Welcome to the UI in AutoCAD 2004

30 Apr, 2003 By: Lynn Allen

I always shudder at my first peek at a new release of AutoCAD for fear the user interface will change dramatically. I already know where everything is in my current release; I have my menus customized and my toolbars set to perfection. I'm still having flashbacks to upgrading to AutoCAD Release 13, when my perfect little world of DOS exploded into Windows with all those overwhelming toolbars. Of course, we've grown accustomed to the toolbars now--even grown to like many of them. And I wouldn't want to wander back in time to DOS for anything (although I could navigate through directories like nobody's business). Nevertheless, I am comfortable in my current cozy world of AutoCAD 2002. So why should I change?

After immersing myself in AutoCAD 2004, I can give you some seriously good news. The user interface, though different, has only changed for the better. And these changes are subtle yet powerful, so there's no need to resist the urge to turn and run. The UI still reminds us of AutoCAD 2002, with some clever, smart twists that will give you more control over your environment and allow you maximum personalization. I've had a blast working with the new palettes and taking advantage of the new toolbars. And finally, we have some control over the options on the status bar! Let's take a look.


A first glance at AutoCAD 2004 reveals the new 3D look and feel of the toolbar icons. No longer are we stuck in the land of difficult-to-distinguish 2D icons. We now have the more appealing and visual 3D icons one would expect from a design package. Previously, turning on the large icons revealed ugly grainy enlargements of the smaller ones. Now we have real, live large icons (32x32 bitmaps) for those of us who prefer to use large monitors or super high-resolution graphics cards. I commend Autodesk for spending the extra dinero here.

The Object Properties toolbar has been broken down into two separate toolbars in AutoCAD 2004: Layers and Properties. The ability to turn off the drop-down lists for Color, Linetype, and Plotstyles--and yet keep the layer commands--has been a big wishlist of CAD Managers (especially those who work with users who don't comprehend the importance of bylayer and consequently set out to break CAD standards right and left). Now their wishes are granted, and I suspect many will prefer to keep the Layers toolbar on the screen, but banish the Properties toolbar. In addition to this, the Layer drop-down list is now wider, accommodating longer layer names.

There's a new toolbar called Styles that contains two simple drop-down lists for Text Style and Dimension Style, as shown in Figure 1. Displaying this toolbar makes it easy to quickly switch between existing text styles and dimension styles or create new ones (a definite must have). A new Draworder toolbar has been added as well.

Figure 1. he Styles Toolbar is new in AutoCAD 2004 and contains two simple drop-down lists for Text Style and Dimension Style.

Remember when the Properties and Design Center dialogs were added to AutoCAD 2000? They were great new features, but boy did they take up lots of room! These modeless dialogs had the added capability of remaining on the screen while you designed, always being available for your use. But then they took up so much of our precious screen real estate that they were quickly banished. I'm happy to say that these two dialog boxes (now referred to as palettes) have a new Autohide feature that causes them to automatically roll up when not in use. If you need them, simply hover over the respective bar to display them; if not, move your cursor away, and they roll up. Fantastic! And if you plan on using either of these palettes for an extended time, simply pin them open. I have the Properties and DesignCenter palettes rolled up on the left side of my screen at all times.

I have always wanted the ability to customize the status bar. I rarely use my grid anymore; consequently, I see no reason for it to clutter up my UI. Now I can easily turn it off, as well as any of the other options on the status bar. A right click on the empty section of the status bar displays the menu shown in Figure 2, so you can toggle off those options you're not using. Who knows? Someday we might be able to add additional options to our status bar, and I would absolutely love that!

Figure 2. This menu comes up when you right click on any empty space on the status bar. You can use it toggle on or off options as you like.

I'm not going to dedicate a lot of time to the new awesome tool palettes because I can see them taking up an entire column all by themselves. But realize that this easily customized palette can be used to hold your frequently used blocks and crosshatch patterns, as shown in Figure 3. Unlike Design Center (which permits similar capabilities), the customizable palette allows you to set the properties of your blocks and hatch patterns to land on a specific layer, with a specified rotation angle, scale factor, and so on. I absolutely love this for hatch patterns. If customized properly, it will save you many, many steps in your everyday drawing life. Incidentally, just as Ctrl+1 displays the Properties Palette and Control+2 displays the DesignCenter palette, Ctrl+3 displays the new customizable tool palette.

Figure 3. The new tool palette can be customized to hold your frequently used blocks and hatch patterns.

Both the new tool palette and the command line can be transparent, and it's amazingly helpful to be able to see the geometry underneath the palette. However, I most confess that I have no desire to move my command line (do you?), so having the ability to make it transparent doesn't really do much for me.

More Fun Stuff

The Undo and Redo buttons are much more powerful. Other than the obvious new feature of multiple redo, you can drop a list down to see exactly what commands you are undoing or redoing. This should help ensure that you don't do unnecessary damage by undoing or redoing too far.

For those of you who are keyboard junkies, you can toggle through your layouts with a Ctrl+Page Up and Ctrl+Page Down. Page Down toggles to the right, while Page Up toggles to the left.

In the lower right-hand corner of the status bar is the new Tray section. Here you'll find balloon notifications that show up when an xref needs to be reloaded, when a CAD Standard has been violated, or when the new Communication Center has timely information for you.

And for those of you who just love your precious drawing real estate, a new Ctrl+0--that's a zero, not the letter O--will clear your screen of all toolbars and palettes. This executes the new Clean Screen command. Ctrl+0 will also bring them all back.

I think you'll feel right at home in AutoCAD 2004 with minimal disruption to your everyday drawing life. Be sure to try out all these new additions as you set up your cozy, comfy AutoCAD world. Until next month...Happy AutoCADing!

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