The Wide World of DWG-Compatible CAD Software16 Mar, 2016 By: Randall S. Newton
Cadalyst Labs Report: When it comes to 2D drafting, the market has moved far beyond copycats and knockoffs. Today, it offers a variety of mature, thoughtfully designed applications at budget-conscious prices.
For a generation, AutoCAD has been the de facto standard for 2D drafting. In the 1980s it emerged from a pack of new CAD products hoping to win over what were then known as “microcomputer users.” Today it and its subset sibling AutoCAD LT are the most widely used CAD brand of all time, with more than 12 million seats sold between the two products (including educational licenses), according to Autodesk.
AutoCAD has never been the only choice for CAD, however. A variety of competing products offer compelling reasons to think outside the AutoCAD box. From free solutions (such as Dassault Systèmes DraftSight and the open-source LibreCAD and QCAD) to products in the same price range as AutoCAD (Bentley MicroStation), there are 2D CAD products for every budget and every application.
More Than Clones
In the early days of 2D software products supporting the DWG file format, the common (and usually derogatory) nickname for the genre was “AutoCAD clones.” When MS-DOS was the operating system and CAD software relied more heavily on keyboard input, it was all too common for competitors to reverse-engineer the file format and mimic AutoCAD’s command system.
As Windows replaced DOS and graphical input became common, most AutoCAD competitors started to show more originality in user interface (UI) design. Today the traditional keyboard commands are available in most of these products, but most users rely primarily on the on-screen command system instead. Some command systems, such as BricsCAD’s Quad cursor, extend the user experience in new and interesting ways.
The DWG Ecosystem
Every software product that saves information does so in a standard way; we call that a file format. The DWG format was created by programmer Mike Riddle as a way to store vector graphics. In 1982, Autodesk licensed DWG and made it the native file format for AutoCAD. Other products in that era also used DWG as a file format for graphics software, including the once-popular Generic CADD. But AutoCAD’s rise in the market meant that “AutoCAD” and “DWG” came to be seen as inseparable.
Most other 2D CAD products also use the DWG format as their native format; those that don’t all offer built-in translation to convert other formats to DWG. If their translation software is based on the Teigha kernel developed by the Open Design Alliance (ODA), the translation will be of high fidelity. In recent years, vendors who specialize in CAD file translation have for the most part adopted the Teigha kernel for AutoCAD file translation. If a significant portion of your work involves using files created in AutoCAD, test the product with some of your most complicated files to ensure high-fidelity translation, or opt for a vendor you trust implicitly.
Autodesk has initiated several lawsuits over the years as it has sought to be the sole provider of software that uses DWG (or even used the name “DWG” to describe any file format).
It’s a tortuous history, but the outcome can be summarized this way:
- Autodesk remains the standard-bearer of the DWG file format, but no company can claim ownership of the name “DWG”; Autodesk compensates by saying it publishes “RealDWG.”
- The ODA, which counts hundreds of software vendors, academic institutions, and enterprise users of CAD software as members, publishes a reverse-engineered version of DWG for use by its membership; hundreds of software products incorporate ODA’s Teigha kernel.
- The IntelliCAD Technology Consortium (ITC) — founded by legal mandate to encourage a competitive landscape in the CAD industry — still publishes an AutoCAD-like UI, but relies on ODA Teigha for its underlying CAD technology.
Because AutoCAD has been so successful, a great number of drawings exist in the DWG file format it popularized — more than 2 billion, according to Autodesk — and the owners of all those drawings expect to be able to access their data whether or not they still have a licensed copy of AutoCAD. Currently, as Autodesk transitions to offering subscription as the only form of acquiring new AutoCAD seats (or keeping existing seats under active maintenance), many companies and individuals who rely on 2D drafting are taking a second look at other options in the marketplace.
This report offers an overview of several popular and lesserknown AutoCAD alternatives. All the companies listed below offer perpetual use licenses, with extra fees for maintenance and service; some also offer licenses by subscription.
The Software Spectrum
What follows is an introduction to the array of commercial 2D CAD products created by vendors other than Autodesk. AutoCAD provides both 2D and 3D capabilities, as do many of its competitors; in this list, we focus on products that are primarily for 2D design. This excludes all solid modeling products (such as Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks) and several popular products that can be used for 2D drafting but are marketed primarily as 3D solutions (such as Trimble SketchUp and Nemetschek Vectorworks). In addition, products listed here are general-purpose drafting applications; products that exist only as specialized applications (such as for civil engineering) are not included, nor do we list open-source solutions.
We divide the non-Autodesk market for 2D drafting into two categories:
- DWG-centric. The product’s native file format is DWG; other file formats may be supported — PDF export being the most common.
- Non–DWG-centric. The product’s native file format is not DWG, but it offers (at a minimum) two-way translation; other file formats are also supported.
This list is wide-reaching, but we do not claim it to be definitive or exhaustive. In particular, some products were omitted that have small market share or whose appeal is regionally limited. Unless otherwise noted, the software is available for Windows only, and — for the DWG-centric products — the developer uses the ODA Teigha CAD engine.
DWG-Centric 2D Drafting Software
Graebert and Partners
Ares Commander, DraftSight, CorelCAD
Graebert of Berlin, Germany, has become the second-largest vendor of 2D CAD software by mostly staying in the shadows. It publishes Ares Commander under its name, but it is also an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) kernel developer, meaning that other vendors customize and ship the technology under their own brand names. Graebert is the developer behind Corel’s CorelCAD and Dassault Systèmes DraftSight. In total, Graebert claims more than 7 million active users of its DWG-compatible CAD technology, with many of those using the free version of DraftSight.
ARES Commander 2016 can design in 3D as well as 2D. Image courtesy of Graebert.
With pioneering support for Android tablets and all three common desktop platforms (Windows, Mac, and Linux), Graebert has become an innovation leader in 2D CAD. It also recently struck an alliance with Esri to jointly create Ares Map, extending the Graebert reach into geographic information systems (GIS). All Graebert-based products sport a robust feature set any AutoCAD user will appreciate.
Ares and DraftSight are available for Windows, Mac, and Linux; CorelCAD is for Windows and Mac. Pricing runs as follows:
- Ares Commander is available on both subscription term licensing, including flex licensing for companies with varying demand for CAD ($250 and up) and perpetual licensing ($795).
- DraftSight offers a free basic version; DraftSight Professional ($299) and DraftSight Enterprise (price quoted on request) add technical support, automatic upgrades, batch printing, and customization options.
- CorelCAD is available by perpetual license ($699).
In her easy-to-follow, friendly style, long-time Cadalyst contributing editor Lynn Allen guides you through a new feature or time-saving trick in every episode of her popular AutoCAD Video Tips. Subscribe to the free Cadalyst Video Picks newsletter, and we'll notify you every time a new video tip is published. All exclusively from Cadalyst!