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AutoCAD Review

AutoCAD 2004 - A Worthy Upgrade

By Martyn Day, editor, CADserver

And so the AutoCAD juggernaut continues. Since the launch of AutoCAD 2000 in 1999, all subsequent releases have seemed to blend together with little to really distinguish them - an enhanced feature here, a new feature there, but nothing major or jaw dropping. Perhaps Autodesk was preoccupied with luring users to their vertical applications - Architectural Desktop, Mechanical Desktop and Inventor - and as a result core AutoCAD development and marketing suffered.

With AutoCAD 2004, however, Autodesk's development team has shaken off its malaise and released a good looking, comprehensive and feature-rich AutoCAD for the Windows XP era. While it’s true that much of what is new is the result of user requests (from user group wish lists), Autodesk has come up with a number of nice changes and additions to the program's functionality and user interface.

Below, I have highlighted some of the most useful additions and changes I have encountered so far in AutoCAD 2004.

New Features

User Interface

2004 is the first fully compliant XP release of AutoCAD, making the most of the interface improvements that Microsoft put into Windows XP. The machine I am currently writing this article on is my exceedingly heavy Pentium IV workstation, which runs Windows Millennium Edition (Me) - probably the most heinous operating system ever devised by man. My home machine and test workstation both run XP; in over six months of operating XP I have yet to witness either machine crash. Sure, some applications may become unstable and bomb out but the machine’s core system is always up and running. If you are not on XP yet, I highly recommend making the move, even if you run a lowly Pentium III, as I do at home. A further reason to upgrade is that AutoCAD 2004 does not support Windows 95/98/Me but only XP, 2000 and NT 4.0.

AutoCAD 2004's interface changes are substantial but not so radical that you won't know what's what. XP is easier on the eye than previous Windows releases and AutoCAD now makes good use of those changes. The biggest new feature of the interface is the inclusion of Tool Palettes, which provides an easy place to store patterns, symbols or blocks, for drag and drop placement. Easy for users to create themselves, these palettes enable specific jobs or drawings to be associated with project standard palettes. While these menus can take up valuable drawing space, they can be docked or set to Auto-hide. There's even a facility to make the palettes transparent, to show the drawing underneath. The command line can also be 'torn off' and placed anywhere on screen. All very cool stuff.

One of the more annoying of previous AutoCAD enhancements has thankfully disappeared. The 'AutoCAD Today' Web start-up menu has been replaced in AutoCAD 2004 with something Autodesk calls the Communication Center. This feature notifies users about downloadable updates and product support information but isn't so 'in your face' as AutoCAD Today. When downloads become available a small bubble appears in the lower right-hand corner, similar to the Windows Update feature. While a nice touch, it makes me wonder how CAD managers will deal with this, as keeping everyone on the same version of the release is important on major projects. Still, this can be controlled with the network install version of AutoCAD 2004.

More Speed, Smaller Files and Faster loading - But no SAVE AS R14

Since R14, Autodesk has promised that subsequent releases of AutoCAD would be speedier. With 2004, considerable effort has been put into reducing file size by compression, coupled with faster loading and individual feature improvement. But these changes have come at a cost, and that cost is that DWG has changed yet again. Changes in DWG format cause all kinds of headaches for users who operate mixed CAD environments, offices that run mixed versions of AutoCAD and third-party developers. 2004 can Save As previous versions, back to R2000, but cannot Save As R14, the last 'big' release of AutoCAD before the fairly recent AutoCAD 2002. Some features when Saved As a previous release and edited may not come back quite as intended (like the formatting in the new Mtext). If the files have not been altered, 2004 will load all the entities as they were originally intended.

On average, the compression reduces AutoCAD files by 40 to 50%, which is good but then disk space is cheap these days anyway. The quicker file loads are visible as AutoCAD entities appear as they are read, not in one big lump at the end. The speed of loading varies depending on the file contents; some users have found AutoCAD 2000 to be quicker on a single machine, while others report 2004 has the edge when loading over a network. It's also worth noting that as DWG has changed, so has DXF.

Autodesk's AutoCAD programming language, ARX, has also been updated, which means that applications that worked with 2002 will not work with AutoCAD 2004. Updated, recompiled applications will have to be purchased if your company uses ARX applications.

Free DWF Viewer In - Free DWG Viewer Out

The Design Web Format was introduced as a lightweight semi-dumb format for sending or viewing AutoCAD drawings over the Web. AutoCAD 2004 sees the introduction of a new version of DWF - called DWF 6 - which offers expanded functionality.

The new DWF files can be viewed and printed with the Autodesk Express Viewer, included with all 2004 products and downloadable on the Internet (only 2Mb), which replaces the previously available Volo View Express program (a 25Mb download that could view DWG, DXF, DWF and Inventor formats).

I asked Autodesk if this meant that Volo View Express was dead. The official reply stated, "Not as such. Volo View Express will still be about. However, we will no longer be developing the Express version of the Volo View product. This is due to the focus we are now putting on DWF, and thus Autodesk Express Viewer, as the preferred sharing file format. Just as the Adobe PDF platform enables engineering professionals to securely and reliably distribute documentation, Autodesk DWF technology enables you to do the same with complex design information. It is the ideal format for exchanging drawings, drawing sets, 3D models, and extended product design data. DWF has been an Autodesk publishing format for five years and the redesigned DWF 6 is now designed to be the backbone of Autodesk file sharing.”

So there you have it: Autodesk will no longer provide a free, up-to-date DWG viewing tool; instead they will only offer a free DWF viewer. Should you want to view a 2004 DWG file, Autodesk would like you to pay for the next release of Volo View (version 3), which will be the mark-up and viewing program for 2004 DWG files. I can't help feeling that this is a case of Autodesk giving you something with one hand and taking away with the other.

It's worth noting that Cimmetry Systems has already developed a 2004 DWG viewing tool which, by the time you have read this, will be available as a patch for existing AutoVue customers (see Cimmetry's AutoVue Now Supports AutoCAD 2004). It will ship in Version 17.1 of AutoVue, due out around May. The Cimmetry View and Markup solution supports the password protection and also digital signature features of the new 2004 format. Because Volo View 3 isn't available, it looks like Cimmetry will be the first to support the new 2004 DWG.

True color

AutoCAD 2004 now supports True Color, which means you can now choose from a palette of 16.1 million colors. You can also now define color by RGB value (red, green, blue) or even hue, saturation or luminance (HSL). AutoCAD 2004 also supports the industry standard Pantone color definition standard, guaranteeing the color output (when used with a Pantone calibrated printer).

Gradient Fills

This feature is a bit esoteric but I am sure some will be happy to use it instead of products like Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator. Put simply, 2004 can now produce color fills that transition color intensity (vignette) or between two colors. The controls for this are well laid out although it's easy to ruin a lovely drawing with gaudy color fills. In the right hands (not mine) I'm sure this can produce a decent effect!

Mtext

This features should be included in Updated Features section below, but so much work has been done to Mtext that it's worthy of 'new feature' status. The excellent interface no longer operates within a frame, providing almost in-place editing. Also the power of the new Mtext is vastly improved. AutoCAD now imports ASCII and Word formatted text for quick insertion.

Instant XREF access

This is a new capability for XREF users that simply (with a right click) lets you open an XREF as a separate drawing for editing. This is a powerful and time-saving tool when searching for XREFs documents to edit. There is a danger of course that you may not want users editing the XREFs so easily since changes to XREFs could impact many drawings.

Publish

It's now possible to create a single DWF that contains many drawings. Publish also doubles as a new batch plotting utility to plot paper drawings with a number of useable features.

License Portability Borrowing

It's possible to check out the license of AutoCAD on your workstation and move to the installation on your laptop. Similarly, it's possible to borrow and time-limit additional seats of AutoCAD. This offers great flexibility.

Bundled Features

When the Web first started to look like a great place for software companies to sell applications directly to users, Autodesk's AutoCAD development team created a number of useful additional tools for AutoCAD. These were called the Express Tools and were available on the Web for less than $100.

Then, as Autodesk developed its subscription model, streaming features to users who paid an annual fee, these tools were given away as part of the subscription program. New features are constantly

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