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By Rakesh Rao, January 14, 2013
I have heard about China-based ZWCAD software for many years and have tracked this company and its software for some time now. I have always known this company for its hunger for growth, aggressive pricing, and for having delivered a .dwg platform which has the most identical look and feel of AutoCAD.
In July 2012, ZWSOFT Design Co. Ltd released ZWCAD+, which they call the “next generation ZWCAD.” As far as I can see, the most significant difference is that it was written from scratch with a new core CAD kernel, unlike the older ZWCAD. This made me excited enough to want to try ZWCAD+. After BricsCAD, this was the first IntelliCAD-free CAD I was going to look at; I realized this company was beginning to head in the right direction.
This is indeed a positive move, as they no longer need to depend on the IntelliCAD Technology Consortium (ITC) for their CAD kernel any more, and so can chart growth on their own.
ZWCAD+ comes as a 180-MB download, and installation was smooth. It took, however, about 15 minutes for it to install, which is quite a bit longer than what I expect. Support told me this was due to the .NET 4.0 framework installation; strangely, it took that long during every re-installation as well.
It may well be intentional, as ZWCAD uses these 15 minutes of installation time to show me a number of screens, charts, and graphs highlighting the strong points of the software:
The installation screen pretty much summed up what I needed to check out in the new release.
At the end of installation, I was given an option – Ribbon UI or Classic UI. This was great, and simple. No workspaces to set, no long user environments to memorize. Here, I see ZWCAD taking a middle path as far as ribbons are concerned. You get one fixed ribbon (figure 1) or a classic MNU interface which is customizable.
|Figure 1: Ribbon interface looks like AutoCAD, but is not customizable (like in Word)|
The installation program forcibly changed the .dwg association to ZWCAD without my consent. I knew it only when I double-clicked the next .dwg file and ZWCAD started up. I was told by support that this is by design and is not going to change. I did not like this “feature.”
The first thing I saw in ZWCAD is the near-total copy of the AutoCAD interface – right down to the last menu item, Express Tools (which comes with the standard installation). This is good news for end-users who will not have to retrain themselves.
Because ZWCAD+ is a brand-new CAD engine, it does not yet have all the functions of the older ZWCAD. I asked the CAD vendor’s support people which ZWCAD functions are missing from the newer ZWCAD+, and they gave me this list:
Some of these functions won’t be missed by the average CAD user, but larger companies typically have CAD operations that require the use of batch plotting for large projects and parametrics for complex parts may find the omissions an impediment to migrating to ZWCAD+. ZWSOFT told me that they are working on building these into the core engine and expect to provide them in future releases.
I am not going to write about the standard dwg-CAD features of ZWCAD+ in this review. It is a given and we know it exists. I will only report on specific stuff that CAD drafters have been looking for in an alternative .dwg platform and report how ZWCAD+ performs in those areas.
To test ZWCAD+, I opened Microsoft Excel and copied a blocks of cells from it to the clipboard. I switched to ZWCAD and did a Paste-Special from the Edit menu. The Paste Special dialog box gave me several new options other than the usual OLE object. I liked the fact that I could bring in Excel data as ZWCAD entities (lines and text) or as a single MTEXT in addition (see figure 2).
|Figure 2: Excel data pasted in ZWCAD+ using as variety of formats|
Unlike AutoCAD, ZWCAD does not yet have the capability to bring in Excel data as a table object but it is good to see something more than a dumb OLE object, something that is a first for a non-AutoCAD platform.
Next, I wanted to see how raster image files are handled in ZWCAD. I tried a couple of satellite imagery ECW files (see figure 3). Pretty good, I would say, even when zoomed in. Pan performance was acceptable and vector data overlaid on the image handled well.
|Figure 3: ERMapper ECW files loaded in ZWCAD+|
The image I/O library is not comprehensive enough to recognize all of them but handled many of the common ones. I tried different flavors and versions of JPG and TIFF files with mixed results, however. Some would load, while others would not. I guess this is due to differences in image formats and standards.
For some file, it might be necessary for you to adjust the image using a standard tool like PhotoShop before importing into ZWCAD+. There is no support for WRL world files, but I was told it is under development.
I wanted to stress-test the image engine, and so tried to load a 240MB TIFF file (see figure 4). This test image is stitched together from several Google map images. It came in effortlessly and I was able to pan around the drawing quickly.
|Figure 4: A 240MB Google-generated map in TIFF format (a non geo-referenced image) in ZWCAD+|
Next, I wanted to see how well ZWCAD+ handles large DWG files, and so I brought out my favorite torture drawing. It is a 105MB survey drawing of a network of roads, rivers, and parcels (see figure 5). It loaded in less than 30 seconds, and pan/zoom operations were smooth and easy. Pretty impressive!
|Figure 5: A large 105 MB drawing displayed in ZWCAD+|
I tried overlaying some images, but noticed that ZWCAD+ did not like it too much. The images were shown only as rectangular borders. This is probably a memory issue, and the resources required were simply too much to handle.
I concluded that for most sizes of data people use, ZWCAD+ should be good enough, but you will need to manage your data judiciously for best performance. When the going gets tough, it appears ZWCAD+ will simply not show the images in order so as not to crawl.
While I was reviewing ZWCAD+, an SP1 update (incremental patch) was released. It came with a bunch of new commands, some of which look like utilities and extras. But the good thing is that these are commands that users have really been asking for:
|Figure 6: The OverKill command's dialog box|
I tested the OverKill command, and liked what I saw. It even identified partially overlapping geometry and deleted them, as long as they are is 2D.
From the existing set of features in ZWCAD+, I can see that the focus is on improving the user-experience for 2D drafting. There isn’t much in 3D design and rendering but the 2D drafting engine is given a lot of thought and made stronger and robust.
All CAD support files, like .PAT, .MNU, .LIN, .CTB/PCP, and .PGP, work in ZWCAD+, with the exception of CUI and CUIX (which are not supported). You will need the source MNU files, which ZWCAD compiles into a proprietary MENUC format. (ZWCAD Support said CUI/X will be supported in the 2013 release.)
Plotter configuration and pen settings /color table files can be reused from other .dwg CAD systems, said ZWCAD, but I did not verify this myself.
I wanted to see how custom Lisp programs and DCL dialogs run in ZWCAD+. I fired up two of my GeoTools routines; one does contour labeling, and the other labels polyline vertices (see figure 7). They worked very well and without a hitch; I did not have to change a single line of Lisp/Vlisp or DCL code.
|Figure 7: A custom DCL dialog box in ZWCAD+ called from GeoTools|
I decided to check out Lisp compatibility and performance by running a series of tests using the comprehensive Lisp benchmark created by Lisp guru Torsten Moses. (See http://www.lt-extender.com/LT-Extender/downloads/public/LispBenchMark.zip.) I ran one benchmark involving standard Lisp functions and what I got was this relative order: BricsCAD (fastest), AutoCAD, ZWCAD+, and then IntelliCAD-based software (slowest), like GStarCAD and the older ZWCAD.
ZWSOFT claims faster Lisp as one of the strong points in ZWCAD+; it may well be faster than the Lisp in the older ZWCAD, but it did not impress me when stacked against the Lisp running in BricsCAD and AutoCAD.
ZWCAD+ is a good bet when your office has 2D drafting as your main requirement. Being the first release of a new-core non-IntelliCAD software, ZWCAD+ is missing some CAD features. But overall, it looks good for the purpose at the reasonable price point at which it is offered.
|Rakesh Rao is an expert on DWG based CAD software, including add-ons. His background skills include GIS/survey/mapping software running on the DWG platform. He has worked on add-ons for HVAC, architecture, manufacturing. civil and GIS-CAD-related software. More...|