Friday, July 27, 2007

Autodesk Provides a Solid Foundation for AEC and GIS with AutoCAD R14 (01apr97)

April 1, 1997

Anyone who follows the CAD industry knows that the latest release of Autodesk’s core product, AutoCAD Release 14, has been a long time in coming - almost two and a half years. But for most AEC and GIS users, the new release will be worth the wait because Autodesk has done a lot of things right with this release. It will help you get your work done more efficiently. With R14, Autodesk is looking ahead to its future, no longer having to make excuses for the past and its ill-fated R13.

It’s interesting to us that Autodesk is touting usability and speed, not just an overwhelming list of new features—another area that the company now admits contributed to R13 problems, confusion, and misunderstanding in the marketplace. Also, unlike the current version, R14 will not force users to contend with a learning curve for Windows or the expense of new hardware.

Given our admittedly quick first look at the product, the things that impressed us most were R14’s overall quality (especially for a Beta release), its general increase in speed, cleaner and more contemporary user interface, and tighter integration with other Autodesk products, including a product that will be introduced simultaneously with R14, AutoCAD Map Release 2.0.

Not Radical, But Few Compromises

From our hands-on experience with the product, R14 really contains few features we would consider radical implementations of any given technology. However, we have found that the Beta version we have reviewed to be a very competent, stable and solid implementation of several technologies.

Beyond the user interface, speed and increased overall product performance are the areas where most experienced users will reap the greatest benefits. Although some issues related to speed can be benchmarked and quantified, it is still largely a subjective type of thing that depends on the context in which it is being used, for example, raw application power or user productivity. Without going into exhaustive detail, we have found R14’s performance faster than previous AutoCAD releases in the following ways:

  • Regens are not required for Paperspace display operations for faster drawing layout and composition.
  • Native raster imaging capabilities make it easier to use and re-use paper-based drawings and sketches as the basis for drafting.
  • Panning and zooming are real-time operations for quickly navigating within a Paperspace.
  • The old AutoCAD ADI graphics pipeline has been replaced with a new and more efficient graphics pipeline system that eliminates refresh files and associated high levels of memory consumption. Actually, the new graphics pipeline has eliminated the ADI display driver interface and R14 uses the default Windows display driver.
  • R14 contains several new time-saving, user productivity tools, most notably, AutoSnap, a quick way of finding and selecting commonly used geometry while drafting. Other productivity enhancements include tools for managing layers, line types, and object properties; command line editing improvements; and much better support for editing and displaying TrueType text.
  • AutoCAD Runtime eXtension (ARX) applications, such as the ACIS solid modeling kernel, are only loaded when user requested or called by another application. This dynamic, demand-type loading reduces R14 initialization time and the amount of physical memory required, freeing up memory for other operations, and thus giving an overall increase in performance.

Beyond our brief investigation, independent benchmark tests have also shown that R14, even with the overhead of Windows, is faster than R12 for DOS for most file load, display, and drawing/editing operations.

Performance related to speed has also improved through the use of two new objects—a lightweight polyline object that replaces the former 2D polyline and a new hatch object that provides a more efficient means of storing hatch entities. While Autodesk would like you to think otherwise, objects are nothing new to the mid-range CAD business. Other products, such as Bentley’s MicroStation have had objects incorporated in them for some time. That said, however, Autodesk has done a good job implementing objects.

Also like several other vendors, R14 now supports Internet design publishing and access with a set of integrated Web tools for collaborative design projects across the Internet.

Creating Hybrid Raster/Vector Drawings

Most AEC and GIS users are aware that previous releases of AutoCAD provided only very limited support combining and working with a mix of raster images and AutoCAD vector graphics. This is no longer the case, however, with the addition of the AutoCAD Image Support Module (ISM). The ISM is an ARX application for basic raster image support.

With ISM users will be able to import, integrate, and interchange, view, and plot scanned images (including legacy drawings, hand-drawn sketches, and digital photographs) with their design and drafting work. This new capability also provides a common base for more sophisticated hybrid raster/vector operations using third-party image editing, manipulation, analysis applications.

The ISM feature replaces the old RASTERIN function with improvements in efficiency, flexibility, integration, and format support. Supported image formats include BMP, DIB, FLC, FLI, GIF, GP4, JPG, MIL, PCT, PCX, RST, TGA, and TIF. These images may be bi-tonal, 8-bit gray scale, 8-bit color, or 24-bit color.

Relatively Modest Requirements

Addressing the question of whether customers will have to invest in new hardware, Autodesk said that R14 requires only a machine capable of running Windows NT or 95. Without getting into specifics, a generic Pentium 90 (Intel-only) machine with 32 MB of RAM should be considered the minimum hardware configuration for using this version of AutoCAD.

R14 is the first Windows-only version of AutoCAD, running under Windows 95, and NT 3.51 and 4.0. Autodesk said it will continue to sell DOS, UNIX, and Windows 3.1x versions of AutoCAD release 13/AutoCAD 12 as long as a reasonable demand remains in the marketplace.

As for media, R14 will be shipped on CD-ROM only, and will not include an AutoCAD R13 or R12 dual product.

Testing, Testing, Testing

Because of well-publicized, rampant quality problems with R13, Autodesk has undertaken what it considers the most extensive Alpha and Beta testing programs in its history for R14. The Alpha testing took place over a seven-month time period with approximately 1,000 users and developers. Last month the Beta test program was initiated with the worldwide distribution of over 16,000 pre-release copies of R14 to existing customers and third-party developers.

According to users that we spoke with, the consensus is that even these pre-release versions of R14 are stable, robust (owing much to Windows NT ), and mature enough for production—much more so than was R13 at this stage. Is AutoCAD R14 totally bug-free? No. It would be ludicrous for users to expect an application of this complexity to be completely "bugless" out of the gate, but we feel that most users will be quite pleased with the initial overall quality.

The AutoCAD Market Group (AMG), the Autodesk division responsible for developing AutoCAD software, admits that this extensive pre-release testing program was but one component of a greatly expanded overall quality effort.

Fitting Into the Bigger Autodesk Puzzle

According to Amar Hanspal, AutoCAD product manager for CAD marketing, R14 is the first release where AutoCAD will be truly "flavorized" for several vertical markets, such as mechanical, AEC, GIS, etc.

As for third-party developers, Autodesk said they hope to be shipping an R14 application program interface (API) software development kit (SDK) approximately 30 days prior to R14’s ship date.

Although we couldn’t test and confirm interoperability due to publishing deadlines, Autodesk said that R14 provides "perfect" interoperability with AutoCAD R13, AutoCAD LT for Windows 95, AutoCAD Map, 3D Studio MAX, and Autodesk Mechanical Desktop. Because of its object linking and embedding (OLE) implementation, the company said that R14 is also interoperable with other Windows-compliant applications. More about this subject in future issues.

Release 14 and AutoCAD Map Release 2.0

AutoCAD Map, first introduced last August, was the first of Autodesk’s family of dedicated GIS and mapping products. AutoCAD Map 2.0 is the first industry-specific product built on AutoCAD Release 14. It is an AutoCAD-based automated mapping product that should appeal to a wide spectrum of potential users—planners, managers, and technicians—anyone, the company says, who needs to create and maintain their own maps. These maps, drawings, and associated data can be used to manage resources, facilities, infrastructure, and to manage work applications. Autodesk is hoping that AutoCAD Map 2.0 provides a strong platform for what the company estimates to be in excess of 150,000 AutoCAD users who now use the flagship product for mapping and GIS.

An integral part of AutoCAD Map is AutoCAD Data Extension (ADE) 2.0. Since many AutoCAD users are familiar with ADE, AutoCAD Map gets its true GIS capabilities from it, as well bringing "intelligence" to maps and drawings. GIS capabilities and intelligence mean the ability to query and analyze drawings, allow multiple users to simultaneously edit drawings, and access and manipulate external databases.

AutoCAD Map 2.0 focuses on five basic areas—digital map creation and editing; data query and analysis; maintenance of accurate, current maps; data integration and exchange; and presentation and publishing.

Map creation and maintenance tools include global mapping projections, automated digitizing, rubber sheeting, support for multiple map sheets for a single map session, edge matching, and clean up. In addition, AutoCAD Map offers geographic analysis tools. For example, the software’s polygon overlay feature can be used to show impacted properties around a given construction project. Its thematic mapping capabilities let users alter color, line type, text, and other parameters to show correlations in database information. These analysis tools bring topological "intelligence" to map entities for a wide variety of spatial information and analysis needs. Thematic mapping is also improved with the addition of new solid fill feature.

The fact that AutoCAD Map uses DWG as its native file format should come as a surprise to no one, since there are well over one billion DWG files that have been created by AutoCAD users. Autodesk also says that AutoMap is an open system, meaning that it can read from and write to many of the major GIS file formats, such as DXF, MicroStation DGN files, ESRI Coverages and ArcView SHP files, and MapInfo MIF/MID files. This ability to deal with the various GIS file formats, or if a map can’t be imported because it is a format not currently supported, users can digitize and edit geographic information from a variety of sources, including paper maps, raster images, and vector data.

There are also a number of software add-on products available through third-party developers to round out the capabilities of AutoCAD Map for such tasks as modeling, asset management, image viewing, utility planning, multilayer cleaning, dealing with large-format imagery, and unattended map editing.

AutoCAD Map’s presentation/publishing features produce high-quality thematic maps and map books using such capabilities as automated printing and plotting.

Through OLE 2.0, AutoCAD Map 2.0 is fully interoperable with AutoCAD Map 1.0; AutoCAD Release 14, 13, and LT for Windows 95; and other Windows-compliant (OLE 2.0) products.

As we went to press, new or upgrade pricing was not yet available for AutoCAD Map Release 2.0. In the US, AutoCAD Map will also be available as a subscription product, but at an as-yet undisclosed price. Autodesk did say, however, that Map 2.0 would ship concurrently with AutoCAD Release 14.

Cost, Availability, and Technical Support For Release 14

The list price for a new copy of AutoCAD R14 is $3,750. The price for upgrading from R13 is $495, and the price for upgrading from R12 and earlier is $695. Street prices will probably run 75% of list price. The company said AutoCAD R14 will be available and shipping by next month (May 1997).

Once purchased, AutoCAD R14 will be available for $295 per year under Autodesk’s VIP Subscription Program. This program, begun earlier this year, provides Autodesk-direct delivery of major software upgrades to subscribers as they are released.

Once purchased, AutoCAD R14 maintenance releases will be available for $295 per year under Autodesk’s VIP Subscription Program. This program, begun earlier this year, provides Autodesk-direct delivery of major software upgrades to subscribers as they are released.

Autodesk has also addressed the topic of technical support differently than it has historically with its Safety Net service. Users can now call Autodesk directly for answers to questions and solutions to problems, instead of calling their reseller—a call that irate users often made reluctantly due to uneven reseller response quality. Cost per call is $45 for VIP Subscribers, and $65 for all other users with quantity discounts available.

While R14 does not jump out far ahead of the competition for any one feature, it does finally give AutoCAD and Autodesk a position of parity with other mid-range products currently on the market. We feel that with the R13 debacle behind them, Autodesk is taking a good first step on the road back with R14.n

Contact: Autodesk Inc., 800-964-6432, 415-507-5000,