition that should have been there a long time ago. Now, simply by using the drop-down menus you can select your Text and Dimension styles without keyins or having to use MText or opening the Style Managers.

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But apart from interface updates, what else does AutoCAD 2004 offer the user? For one thing, it does seem an awful lot faster opening files. This is something that we’ve been promised and Autodesk appear to have delivered – one of the benefits of yet another DWG format change. More on that later…

" To upgrade from AutoCAD R14 is, without a doubt, worthy of serious consideration "

A new DWF format

The Drawing Web Format has been touted by Autodesk for a number of years as the format for sharing AutoCAD files across the web. DWF reduces the size of the DWG file, while maintaining certain CAD criteria – layers for example. DWF has never truly taken the CAD world by storm though. It was noticeably more popular when it was first introduced, but its popularity died after the initial “new toy” stage. The problem with exchanging CAD data is two-fold. Firstly, if you need to share CAD data, the best format to use is a native CAD format itself. Only by exchanging full models (2D or 3D) in full CAD format can you ever be sure that someone else can use your data intelligently. Sure, file size can be a problem, but we’re no longer limited to a mere 1.4Mb floppy as our main medium for distribution; ZIP files are commonly place now. To be fair, DWF isn’t intended to replace CAD formats in this way, but is designed to allow convenient publishing of drawing sets, which brings me to my second point. If you are using a secondary format to distribute drawings you’ll most likely consider other “less flexible” formats which are a little more commonly recognised as industry standard for exchanging documents, especially PDF or even the still very popular HPGL/2. The benefit PDF gives over DWF, particularly with the latest CAD-ready Acrobat 6, is that it is possible to decide on a single format for publishing of all project documents (try publishing a Word document in DWF!) with one single publishing tool and one single viewer for all document. And we must remember that AutoCAD is still the only way to produce DWFs. Without AutoCAD, which is certainly highly prevalent as a CAD tool it is not the only software employed by architects or engineers, publishing in DWF format can be difficult and long-winded with less than predictable results.

True Color

Finally, AutoCAD supports more than the basic 256 colours! This is something that has been a long time in coming, and has always been a significant black mark for AutoCAD when compared to competitive software. The Colour Mixer is excellent, allowing either HSL or RGB colour models. The RGB sliders could be a little confusing at first, unless you’re a Photoshop aficionado, as with a default colour of white set, the Red slider is cyan, the Green is magenta, and the Blue yellow! Once you’ve sussed what is going on though, the principle is simple yet very user friendly: the sliders are coloured to show what results will be achieved once they are adjusted. Brilliant. And if you need to use specific colours, the full PANTONE and RAL tables are also supported.

" If you use AutoCAD for draughting alone, consider spending the upgrade money on a copy of LT instead, which can be purchased for around the same figure! "

External References

Nigel Davies MIED, RCADMan
Nigel works as a Senior Consultant for Cadconsultancy, where he is responsible for providing CAD development services. He works with a number of leading engineering and architectural consultants, employing his extensive knowledge and experience of the design process to enhance CAD systems operations, CAD standards and 3D modelling. His expertise spans the full range of CAD-based applications for the Architectural, Engineering and Construction industry.

Nigel is a nationally and internationally acclaimed expert in his field, regularly presenting in the USA and the UK and writing articles for industry press.

XRefs was an area where the rumour mill of pre-release 2004 promised a lot. In reality there are a few minor enhancements to help you identify when a reference has been moved from its original location, but on the whole the changes to this side of AutoCAD’s functionality have been very disappointing, apart from the dynamic notification when an attached reference has been modified. The most noticeable change is the addition of “Open” in the XRef Manager, allowing references to be (wait for it) opened directly from the XRef Manager, which could potentially save an enormous amount of valuable drawing office time. Tie this in with the enhanced context-sensitive right-button mouse clicks and you start to be able to realise the hidden power of AutoCAD’s External References. Now all Autodesk have to do is improve the rather clunky Project Search Paths by including some form of project management and configuration tool and you have functionality which could finally start to rival other CAD applications’ far superior Referencing capabilities.

And that’s about it. There are a number of minor enhancements and background work which has been done, which to be honest the average user will never notice, nor would they care about even if they did! The big changes have been in the background.

The new DWG

To deliver the performance increases and smaller file sizes the end user has to suffer yet another file format change – correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Autodesk, but weren’t we told that 2000 would be the final format change? The rumours I hear are that the major changes “under the hood” have been to incorporate changes necessary to make Revit 100% DWG compatible, removing one of the arguments levelled against Revit – that of supporting legacy data.

This may or may not be the case, but what is certain is that while the DWG 2004 brings us potential benefits, it also introduces a rather worrying angle – that of file encryption. Encryption has been introduced as an initiative to protect AutoCAD users’ intellectual property, guaranteeing that the data cannot be modified or maliciously altered in any form, but in the case of 2004 it has possible further reaching connotations. The file format itself is protected, meaning that all non-Autodesk software that boasts DWG compatibility is going to have a tough time supporting the 2004 DWG format, potentially not at all. The OpenDWG alliance formed to communicate compatibility issues with the ever-changing “industry standard” DWG format has even released a statement covering its serious concerns over the encrypted format, effectively boycotting it altogether. What Autodesk are doing to the users is reducing the effectiveness of their software by not allowing it to communicate natively with any other software. If AutoCAD were the only CAD software in the world, it would make no odds, but as many architects use Vectorworks, MicroStation, ArchiCAD, et al, we all may have to find some other way of communicating our design information. For anyone to put their data into 2004 format could restrict the ability to share data outside of the AutoCAD world. Could this be Autodesk’s veiled attempt at re-boosting flagging sales figures, by forcing us to have to buy AutoCAD 2004? With their previous “forced upgrade” policy, I wouldn’t be surprised. There are a number of concerned users out there!

Finally, as a long-time user myself, it’s interesting to consider the role of AutoCAD in the future. With ADT getting better and more usable all the time, and Revit being touted as the new kid on the BIM block, it is becoming more difficult to see where AutoCAD is going to be aimed. Autodesk know: their stance is that AutoCAD is a draughting package. Compare it then to the perceived popular draughting competition, and you realise AutoCAD is now hugely overpriced as a draughting solution. VectorWorks is around the ú800 mark, Bentley PowerDraft (marketed as the Bentley equivalent to AutoCAD) is about ú1,800 and even AutoCAD LT, which is capable of at least 99% of all daily draughting tasks, is under ú700. Ironic, isn’t it that many users are now looking at LT as one of the main competitors to AutoCAD.

AutoCAD is really only as successful as it is now because of historic investments we have all made into what was once a unique product. Now AutoCAD seems to be merely a platform – and it must be said a very stable, reliable and usable platform – for the gradually improving modelling applications of Architectural Desktop and its ilk. Is it a serious contender in today’s high-end CAD solutions and low-end bargain draughting market? I’m not so sure anymore. To upgrade from R14 is without a doubt worthy of serious consideration; if you use AutoCAD for draughting alone, consider spending the upgrade money on a copy of LT instead, which can be purchased for around the same figure! If you are already running AutoCAD 2000/2002 the latest version holds very little to justify the ú700 upgrade price.

A final word

Having used 2004 for a few weeks now, an idea for the thinking behind the dated version has sprung to mind. Historically the “odd” versions of AutoCAD have been the odd versions, those full of bugs – R13 is a perfect example that springs to mind (R15 we can skip as there were three releases of this – 2000, 2000i and 2002, pretty much guaranteeing it would be OK.) – but it does beg the question whether this is why Autodesk switched to using the year as the version code after r14 – and could explain why we have AutoCAD 2004 in March 2003!

www.autodesk.com

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