AutoCAD, the industry standard Computer Aided Design (CAD) application from Autodesk, is back on the Mac after an 18 year hiatus. This is good news for many Mac fans in the architecture, engineering and design professions who have been unwilling to give up their MacBook Pros and iMacs for the sake of a single application, despite its status as a very important part of their workflow.
With the new Mac version of AutoCAD for freeform 2D and 3D design and drafting, Mac users no longer need to use Boot Camp or Parallels, or suffer a PC on the same desk with their Mac.
Mac from the ground up
AutoCAD 2011 for the Mac is not a port from Windows. Rather, Autodesk has programmed this version for the Mac from the ground up with a conscious effort to take advantage of the Mac OS X interface.
Instead of offering the ribbon-based interface of the Windows version, Autodesk has has chosen to place more AutoCAD functions in the pulldown menus. Floating tool palettes also include most of the same tools as the menus, while the interface will look familiar to users of other Mac CAD applications.
Autodesk has also taken advantage of multitouch trackpad gestures (and offers similar moves on Apple's Magic Mouse). For example, two-finger swipes scroll up or down, pinching can zoom in or out, and a shift plus two-finger swipe can rotate around a 3D model. Cover Flow navigation lets you easily flip through your designs. Nice.
While AutoCAD is a complex and powerful application, the system requirements are higher than much of the competition on the Mac (such as Vectorworks, TurboCAD and Ashlar-Vellum), starting with a minimum of 3GB of RAM and higher screen resolution (1280 x 800 pixels). The program works with only with more recent Mac hardware such as Mac Pro (early 2009), MacBook Pro (mid-2009) and iMac (early 2008).
To be fair, you'd want to use a high resolution monitor with a CAD program anyway, given the quantity and level of graphic detail you're typically working with. But, you are less likely to be disappointed with AutoCAD's performance if you bought your Mac in the last couple of years.
When you first launch AutoCAD 2011, you will be presented with the drawing canvas or Modelspace, the window where you will build your drawing or model. The menus are extensive, and the tool and information palettes are arranged to the left and right of the canvas.
One of the first things you will notice is that the default background in AutoCAD is black or slate-coloured with the lines and objects you draw in white (or bright colours). This differs from most Mac CAD or graphic design applications, which typically have a white background with black and colour drawing elements on top. You can change the background colour in the preferences and, in fact, much of the interface can be altered to suit your own tastes, including which tools show up in the palettes and where the palettes are located on screen.
One interface element Autodesk brought over from the Windows version is the ViewCube, a very useful graphical navigation element for controlling 3D views. It allows you to rotate your drawing and model, or jump to standard 3D views and orientations with a single click. The ViewCube rotates as you click on it, giving you a visual representation of your drawing at various angles. Moving around a 3D model can be disorienting, and the ViewCube does a good job of letting you know whether you are looking from above, below, or at some oblique angle.
Another uniquely AutoCAD interface element is the Command Line window. This has been an AutoCAD mainstay for decades. At first it looks like some DOS operating system throwback, but it is actually a very useful window because it displays in text format everything that is going on while you’re drawing, line-by-line, command-by-command.
Interestingly, it can operate both ways: you can enter text commands into the window and control your drawing from the command line while maximising the use of the keyboard and minimising use of the mouse and menus. While overall that method of operation is not very Mac-like, if you have been using the Windows version of AutoCAD for a long time, this feature will be welcome.
From the Mac perspective, though, my biggest complaint about the interface is that the process of drawing objects often includes more clicks than necessary, and can require the use of the keyboard.
For instance, drawing a simple line is not as easy as choosing the line tool and then clicking and dragging to create the line. In AutoCAD, to end the process of drawing the line, you have to hit another key such as Escape or Enter, or the Space Bar after the second click. Otherwise, you will keep adding more lines. Then, if you want to draw another line elsewhere, you have to select the line tool again. No doubt, this is something you can get used to, but I’d rather not have to click so much.
Ubiquitous file format
One of the reasons many architecture firms use AutoCAD is the popularity of its file format. The DWG format, native to AutoCAD, is commonly used for collaborative work across a broad range of professions such as consultants, architects and engineers.
While many CAD programs can import and export DWG files, these translations sometimes require cleanup. Not having to worry about cleanup or whether your exported DWG files will open correctly is real advantage of AutoCAD for Mac over other Mac CAD programs. I opened a number of DWG files received from Windows consultants I work with and AutoCAD for Mac opened most of them seamlessly.
However, I did run into a small number of drawings that required components not available for the Mac, such as some (but not all) ObjectARX components my civil engineer uses. Some of these components, made by third party vendors, are widely used and customise and extend AutoCAD. I hope that the developers of such components update them for use on the Mac.
Third party extensions
This brings up the subject of addons for AutoCAD. One thing that makes AutoCAD for Windows such a dominant product are all of the third party extensions available. In the Windows version, there are addons and extensions available for just about any profession or specialty, and there are thousands of tools and scripts that you can add to AutoCAD that provide even more capabilities than are included in the basic application.
Some of the addons are already available for the Mac, but today, most are not. For example, I ran into some missing extensions while trying to import AutoCAD files from a civil engineer I work with. Autodesk says it is working on having more extensions available for subsequent releases of the Mac program, and will be making the development of addons possible on the Mac.
One glaring feature missing from AutoCAD 2011 is support for importing and exporting PDF files. In the current version, there is no export or print-to-PDF feature from within AutoCAD. Using the print-to-PDF option in the standard Mac print dialog box gives poor results compared to other CAD programs with built-in PDF support (including AutoCAD for Windows). There is also no way to import a PDF file into your drawing, another feature supported in the Windows version of AutoCAD, but not on the Mac.
Like PDF, there are dozens of features in the Windows version that are not included in the Mac version. Some of them are important features such as Plot Style Configuration, Plot to File or the Reference Manager.
With this first comeback version of AutoCAD, Autodesk seems to be applying the 80/20 rule for its Mac users, providing the 80 percent of features and tools that are used the most. I don't have a conceptual problem with that approach. It seems sane for such a huge program to implement the most important parts first and then fill in. But AutoCAD 2011 for Mac is the same price as the more-capable Windows version, and that doesn't seem quite fair.
On a positive note, Autodesk has a free iPhone/iPad app available in the iTunes store that allows you to share and view AutoCAD files in the field. You can even do some light editing of the files right on your iPhone or iPad, including drawing new objects, moving, rotating and annotating.
Autodesk's AutoCAD 2011 for Mac is a very powerful application and an impressive 1.0 version that has been missing from the Mac universe for too long. Unfortunately, it comes up short in features and steep in price, both of which detract from my assessment. For a generic 2D and 3D drafting application that does not include any architectural or other vertical market-specific tools such as walls, floors or roofs, the price is too high, about twice as much as comparable alternative packages available for the Mac.
If you are a longtime user of AutoCAD for Windows, you might want to wait for the next version (AutoCAD 2012 is due before the end of the year), which will no doubt fill in some of the missing features and provide a better value. If you are new to AutoCAD, unconcerned about the price, and crave the native DWG file format and peace of mind using AutoCAD provides, then this version will work fine, and you can look forward to an upgrade soon.