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Did you know that MicroStation users tend to get three or four new versions with cool new features and functions every year?

I bet you didn't, unless, of course, you are an existing user.

Bentley Systems delivers these swanky new versions via its subscription-based online software delivery and support channel, Select. When a new version becomes available, Bentley users and administrators receive electronic notification and can then download the version at their own discretion.

One startling example of some cool new technology that was launched quietly in a recent Select release of MicroStation was the ability for users to embed three-dimensional models in any PDF document. Furthermore, the embedded 3D model is not simply a static 3D view of a model, but a real and dynamic 3D model that can be manipulated live within the PDF. This blows wide open the accessibility of 3D CAD models to anyone who knows how to read a PDF in Adobe's ubiquitous Acrobat application. So, with Bentley regularly releasing such powerful version updates without any pomp or ceremony, my pulse naturally rises the moment the company gets excited about the advent of an all-new release and actually starts talking about it.

Initially codenamed Mozart, and now set to be released as the V8 XM Edition, the latest version of the MicroStation V8 generation of products presents the largest visual update seen since the launch of the V8 Generation back in 2001. Built around an entirely new GUI (that's graphical user interface to the more TLA-challenged of us), MicroStation XM (V8 XM Edition is just too much of a mouthful to use all of the time) provides new ways to access the new features as well as the old ones. Like all versions before it, if you feel exposed in the face of change you can elect to use XM with the old GUI - just as you have in the past.

However, I would wager that you won't want to after you've seen your colleagues with the fresher, younger-looking model.

That said, XM is much more than just a pretty face;

the beauty is not just skin-deep. Bentley Systems' chief technology officer Keith Bentley says XM delivers the users' desire for a CAD tool that '? hides the complexity they don't need while choosing appropriate defaults for the tools they do need.' This complexity has been neatly packaged by the development team with a streamlined task-based interface, which Bentley refers to as XM's 'power with simplicity'. This is a dichotomy often aimed for and seldom achieved in computer software development.

While power and simplicity are an integral part of XM, they are often the opposite of what is achievable with many other CAD tools. Indeed. Bentley suggests that at the heart of XM there is a deeper marriage of power and beauty.

By leveraging Microsoft's DirectX graphics technology, Bentley has been able to rewrite the graphics subsystem in MicroStation, making the manipulation of models much faster and smoother.

This is true even when the models used are larger than those previously developed in MicroStation V8 2004 edition, and when they are rendered with more sophistication than was previously achievable through the old system.

This new way to display the graphical elements on screen is 'D agnostic'. This means that whether the data is 2D or 3D, MicroStation XM users can display elements with a degree of transparency. It also allows them to manipulate the display priority of elements by level (or layer), enabling all of the data on one level to be drawn in front of or behind the data on another level. Other visual enhancements to the new GUI include colour gradient fills for creating presentation drawings that have a greater impact.

I mentioned earlier that there is a new GUI and that it includes new ways to access new features. One is the new keyboard position-mapping functionality to toolsets that allows a tool to be selected and used with just a couple of key-strokes, rather than by using a series of mouse clicks. This will be welcomed by sufferers of RSI (repetitive strain injury) and by fans of AutoCAD's keyboard shortcuts, which some believe make drafting much faster. Context-sensitive right-click menus are now also more widely available than before.

Another new concept is 'task modelling' - a different way for users or CAD managers to customise toolbars within MicroStation, based on specific tasks. The theory is that you can configure a visualisation task on screen with rendering and view-manipulation tools, or a drawing composition task with text, annotation and dimension tools, or even a review-and-comment task with simple cloud and note tools. The benefit is that the screen remains uncluttered by multiple toolbars that are simply not being used, thus leaving a larger viewing area for the important stuff - the data. However, a friend and colleague told me that he is unconvinced. He felt that it was gimmicky and that it would soon frustrate people who need to use many tools at once, as they would be constantly switching from one task to another. While I see his point, I think that the ability to give nervous or casual and infrequent users a limited tool set based on their needs will help them to gain confidence in a CAD environment. This should raise competence levels across the board, which can only be a good thing. I also think that the task modelling can be used to add greater rigour to the corporate CAD standard, preventing people using a particular tool in the wrong context or wrong environment.

But, as I mentioned above, if users want to stay within their current comfort zones, they can elect to reject the task-modelling interface.

I have arranged the changes Bentley has made to XM under four headings, each representing an area of the architectural design and business process. They are:

? modelling - graphics performance, surface modelling, mesh modelling;

? design collaboration - element templates, project explorer, PDF referencing;

? design review - visualisation, animation, Bentley Navigator; and - drawing production - drawing, set hyperlinks and bookmarks, PDF plans and specifications.

Under the 'design collaboration' heading, there are some significant additions to MicroStation XM, including element templates for greater CAD-standard compliance and the Project Explorer, which enables users to open CAD and Office documents within MicroStation XM and attach hyperlinks to the drawing elements from locations within the Office document. An example of this would be to open a drawing illustrating an office floor layout and then open the specification and link the various areas of work to the headings in the Microsoft Word specification. These links are then carried through to the PDF plot file and remain active when a reviewer is accessing the drawing. This is really neat and a true reflection of the power of integrating with open industry-standard file formats from software giants such as Adobe and Microsoft.

But the aspect that excites me the most is the ability to now attach a PDF as a reference file. This concept truly closes the loop opened by Bentley and Adobe a couple of years ago when they announced their collective intention to make PDF the standard digital drawing wrapper in the AEC market. I am a huge fan of the PDF due to its familiarity for any computer user. The ability to reference a drawing with its comments and annotations back into the originating MicroStation CAD file environment for making key revisions and updates is a fabulous new feature.

In design review there are improvements to the speed and quality of rendering large complex models and, of course, XM, like previous versions, has the impressive particle-tracing capabilities for photo-realistic rendering.

This new graphics power does, however, come at a price;

your current computer may struggle under the load and all the performance gains made available in XM may not be realisable on older computers with ordinary graphics cards. To extract the most from your machine you really need a Direct-X compatible graphics card and you will also need to get rid of any Windows 9. x operating system you may still be running, as it will no longer be supported under MicroStation XM.

Following the launch of MicroStation XM, there will be new XM versions of Bentley's other software tools, including PowerDraft, ProjectWise - the project-information management environment - and the numerous industry-specific 'vertical' applications. The MicroStation XM launch is planned for autumn, with other applications following closely behind. And thanks to Select, the upgrades will cost existing users absolutely nothing.

Now that will be quite a Christmas present.

Joe Croser can be contacted at joe@croser. net

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