AutoCAD 2009 (Cadalyst Labs Review)

31 Aug, 2008 By: Bill Fane

The old standard ties on another new interface.

When I launched my first beta copy of AutoCAD 2009, I thought I must have downloaded the wrong file. It hardly looked like AutoCAD at all. The obvious difference is that the model space background color is not black, it's slightly off white.

Okay, maybe the difference that jumps out at most people is the new ribbon menu across the top, similar to the Microsoft Office 2007 ribbon menu (figure 1). Uh-oh, we're doomed. I disliked the Office ribbon so much that after about three weeks I uninstalled Office 2007 and went back to Office 2003, using the free module from Microsoft that allowed Office 2003 to read and write Office 2007 files.

Figure 1. AutoCAD 2009 sports a totally new interface, but you can also set it to run the old way.
Figure 1. AutoCAD 2009 sports a totally new interface, but you can also set it to run the old way.

The good news is that Autodesk has kept to its tradition of allowing users to manipulate and customize the user interface. Someone forgot to tell Microsoft that monitors are getting wider, not taller, so it makes little sense to co-opt such a large horizontal zone across the top of the screen. AutoCAD did get the message, and AutoCAD 2009 allows you to move its ribbon to the left side, the bottom, or the right side just as you could relocate the now-defunct dashboard. (Now, there was a short-lived interface; the dashboard was introduced in AutoCAD 2007, but it's gone already.)

AutoCAD 2009 General-Purpose CAD Software
AutoCAD 2009 General-Purpose CAD Software

Most panels of the ribbon include a fly-out menu at the bottom to display additional, less-frequently used commands within the same general category. You can easily lock individual fly-out menus so that they remain displayed all the time.

The AutoCAD 2009 ribbon is actually a combination super toolbar and tool palette. It can be undocked and set to float freely as a toolbar. Like a tool palette, it can be set to have transparency and to auto-hide, reducing to a narrow strip until you move your cursor over it. You can set up the ribbon in this way even when it is docked so it displays only the panel titles and each panel pops down when you mouse over its title. This capability pretty much solves the screen real-estate issue, but you will need a pretty brisk computer and graphics card if you want to keep up.

Each tab on the ribbon brings up one or more panels, and individual panels can be dragged off the ribbon to become separate toolbars. To paraphrase an old Frank Sinatra song, you can do it your way. The ribbon panels and the ribbon itself can be completely customized with the normal custom user interface functionality.

If you really want to continue to do it your way, you can turn the ribbon off and the toolbars back on. In fact, the old DOS screen menu is still available for old diehards. You even can use all of the above in that you can have the new ribbon, the old menu bar, and the really old screen menu active at the same time. AutoCAD 2009 includes two distinctly different ribbons for the 2D and 3D workspaces, but it also has an AutoCAD Classic workspace. When you activate it, the ribbon disappears and the traditional toolbars and menu bar reappear.

Faster! Faster!

Look at figure 1 again and notice the big red A button, which is the Menu Browser, in the upper-left corner. Clicking it produces a Swiss Army knife dialog box (figure 2) that provides quick access to:

  • 1. traditional menu bar items
  • 2. a list of recent documents, currently open documents, or recent command actions
  • 3. AutoCAD's Options command
  • 4. a Search window
  • 5. an Exit AutoCAD button

The Recent Documents list can be set to display a generic icon or a thumbnail view of each drawing. In either case, hovering the cursor over an entry produces a larger preview image, as shown in figure 2.

Figure 2. The Menu Browser button offers a quick link to a multifunction dialog box.
Figure 2. The Menu Browser button offers a quick link to a multifunction dialog box.

The new Quick Access bar is well named, and is probably my favorite of the new menu tools. It is always available in the upper-left corner of the screen, beside the big red A. As installed, it contains just a few commands, but simple drag-and-drop operation lets you add commands you use all the time.

For the Layer Manager option, the most significant change appears not so much in what has been added but in what has been removed. It no longer has an OK button, because it no longer is a dialog box, but rather a palette. Now it can always be resident on screen, it can auto-hide, and it can have transparency.

Any changes to layer specifications such as color and linetype take place immediately within a drawing. Better yet, such changes occur transparently within other commands, but again you will need a fairly brisk computer with a good graphics card if you are working on large, complex drawings.

Another interesting addition to AutoCAD 2009 is its Quick Properties functionality. If you select an object or objects when no command is active, a mini Properties dialog box pops up. With it, you can edit certain properties of the objects without having to start the usual Properties command. You can edit features such as circle diameter, linetype, layer, color, and the justification, style, and content of text.

The good news is that the editable properties are customizable on an object-by-object basis. As a manager, you probably don't want your staff to be able to change the linetype and color quickly, easily, and independently of the layer. That road leads to chaos.

Do You See What I See?

How often do you have several drawings open at the same time and need to switch back and forth between them? How often do you work on a single drawing that has multiple layouts? If you answered with anything more frequent than "Never," then you'll like AutoCAD 2009's new Quick View functionality (figure 3).

Figure 3. New Quick View functionality lets you easily switch between open files and between model space and layouts within a drawing.
Figure 3. New Quick View functionality lets you easily switch between open files and between model space and layouts within a drawing.

When activated, Quick View shows a row of preview slides across the bottom of the screen. One slide displays for each drawing currently open. As you move the cursor over one, a new set of thumbnails pops up that shows each layout in the drawing. Moving the mouse over one of the thumbnails enlarges all of them to a larger preview slide. A single mouse click now takes you directly to the selected layout or to model space of the selected drawing.

The preview slides also include buttons that let you save, close, print, or publish a file without actually switching to it. As soon as you select the print or publish option, AutoCAD automatically makes that layout active.

3D navigation is greatly improved by the introduction of the new View Cube and Steering Wheel. These functions are similar to the 3D Orbit command, except that they can be used transparently in the middle of other editing commands. Personally, I lean toward the View Cube but that could be because it more closely resembles the 3D Orbit command. On the other hand, the Steering Wheel includes options such as a replay function that lets you step through previous views.

Play It Again, Sam!

John Walker, one of Autodesk's founders, reputedly said that one should never have to do anything twice. If you find yourself performing the same series of AutoCAD commands more than once, then you will like the fact that AutoCAD finally includes a macro recorder. Simply turn it on, perform a sequence of operations, then turn it off. The Action Recorder records tasks within the Layer Properties Manager and the Properties window. Play back a recording any time to automate that sequence of actions as needed later.

You can easily edit a recorded macro to change specific values or, when appropriate, to pause for user input. Recorded macros are saved in separate files and are accessible in other drawings or other editing sessions. You no longer need to learn a programming language to automate repetitive command sequences.

The More Things Change

AutoCAD 2009 incorporates the biggest change to AutoCAD's user interface since the switch from DOS to Windows lo those many years ago. AutoCAD must hold some sort of a record for software interfaces, because by my estimation, the count stands at roughly eight different basic methods for starting each of the common commands. And this count doesn't even include things such as duplicates in several toolbars and multiple aliases.

New users are likely to pick up the ribbon right away, while those of us accustomed to previous interfaces will probably stick with the familiar for at least a while. Current estimates indicate that acceptance of the ribbon is running at 50%, give or take 40%, depending on who ask and how they are measuring the rate of adoption. I suspect that many people in the anti-ribbon camp are there because of ribbon issues related to Microsoft Office 2007.

I have saved the best for last. AutoCAD 2009 drawing files can be opened by AutoCAD 2008 and 2007. You also can save DWG files back to R14 or to R12 DXF files, but you might lose later features in the translation. Highly Recommended.