New Dimension for AutoCAD

Autodesk's venerable program gains web-based features that ease production of illustrations.

Packaged software vendors have traditionally claimed to provide a "productivity solution" rather than just a document creation tool with specialized functions. With 21st-century software users safely assumed to have an active Internet connection, were finally seeing the fulfillment of that promise in products such as Autodesk Inc.s AutoCAD LT 2002—which is much more than just the latest incarnation of an electronic drawing board.

eWeek Labs found the $725 AutoCAD LT 2002 offers a complete and useful portal for producing, coordinating and publishing technical drawings and illustrations.

The products Today window is the most effective approach weve ever seen to fully integrating the Internet into a workstation application. It combines notification of software updates, communication with Autodesk support staff and with AutoCAD user forums, and Web-based bulletin-board capability for distributed workgroups. The Today window also streamlines routine tasks with a searchable work history, access to symbol libraries and a single point of entry to the various modes of creating a drawing.

As for the core tasks of drafting, we were more than pleased with this updates associative dimensioning feature, which maintains the connection between an object and its dimension lines and values. One of the banes of traditional drafting, the laborious task of dimensioning an object at an arbitrary angle, was both obvious and convenient in AutoCAD LT 2002; it was especially easy to position the actual dimension line wherever we found it most useful.

Better still, any subsequent change in position, size or orientation of the dimensioned feature retained the dimension markings with automatically updated values.

The automatic association of drawing scale with all drawn objects has always been one of AutoCADs defining features, ever since the products first release gave IBM PC users a reason to fill that empty numeric-processor socket on 8088-equipped motherboards.

AutoCAD has continued to use as much computational power as PC builders are kind enough to provide. Our 1GHz Pentium III workstation finally catches up to the demands, for example, of giving the AutoCAD LT user automatic feedback on the geometry of the objects we were drawing or changing. We received prompt indications when we were in the neighborhood of a cardinal point such as an end point or a midpoint of a line—simplifying many typical drawing operations.

We werent always successful in selecting the intended drawing element when several lines came together at a common end point; even so, AutoCAD LT 2002 offered us a combination of visual feedback during operations in progress and a multilevel Undo facility to minimize wasted time.

Technical drawings, no matter how detailed, rely on text to convey much of their meaning: AutoCAD LT 2002 fills in some formerly serious gaps in this area by offering consolidated formatting operations on groups of text objects, rather than requiring individual repetitive changes. Spell checking is also now provided for text block contents.

The AutoCAD LT 2002 manual is a throwback to a more literate era in its completeness, organization, illustrations and removable quick-reference card.

In this standards-based era, wed be more comfortable if Autodesk didnt implicitly threaten prospective buyers with the possibility that other CAD products wont be fully compatible with the Autodesk DWG drawing format. Enterprise buyers are increasingly likely to defy such pressures and to seek open-standards-based options.

Even so, for users who need only two-dimensional capabilities and who dont require programmable customization tools, AutoCAD LT offers a lot of capability—for about one-fifth the price of the companys top-of-the-line three-dimensional and programmable AutoCAD.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.