Upgrade dilemma:Are you ready for the march to AutoCAD 2004?

31 Jul, 2003 By: Cadalyst Staff

It's AutoCAD upgrade time again, and whether you're laboring at Autodesk or at a company that uses AutoCAD, never have the prospects, potential, and pitfalls been more difficult to discern. Companies don't want to spend money on technology, but worry about falling too far behind, especially with something as central to their work as CAD. Autodesk, in its efforts to sell more software, continues to wield both carrots (new features, subscription offers, newfangled discipline-specific applications such as Inventor and Revit) and sticks (upgrade moratoriums on older versions, required subscriptions, no Save as R14 capability in AutoCAD 2004). What's a poor CAD manager to do in these uncertain and confusing times?


Let me start by saying that, apart from the question of whether your company can or will afford an upgrade right now, AutoCAD 2004 is a worthy new version. Although AutoCAD 2000 through 2002 included plenty of new and changed stuff, it wasn't obvious that a lot of that stuff would help people create better drawings more efficiently.

Much of the new stuff in AutoCAD 2004 benefits everyday drafting work and should make your relationship with AutoCAD a happier one. Among my favorites are:

  • A cleaner, more functional interface, especially when you launch AutoCAD and create new drawings.
  • Text indents and hanging indents. Finally, we can create numbered and bulleted lists such as this one in AutoCAD (figure 1)!
Figure 1. Finally—AutoCAD 2004 brings us hanging indents!
  • Numerous xref improvements, including a simple way to open xrefs for editing, more sensible xref search paths, xref change notifications, and a Reference Manager utility.
  • Better tools for CAD standards compliance.
  • Automatic file compression, which reduces DWG file sizes by 10%-50% and drawing load times by more modest amounts.
  • Restoration of the ever-popular Express Tools, which came with AutoCAD Release 14 and 2000 but disappeared from 2000i and 2002.

In short, I like AutoCAD 2004 quite a bit. Unlike the past couple of upgrades, it makes a positive impression right out of the box and continues to impress with the thoughtfulness of most of the improvements. If you've been putting off upgrading, and especially if you've been hanging out with AutoCAD Release 14 for five years now, this is a good time to take the plunge.

Of course, I'm passing over the complex question of whether you should stay the AutoCAD course, veer toward a discipline-specific flavor such as Architectural Desktop, or jump ship entirely in favor of a brave new vessel such as Revit or Inventor. My own sense is that AutoCAD, or at least a discipline-specific flavor of it, will remain an essential player in most Autodesk-centric companies for the foreseeable future.


"All well and good," you say, "but my company doesn't want to spend money on pricey software upgrades right now. How can I convince them?" Far be it for me to tell other people or companies how to spend their money, especially money they don't have. In general, though, I think it helps to get beyond the "I want it/But you can't have it" discussion that often characterizes this kind of dilemma.

You clearly have an interest in seeing your company remain financially stable, which means sometimes forgoing things that cost money, at least for a while. On the other hand, your company has an interest in seeing its employees remain productive and reasonably up-to-date with technology, which means setting priorities and spending some money, even in lean times.

If you play the role of an informed manager who can articulate both the costs and the paybacks of a potential upgrade, your advice is more likely to be taken seriously than if you're simply cheerleading for the latest version.

Upgrading your CAD software is a complex business. It involves not just the cost of purchasing the upgrade and installing it on computers, but also upgrading any companion applications and custom utilities you use, training users, and dealing with the little glitches that appear along the way. You might also need hardware and operating system upgrades. The total cost of all this can be forbidding. Nonetheless, you owe it to your company, your users, and your own credibility to be realistic about the effort and expense involved.

One factor that compels companies to upgrade AutoCAD, even in lean economic times, is concern about DWG file compatibility with clients and consultants. There are ways of dealing with different DWG file format versions when you exchange drawings. But if you've done much back-and-forth with people who use other versions of AutoCAD, you know that the potential for time-wasting problems is much higher. The day can come when the time and money you spend dealing with file-exchange hassles exceeds the cost of upgrading.

Also consider the value of client goodwill. If clients decide that your company is costing them extra file exchange work, they may be a little less inclined to work with you in the future.

In addition, Autodesk will no longer upgrade AutoCAD 2000 after January 15, 2004. I dislike-and continue to rail against-upgrade policies such as this one that rely on coercion rather than letting customers decide for themselves when an upgrade is worthwhile. Be that as it may, Autodesk has made it an unfortunate fact of life that to protect your investment in AutoCAD licenses, you may need to upgrade sooner than you want to.


So you agree with me that AutoCAD 2004 is worth the upgrade cost and effort, and you've even managed to pry some dollars, Euros, or yen out of your budgeting department. Here are the big upgrade considerations.

Increased computer system requirements. For AutoCAD 2004, Autodesk recommends a 500MHz Pentium III or better processor, at least 128MB of RAM, 1024×768 or higher display resolution, 300MB of available hard disk space, and an Internet connection. I've run AutoCAD 2004 without any problems on my wheezy 450MHz Pentium II computer, but it does feel more sluggish than AutoCAD 2002. If you can meet the requirements with a simple hard disk or memory upgrade, and your computer is otherwise working fine, go for it. If you need to upgrade more than one or two components, it likely will be cheaper and easier to buy a new computer.

Wash those old Windows. AutoCAD 2004 doesn't support older versions of Windows such as 98 and ME. You must use Windows XP (Professional or Home), Windows 2000, or Windows NT 4.0 with Service Pack 6a applied. If your operating system isn't up to snuff, your hardware probably isn't either, in which case this is the time for a new computer.

DWG file compatibility. This one is a biggie, especially if you deal with Release 14 users. AutoCAD 2004 introduces a new version of the DWG file format, which older versions of AutoCAD can't open.

Table 1 AutoCAD versions and file formats
AutoCAD VersionAutoCAD LT VersionRelease YearDWG & DXF File FormatCreate from AutoCAD 2004
2004 (A2K4) AutoCAD LT 2004 2003 AutoCAD 2004 Save (native format)
2002 (A2K2) AutoCAD LT 2002 2001 AutoCAD 2000 Save as AutoCAD 2000 DWG
2000i (A2Ki) AutoCAD LT 2000i 2000 AutoCAD 2000 Save as AutoCAD 2000 DWG
2000 (A2K) AutoCAD LT 2000 1999 AutoCAD 2000 Save as AutoCAD 2000 DWG
Release 14 (R14) AutoCAD LT 98 and 97 1997 AutoCAD Release 14 Save as R12 DXF
Release 13 (R13) AutoCAD LT 95 1994 AutoCAD Release 13 Save as R12 DXF
Release 12 (R12) AutoCAD LT Release 2 1992 AutoCAD Release 12 Save as R12 DXF

For those of you not familiar with those hoary old versions, Table 1 above lists versions and their native file formats going back a decade. You can use the Save As option to create DWG files for users of AutoCAD 2000 and 2002, but not for AutoCAD Release 14 and earlier versions. Yes, this is bad. Apparently, Autodesk figures that the best way to persuade Release 14 users to upgrade is to make their lives as inconvenient and isolated as possible!

The workaround is to save files in Release 12 DXF format, which AutoCAD Release 14 can open. However, the resulting file is "dumbed down" to make the file palatable to an 11-year-old version of AutoCAD. Life will be happier for everyone involved if those AutoCAD Release 14 users to whom you send DWG files upgrade to AutoCAD 2004.

As usual, AutoCAD 2004 opens DWG files created by previous versions of AutoCAD, even Release 14 and earlier. It's only when you send DWG files that you create or edit in AutoCAD 2004 to users of earlier versions that you need to worry about DWG file compatibility.

Application compatibility. If you use third-party applications with your current version of AutoCAD, there's a good chance they won't work with AutoCAD 2004. That's certainly true of applications developed with the ARX (AutoCAD runtime extension) and VBA (Visual BASIC for Applications) programming interfaces. Many AutoLISP programs written for previous versions of AutoCAD will work with AutoCAD 2004.

Even before the current economic malaise, companies often followed a de facto policy of upgrading with every other major AutoCAD release-for example, Release 10 to Release 12 or Release 12 to Release 14. Many CAD managers are now pressured on all sides: upgrade reluctance on the part of their companies, file-exchange problems with clients and consultants, and coercive upgrade policies from Autodesk. It's not an easy time for anyone, but at least we have a new version of AutoCAD that makes it worth the headaches.

About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

Cadalyst Staff

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