Free CAD Software for Mobile Devices21 Aug, 2014 By: Curt Moreno
Cadalyst Labs Report: Cadalyst Labs investigates free apps for CAD on the go.
Remember when we thought it was amazing that we could take a few songs with us — by toting stacks of cassette tapes? Now we don't bat an eye at carrying around thousands of tracks in a digital music player or mobile phone. That sort of exponential mobile technology growth is changing every part of our lives, including the CAD world.
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Today our laptops, tablets, and even our phones have so much computing power that we can carry our CAD work in a backpack or pocket. More importantly, today's technology not only allows us to work anywhere, but it also connects us to the rest of the world, so we can take production and collaboration capabilities wherever we go.
Who Uses Mobile CAD
Although the first commercial cellular phones entered the market around 1984, it was not until Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 that the modern mobile data age began. Cell phones transformed into handheld computers capable of much more than facilitating voice communications. Since then, the term mobile has permeated many aspects of modern life, and the number of people owning one or more of these devices has exploded. According to Digital Trends, the number of mobile phones will exceed the number of people on Earth in 2014.
Needless to say, a huge number of people use mobile devices in their jobs, including CAD users who must perform work-related tasks on the go. Some of these user categories are obvious, such as engineers needing to review drawings at a job site, but there are others who should consider mobile CAD options as well. Architects marking up plans in a meeting, drafters making edits in the field, and construction managers clarifying important design details for crew members are all prime candidates for mobile CAD. And in reality, the list is even longer: Selection board members, material estimators, warehouse managers, and transport load chiefs also need this technology.
In short, all types of professionals in the design, construction, engineering, and manufacturing fields could find themselves using mobile CAD software in the near future. And these people have a wide range of mobile CAD software options to choose from, each with its own feature set. But before we compare some of those choices, let's define what qualifies as a mobile CAD application.
What Makes CAD Mobile
A wide and growing range of CAD software can be used away from a traditional desktop workstation, but not all of it is considered mobile CAD. The line is blurred by the fact that some hardware types — such as powerful tablets, which you might consider to be mobile devices — can operate full-blown installations of the Windows operating system and, in turn, run full-blown desktop CAD software.
The difference between mobile CAD applications and traditional CAD programs installed on mobile workstations is that modern mobile CAD applications are small-footprint installations on mobile devices. While the line between mobile devices (such as tablets and smartphones) and portable devices (such as laptops) is becoming increasingly indistinct, a common differentiator is that mobile devices run lightweight operating systems such as Android or iOS. Portable devices, in contrast, normally run operating systems that require more powerful hardware, such as Windows 8 or Mac OS X.
For the purposes of this mobile CAD roundup, we narrowed our focus to applications that have the following qualifications:
- Mainly used for viewing and/or editing CAD files
- Written for the Android and/or iOS mobile operating system
- Available for download from an official application store, such as the Apple App Store or Google Play Store
- Accepts fingertip control via a touchscreen interface
- Operates over cellular and/or Wi-Fi data networks.
Even with this list of qualifications filtering the field, the selection of mobile CAD applications on the market is still quite broad. In addition, the range of features available is vast enough to complicate your selection process, so let's examine some defining features of mobile CAD applications.
Important Mobile CAD Features
While the value of some features may be readily apparent, there are others you might not be sure about. Before exploring the features available, start by determining your own needs: What kind of device do you have? How would you like to expand your current CAD capabilities?
Operating system. The single most important feature of any mobile CAD application is its operating system. If you plan to use an iPad or iPhone, you will need an iOS-compatible application, available from the Apple App Store. If you will be working on a tablet or smartphone running the Android mobile operating system, you have more outlets to choose from, including the Google Play Store, the Amazon Appstore for Android, NOOK Apps, and GetJar. Even some device manufacturers, such as Samsung and Lenovo, operate their own Android application stores.
Application category. Generally speaking, mobile CAD applications fall into two categories: viewers and editors. Mobile CAD viewers enable the user to open and view drawings created in another application, whether that's another mobile CAD application or a traditional desktop CAD installation. In addition to viewing, some apps allow users to add comments to viewed files. Mobile CAD editors, in contrast, enable users not only to view and comment on existing drawings, but also to edit CAD linework in those files and even create new drawings from scratch. There is also a gray area between these two categories populated by applications that act as viewers in their free version, but offer editor functionality once upgraded to a paid version.
Device type. The larger screens typically associated with tablets, as compared with smartphones, provide larger displays on which to view and manipulate user interfaces, making for a more efficient and pleasant CAD experience. While most modern applications are screen-agnostic, operating on smaller smartphone screens as well as larger tablets, it is important that your selected mobile CAD application has a user interface suitable to your device.
Interface type. While all applications in this review can be controlled via touch, some mobile CAD applications support other input sources as well, such as a generic stylus or even a mouse. Other options include a device-specific stylus, such as the Samsung S Pen, which uses Wacom tablet technology. The option of a non-fingertip interface can be an important factor for those who prefer to use a pen or mouse, or for users requiring accommodations for conditions such as arthritis.
Price. Mobile apps vary wildly in pricing, ranging from free to a couple hundred dollars. Most cost less than $20, however, and many paid apps offer a free version that includes a limited feature set.
Supported file formats. File support provided by each mobile CAD application is important. For example, if you use AutoCAD or collaborate with others who do, you need a mobile app that can create, save, import, and export DWGs or, at the very least, AutoCAD-compatible files. The same holds true for any desktop CAD software package you already use. If you are not a desktop CAD user, choose a mobile CAD application that supports industry-standard formats such as DWG, DGN, or a common graphics format such as JPG so you can collaborate with others.
Some amount of risk always seems to accompany technological change, and the mobile CAD world is no exception. Before making the decision to use a mobile CAD application, be sure to think through the following concerns.
Security. As we put more of our lives online, the threat to our data — including our CAD files — rises exponentially. From viruses and bugs such as the recent Heartbleed OpenSSL cryptographic crisis to the ubiquitous presence of cybercriminals of every stripe, there is no end to the number of threats we face online. Plus, nearly all mobile CAD apps use cloud storage. Therefore you must consider the security risks of transmitting your files and trusting the security measures of your online storage provider, as well as the confidentiality ramifications related to your clients' privacy.
Device suitability. While user interfaces that are specifically designed for smaller screens are a hallmark of mobile CAD applications, be aware that they will limit the amount of your drawings that can be displayed at any given time. Moving from a 15" notebook screen to a 10" tablet screen may seem reasonable; however, moving from that 15" notebook to a 5" smartphone will be too much of a change for some. This concern is certainly legitimate, but it is purely a matter of personal preference. Some users may enjoy the ability to perform CAD tasks on their iPhones, while some may find even 10.5" Android tablets too small.
Additional costs. While many mobile CAD apps are completely free, included as part of a desktop software purchase, or have a free trial period, there are other cost concerns beyond the price of the application itself. Keep in mind the cost of your equipment, which can range from free (with carrier subsidization) to more than $1,000. And whether you select a device that uses a built-in cellular connection for data, or one that uses a stationary or mobile Wi-Fi router, there is a hard cost for that data service as well.
Now that we have defined what constitutes a mobile CAD application, and identified major features and concerns, it is time to look at the applications themselves. For this review I chose seven free CAD apps from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. These selections represent a range of desirable features and are produced by some of the best-known names in CAD software development.
How we tested. The review process for these mobile CAD applications involved several steps. First, I graded each application on the following factors:
User interface. Is the app's user interface designed for efficient fingertip control? Does it incorporate easy-to-access controls and tools?
Features. Does the app provide a full range of features to enable efficient viewing and editing (if applicable)? Are only the most fundamental of CAD tools present, or are additional features included?
Sharing/collaboration options. Does the app include mechanisms to easily share files and/or collaborate in either a synchronous or asynchronous manner? How easy is it to import and export drawing files?
- Ease of use. Has the app been designed in a manner that facilitates access by both novice and veteran users? Is it possible to achieve meaningful productivity by using the app in a mobile environment?
In addition, we discuss the file formats each app opens and saves, but don't grade this element because many of these tools were developed for users of a particular CAD software program. For example, Bentley Systems' Navigator Mobile is specifically designed for users of other Bentley software products.
I rated each app from 1 to 4 in each category, then averaged the weighted totals. Finally, I correlated numeric values to arrive at a letter grade for each app in our roundup.
AutoCAD 360 v2.2 (Android)
Mobile CAD editor
Overall Grade: A
Pros: Opens, edits, and marks up standard DWG files; produces and e-mails PDF and DWG files; offers an excellent touch interface; includes online storage.
Cons: Limits size of created files to 10 MB; less responsive to stylus input than finger input.
AutoCAD has been a major name in desktop CAD for many years, and Autodesk's AutoCAD 360 will not disappoint mobile users. AutoCAD 360 is a well-equipped, easy-to-use mobile CAD app available at a variety of price points and feature tiers for CAD users looking to work on the go. Formerly known as AutoCAD WS, AutoCAD 360 is now part of Autodesk's formidable array of mobile and cloud-based products under the Autodesk 360 umbrella.
AutoCAD 360 is available for both the Android and iOS mobile operating systems; I reviewed the Android version. Installing AutoCAD 360 is as simple as visiting the appropriate app store and creating a free AutoCAD 360 account. You can easily upload project files from the desktop, or create them on your mobile device in the Pro and Pro Plus versions.
While very different from the desktop experience, the AutoCAD 360 interface is very intuitive and quick to learn. The application operated very smoothly and responded quickly to multitouch gestures and was stable throughout testing. I found the app to be somewhat less responsive to input from my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 stylus than to my finger.
AutoCAD 360 lets users open a variety of file formats and use basic CAD tools, such as those in the tool ribbon at the bottom of the screen.
Free AutoCAD 360 is a well-developed mobile CAD app that lets users open a variety of filetypes, including DWG, DXF, PDF, and JPG, plus enables them to view and mark up files, and collaborate with others. Inquiry tools such as distance, area, and coordinate support, as well as basic layer support, are all included. Users can change unit types and also plot to PDF or DWF, then automatically e-mail the results to coworkers. The free version can produce PDF and DWF files, but file size is limited to 10 MB. Users can view and edit files stored in their included 5 GB of storage.
AutoCAD 360 Pro and Pro Plus expand on the features of AutoCAD 360 by adding drawing, inquiry, and layer management tools, plus they can create DWG files. Users also gain access to block library support, object properties, and other enhancements. Online storage is increased to 25 GB and 100 GB, with file sizes up to 30 MB and 40 MB, respectively. The cost for Pro is $4.99/month or $49.99/year, while Pro Plus is $99.99/year. Highly Recommended.
Navigator Mobile v4.00.01 (iOS)
Mobile CAD viewer
Overall Grade: A-
Pros: Robust object property reporting; virtual walkthrough of building projects.
Cons: No markup or comment function; available for iOS only.
AEC professionals who visit jobsites may find that Bentley Navigator Mobile is just what they have been looking for. Navigator Mobile is more than a simple mobile CAD viewer — it's a powerful viewing and field information tool.
Navigator Mobile's object property window rivals some desktop applications.
Navigator Mobile is available for iOS devices only; users can download it from the Apple App Store. It is most commonly used in conjunction with ProjectWise technology for project collaboration, and plugs directly into workflows that ensure secure viewing, authoring, searching, and the delivery of feedback from the reviewer to the other project stakeholders.
Those users who take iPads to the jobsite can carry a wealth of information that supplants the plan sets of yesterday. With just a few taps, users can pull up their project models or PDF files to access details, cost estimates, or other text-based information. Object data is by far the most robust that we have seen in a mobile solution, and could easily challenge many desktop applications. Accessing, changing, or creating model views is intuitive. Navigating the 3D presentation is easy, and navigation is quick to respond to standard multitouch input. With Navigator Mobile's unique walkthrough tool, users can manipulate two virtual on-screen "joysticks" to visually tour a project while it's still under construction.
While Navigator Mobile doesn't support DWG or DGN files, it utilizes i-models, which can include content from any common AEC design application. Users publish i-models using free plugins available at http://www.Bentley.com/iWare or any Bentley product, or access them through ProjectWise Explorer Mobile or Field Supervisor.
CadFaster Collaborate v2.0.3 (iOS)
Mobile CAD viewer/collaboration tool
Overall Grade: B
Pros: Unique model viewer and collaboration tool; real-time screen-sharing experience.
Cons: Requires expensive desktop application plugin; no industry-standard file support; available for iOS only.
Price: Free, plus cost of required desktop plugin.
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CadFaster Collaborate is a mobile CAD viewer meant for the 3D AEC and MCAD markets, but it really shines as a mobile collaboration tool. Users can view and comment on building information modeling (BIM) models while on the go, plus they can comment and conduct live screen-sharing markup sessions, all without needing any CAD software on their PC or iPad. CadFaster accomplishes this by using a plugin for desktop CAD applications that exports either an EXE-format or iPad-compatible file.
CadFaster's file directory interface makes it easy to find your current drawing.
CadFaster offers excellent real-time collaboration options, such as the object visibility options shown here.
Therein lies the downside of CadFaster. First, the plugin software license for the desktop CAD application is rather expensive. While the CadFaster mobile application is free, the plugin licenses cost between $189 and $389 for a one-year subscription. In addition to the cost, the workflow of sharing models via EXE files raises concerns because many IT departments treat EXE files as a threat, stripping them from e-mails and refusing domain users the admin rights needed to execute them. Although the real-time collaboration options are very impressive, the concerns of cost and potential corporate security policy violations mean this CAD viewer and collaboration tool is not for everyone.
CadFaster is available as a free download from the Apple App Store for the iOS mobile operating system. The plugins needed to publish the CadFaster models are available for Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks, Autodesk Revit, Bentley SELECTseries, and Nemetschek Vectorworks. Versions are available for the Windows and Mac platforms; all can be purchased from the CadFaster site.
Users who find that CadFaster fits both their budget and their IT department's security requirements will find a truly interactive mobile CAD viewer experience. The application is intuitive and quick to respond, with fast, smooth zooms and model rotation. Unique to CadFaster is the ability to share screens between iPads and even desktop workstations, with the collaboration session hosted by any participant. Also useful is the real-time commenting ability that attaches annotation to the drawing for sharing with others across the CadFaster cloud servers.
Editor's note: The company states that MyCadbox 2.0 will be released soon and will replace CadFaster Collaborate. It also reports that this new version addresses many of the concerns stated here.
cadTouch v5.0.0 (Android)
Mobile CAD editor
Overall Grade: A-
Pros: Wide range of tools; DWG, block, and raster image support.
Cons: File support limited to DWG/DXF; 3D mode is beta; no camera access from app.
CadTouch is a free mobile CAD editor with plenty to offer the experienced CAD user. It's available for the Android and iOS operating systems; I looked at the Android version. Rather than a typical mobile user interface that places as few controls on the screen as possible, this application opens with control ribbons on three sides that contain all of the tools needed for drawing, editing, and properties information. The expandable menus offer more refined tools, and helpful tool tags identify each one when it is touched.
The cadTouch tool palettes, with flyout menus for drawing tools, are easy to use.
The free version of cadTouch comes with more than 20 blocks in its library.
Viewing drawings is very intuitive, with common multitouch interface mechanisms. Linework is crisp and quickly responds to view manipulation in both 2D and 3D modes. Note that while 3D mode is quick and responsive, it is currently in beta. While linework creation and editing will be easy for experienced CAD users, novices will require a longer learning curve. The application installs with a library of more than 20 blocks.
The free version supports the industry-standard DWG and DXF formats, plus PDF and JPG. Images are easily imported to drawings from the mobile device's gallery, although the app lacks direct access to the device's camera. Sharing files is limited to e-mail attachments or a workstation connection.
Easy-to-use drawing tools include polylines, hatches, and freehand sketching. Layers and linetype control are easily accessed from the Properties bar, as is object property information. Inquiry tools include angle, length, and area. All of the standard editing tools, such as move, copy, offset, and many others, are included and are easy to use. New drawings can be created in the free version of cadTouch, but export is not possible. No account is required for the free version, so no online storage is included with the application.
CadTouch Pro ($19.99) looks and functions the same as the free version; export functions, however, are unlocked. Users can share files via connection to a work-station, with iTunes for instance, or via e-mail. Exported file support includes DWG, DXF, PDF, and PNG.
TurboViewer v1.5.0 (Android)
Mobile CAD viewer
Overall Grade: B-
Pros: Opens native DWG/DXF files; easily customized views and viewstyles.
Cons: Counter-intuitive controls; 3D rotation somewhat difficult to manage.
TurboViewer from IMSI/Design is a fast, easy-to-use, and very capable mobile CAD viewer. No account creation is necessary to use the application, as it works with locally stored drawing files; this makes it a prime performer in situations where data connections are not available.
The iOS version of this app provides markup functions, but the version of TurboViewer for Android reviewed here does not. (The company states that an update for the Android version, scheduled for release by the end of August 2014, will include editing and markup functions.) The application was quick to respond and easy to configure to change visual styles for both 2D and 3D drawings. All of this combines to make TurboViewer a good choice for the mobile user who needs CAD viewing functionality. TurboViewer's control layout is very spartan, displaying only four buttons once a file is open. Traditional view controls would have been much preferred to TurboViewer's current user interface.
The TurboViewer CAD viewer in 2D display mode.
TurboViewer enables users to view a variety of filetypes, and it includes native support of DWG/DXF files. Files may be opened from within other applications, such as e-mail. TurboViewer's interface is fully developed and well laid out, making the change to mobile very comfortable for desktop users. There's no online storage included with the free version.
TurboViewer Pro ($19.99) adds viewing tools such as x-ray with transparency range, edge color range, custom perspective view, and materials. It also includes tools for layer management and layout support. Pro users also receive free telephone and e-mail support from IMSI/Design. The Pro version supports DWG/DWF/DGN files, plus more than 20 CAD file formats.
eDrawings Viewer v2.0.1 (Android)
Mobile CAD viewer
Overall Grade: A-
Pros: Opens a variety of 2D and 3D specialty file formats.
Cons: No markup tools in free version; lack of visual style control.
Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks
CAD professionals and engineers working with mechanical designs may find the eDrawings Viewer application from SolidWorks to be just what they've been waiting for. In the category of mobile mechanical CAD viewers, eDrawings Viewer stands out as an excellent option.
The application is simple to install, quick to respond to both file opening and multitouch input, and supports SolidWorks files as well as native DXF and DWG format files. While performance was smooth overall, eDrawings Viewer did crash a handful of times for no apparent reason during testing on an iPad 2 tablet.
Output and sharing options in eDrawings Viewer.
The application is available in free and Pro versions for both Android and iOS; I reviewed the Android version. The free version offers viewing of multiple component mechanical assemblies with eDrawing's excellent rendering, animated viewing, and exploded assembly tools. No account is required for use of the free version; no online storage is included with the application.
An in-app purchase ($7.99) unlocks the Pro version, key to which is a fantastic system for dynamic section views that is intuitive and renders quickly. This easy-to-use tool makes creating section views as easy as dragging your finger. Inquiry and markup tools allow for easy information gathering and collaboration with coworkers. Marked-up files are easily shared via e-mail.
ZWCAD Touch v1.3.0 (Android)
Mobile CAD editor
Overall Grade: B
Pros: Very thorough toolset; very similar to desktop CAD; voice memo feature.
Cons: Limited filetype support; no object property features.
Desktop CAD users may find it hard to let go of their regular user interface and replace it with more modern, touch-centric interfaces. Luckily for them, there is ZWCAD Touch from ZWSOFT, which is sure to sway many users with its desktop-like experience. This free mobile CAD editor is both capable and well featured. ZWCAD Touch is available as a free download from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store for Android and iOS mobile devices, respectively (we reviewed the Android version).
ZWCAD Touch offers many of the same tools found in desktop CAD programs. It is quick to regen in a 3D solid display mode.
Modern CAD users will find the ribbon user interface full of tools similar to those of any modern desktop CAD program. Drawing, editing, layer management, inquiry, and layout selection tools, among others, are all lined up and easy to find. Contextual ribbons provide additional options.
ZWCAD Touch is quick to regen and react to multitouch input for panning, zooming, and rotating. The application's visual style control is effective and easy. Users will also find the familiar Save messages before closing a drawing to be reassuring. Output options are limited to DWG format.
A key differentiator for ZWCAD Touch is its capability to save and play back voice memos attached to the drawings, a feature sure to be handy for anyone who is in the field with full hands or needs to capture a thought quickly.
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