Getting the Last Drop (Cadalyst Labs Review)

31 Dec, 2006 By: Ron LaFon

Squeeze the most from your software budget with low-cost CAD solutions

Many individuals and small design/engineering firms find major design applications such as AutoCAD to be beyond their needs and their budget. Though these sophisticated and complex applications are remarkably capable, numerous moderately priced options are available for those who don't need all the bells and whistles—but do need some basic tools to accomplish their work. You may not need 3D design tools at all, or you may not need features such as radiosity rendering or customer-level programmability. Fortunately, many low-cost but powerful alternative design applications provide a rich tool set without breaking the bank.

Because it dominates the midrange CAD market, AutoCAD compatibility is advertised by many of these lower-cost applications. This compatibility can range from reading and writing DWG and DXF files to enabling users to enter the same commands used by AutoCAD on the command line. Many of these applications offer the flexibility of customizing and extending the interface and functionality of the product. Little wonder that these budget applications are popular—they fit well into an AutoCAD-centric work environment and make it much easier to move your work into AutoCAD itself if needed.

The depth of features found in these entry-level applications continues to surprise me. Many offer OpenGL hardware acceleration, rendering, antialiasing, transparency and/or reflectance and ray tracing. Some of these moderately priced applications support symbol libraries, hatch patterns and linetypes from AutoCAD, as well as external reference files (xrefs). A number of these products also offer programming language interfaces such as VBA or C++ for customizing how the program works.

With the continued and growing popularity of this segment of the software market, individual vendors have innovated in many areas to make design work easier and to increase user productivity. New features are often added in response to user feedback.

It comes as no surprise that most of these software developers offer newsgroups and forums for avid users to share information and resources. Forums often are a quick way to find needed information without going through trial-and-error troubleshooting or a technical support call. Some vendors offer e-mail support, which often is faster for end users and helps to keep product costs down.

The design applications reviewed in this article can perform a wide range of tasks and types of work. There's much here to like, whether you're looking for a primary design tool or an economical CAD seat where the price and capabilities of a major design application aren't warranted.

Review Standards

With overall costs continuing to increase, Cadalyst raised the price limit on CAD applications for this 2007 review. We sent invitations to a number of vendors requesting applications that cost less than $800 and included only those products that were updated significantly since their last review. As is often the case, some vendors didn't respond and others hadn't updated their applications since we last looked at them. As a result, the number of applications included is smaller than in previous roundups of this kind, but this really doesn't reflect any decrease in the number of applications available. This category of design software continues to grow steadily, as it has for some time, and the products continue to incorporate new features and technology. For more information about the products, see the online feature table that accompanies this article (

Even though Cadalyst raised the price barrier this time, only one application evaluated here came anywhere near that upper limit. Indeed, one is completely free of charge. In addition, the article "Free 2D Design Software" covers two more free applications that I didn't receive in time to include in the main article.

Who doesn't like a good deal? The low-cost CAD applications covered here are reasonably priced, but they offer surprisingly rich feature sets and some useful capabilities that haven't yet made their way into the higher-priced applications. If you can't make your budget stretch to include the per-seat licensing fees of major applications such as AutoCAD, you'll find a remarkable amount of depth and flexibility in these options. You get a significant amount of the functionality of the major design applications at a small fraction of the cost—and that's definitely a good deal.

Alibre Design Xpress

Alibre 877.525.4273 Price: Free

Alibre Design Xpress is a capable and flexible 3D solid modeler for creating mechanical parts, assemblies and 2D drawings—and it happens to be free. If you need features more advanced than what's offered in Xpress, you can pay to move up to other Alibre design products. Alibre Design Xpress is aimed at anyone needing basic 3D design capabilities.

The free Alibre Design Xpress is a capable 3D solid modeler for creating mechanical parts, assemblies and 2D drawings.
The free Alibre Design Xpress is a capable 3D solid modeler for creating mechanical parts, assemblies and 2D drawings.

Alibre has done much to make Xpress easy to use, with tutorials for those new to 3D design. The tutorials are integrated into the product and are the same as those in the paid versions of Alibre Design. A well-designed interface and an extensive Help system also aid in getting up and running quickly. If desired, you can attend online training classes a la carte or with a subscription. You may also opt to order a product or training manual for self-guided study.

Xpress is surprisingly capable, offering intelligent sketching with automatic constraint capture (horizontal, vertical, perpendicular, and more) and feature-based modeling with parametric history. 2D sketches are used to build 3D features, and 3D models can be used to generate associative 2D drawings. Creation tools include sweeps, lofts, helixes and holes.

For assembly modeling, you'll find such niceties as exploded views and assembly constraints such as mate, orient and align with an auto-constraint mode. For 2D work, Xpress provides ISO and ANSI standard templates, orthographic views, GD&T (geometric dimensioning and tolerancing) symbols and redline markups.

Xpress runs under Windows XP/2000 SP2. You'll need Internet Explorer v.4.01 SP2 or later (v.6.0 or later is recommended), Microsoft Virtual Machine and Microsoft DirectX 9.0c.

Recommended hardware is a system with a Pentium or equivalent processor running at 800MHz or faster, 512MB or more of RAM, a video card with DirectX 9.0c support and 64MB or more of RAM, a display capable of 16-bit or high-color display at resolutions of at least 1024x768 (800x600 for laptops) and 150MB of available hard disk space and 800MB of virtual memory. You'll also need a CD-ROM drive to install the software and a mouse or other pointing device to operate it. Recommendations for assemblies of 500 or more parts are a 2GHz or faster processor, 1GB of RAM and 1GB of virtual memory.

You can download Alibre Design Xpress at Although you're not required to register the free product, if you do so you gain the ability to exchange data with other systems in formats such as STEP, IGES and SAT, and you can also create assemblies with as many as ten unique parts—double the limit in the unregistered version.

VersaCAD 2006 for Windows

Archway Systems 714.374.0440 Price: $795

VersaCAD for Windows is a production-level 2D design application intended for use by engineers, drafters and other technical professionals working in architecture, civil engineering, construction and mechanical design. The base product provides numerous symbol libraries, the ability to generate BOMs (bill of materials) and file translation capabilities, in addition to 2D drafting and dimensioning.

VersaCAD for Windows is a production-level 2D design tool with extensive symbol libraries for various disciplines.
VersaCAD for Windows is a production-level 2D design tool with extensive symbol libraries for various disciplines.

VersaCAD for Windows has built-in customization capabilities—you can mold it to your specific needs by using CPL (CAD Programming Language), which is similar to VBA. Given the extensive features and flexibility of VersaCAD for Windows, you may not need to use this functionality very often.

Speedy and loaded with features, VersaCAD allows users to group drawing objects in numerous ways based on a variety of criteria and to change properties individually or globally. Drawings can include as many as 65,000 objects and 256 or more layers.

You can apply attributes for attaching nongraphic information such as part names, cost and size to drawing objects. A reference drawing capability lets you merge a copy of one or more previously saved drawings into your working file.

This release of VersaCAD for Windows includes the Expert Series, a set of 23 symbol libraries done to standard specifications for architectural, mechanical, civil, mapping, plant design and other disciplines. The VersaCAD Translator has been updated for compatibility with AutoCAD 2006 DWG and DXF files, and the VersaCAD Explorer has added unique drawing project management that enables batch and concurrent plotting of large project plot sets.

Hardware requirements are an IBM-compatible system with at least 32MB of RAM, an Intel-compatible floating-point math coprocessor (incorporated into modern CPUs) and a hard disk. The software runs on Windows 95/98/NT/2000/ME/XP. VersaCAD for Windows works with any graphics adapter supported by Windows and will run at any supported resolution. The input device can be any Windows-compatible device, including a mouse or a Wintab-compatible digitizer. You can output to any Windows-compatible printer or plotter, including DMPL, CalComp, HPGL, HPGL/2, Postscript and other selected printers. A CD-ROM drive is required for installation.

VersaCAD 2006 is also available for the Mac OS X operating system, running natively on both PowerPC-based Macs and Intel-based Macs. The 2006 release includes the latest DWG/DXF translation engine from Open Design Alliance, additional fonts and several new features. For information about the Mac version, visit

VersaCAD is an excellent product for those working in 2D and in mixed computing environments. VersaCAD for Windows is priced at $795 without Archway Systems' Premium Service. Academic pricing is available, as are quantity discounts and site licensing.

General CADD Pro v5

General CADD Products 607.264.8344 Price: $599

General CADD Pro is a 2D CAD application that embodies the features of the old Generic CADD (CADD, CADD5 and CADD6) DOS-based application in an updated Windows interface. Since the transition to Windows, development has been steady, incorporating numerous needed new features and commands while retaining the two-letter command structure of the original application. Each release has added new capabilities. General CADD Pro v5, which Cadalyst evaluated in beta release, adds batch print functionality, multipage PDF support, custom tabs, Save All functionality and extensive additions to the two-letter commands.

General CADD Pro is a very powerful 2D application complemented by a handy Google-based search tool that enables users to search CAD files for specific text strings.
General CADD Pro is a very powerful 2D application complemented by a handy Google-based search tool that enables users to search CAD files for specific text strings.

An innovative General CADD Desktop Search plug-in taps into Google Desktop Search to look inside DWG, DXF, DGN, General CADD GXD, Generic CADD GCD and Visual CADD VCD files and extract searchable text strings for inclusion in the file description index. This allows you to search for CAD files on your computer based on text strings. For example, say you create a file that contains the text "Ajax Builders" somewhere in the drawing. When you launch the Google Desktop Search (with this plug-in installed) and type in "Ajax Builders" for the search keywords, Desktop Search lists every file that contains that text at the top of the list. This plug-in currently supports AutoCAD 2007 files and is available for download. The Google Desktop Search utility is free and requires Windows 2000/XP with Service Pack 2 or later installed.

System requirements for General CADD Pro are a PC with a Pentium 4 processor or better with at least 512MB of RAM and Windows XP. As is true in most cases, the faster the processor and the more installed memory, the better the performance will be.

General CADD v5 will be available for $599 once released, which is likely to happen before this article appears in print. At the General CADD Web site, you can download an evaluation version as well as files that enhance the operation of General CADD, including architectural–electrical–mechanical symbol libraries,surveyor's utilities and the General CADD Desktop Search plug-in mentioned above. Older versions of the primary application also are available for download.

Those migrating to this new release should note that it has a new directory structure, but a Migrate Environment command in the Help drop-down menu will help you copy your files to the appropriate place.

Free 2D Design Software

Downloadable tools provide many functions and upgrade options.

By Ron LaFon

Draft IT 2.01 CADLogic +44 (1543) 419886 Price: Free

Solid Edge 2D Drafting v19 UGS 800.498.5351 Price: Free

In addition to the programs discussed in the main body of this article, Cadalyst looked at two additional applications—both free—from vendors who are noted for their full-featured design applications. Although Cadalyst didn't receive full information on either product by our editorial deadline, I'm including both in this sidebar because they're worthy of investigation by 2D designers with tight budgets.

Solid Edge 2D Drafting provides a selection of 2D drawing tools as well as drawing layout, diagramming, annotation and dimensioning controls.
Solid Edge 2D Drafting provides a selection of 2D drawing tools as well as drawing layout, diagramming, annotation and dimensioning controls.

CADlogic develops specialist software for architectural detailing, building design, engineering and other applications. In addition to add-ons for AutoCAD and Architectural Desktop, CADlogic offers expert stand-alone systems as well as Draft IT 2.01, its free 2D design application.

CADlogic's Draft IT is an easy-to-use and capable 2D CAD system. This new release is significantly faster than previous versions and incorporates more commands to facilitate production work. You can create, save and print drawings without restriction, and there is no time or usage limit.

Draft IT assists the user at all stages of drawing creation with a variety of visual aids. These visual aids, in combination with flexibility in user input, create an uncluttered interface for drawing. Individual commands are available from pull-down menus and toolbars arranged around the drawing area.

Two advanced versions are available for a fee, and you'll find that many selections on the menus and toolbars pop up an information screen indicating that the selected feature is available only in one of those versions. This new version of Draft IT can be downloaded at

Many will be familiar with Solid Edge, UGS's modeling and design application. This past summer UGS introduced a free 2D drafting package. Solid Edge 2D Drafting capitalizes on ten years of production-proven capabilities developed for Solid Edge. It offers excellent drawing layout, diagramming, annotation and dimensioning controls that automatically comply with a wide range of drafting standards.

A wealth of tools are designed to ease the transition of 2D AutoCAD users when updating to Solid Edge, including import wizards, WYSIWYG of imported files (matching AutoCAD fonts and color schemes) and many other tools targeted toward 2D drafting.

Solid Edge 2D Drafting requires Windows XP, and you'll need to use Internet Explorer 6.0 or later to download the program. At the present time, Solid Edge 2D is available only in English, but other languages, including Chinese Simplified, Chinese Traditional, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish, are expected to be available by the end of 2006. You can download this free 2D drafting application at

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor and computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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