HAVING BEEN both a computing and architecture buff since childhood, I had my first encounter with AutoCAD over 20 years ago at a tender age. The DOS based Intel 386 machines with a whopping 2MB RAM then - state of the art at the time - gave me my very first experience using its mostly command-line based software.
Then, and until recently, it was mainly 2D drafting rather than 3D design focused. Trying to put together 3D church domes and model the arches supporting them was quite a pain, but it did work. Yes, it took time to refresh the display of even a wireframe model, not to mention shaded 3D representations.
Since then, through a myriad of releases, core code replacements seemingly more complex than those for Windows, and massive GUI changes, AutoCAD has evolved from a clumsy 2D oriented drafting application into a very complex package handling both 2D and 3D aspects of the design process, and has kept its dominant market position all the while. Some applications like Intergraph then Bentley MicroStations were architecturally way ahead of AutoCAD in the early years, but were pushed aside over time. I've enjoyed reviewing and using many of both the AutoCAD and competitor software releases in the meantime, mostly via 3D city modeling tests.
In this two-part review, my first AutoCAD test in three years, we'll assess the look of AutoCAD 2010, how it feels during use compared to previous versions, and some of the new features and usage examples. The key new improvements like fully parametric drawing and design, as well as vastly improved 3D modeling for mesh and solid objects, will be covered too.
But first, let's look at the hardware requirements - not what the box sticker says, but what I feel should be the case. I ran the AutoCAD setup on two vastly different machines. One is a simple Core 2 Duo notebook with 32-bit Windows 7 Ultimate, 4GB RAM and Intel integrated graphics - yes, interactive 3D still works on that - which is, in my mind, a bare minimum to run the software. The other is a self-made workstation with dual Intel W5590 quad-core Xeon Nehalem-EP processors, 48GB DDR3-1333 ECC RAM on the Tyan S7010 mainboard and the Nvidia Quadro FX5800 4GB high end OpenGL GPU with a special in-house optimised AutoCAD driver for the 64-bit AutoCAD version I run on it. Now, this configuration will let you fly through even very complex city models in real-time, decently rendered 3D.
As for the monitor, the 1280x800 WXGA notebook display is only good to show the menus and buttons zoomed up for publishing in this article, not for any real work. AutoCAD's dozens of menu and button bars, side menus and the usual mandatory bottom command line that's been present since my teen years, all take so much screen real estate that, in my mind, at least 1920x1200 WUXGA resolution is required to provide sufficient space for both design and access to the necessary command buttons and menus. In fact, I ran the Quadro dual Xeon setup on the Dell 2560x1600 display for truly proper design experience.
In the 2010 version, the GUI feels remotely similar to Office 2007, which is not a coincidence since all Windows AutoCAD versions have always seemed intended to look and feel quite a bit like just another Microsoft Office application. While drafting and modeling software requirements may be very different from those for, say, word processing, re-using a probably already familiar user interface from everyday work does make some sense.
Side tabs on both the left and right sides invoke a variety of libraries and settings for specific uses. My preset was architecture and 3D rendering usage, so AutoCAD pulled up the correct panels, as you can see.
To get a better feel of 3D modeling and review response, I loaded my 12MB, 10-million polygon scale model of a city near Singapore, something I spent quite a few weeks on some years ago, into both the notebook and workstation test platforms. The new navigation wheels that AutoCAD 2010 has do let you switch quickly - sometimes uncontrollably - from zooming or panning to orbiting, walking or flying through your 3D model.
While the real time response was obviously there on the workstation platform, I was pleasantly surprised to see that even the little notebook's integrated graphics could still manage reasonably useful, although not even near real-time 3D model movement in the window. Now, Intel integrated graphics do seem to handle pure polygons without textures and effects very well actually, and that's what CAD is all about.
Also, many AutoCAD old hands will probably still stick to the proven command line method of creating objects and inputting coordinates, although the sheer number of new commands and options in this release does force you to click up those GUI buttons and menus sooner rather than later. I did feel that to a certain extent the GUI options might have been a little overdone, but then you can always turn them off.
Note that AutoCAD now uses only Direct3D, rather than OpenGL, for 3D visualisation in real time. I think it should have kept the OpenGL option too, as for engineering graphics with its required high precision, Direct3D isn't exactly trustworthy yet. That's why Nvidia's own Quadro optimised driver had to be coded differently for this version. Autodesk, how about returning the OpenGL option in the next service patch?
Also, when installing the program together with the Design Review utility, the installer seemingly defaults to the 32-bit AutoCAD 2010 version even when on 64-bit Windows, while if the Design Review is not checked for install, the correct 64-bit AutoCAD version is installed. That little issue should be easy to resolve, I guess, otherwise casual users might not notice the problem and will lose the large model handling capability that the 64-bit version brings.
In summary, at first glance AutoCAD 2010 seems to finally bear the fruits of its extensive multi-year application revamp in both the core and looks departments. Do keep in mind that, just like me, you will have to spend quite a bit of time learning the new features and using them. More about that in the Part 2 soon. µ
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