The saying holds that the best things in life are free. Although I'd be willing to argue that point over a bottle of Dom P??Â«rignon, there are some pretty nice things that fall into the "free" category. One of these is AutoCAD WS, a free tool from Autodesk that gives mobile and Web clients the ability to work with files created by some of the company's most popular tools, with the help of an online workspace. It manages to balance ease of use and powerful editing features without requiring compromises in efficiency or security.
AutoCAD WS debuted last September, offering support for iOS devices such as the iPad and iPhone, as well as the ability to edit AutoCAD DWG through a Web browser. Before then, the Web application had been a technology preview on the Autodesk Labs site, under the name of "Project Butterfly." The Web application can be accessed directly at the AutoCAD WS Website (http://www.autocadws.com), while the application for iOS devices is available from the iTunes App Store.
The 1.1 release of AutoCAD WS came out in late November, adding offline editing capabilities and direct file upload from iPad devices. Version 1.2 shipped in February, shortly after I began my evaluation. It added support for Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish, as well as adding the ability to work with DWG files created in Autodesk Inventor that depict 2D objects, improvements to the iOS app's markup capabilities and a new copy-and-paste tool.
Users can access the online workspace through a variety of tools. These can be a Web browser, the iOS client application or from within the current (2010 and 2011) releases of AutoCAD, AutoCAD LT and AutoCAD for Mac. Windows versions of AutoCAD require a free plug-in. AutoCAD for Mac has support for AutoCAD WS baked in. Traffic between the service and connected clients uses HTTPS to create an encrypted connection, and Amazon's S3 service hosts the backend. The online workspace is simple and uncluttered. Even people unfamiliar with CAD tools should have little problem navigating the interface.
The workspace organizes DWG and DXF files, images and related documentation in project folders; supported file types include Microsoft Word binary (DOC), PDF, and JPEG and PNG image formats. Project files can be uploaded one by one or as one large ZIP file that is automatically unpacked on the server.
The online editor includes a subset of the AutoCAD drawing and editing tools; more than 100 tools are available, and I found the tools to be as intuitive as AutoCAD itself. Multiple users can work on the same DWG file at once, and changes are reflected in the file as they are made. Permissions can be set for a project folder or individual files. Available options include edit-and-download, edit-only, download-only or view-only. Recipients of shared drawings can open the document online or save it as a DWG file.
Editor's note: This article was changed to reflect that Autodesk Inventor is not a 2D design tool.