General Software

CAD viewmasters share 3d models

31 May, 2003 By: Ron LaFon

The ability of viewers to interface via the Internet enables design groups to meet, mark up, and evaluate drawings simultaneously, from anywhere in the world, without incurring the cost of a CAD license for each user. No wonder viewers have proven incredibly popular among CAD users, who can also use them for more mundane but important tasks such as drawing management. For this review, Cadalyst Labs requested software to view 3D solid models and other file types, with the minimum requirement that the product view AutoCAD 2002-based DWG files on a stand-alone workstation.


CAD file viewing isn’t very glamorous, but everyone who works with CAD drawings deals with it. Between showing models to clients and keeping coworkers abreast of design changes, having a viewer that fits your needs is imperative.

When deciding on a 3D viewer, functionality is most important. Does the viewer read the files types you use? What do viewer users need to do with the drawings? Do you need to control layers, view attributes, or redline? What’s the cost compared with the feature list?

Most, although not all, vendors offer a variety of versions of their products, primarily distinguished by features and functionality. From the relatively inexpensive thin-client stand-alone viewer to the sophisticated (and relatively expensive) viewers that allow Internet collaboration and markup capabilities for a wide variety of CAD/CAM formats, it should be relatively easy to find a 3D viewer that suits your needs. Your final selection may well depend on a specific feature that’s available in one viewer but not in another. Whatever the case, this roundup covers some remarkably good products.

Only vendors with new versions since our roundup last May were eligible for inclusion, so some familiar applications and vendors are missing. Cyco, for example, has not released any considerable new functionality for AutoManager View since we last reviewed it, though it updated its viewers and is adding AutoCAD 2004 DWG support.

Other companies released products too late for this roundup. Autodesk just announced VoloView 3, which works with DWF, AutoCAD 2004 DWG/DXF, and Autodesk Inventor 7 IDW, IPT, and IAM files. NavisWorks announced NavisWorks3 3D CAD viewer that offers interactive visualization and interference checking. It also introduced a free NavisWorks3 NWD viewer called Freedom.

The final shipping version of AutoCAD 2004 arrived on my doorstep during the course of this review. Viewer developers plan to add support for the new DWG format as soon as possible, most by the second or third quarter of this year.

Viewer functionality continues to grow. It's now even possible to view CAD drawings as you're walking from your car to a meeting-at least one software provider enables CAD viewing on some of the sophisticated multifunction phones that are currently available (see June 2003 issue, p. 12).

Some software vendors are switching from hardware locks to software-based locks. We encountered a few problems during the course of testing, but all problems were swiftly resolved.

As viewer software matures, we see a greater variety of supported file formats. Cimmetry's AutoVue SolidModel Professional now includes a number of leading EDA (electronic design automation) formats among its extensive file support. Most viewers have moved beyond the AutoCAD-only paradigm and provide functionality for most major CAD formats. It's also common for viewers to support a range of graphics file formats. See the feature table [PDF] below for details.

I rated the viewers on functionality, price and performance, speed, and user interface. For the speed portion of the testing and evaluation, I used CAMPUS.DWG, a drawing that ships with AutoCAD 2002. I started timings when I selected Open from the file menu in each viewer and stopped the moment the drawing was completely loaded. I was unable to benchmark Informative Graphics Corp.'s ModelPress v2.0 because at the time of testing it didn't directly load DWG files-although we considered it "fast" at the functions for which it was designed. As we go to press, the company reports that it now reads DWG with SAT files.

It's impossible within the scope of this review to test every nuance of every feature in each viewer. Most vendors have time-limited versions of their products available so you can test the viewer for suitability under your specific operating conditions. Because accuracy and quality can vary so widely when viewing complex files in non-native viewers, it's best to personally test a viewer on your mission-critical data.

Reviewer’s Report Card
Speed Inter-
Star Rating
(X3) (X2) (X1) (X1)  
Actify SpinFire Professional B+ B+ B- B+ 4.5 stars

Cimmetry AutoVue SolidModel Professional A A B A 5 stars WiseImage Pro A- B+ N/A* A- 4.5 stars

Informative Graphics ModelPress Publisher/Viewer B- A N/A

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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