New 3D Power in AutoCAD-And How to Get It

13 Aug, 2006 By: AIA ,H. Edward Goldberg

AutoCAD 2007 and related products offer some great rendering capabilities, but you might need a new graphics card to use them

Autodesk's introduction this spring of AutoCAD 2007 and related software brought with it new visualization capabilities. All AutoCAD 2007-based products, including Architectural Desktop 2007 and Autodesk Building Systems, incorporate the company's mental ray engine for generating photorealistic images -- the very latest in rendering technology. Originally used in Autodesk 3ds Max software, mental ray has been incorporated into a new AutoCAD user interface focused on making accurate and realistic renderings quickly and easily. This technology includes the use of preset renderings as well as slider control that allows easy trade-off of rendering time vs. quality. New rendering, materials and lighting enhancements make highly accurate rendered images available to any AutoCAD user.

However, you won't get these benefits automatically if your computer isn't adequately equipped. Specifically, you may need a new graphics card to provide the needed graphics-display power. In this article, I'll take a quick look at these new visualization capabilities and offer some advice about the hardware you'll need to use them.

What's New
In addition to the aforementioned mental ray engine, the latest AutoCAD-based solutions also include the advanced Visual Styles palette with real-time shadowing. A visual style is a collection of settings that control the display of edges and shading in a viewport. With this new capability, instead of using commands and setting system variables, you change the properties of the visual style. You can see the effect in the viewport as soon as you apply a visual style or change its settings.

New to the AutoCAD 2007-based solutions is the advanced Visual Styles palette, which offers real-time shadowing.

Wireframe, 3D Wireframe and 3D Hidden styles in AutoCAD 2007 produce the same results as they did in previous versions. New rendering styles added to AutoCAD 2007 are the Conceptual and Realistic styles. Both the Realistic and Conceptual styles are capable of real-time shadowing if one of the Autodesk-certified video cards is installed in your system.

  • Wireframe. The standard 2D display that has been with AutoCAD from the beginning.
  • 3D Wireframe. Displays all lines in a 3D object.
  • 3D Hidden. Displays objects with all visible lines displayed as continuous lines and all hidden lines as dashed or not-displayed lines.
  • Conceptual style. Displays objects in a flat shaded manner with all lines displayed. This is referred to as the "Gooch" shader.
  • Realistic style. Displays objects realistically with all materials showing.
Which Video Cards Are Approved?
As I mentioned, if you want to take advantage of all these new rendering features, you may need more graphics power. Autodesk has tested and certified certain video cards for their ability to display all the new AutoCAD features. The company developed a list that you can filter to display supported/recommended, supported/not recommended and not supported cards. Many of the cards on the supported/recommended list are higher-end cards PCI Express cards, so if you're considering such a device, be sure your motherboard can support it. Autodesk is working with the video card manufacturers, so many of the supported/not recommended cards may become totally supported when new drivers are created.

What Do You Gain from "Supported" Cards?
Besides enabling real-time shadowing, the Autodesk-recommended cards greatly improve 3D performance. The newest generation of workstation graphics accelerators from ATI Technologies and NVIDIA feature PCI Express connections and enhanced support for real-time rendering. I installed the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 in Architectural Desktop 2007 and now can easily rotate a complete three-story building with all components while showing shadows and materials. This improved performance comes in handy when demonstrating concepts to clients. Besides this, you don't have to wait for a full rendering as you do when using Autodesk VIZ or 3ds max. The results might not be quite as good, but they are instantaneous.

Upgrading to the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 graphics card, the author could easily rotate a complete three-story building with all components while showing shadows and materials.

Are These Boards Available for Laptops?
Workstation boards are not compatible with laptops; however, both ATI Technologies and NVIDIA make their GPUs (graphics processing units) available to laptop makers. IBM, Dell, HP and XI now offer laptops with Autodesk-approved graphics processors from ATI and NVIDIA. The ATI Mobility FireGL V5200 as well as NVIDIA FX 1500 M, FX 2500 M and FX 3500 M are very popular for this type of computer.

How Much Should I Expect to Pay for a New Card?
A fully capable card at the lower end of the graphics card price range generally costs $275 to $350. An example would be the ATI FireGL V3400 or NVIDIA Quadro 1300, each with 128MB of memory. A higher-end card that allows you to rotate even more complex 3D models, such as the ATI FireGL V7200 with 256MB of memory, will cost around $900.

Take a look at Ron LaFon's recent Cadalyst Labs Review of graphics cards for more information as well as ratings of several Autodesk-recommended boards. If you want to go mobile, check our roundup of the latest mobile workstations.

In my opinion, a good video card not only saves time, but makes designing more pleasurable.

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