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AutoCAD Review

AutoCAD 2004 Preview

by Terry Dotson, DotSoft, March 12, 2003

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Welcome to our preview of the next version of AutoCAD, Version 2004, due to ship on March 17th, 2003. It is not our intention to provide an exhaustive review of the application, that will come later in the print publications like CADENCE and Cadalyst. Instead, it's our intention to provide an overview and our opinion, enough information to tide you over until more becomes available.

Collaboration Issues

DWG Format Changed: AutoCAD 2004 introduces a new default drawing format which of course is not compatible with anything else in the industry. Unlike the good old days when AutoCAD would save back to 2-3 previous versions, this time they elected to only allow the save back to 2000 format. We must stress, there is NO SAVEASR14.

As part of the change they are using a built-in compression. Out of curiosity we compacted a 2004 drawing in WinZip using maximum compression and it only shrank 13%, as opposed to the same 2000 drawing that shrank 49%. To test the speed we did some tests with a 21mb file (2000) that went down to 12mb (2004). The question is: does the compression speed up the process? In our experience, while writing a smaller file takes less disk access time, the CPU time to compress balances it out. Some numbers followed by an explanation.

We threw out the first number because it was typically higher (file caching, etc.) and averaged the last two. The checkmark indicates the better performance. This shows that while 2004 is slightly faster in network file access, 2000 was faster on a local drive.

Object Creation/Editing

Multiline Text: There have been some changes in this area. On the definitely positive side is the support for tabs and indents (still no tables). While it's not perfect, we found pastes from Word to look much better. Full display text drag is now available for subtle positioning, and a right click menu has more controls.

The jury is still out on the new frameless editor. Unlike the old dialog mtext editor, it now attempts to give the appearance of in place editing, with the editor box in the same position and size as the mtext object. Some may like this, but we found it annoying in the fact that the editor appears at random locations and sizes. The MTEXTFIXED variable somewhat restores the previous behavior, but without a resizable dialog.

Before pasting in a multi page document, consider the fact that it's still limited to 32k.

True Color: This long-time wish list item has arrived. In 2000i/2002 there was a 'fairly hidden' option to map the standard colors to true color and see the results in drawing preview. But now you can assign a true color to any objects in model or paper space. Support is still included for the old 256 colors, with the addition of RGB, HSL, and even Pantone color books. This will be a big plus for presentation, visualization, and mapping.

Multiple Redo: A welcome addition. After several undo's you can issue redo's to "undo the undo's." A history of commands is kept in a list next the toolbar icons (undo & redo), allowing you to quickly return to a given state.

Shaded Viewport Plotting: In previous versions you had to render to a file, then attach that image to show a shaded/rendered object in a plot. Now you can plot shaded/rendered models directly in paper or model space. Additional controls for this show up in a new section on the right side of the plot dialog.

Gradient Fills: Allows you to transition color (or two colors) to solid hatching in a paint program fashion. Sadly this is not the 'bleed through' fill I was hoping for, which would allow a percent gradient. Limited usefulness.

OLE Page Size: If you are running Windows & Office XP, you can paste large spreadsheets into the drawing without truncation. All other OLE problems remain, and you still cannot paste multi-page Word documents.

Revision Cloud: Now built into the core, including more options.

General Management

CAD Manager Tools: Includes these tools:

Product Manager: Inventory Autodesk software on a PC, LAN, or WAN.
Script Generator:
Use scripts to install products without user interaction.
Control Utility:
Restrict user access to Internet based features.
Network Install:
Provides more flexibility for managing deployments.
License Borrowing:
Time limited portable license, up to 30 days.

CAD Standards: This former extension is rolled in. It allows you check drawings for variations in dimension and text styles, layers, linetypes, etc. Can run in the background to inform users of violations as they occur.

Communications Center: Acquiring the live update functionality of the AutoCAD Today window (without the in-your-face attitude), it provides notification of updates and other useful information. There when you want it (in a small icon on the lower right) and never in your face, this is what Today should have been to start with.

DWG Security: You can now assign a password on a per-drawing basis, and digitally sign drawings. The password prevents the drawing from being opened without the password. It does not prevent others from changing your drawing once it's open. Our wish list system would have allowed you to password protect the entire drawing, or better yet on a layer/object basis. Look at CADLock for more capabilities.

The password protection could also have severe negative effects. Imagine an employee who (suspecting they will soon be let go) password protects all the files on a major project. Of course this capability has been available with Microsoft Office documents for a long time and hasn't been noted as a problem.

Operating Systems: AutoCAD 2004 is now Windows XP certified, and runs fine on Windows 2000 as well. Power user privileges are no longer required. Operating systems such as Windows 95/98/Me are not supported. In our opinion these operating systems were never stable enough to be considered for AutoCAD anyway.

Publish Tool: Much better than the old PublishToWeb tool introduced in 2000i. You quickly and easy select multiple drawings, which layouts to process, and the output. Output can be to the plotters defined in the drawings or the new multi-sheet dwf files. Combined with the Express Viewer the recipient can even print the DWF files to scale. DWF is looking better all the time.

Reference Manager: This former extension has been rolled in, allowing you to select all drawings relative to a project and see all items referenced. Quickly see all fonts, plot configurations & styles, shapes, standards and xrefs related to the collection.

Side-by-Side Installation: AutoCAD 2004 can be installed and run on the same machine containing previous product releases during transition.

User Interface

File Open Dialog: Looks and behaves much like the one in previous versions. Thankfully now icons like Buzzsaw can be removed with a simple Right Click > Remove. Unlike previous versions, if you choose a different view (like details) it is remembered the next time the dialog is displayed. A nice addition for Win2000/XP users is the thumbnails view that displays the drawing preview of all files in the folder along with the name. A small complaint is that when in the thumbnail mode, the preview area of the dialog should hide to maximize the dialog space.

Changed NEW: By default the NEW command brings up a dialog to select a template, as opposed to the old prompt. To use the old method, you'll need to train yourself to issue the QNEW command, and set the default. Under Options, Files Tab, Drawing Template Settings, Filename for QNEW, choose your file.

Goodbye Today: Wishes do come true. Most people deemed the AutoCAD Today window annoying at best. It's been removed from the startup. Some of its functionality was moved to the Communications Center (listed in General Management).

Toolbars: The color depth has been increased to make 'prettier' icons. An example is below. To address the problem of long layer names becoming unreadable, the width of the layer popdown was roughly doubled in size, but still cannot be resized. Roughly 30 upper case characters now, look for a new QuikPik from ManuSoft.

Modeless Dialogs: Several changes were made to modeless dialogs like Properties, Design Center, etc.

Auto Hide: Since the introduction of the properties dialog, we really liked the extended capabilities, but really disliked the fact that it consumed precious screen space. Sure you could toggle its visibility with ctrl+1, 2, etc., but it still required constant attention. Now with the auto hide feature, it takes up a thin slice of space (equivalent to the dark blue caption area). When your cursor passes over the bar, it expands and lets you use the dialog. After your cursor moves away, it shrinks back.

Transparency: You can vary the amount of transparency so that you can actually see the drawing behind the dialog when it's full. We found this visually confusing and not nearly as useful as the Auto Hide. You can make the command line (if floating) transparent also.

Tool Palettes: These are user customizable and allow you to add frequently used blocks and hatches to tool palettes, which can have tabs for logical groups. In our opinion these would appeal more to new users (with its drag & drop execution), with less appeal to older power users.

Properties: Categories (such as general and geometry shown in the above screenshot) can be rolled up to get them out of the way, and the program remembers your settings on a per object group basis. You can now edit the attributes of an insert in properties.

Status Bar: The status bar at the bottom is now configurable. So if you don't need buttons for items like lineweight you can remove them from the list.

Layout Tabs: Now you can use Ctrl+PageUp and Ctrl+PageDown to flip through the pages. The tab strip is still limited to a single row. As an aside, there's still no tab strip to switch between drawings.

Usable Full Screen: A toggle using Ctrl+0 immediately removes all toolbars, palettes, even the Windows taskbar and AutoCAD window caption. This leaves only the AutoCAD pulldown and command prompt, a pleasant reminder of the fullscreen usability of AutoCAD DOS.

External References

Draworder Honored: While I wouldn't guarantee draworder to be trouble free, drawings to be xrefed should show the same as they do when opened in the editor.

XOPEN command: Quickly open an xref in a new drawing window by picking it in the drawing.

Xref Dialog: It's now resizable (a welcome change). You can select multiple xrefs on the list and open them in separate drawing windows. Also, the dialog displayed with the attach option allows you to select multiple files.

Xref Paths: The Attach dialog now allows options of full path, relative path, or no path.

Notification: If you have a project open that contains references to other drawings, and those drawings change, a bubble appears informing you of the change, along with the user who changed it.


PNGOUT: Quick raster files from drawings with the option to include all objects and viewports. TIFOUT and JPGOUT commands is also included, but we don't consider JPG to be an acceptable format for the representation of vectors.

MAXSORT: Now set to 1000, which means less confusion for new users when they exceed the old value of 200 for layers, etc.

Express Tools Included

This collection of functionality is now included, but is not included in the core install. You will need to return to the install panel and choose this as an option. Of course at this point most of the functionality of these have been included in the core product. In previous releases Layer Save/Restore was built into the Layer dialog, etc. In this release the WIPEOUT is now a core command/object type, FULLSCREEN is core as ctrl+0, also the REVCLOUD is a core command creating a resulting polyline object.

Customization Issues

Compiled Menu Files: To accommodate the true color icons, AutoCAD 2004 will recompile your menu files MNC, MNR (even if you have no icons defined). If AutoCAD 2004 is the only AutoCAD on your system it's not an issue. But if you have a partial menu that's shared with previous versions, after 2004 recompiles them, the older version won't load them.

ARX Specification: This has changed. This means that most add-ons built for AutoCAD 2000 will not work in 2004. You will need to contact the add-on developer for a 2004-compatible version of the add-on. Simple LISP routines should run without any problems.


We consider AutoCAD 2004 to be the most significant new release since 2000, and definitely worth consideration for an upgrade. If you don't need to save drawings in an R14 format, it's a big thumbs up.

About the Author

Terry W. Dotson is the principal of DotSoft, the leading developer of AutoCAD productivity add-ons. Terry has an 18-year history with AutoCAD, starting as a user, then working at a reseller in training/sales, and now programming AutoCAD to maximize its capabilities.

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