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SketchUp 2.0

PROS: lModelling doesn't get much easier than this lYou can try it for free for eight hours

CONS: lLack of integration with the wider enterprise - but then foam board shares the same characteristics

The 'big' CAD vendors are currently busy adding complexity to their CAD tools, with both eyes on the 'Enterprise Lifecycle system' (ie data reuse commencing during design, running through construction and continuing through operation and maintenance). So it seems odd that a different company is eager to fill a gap that most are swift to leave behind.

The company is @Last Software and its product is SketchUp. Designed as a simple, intuitive 3D modelling tool, SketchUp is the talk of the town. But why?

Users have cried out for the tools that vendors are working hard to deliver, and yet it appears that users still want a simple sculpting and sketching tool.

In the modern CAD world I find it hard to describe the process of using SketchUp. On the one hand, it is akin to making a model with foam board.

On the other, it feels like the early version of MiniCad, where the interface is simple and creating volumes normally involves drawing a 2D line or shape and extruding it to introduce the third dimension.

Continuing the MiniCad comparison, it is likely that the model will be developed without dimensional accuracy unless the user changes the object properties to input an accurate dimension for each piece. I never liked this approach with MiniCad, although I know many who loved it.

Should you wish to be a little more accurate with your modelling, dimensions can be aligned automatically and dynamically with the corresponding faces. But I imagine many users would use it as a digital potter's wheel and a replacement for sheets of foam board.

Moving around the model is also a breeze and is reminiscent of the tools used in NavisWorks.

SketchUp is shipped with an extensive library of components (saved doors and windows and objects like people, cars and trees), which can be dropped in any model to reduce the time taken to 'knock up' a concept design with contextual scale. I have never come across a modelling tool that made it feel as easy to place components. Selecting a door and moving the cursor over the chosen wall, the door rotates automatically to suit the rotation of the wall, as do other objects.

Adding or changing colour is also a breeze, simply dropping different shades or textures on the various faces of a 3D component. Both the colours and textures are user-editable to change hue and saturation.You can even drop images into a view, such as a map to add context to a simple massing model.

The models can be viewed in different orientations and rendered modes. These range from the usual orthogonal views of plan, section and elevations to 3D perspective and isometric views, and the display can be rendered with textures, solid colours or wire-frame and transparent views. Furthermore, specifying a global location and orientation for the model can result in the inclusion of simple shadows.

If the SketchUp rendering engine does not flick your artistic switch, then you can export models into other popular formats, including the Piranesi *. ePIX format (think Photoshop in 3D), *.3DS for Max or Viz compatibility and, of course, *.DWG.While these 'professional' rendering platforms are undoubtedly more powerful in terms of image quality, SketchUp's render tools are not embarrassing.

Printing to scale is included in the latest version as are all the expected editing and manipulation tools, including move, copy, rotate and scale. The cost of SketchUp is also impressive - retail price is $495 (£300) for the slimline 8MB web download.

My only gripe with SketchUp is the lack of DGN compatibility and the potential for data duplication across a larger team, but then I am judging it against a market into which it has yet to grow. It would be fairer if I relaxed and praised it for the successful way it has tackled its own market.

As the large CAD vendors continue their quest to be all things to all men, sweet new tools like SketchUp step into the space. One can't help wondering why the big boys don't pay them a little more attention. Not necessarily because there is a business case for this part of the market (although @Last Software certainly thinks there is) but because they could actually learn something from the new guys in terms of intuitive interfaces and easy-to-use tools.

For further information visit www. sketchup. com or email Joe Croser at joe@croser. net

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