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AutoCAD 2004

updata

PROS

New improved Interface

Cool new tools

CONS

It uses the Compressed new 2004 File format, so sharing data with anyone other than AutoCAD users is painful

Buying a CAD system is like getting married - you are tying yourself into something you can walk away from if things get really bad, but most of the time the ease of staying with your current partner will outweigh the pain of finding a new one.

Autodesk has now launched the new products in its 2004 range.With the intention of making design data more accessible, it has created a new Design Web Format version (DWF), which can store 3D models with Meta data for bills of quantities etc. You can now also plot to scale and create multi-page DWF documents with security and 'asprinted' Lineweights and Linestyles.

DWF is an open-file format, which means the code is freely available to other developers for integration into other applications, and, as such, Autodesk has boldly branded DWF as 'the foundation platform for collaboration'. Unfortunately, it is not possible to attach a DWF as an Xref for design development, which appears to undermine Autodesk's thesis. According to the company's own figures, 75 per cent of all data shared is Xref 'd into other drawings. That would prevent three-quarters of all data shared from using Autodesk's 'platform for collaboration'.

We should be grateful, therefore, for the ubiquitous DWG file format, which creates files that can be read by all the major CAD companies and, due to its omnipresence, is a much better 'platform for collaboration' than DWF.

With the 2004 suite of tools comes a new DWG file format that is approximately 55 per cent smaller than the R2000 DWG.

This results in much faster access times, regardless of the file location on a network or local hard disk. However, to achieve this, Autodesk has used a proprietary compression algorithm, which means that to open a 2004 DWG file you need a 2004 tool.

It is clear from my conversations with other developers that the effect of this compression is comparable to encryption. If you do not have the key, you cannot access the data.

To compensate for the sour taste of proprietary file formats and the extra hassle that will be involved in sharing data with consultants using other CAD tools, there is a sprinkling of sweet new tools. In addition to the speed enhancements of the compressed file format, there is the new 'Autodesk Shape Manager' that further speeds up the access of 3D geometry when compared with previous ACIS-only geometry.

All Tool Palettes have a new look and feel, adopting the XP style of curvy, friendly icons and resulting in an interface that, for the first time with AutoCAD, looks like a tool designed by designers for designers. Each tool palette can be customised to add or delete individual icons and functions or to rearrange the order of icons. Furthermore, the tool palettes can be made transparent so that when open they do not block valuable screen real estate (as they say in the US).

This attention to screen space is further enhanced with the new Auto-Hide function, which shrinks the tool palette while the cursor is elsewhere on the screen but immediately restores the full view of the icons when the cursor returns. These features can free up about 40 per cent of a laptop screen to useable drawing area.

A new MultiLine text tool enables you to place and edit MultiLine text in place with immediate visual feedback. This was top of the wish list from users, and Autodesk admitted it was long overdue. The new tool also enables designers to copy and paste text from Microsoft Word while retaining all formatting and tabs.

Along with the new 'designer' look and feel come features that deliver more 'designed' results in the form of True (24-bit) colours, Pantone colours and gradient fills. The latter, though, need a subtlety makeover. Gradient fills should blend seamlessly between the two chosen colours but in the examples supplied by Autodesk the blends are much harsher.

Changes to Draworder are also welcome.

Now it will be stored permanently in the file, even when it is attached as an Xref to another.

Further amendments include the addition of a 'Notification' feature when an Xref has changed, giving the designer the option to update the Xref immediately or leave it until later. It is now also possible to open an Xref in a new window directly from an existing drawing, simplifying the editing process.

There are a number of other new features, including drawing security with password protection to prevent files being opened and viewed without the password. Imagine the disgruntled employee who password-protects all files before leaving - what then?

According to Autodesk, there is currently no 'skeleton key' to unlock protected files. Will you really want to include this feature in your corporate implementation?

There is a new Batch Plotting utility and a new viewer for the DWF called Autodesk Express Viewer. A new network installation wizard simplifies this process, and an updated version of the licence manager software enables users to 'grab' a licence from the network while working in the office, and also 'check out' a licence if they need to take a laptop on site. But the network licensing still attracts the 15 per cent premium that caused such uproar when it was introduced last year.

I do find AutoCAD 2004 more visually appealing than previous versions and much more enjoyable to use. But if I was in the process of marrying into this family, I would be worried that they wouldn't let me talk to anyone else.

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