19 November 2010
Taking the first bite of Apple Autocad
Autodesk's Autocad 2011 for Mac is available for download. How does it stand up when put to the test?
Autodesk has released a 30-day demo of its new Autocad 2011 for Mac software. Anybody can have a go at downloading it direct from http://usa.autodesk.com and giving it a go but you do need to check whether your Mac is up to it.
Autodesk has stipulated very specific references to compatible Apple hardware. The slightly shocking implication of this is that if your Mac Pro tower, Mac Mini or MacBook Pro was made before March last year it is already too old. The oldest supported models, iMacs and MacBooks, extend a little further back to early 2008.
These requirements seem to be a consequence of Autocad for Mac having limited compatibility with the graphics cards in Apple computers. If the installer detects a known non-compatible card, installation will not proceed. Be warned, however, that Autodesk is still working on the safeguards in the installer, and the system requirements listed on the website are a more reliable guide.
If you are seriously considering purchasing Autocad 2011 for Mac then using new hardware over and above Autodesk’s minimum requirements should be treated as a given.
Provided you have run all the Apple operating system updates, installation is straightforward. Opening up Autocad for the first time, the default interface presents you with a hybrid of the familiar – the typical Apple application menu layout at the top of the screen and Apple control buttons on the drawing windows – and unfamiliar: toolbars, information panels and a command line strip, all in a very dark grey which makes some of the buttons impossible to see. I found an immediate improvement after changing the default interface theme from "dark" to "light" in the preferences menu.
The default splash screen includes seven short video tutorials to help get you started. If your experience is limited to current Apple-based cad software you will probably need all the help you can get. However, if you have already used Windows versions of Autocad or Autocad LT you should find it quite familiar.
When you transfer existing Autocad drawings to the Mac, the first thing you notice is that integration of the software with the operating system allows the generation of custom icons and previews of the contents of the drawing files, which increase the visual feedback when browsing through the folder structure trying to find the right file.
The software boasts a high degree of backwards compatibility with earlier versions of Autocad. It supports saving in Autocad dwg file versions as far back as Autocad 2000 and in DXF versions further back to R12. A list of options for compatible file opening/import isn't visible in the interface. However, the software readily opened an Autocad 2007 file, so the compatible file open/ import list is likely to be the same as the "save as" options.
Searches on the online help pages failed to confirm this, but they did lead me to stumble across the Autocad for Mac discussion group, which provides valuable feedback on issues encountered by early adopting users.
A large proportion of the items raised are a result of users being unaware of Autodesk’s Knowledge Base article that lists the features in the Windows version not available in the Mac version. These include the absence of 3D tools such as Flythrough and texture/materials editing, and also some advanced 2D drafting tools.
There are some reports of slowness in the use of the software when performing some graphics-related items such as zooming in or out of drawings and 3D rendering. These may be as a result of the compatibility issues with graphics cards or just different expectation levels. If these are likely to affect your use of the software I suggest you use the trial period to test these on your own hardware.
The 2D drafting capabilities of Autocad for Mac are equal to other cad software, and the file referencing capabilities are more comprehensive than in OSX cad leader Vectorworks. Added to this are the data exchange advantages of natively using Autodesk’s dominant cad file format.
Autodesk has astutely leveraged the prevalence of its file format and teamed it with the dominance of the iPhone and iPad in the portable device market to release the Autocad WS app. A highly functional piece of software, it allows portable sharing, viewing and red-lining of Autocad drawings using its online drawing storage website, www.autocadws.com.
In combination with a full web browser interface facility, it provides an additional advantage to using the "dwg" file format. The ability to publish drawings direct to Autocad WS website is built in to the Autocad for Mac software.
Autocad for Mac is a significant addition to the cad software choice available to Apple users. A potential niggle in the software's 2D capabilities is the absence of a plot style customisation utility.
With regard to 3D capabilities, it certainly outstrips my abilities to use the tools available. For advanced users, though, the combination of acknowledged missing features and some users’ reports about slow rendering speeds suggest that the OSX version doesn’t quite match up to the Windows version. Where 3D modelling is a significant requirement, the Windows version installed on Apple hardware using Boot Camp may actually perform better.
The magnitude of what Autodesk has achieved in porting Autocad to the OSX platform is significant. But given the flexibility of Apple hardware to run both OSX and Windows, this new product isn’t just competing against the long established OSX cad software but also against its own Windows versions. Autodesk would do well to further narrow the gaps in functionality between the Windows and Apple versions of its undeniably industry dominant cad software.
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