General Software

CAD on a Budget

31 Dec, 2003 By: Ron LaFon

Great Tools at a Fantastic Price.

Not every firm or individual needs or can afford a major design application, regardless of whether the economy is booming or depressed. Justifying the cost of an AutoCAD license can often be difficult, particularly if your needs are modest. Fortunately there are alternatives that are not only less expensive, but also quite capable.

Review Summary
Review Summary

It should come as no surprise, but somehow it always does, just how capable and sophisticated the low-cost CAD applications on the market are. You expect that applications that cost several thousand dollars, such as AutoCAD, would offer a broad and extensive range of features that are applicable to a wide range of disciplines. The old saying "you get what you pay for" comes to mind. There's a tendency to think that CAD applications that cost in the hundreds, rather than the thousands, of dollars can't possibly be all that good. Mistake. Big mistake.

It really is possible to get a high percentage of the functionality of such design behemoths as AutoCAD for a small percentage of the cost, with the bonus of file-level compatibility. Whether the software is AutoCAD or Microsoft Word, chances are that you use only a fraction of its functionality. Granted that many of those unused commands are essential or extremely useful to many other users, but not all will miss their absence.

When an application such as AutoCAD dominates the 2D design market as thoroughly as it does, rather than stifle the industry, it often benefits the typical CAD user. Compatibility is one area where this is evident-most low- to mid-priced CAD applications offer a fairly high degree of file-level compatibility with the DWG and DXF file formats.

For firms with a large investment of time, information, and money tied up in drawing files, AutoCAD compatibility becomes an important consideration in protecting that investment. Aside from file formats, the use of components such as linetype and hatch patterns based on ANSI or ISO standards in these low-cost alternatives also assures a level of cross-application compatibility.

Among the feature sets found in these low-cost applications are unexpected niceties such as rendering and modeling capabilities that should prove useful for a broad range of projects. These programs may not include more sophisticated 3D tools, the ability to handle huge and complex drawings, or extensive programmability, but many users won't find these low-cost alternatives lacking. Some offer tools that in certain areas go beyond the capabilities of out-of-the-box AutoCAD. User-level support for these low-cost applications via newsgroups and forums often offers a good reason to consider them.

Fewer applications are reviewed here compared with last year for several reasons. Autodesk, for example, hasn't released new versions of QuickCAD (v8) and AutoSketch (v8) since our last roundup (January 2003, p. 29, so they weren't eligible this time around. QuickCAD and AutoSketch continue to be among the best low-cost training tools for those just getting into CAD, and both run well on fairly modest systems.

Several applications cost just above our price limit ($600), and small price increases pushed several more above that barrier, including SmartSketch, PowerCAD, and AutoCAD LT. As a result, we are considering a mid-range CAD roundup later this year to reflect the changing dynamics of the low to intermediate-priced CAD scene.

Among the entries in this roundup is one program that had seemed to drop from the face of the earth: Generic CADD, now called General CADD. Despite the reduced number of inexpensive CAD applications surveyed here, the field continues to grow. This is good news for those of us who seek quality CAD alternatives at a reasonable price. Sometimes you do get a lot more than what you pay for.

ConceptDraw V Professional

Computer Systems Odessa of the Ukraine
ConceptDraw V Professional from Computer Systems Odessa, a flowcharting and diagramming application that runs on Windows and Macintosh systems, includes templates to help you get started.
ConceptDraw V Professional from Computer Systems Odessa, a flowcharting and diagramming application that runs on Windows and Macintosh systems, includes templates to help you get started.

Price: $349

Computer Systems Odessa of the Ukraine contributed ConceptDraw V Professional for this review, a major upgrade of its flowcharting and diagramming application for both Windows and the Macintosh OS X. Though a standard version of ConceptDraw is available, we review the Professional version here. Both Windows and Macintosh versions create files that are fully compatible with each other, as well as with ConceptDraw MINDMAP, a program for mind-mapping and brainstorming, and ConceptDraw Presenter, software for presentations and slide shows.

The nature of this software, with its intelligent objects and adeptness at technical drawings, diagrams, and charts leads to comparisons with Microsoft Visio. Indeed, ConceptDraw V Professional offers a degree of compatibility with Visio, including the ability to import XML for Visio files (VDX).

ConceptDraw V is completely redesigned to accomplish charting tasks for business and technical users. The new version features ConceptDraw Basic, a built-in scripting language that is compatible with VBA (Visual BASIC for Applications). It enables developers to create customized visualization solutions based on the ConceptDraw drawing engine. You can easily create and save intelligent objects for subsequent use. More than a hundred libraries contain predrawn shapes that you can drag and drop into any combination of drawings, diagrams, and charts. Import and export capabilities let you exchange documents with applications such as PowerPoint, AutoCAD, and Microsoft Visio.

The software supports organizational charts, process flow diagrams, network diagrams, site plans, multiple-page documents with unlimited layers, and WYSIWYG text and graphics. Solution-oriented wizards and templates help you produce final projects.

Computer Systems Odessa ConceptDraw V Professional costs $349, and an academic version is available for $199. Cross-grade and competitive upgrades are $99.

General CADD Pro v2.1.04

General CADD Products
If you thought Generic CADD had disappeared, you were wrong. Now known as General CADD, it runs on a variety of Windows versions and has a New Commands menu.
If you thought Generic CADD had disappeared, you were wrong. Now known as General CADD, it runs on a variety of Windows versions and has a New Commands menu.

Price: $499

After Autodesk purchased Generic CADD and stopped software production in November 1996 and technical support on May 1, 1997, I never expected to review Generic CADD again.

An old favorite of many has returned in the guise of General CADD Pro v2.1, a contemporary Generic CADD that adds a variety of new features while retaining the original interface and two-letter command structure popularized by the original.

Perhaps the most apparent change is its move to Windows.

General CADD Pro runs on Windows 95/98/98SE/ME/2000/XP with 128MB or more of RAM. It supports Windows pointing devices, printers, and TrueType fonts, and support for digitizing devices such as tablets is scheduled for the next release. General CADD Pro uses a hardware dongle, which is available in USB and parallel port versions.

Although Generic CADD disappeared for a while, the installed user base never really did, so General CADD Products retain file compatibility with older GCD files and incorporate support for the AutoCAD 2002 versions of the DWG and DXF file formats. The program now supports 1,024 layers and is compatible with linetype patterns for GCD, DWG, and ISO files.

The software includes more than fifty new features, including a text editor and a new macro language. Don't worry, General CADD supports older MCR macro files and Generic CADD menus.

You can access most of the new features through a pull-down menu called New Commands. The company plans to support 3D and other features in a future release. A demo version is available from the General CADD Web site.

Long-time Generic CADD users will find themselves very much at home with the interface, which has been ported to Windows essentially unchanged. New users may find the interface a bit unusual but highly usable.

DesignCAD 3D Max 14

IMSI Software's DesignCAD 3D Max 14 offers tools for 3D solid modeling, 2D drafting and design, 3D texture mapping, 3D dimensioning, and 3D animation and rendering.
IMSI Software's DesignCAD 3D Max 14 offers tools for 3D solid modeling, 2D drafting and design, 3D texture mapping, 3D dimensioning, and 3D animation and rendering.


Price: $79.95

DesignCAD 3D Max 14 is a flexible and capable design tool that is also available in a Plus version for $299.95. The Plus version bundles add-ons such as Instant Estimator, ScanPro, and Instant CAD Symbols with the core technology of Design CAD.

Here you find 3D solid modeling, 2D drafting and design, 3D texture mapping, true 3D dimensioning, and such niceties as 3D animation and 3D rendering with support for both transparency and fogging.

DesignCAD 3D Max 14 includes a number of new features such as linear array, array offset, and array along a curve options, new shading and material options, and new segment, rotation, and layer options. It also features improved blocks, block attribute definitions, and interruptible snaps. You can run macros and EXE files from the Command line, and new extensions to the BasicCAD macro language are incorporated. The software also offers improved import and export of DXF and DWG files.

Customization has long been a strength of DesignCAD 3D. In addition to the BasicCAD macro language, DesignCAD also works with the Visual BASIC and Visual C++ programming languages. You can create your own workspace, paper space, templates, and views, as well as custom toolboxes, menus, and keystroke macros.

DesignCAD 3D Max 14 offers good depth in animation and presentation features, with the ability to move and view parts from all angles through an unlimited number of keyframes. You can render models with applied materials or texture maps. Transparency and fogging can add additional realism to the rendering, and emission can simulate glow in design objects.

The software includes A Fundamentals Training CD-ROM to help you learn the basics and a well-done and extensive printed reference manual.

Last year, I noted that Release 13 of DesignCAD 3D Plus was definitely near the upper range of capabilities in CAD applications, regardless of pricing. That continues to be true of Release 14.

IMSI Software, developer of TurboCAD, acquired DesignCAD from Upperspace earlier this year. As with many of the other program mentioned here, many users are active participants in the discussion forum at

TurboCAD Deluxe v9.2

IMSI's TurboCAD Deluxe v9.2 is an excellent basic 2D and 3D design tool suitable for a wide range of disciplines.
IMSI's TurboCAD Deluxe v9.2 is an excellent basic 2D and 3D design tool suitable for a wide range of disciplines.


Price: $99.95

TurboCAD Deluxe is a 2D and 3D basic design tool suitable for professional and casual users who want to create home plans, technical drawings, or artistic illustrations and then render them as photorealistic images. An advanced version, TurboCAD Professional v9.2 is a suite of design and productivity tools (p. 22).

To run TurboCAD Deluxe v9.2, you need a modest Pentium PC with at least 64MB of RAM (128MB recommended), 55–212MB+ of hard disk space with 64MB of available swap space, a Super VGA (10243768) display capable of 16-bit or better color rendition, and a 43 CD-ROM drive with 32-bit drivers. TurboCAD Deluxe runs on Windows 98/ME/NT4/2000/XP.

TurboCAD Deluxe and TurboCAD Professional offer features aimed at streamlining the drafting and presentation process. A new Multi-Text Editor lets you enter, edit, and format complex multitext entries. Additional drafting and presentation improvements include the ability to assign background colors to model and paper space and Blue Print Styles that let you standardize pen and brush settings for printing. Another feature shared by both TurboCAD Deluxe and TurboCAD Professional is the ability to display work plane intersections with existing 3D objects to simplify work plane visualization. TurboCAD's filters for other file formats, including DXF, DWG, IGES, and DGN, are upgraded for better compatibility.

More low-cost cad options
More low-cost cad options

TurboCAD Deluxe 9.2 includes more than 20,000 symbols. It features interactive tutorials and a good reference manual. Output options include surface modeling, photorealistic Lightworks rendering, and AutoCAD file sharing.

For many, this is all the CAD program they need. For those with more demanding needs, including support for STL (stereolithography) files, ACIS support, texture mapping, the ability to work in rendered mode, and tools that are more discipline-specific, TurboCAD Professional v9.2 is a better choice.

TurboCAD Professional Competitive Upgrade v9.2

IMSI's TurboCAD Professional v9 includes a suite of products such as Floorplan 3D.
IMSI's TurboCAD Professional v9 includes a suite of products such as Floorplan 3D.


Price: $595/$295

TurboCAD Professional is a suite of applications that, in addition to TurboCAD Professional, includes FloorPlan 3D, TurboProject Express, and (Corel) Scan OCR. Also in the bundle are more than 10,000 2D drafting symbols and more than 3,000 ACIS 3D symbols, plus a reference manual and Getting Started AVI tutorials.

TurboCAD Professional V9 incorporates more than forty new features and significant improvements, including new streamlined Copy, Mirror, and Transform commands. For 3D users, TurboCAD Professional now displays workplane intersections with existing 3D objects. You can also work in 3D in rendered mode, eliminating the need to switch back and forth to wire frame mode.

TurboCAD Professional V9 includes the upgraded ACIS v8 engine. A new Facet Editor lets you freely move, rotate, and delete facets on an ACIS object. An improved Part Tree provides access to the entire history of 3D object creation. Architects will welcome the ability to automatically convert existing lines, polylines, and curves into walls in one step, and globally switch between different door and window styles. Roofs now support more complex configurations and openings for skylights and such.

In addition to working in rendered mode, you can now include the display of 2D objects in 3D renderings and superimpose wire frames on rendered objects. You can insert raster images in 2D and 3D just like any object, and manipulate, distort, rotate, and clip an image to a profile.

As we went to press, IMSI released TurboCAD 9.5. It upgraded the solid modeling engine to the ACIS v10 engine and added new STEP and IGES interoperability filters from Spatial. The competitive upgrade pricing ($295) for TurboCAD Professional applies to a broad array of qualifying competitive products, ranging from QuickCAD, AutoCAD, and Inventor to MicroStation, IronCAD, Solid Edge, CorelDRAW, VDraft, Deneba Canvas, and Microsoft Visio. A complete listing of qualifying products is available on the IMSI Web site (

VDraft v2.22

With SoftSource's VDraft 2.22, you can have multiple drawings open.
With SoftSource's VDraft 2.22, you can have multiple drawings open.


Price: $250

VDraft, short for Virtual Drafter, offers a wealth of features for drafting and design as well as support for AutoCAD files from Release 2.5 through 2002. Many VDraft commands are simplified versions of those found in AutoCAD. Vdraft continues to offer an excellent online AutoCAD Help system that provides quick reference to supported AutoCAD commands and where they are located in the menu structure. Many Vdraft commands use AutoCAD terminology, among them blocks, polylines, layers and attributes. As with previous releases, VDraft's documentation is extensive and excellent, with a printed manual for easy reference.

New in VDraft v2.2x are improved hyperlinks compatible with AutoCAD hyperlinks. When you hold down the <Shift> key while navigating over a drawing object, the hyperlink information displays and you can then copy listed Web page into your browser. Also new are customizable object tips and a freehand sketch mode.

VDraft offers a fairly wide range of opportunities for customization, among them ActiveX Automation using your favored programming language, including Visual BASIC and C++. A downloadable customization and programming Help system for Vdraft is available from the SoftSource Web site. There you'll also find a VDraft quick API reference that discusses interfaces, methods, properties, and events for Vdraft programming.

Vdraft runs well on standard PCs with Windows 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP. Though it might not offer the extensive array of commands and features found in AutoCAD, its compatibility with AutoCAD and its ease of use make it a good choice for an inexpensive alternative or as a training application. Many users will find that it's the only CAD application they need.

About the Author: Ron LaFon