AutoCAD 2011

27 Jun, 2010 By: Robert Green

First Look Review: Autodesk's solid upgrade provides enough 2D productivity and 3D advancement to keep users in both camps happy.

Editor's note:  This article was originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of Cadalyst magazine.

It's spring and, as has become Autodesk's tradition, spring brings the birth of a new version of AutoCAD. AutoCAD 2011 is the latest update to Autodesk's flagship CAD product, the foundation upon which many other Autodesk software tools are built. You might expect a software tool that's almost 28 years old to have little new to offer, but that's far from true for this release.

User Interface

The user interface remains fairly consistent with AutoCAD 2010, with the exception of the new dark, graph-paper–style background and navigation controls docked at the right side of the screen. The quick-access toolbar at the top left now includes a drop-down menu for the current workspace and more of the common controls for saving files.

The dark background and graph-paper look, combined with the new navigation bar docked at the right, give AutoCAD 2011 a new look. The inset shows the new ribbon drop-down menu.

Those who've acclimated to the ribbon interface will notice subtle changes to the organization of the ribbon panels. For those who haven't taken the ribbon plunge, AutoCAD 2011 finally gets it right by adding a pull-down menu that lets you easily control which portions of the ribbon you prefer to display in your workspace. (And for the anti-ribbon set, you can still turn it off completely).

New 2D Productivity

Once you understand the interface, it's time to open a drawing and get to work. When it comes to AutoCAD, the main focus for most users is still 2D, so any tools that make it easier to work with big drawings usually are the ones that attract the most attention. In my mind, 2D functionality is the area in which AutoCAD 2011 has made major strides.

Object visibility. By using right-click selection tools, you can implement the Isolate Objects tool to keep only selected objects visible, or use the Hide Objects tool to do the opposite and turn off selected objects. These options make it easy to tailor the display to include just what you want, independent of layer membership — a godsend for working on vendor-provided drawings. By using the OBJECTISOLATIONMODE variable (represented by the light bulb icon in the status bar).

Object selection. As with the object visibility options, users can select these tools through right-click context menus when the current command is in Object Selection mode. The Select Similar tool allows you to select only those objects that meet the criteria you specify using the SelectSimilar command. So if you set your parameters to select based on name and layer and then you select a line entity, all lines on the same layer would be selected even though you picked only one line. After you get used to this functionality, it becomes very easy to work with sets of objects based not only on entity type but also on any properties you'd normally see in the Layer dialog box.

Object creation. Another new right-click tool, Add Selected, places AutoCAD into the proper command for the selected object, with all layer settings and properties set automatically. Want to create more dimensions identical to another dimension already on-screen? Just click the one you want to replicate and click the dimension points.

Transparency. A totally new Transparency object property appears in dialog boxes such as Layer, Plot, and Properties. Transparency can be applied by object or by layer (just as color or linetype can) to allow objects in the drawing to have varying degrees of transparency — for example, backgrounds in architectural drawings. However, be aware that if you plot transparent objects, the process can be slow.

Polylines and splines. For those who work with topo-graphic curves or complex mechanical geometry, AutoCAD 2011 adds direct vertex editing functions, so you don't have to explode and reform polylines manually. Splines are much easier to create and edit using collections of 2D or 3D points.

3D and 2D Parametric Design

AutoCAD 2010 took bold new steps in 3D functionality and introduced parametric 2D functionality so users could create 2D drawings driven by variables and dimensional constraints. In a very real sense, AutoCAD has become a lightweight mechanical modeler, and AutoCAD 2011 continues to refine and enhance this functionality.

AutoConstrain and Infer Constrain. If you've worked with parametric constraints before, you've no doubt discovered they don't always behave as you'd expect. AutoCAD 2011 includes a lot of subtle changes that make the process more intuitive, especially for new users. Perhaps the best example is the new Infer Constraints tool, which is tied to AutoCAD's Object Snap tool. Inferred constraints assume that when you place a feature (think endpoint, midpoint, center, etc.) using an object snap, you probably want it to stay in place, so the software applies a coincident constraint to keep the objects aligned. Similarly, when editing an object's placement using commands such as Move or Copy with object snaps, the Infer Constraints function kicks in as well.

The AutoConstrain feature also has been updated to recognize elements of equal length or size, so similar segments and arcs will behave the same way without users having to constrain them manually. If you've never worked with constraints, this discussion will be confusing, but I assure you that AutoCAD 2011 is a lot easier to work with than 2010 is in this regard.

Point clouds.
You now can insert or attach point-cloud data from field instruments, just as you would work with an xref.

Solids and surfaces. For 3D users, AutoCAD 2011 delivers more functionality for modeling solids, surfaces, and meshes that was introduced in AutoCAD 2010. It's the little things — including better edge selection, surface trimming, and converting solids to surfaces and vice versa — that make 3D objects a lot friendlier in this release. There's also a big innovation in associative surfacing: Now surfaces update as they are edited. Data imported from applications such as Inventor or Revit will display better now as well.

And More

AutoCAD 2011 has so much more to offer that I can't cover it all. Here are a few improvements that stand out.

  • Action Recorder macros are more robust and editable.
  • Xrefs can be highlighted without selection.
  • Custom-scale lists can be created and maintained using the Options command.
  • Rendering materials are now consistent with Revit, Inventor, and 3ds Max and easier to find/select using the Autodesk Materials Library options from the Materials tab.
  • Visualization is much better, incorporating a wider selection of visual styles.
  • Interface customization is more robust using the Common User Interface (CUI) command.

As AutoCAD has become increasingly 3D-capable, any new release has to divide its attention between 2D as well as 3D improvements in the hopes of making everyone happy. AutoCAD 2011 has largely succeeded by providing some solid 2D productivity tools that will serve those who work with large drawings, while making the newer 3D tools more intuitive to use. AutoCAD 2011 is a solid upgrade that only those who work with small 2D drawings will want to sit out. Highly Recommended.

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