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Free CAD Software for Mobile Devices

20 Aug, 2014 By: Curt Moreno

Cadalyst Labs Report: Cadalyst Labs investigates free apps for CAD on the go.


Important Mobile CAD Features

While the value of some features may be readily apparent, there are others you might not be sure about. Before exploring the features available, start by determining your own needs: What kind of device do you have? How would you like to expand your current CAD capabilities?

Operating system. The single most important feature of any mobile CAD application is its operating system. If you plan to use an iPad or iPhone, you will need an iOS-compatible application, available from the Apple App Store. If you will be working on a tablet or smartphone running the Android mobile operating system, you have more outlets to choose from, including the Google Play Store, the Amazon Appstore for Android, NOOK Apps, and GetJar. Even some device manufacturers, such as Samsung and Lenovo, operate their own Android application stores.

Application category. Generally speaking, mobile CAD applications fall into two categories: viewers and editors. Mobile CAD viewers enable the user to open and view drawings created in another application, whether that's another mobile CAD application or a traditional desktop CAD installation. In addition to viewing, some apps allow users to add comments to viewed files. Mobile CAD editors, in contrast, enable users not only to view and comment on existing drawings, but also to edit CAD linework in those files and even create new drawings from scratch. There is also a gray area between these two categories populated by applications that act as viewers in their free version, but offer editor functionality once upgraded to a paid version.

Device type. The larger screens typically associated with tablets, as compared with smartphones, provide larger displays on which to view and manipulate user interfaces, making for a more efficient and pleasant CAD experience. While most modern applications are screen-agnostic, operating on smaller smartphone screens as well as larger tablets, it is important that your selected mobile CAD application has a user interface suitable to your device.

Interface type. While all applications in this review can be controlled via touch, some mobile CAD applications support other input sources as well, such as a generic stylus or even a mouse. Other options include a device-specific stylus, such as the Samsung S Pen, which uses Wacom tablet technology. The option of a non-fingertip interface can be an important factor for those who prefer to use a pen or mouse, or for users requiring accommodations for conditions such as arthritis.

Price. Mobile apps vary wildly in pricing, ranging from free to a couple hundred dollars. Most cost less than $20, however, and many paid apps offer a free version that includes a limited feature set.

Supported file formats. File support provided by each mobile CAD application is important. For example, if you use AutoCAD or collaborate with others who do, you need a mobile app that can create, save, import, and export DWGs or, at the very least, AutoCAD-compatible files. The same holds true for any desktop CAD software package you already use. If you are not a desktop CAD user, choose a mobile CAD application that supports industry-standard formats such as DWG, DGN, or a common graphics format such as JPG so you can collaborate with others.

Potential Pitfalls

Some amount of risk always seems to accompany technological change, and the mobile CAD world is no exception. Before making the decision to use a mobile CAD application, be sure to think through the following concerns.

Security. As we put more of our lives online, the threat to our data — including our CAD files — rises exponentially. From viruses and bugs such as the recent Heartbleed OpenSSL cryptographic crisis to the ubiquitous presence of cybercriminals of every stripe, there is no end to the number of threats we face online. Plus, nearly all mobile CAD apps use cloud storage. Therefore you must consider the security risks of transmitting your files and trusting the security measures of your online storage provider, as well as the confidentiality ramifications related to your clients' privacy.

Device suitability. While user interfaces that are specifically designed for smaller screens are a hallmark of mobile CAD applications, be aware that they will limit the amount of your drawings that can be displayed at any given time. Moving from a 15" notebook screen to a 10" tablet screen may seem reasonable; however, moving from that 15" notebook to a 5" smartphone will be too much of a change for some. This concern is certainly legitimate, but it is purely a matter of personal preference. Some users may enjoy the ability to perform CAD tasks on their iPhones, while some may find even 10.5" Android tablets too small.

Additional costs. While many mobile CAD apps are completely free, included as part of a desktop software purchase, or have a free trial period, there are other cost concerns beyond the price of the application itself. Keep in mind the cost of your equipment, which can range from free (with carrier subsidization) to more than $1,000. And whether you select a device that uses a built-in cellular connection for data, or one that uses a stationary or mobile Wi-Fi router, there is a hard cost for that data service as well.

Application Reviews

Now that we have defined what constitutes a mobile CAD application, and identified major features and concerns, it is time to look at the applications themselves. For this review I chose seven free CAD apps from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. These selections represent a range of desirable features and are produced by some of the best-known names in CAD software development.

How we tested. The review process for these mobile CAD applications involved several steps. First, I graded each application on the following factors:

  • User interface. Is the app's user interface designed for efficient fingertip control? Does it incorporate easy-to-access controls and tools?

     

  • Features. Does the app provide a full range of features to enable efficient viewing and editing (if applicable)? Are only the most fundamental of CAD tools present, or are additional features included?

     

  • Sharing/collaboration options. Does the app include mechanisms to easily share files and/or collaborate in either a synchronous or asynchronous manner? How easy is it to import and export drawing files?

     

  • Ease of use. Has the app been designed in a manner that facilitates access by both novice and veteran users? Is it possible to achieve meaningful productivity by using the app in a mobile environment?

In addition, we discuss the file formats each app opens and saves, but don't grade this element because many of these tools were developed for users of a particular CAD software program. For example, Bentley Systems' Navigator Mobile is specifically designed for users of other Bentley software products.

I rated each app from 1 to 4 in each category, then averaged the weighted totals. Finally, I correlated numeric values to arrive at a letter grade for each app in our roundup.

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About the Author: Curt Moreno


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