AutoCAD 2011 for Mac a Good First Effort

The Mac OS X version of CAD software lacks workflow features but delivers on basics.

Although it's taken Autodesk more than 18 years to bring the gold standard of CAD software back to Apple's Macintosh platform, there's something to be said for the company's strategy of waiting until it can be done properly. AutoCAD 2011 for Mac takes the market-leading tool for which Autodesk is famous, and couples it with an interface that remains true to the Mac environment while satisfying most of the demands of experienced AutoCAD users.

Perhaps the most significant difference between AutoCAD for Windows and the Mac version is that Autodesk chose to discard the ribbon interface featured in recent Windows releases of AutoCAD, in favor of putting the tools where Mac users expect them: on the Mac OS X menu bar. A rather substantial number of features from the Windows version simply didn't make it into this "initial" release for Mac, as described in document TS15833488 on the Autodesk Website, especially in the area of layering and other tools. Likewise, many enterprise workflow features for which AutoCAD is famous are missing from the Mac release.

But AutoCAD for Mac users get a few bells and whistles that their counterparts using Windows are likely to envy; multitouch gestures on supported input hardware give the software a look and feel that is only possible with a Mac, and it's possible to browse AutoCAD files in the Mac OS X Finder with the Cover Flow option.

Those differences aside-and for some users, the missing features will indeed prove to be deal breakers-this is in all other respects a "real" AutoCAD. As proof of this, one need only consider the software's support for the company's AutoLISP programming language and ObjectARX extension applications, as well as the command line interface that allows users to bypass the software's menus and palettes and enter commands directly for ultimate efficiency. AutoCAD for Mac works with files from AutoCAD Release 14 and later, which accommodates AutoCAD versions dating back to 1997.

The price reflects this near-parity of features as well; although educators and students have free access to AutoCAD for Mac through the company's educational support community, the $3,995 retail cost make this the most expensive piece of shrink-wrapped software that I've tested in a very long time indeed. The company offers a free 30-day trial of the software, making it possible to kick the tires with one's existing hardware; as I found out, the system requirements are demanding, but a little more flexible than they appear on first glance.

AutoCAD for Mac requires a 64-bit Intel processor and at least 3GB of RAM; the company's stated requirements for each Mac model describe machines introduced in late 2008 or afterward, and these should be running the 10.5.8 release of Mac OS X Leopard, or Snow Leopard 10.6.4 or later.

But I found it possible to install and use AutoCAD for Mac on a slightly older MacBook Pro than specified; the machine was a 3,1 model from late 2007 with 4GB of RAM, whereas the specs call for a 5,1 or later MacBook Pro. Although I got AutoCAD working on my older machine-but only after shutting down my customarily and excessively overworked Web browser-I wouldn't recommend such a deployment to anyone using AutoCAD on more than a casual basis. Autodesk lists the graphics hardware on this MacBook Pro-an Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT chipset-as supported in AutoCAD 2011 for Mac, and graphics support seems to be the main sticking point for hardware compatibility.

If one's budget can accommodate just under $4,400 for the software (that figure includes the sales tax in San Francisco, so the total cost will vary by location), a few more grand for some recent hardware on which to run it ought to be a trifling matter. But in times like these, many shops are trying to get six cents out of every nickel, and it's rather disappointing that AutoCAD failed to consider that a three-year-old system ought to be within the realm of usefulness. As I discovered, the result on slightly older gear is a level of performance when manipulating and rendering objects that's somewhat degraded from an optimal experience-the roughness of images being the only noticeable flaw.

Once I had the software running on some beefier hardware, I saw a distinct improvement in graphics-intensive tasks-which for AutoCAD means "just about everything the software does." What it does, it does well; although Autodesk has admittedly pitched this release at smaller workgroups that don't require high-end workflow tools, it does include a powerful array of controls and tools, backed up by a powerful built-in rendering engine.

This is a complete rewrite of the application for the Mac, so in many respects, its lack of complete feature parity with its counterpart for Windows should be written off as something that one simply can't expect in a debut version. The challenge for Autodesk will be to get those missing features and tools-especially the layering functions and the workflow tools-into the earliest release possible. Many potential customers will find these shortcomings to be showstoppers, and that's understandable. But as a first pass-or, at least, the first one in almost 20 years-AutoCAD 2011 for Mac is rather impressive.