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MicroStation V8 PROS:

Dual file capacity lGeometry engine lDesign history CONS:

Yet to prove that the DWG really works 100 per cent of the time

PRICE: £4,500 Is Bentley boxing clever with MicroStation V8, its first version to read and write DWG?

Or is it throwing the towel in on DGN? On these pages I look at the features of one of the most important new launches and consider the question of multiple-file-format dexterity.

With nearly 10 times the installed base of MicroStation, AutoCAD is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The fight for file-format supremacy appears to be over, a philosophy shared by Bentley. It enters the ring with V8 admitting DWG won the battle a long time ago.

Everyone agrees that the ability of V8 to read and write native DWG will be pivotal to its success in retaining existing MicroStation users while persuading AutoCAD offices to swap over.

Coming from its strong corporate Intergraph heritage, for years MicroStation has been heralded as the choice of champions, with an average number of installed seats in each office of 25 compared with Autodesk's five.MicroStation has a reputation for being better suited to large-scale projects.

This is because of the way it handles reference files, and because of its phenomenal geometry engine which performs functions AutoCAD users can only dream of.

However, with MicroStation V8, Bentley is hoping to persuade the masses that it now has a tool that transcends boundaries of size and class.

This will be tricky as many purchasers of AutoCAD say they do so because they need to be in tune with the majority. That's where the DWG factor comes in, making MicroStation V8 instantly compatible.

Round one: the front end Starting up MicroStation looks reassuringly familiar, with MicroStation Manager enabling users to select their own profile and project for the work session.

While AutoCAD has similar functionality, with the ability to select different profiles for different projects, LT does not. And the MicroStation approach is more user-friendly and very simple for CAD managers to configure.V8 lands its first good jab.

Other goodies include a file-properties option, which displays three option tabs for accessing the file properties: General, Summary and Statistics.

While the General tab is self explanatory, the Summary tab includes a user-definable summary sheet for project-related information. The Statistics tab lists information such as: total editing time, number of levels used in the file and number of attached references. This must be in preparation for the closer integration of V8 and Viecon, Bentley's tool for web publishing and wide-area management of project data.

MicroStation has also acquired its own PointA type web forum, called 'MicroStation on the Web', which is designed to give MicroStation users more for less. Key features of the site include:

-direct access to online resources, including about 5,000 cells for dragand-drop and visualisation materials, patterns and backgrounds;

ldirect access to online services including hundreds of professional and industry organisations, suppliers and Web resources and the Viecon Project Hosting service;

-online access to MicroStation V8 information including FAQs, V8 specific tips and tricks, technical notes and the MicroStation Knowledge Base;

lonline access to the MicroStation V8 documentation; and lcommunication with the MicroStation V8 community, development team, support team and, in time, online training.

While this has yet to be implemented and it promises a great deal, Bentley should have had this up and running from day one.

Round two: the interface Once you are inside V8 the familiarity continues, but this time it is like dÚjÓ vu - you know you have seen it all before but you are not quite sure where or when.

The standard MicroStation look and feel is combined with a pastiche of AutoCAD's Object Properties toolbar for controlling levels, line type, line weight and colour. The layout remains functionally simple with minimal screen clutter. I use both AutoCAD and MicroStation and I like the interface of each. Deciding which you prefer will be down to a mixture of taste and bias.

The points are split as the competitors duck and dive their way around the ring, failing to land any real advantage.

Rounds three to eight: tools V8 comes with a raft of new tools designed to improve life for the user and increase productivity for the company. Snapping has been greatly improved with the introduction of AccuSnap. This means that snapping is now a single-click process (just like AutoCAD) rather than the previous doubleclick process associated to the tentative snap command. As is often the case with new functions, the old ones remain in place and you may still use the tentative snap if and when you feel the need.

AccuSnap is linked to another new function, which highlights an element automatically when you pass the mouse over it.

Therefore the process of picking elements is speeded up, though I am concerned that the hare may develop tortoise-like speed in a large complicated design file. Thankfully, you can disable the auto-highlight function should this be the case.

New text tools replace the old, introducing real true-type font support for the first time in MicroStation. Now your drawings will look better, be translated more easily without loss of quality, and you can set up AutoCAD-like text styles in accordance with your CAD standards. Dimensions work in the same way with Dimension style libraries.

Design History is one of Bentley's most championed new tools in V8 and I can see why. By saving key milestones in the design development process, it makes it possible to undo or redo commands from months ago, removing the limitations of having to be certain about any changes made before exiting the work session and therefore losing the ability to turn back the clock. I do however think that Design History will require some careful management to maximise the benefit whilst keeping the size of the file down.

Another great addition is Packager;

an AutoCAD-like e-transmit/pack-andgo type utility which will gather up all the selected design files, associated reference files and other configuration settings and compress them in a handy and transportable *. zip file format. This means that anyone can access the archive without having MicroStation on their computer.

Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) is another welcome addition to MicroStation V8. Smart users will now be able to develop applications, which will interact with MicroStation internally or run externally in the Windows operating system environment.

With the success of Microsoft and the widespread use of the Office suite of applications, it will now be even easier to forge closer links between MicroStation design data and Excel and Access for reporting/tracking and manipulating specification data.

On the new-tools front, MicroStation V8 and AutoCAD match each other punch for punch in every category with one exception, Design History.

Round nine: DWG compatibility As I mentioned before, many offices cite the DWG compatibility issue as the primary reason for investing in AutoCAD.

Surely then, if MicroStation can go head to head with AutoCAD and trade DWG files without any conversion or loss of data, the Autodesk ace card (DWG) is immediately trumped by Bentley.

Bentley informs us that the new V8 DGN file format is a superset of DGN and DWG; namely, it contains all of the necessary clout to understand, read and write to both DGN and DWG at the same time. Being a bit of a doubter, I always like to check these claims for myself.

I first opened a MicroStation V8 drawing and saved it as a DWG file. All seemed well, so I added some text and attached a DWG x-ref to the drawing before saving and exiting. I then opened the file in AutoCAD LT2000i and was reassured to see that all was as I had been led to believe; there was no data loss and all of the layer names were the same as they were in V8.

Thinking that I would fox the process by detaching some of the x-refs and adding some new layers and new geometry, I again saved the file and reopened it in V8. Again nothing was missing - it really does seem to work. Furthermore, the file size is comparable on each tool, with one notable exception:

the V8 DGN file is half the size of the r2000 DWG file.

The problems are likely to start where Autodesk's ARX objects or proxies come into the ring. While there are object enablers for AutoCAD and LT, MicroStation V8 has no such thing and may struggle to deal with the zombie geometry.

This has to be the mostly closely fought bout in the history of the two CAD heavyweights. But what about the purse? Weighing in at a hefty £4,500, MicroStation V8 will leave your pocket almost 50 per cent lighter than AutoCAD 2002. However, for the extra money you are buying a tool which will allow you to compete at all levels with all challengers.With each copy of MicroStation V8 comes a free Engineering Configuration (EC). Unlike Autodesk's Architectural Desktop (which costs extra on top of AutoCAD) Bentley's architecturally flavoured TriForma, designed for 3D building modelling, is bundled in with MicroStation V8 for no extra charge.

MicroStation V8 also includes a sophisticated rendering engine capable of ray tracing, radiosity and particle tracing. To attain the same level of rendering using AutoCAD you would need to purchase VIZ as well, which makes V8 look ever more reasonable.

Combine this with a special limited-time upgrade offer and MicroStation V8 is less than half the price of a new version of AutoCAD. This is very tempting when Autodesk is forcing its users to upgrade from r14 before the end of the year or face the penalty of losing the right to upgrade in the future.

The final bell: the verdict The two opponents are so evenly matched there is currently no chance of either delivering a knockout blow. But the refrain of 'we buy AutoCAD because we want DWG compatibility' is no longer valid for Autodesk, which needs to improve further AutoCAD's functionality in response to MicroStation V8. Autodesk needs to recognise that the DGN file format is hugely popular and using DXF to exchange information is simply not good enough as it is effectively the lowest common denominator.

MicroStation V8 can now do everything that AutoCAD can and then some; as a versatile competitor it could be likened to Sugar Ray Leonard, who could adopt both southpaw and orthodox stances and, when required, switch between the two mid round. In the same way MicroStation V8 can adopt the right stance for the occasion, with either DGN for complex drafting and modelling or DWG for compatibility.

With such flexibility we should expect V8 to win the support of many CAD users. I do not think that this is the end of the road for DGN, it is just too good to throw away - in fact, I think it is a great reason to buy MicroStation V8. After all, having the best geometry engine and the ability to converse with the rest of the world in their native tongue is the stuff of future champions.

Joe Croser can be contacted by e-mail at joec@adrem-dcx. com or tel 07973 263360

RATINGS INTERFACE EASE OF USE FUNCTIONALITY COMPATIBILITY WEB INTEGRATION PERFORMANCE COST SUPPORT

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