General Software

Cadalyst Labs Review: PDF DWF CSF Which 2D CAD publishing option is best for you?

30 Apr, 2004 By: Ron LaFon

PDF? DWF? CSF? Which of these three document publishing formats is right for you and your firm? As you might expect, there are no easy answers. Much depends on your needs, the speed of the generating applications, and how easy it is to access the files once you've created them.

Why Publish?
Why Publish?

Adobe PDF

Adobe's PDF (portable document format) format is the proverbial 500lb gorilla here, being in widespread use in a variety of disciplines in addition to CAD. It's certainly the most widely used of these three formats and is also the base file format for such applications as Bluebeam Pushbutton PDF and CADzation's AcroPlot Pro, both of which are reviewed here. PDF is based on the PostScript page description language.

You can view PDFs with the free and widely distributed Adobe Reader. Most CAD viewing applications, such as those from Adobe, Bluebeam Software, CADzation, Cimmetry, Spicer, Kruse, DrDWG, and others, also open PDF files.

PDFs can be created by Adobe products such as Acrobat; InDesign, a page layout program; and Illustrator, a vector-based drawing and illustration program. A variety of other products create PDF files as well. An increasingly wide array of plug-ins and utilities have developed around PDF files, a sure sign of maturity and market penetration.

In addition, a growing number of CAD applications have incorporated the ability to generate PDF files. These include DataCAD and SolidWorks (using Bluebeam technology). Bentley's upcoming MicroStation V8 2004 will also add PDF support, using Adobe technology.

Bentley, Adobe, and more than 20 other organizations are participating in a working group led by AIIM (Association for Information and Image Management) and NPES (Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies) to drive a version of PDF optimized for AEC and engineering documentation, called PDF/E.

Another benefit is that PDFs offer security features such as password protection and digital signatures.

Digital signatures are available through third-party vendors such as VeriSign, Entrust, and RSA Security.

Although the most widely used format, PDF files are not the smallest or the fastest to produce.

Autodesk and DWF

DWF (design Web format) from Autodesk is a CAD-oriented document publishing format. It's designed to be a fast, efficient way to distribute design data without allowing the recipient to change the data. You can use it with the Autodesk Express Viewer plug-in (formerly called the Whip! plug-in). Autodesk also recently released DWF Writer 2, a certified Windows system printer driver that lets you publish DWF files by selecting Autodesk DWF Writer from your standard printer pull-down list in any Windows application, including other CAD applications. DWF is currently a 2D format that produces much more compact files than PDF. Autodesk plans to add support for 3D models in the future. DWF supports CAD features such as scale, snap, viewport, measure, and color merge. The renamed and refocused Autodesk Express Viewer is now called Autodesk DWF Viewer. Though the DWF file format was created for use with engineering and CAD data, you can produce DWF files from any Windows application, including Microsoft Word and Adobe Illustrator.
Autodesk DWF Writer and Composer
Autodesk DWF Writer and Composer

With the recent release of Autodesk DWF Composer, the DWF file format is destined for enhanced use in Autodesk products. Composer lets you round-trip redline markups directly back into AutoCAD through a review and approval process. Redline markups, annotations, and other changes made using DWF Composer can be easily brought back into the original AutoCAD 2005 drawing set without reentering the information. Watch for a First Look on this product soon.

CSF from Informative Graphics

Another popular portable document format is CSF (content secure format) from Informative Graphics. Like PDF, CSF is a neutral 2D format that replicates the source file and can include images, graphics, and layouts. Infograph has a free Brava! Reader that you can distribute so others can view the data. In addition to the 2D CSF file format, Informative Graphics has a 3D variant called 3DF that creates an exact replica of the source file, including the model tree, with full protection of your intellectual property. At the time of conversion, its Visual Rights technology lets you hide entities and disable model tree expansion and exploded views.

When you create a CSF or 3DF file, you can add Visual Rights persistent security-including password protection, expiration dates, and feature limitations. CSF files are extremely compact and quick to produce, whether you make them via the printer driver or export them from AutoCAD. Like DWF, CSF is more of a CAD and engineering data file format, though the use of the printer driver for creating CSF files isn't limited to CAD-only use. You can create CSF files from Microsoft Word documents or files from other Windows applications.

The Line-Up

Cadalyst notified appropriate vendors that we planned to look at file format options (PDF, DWF, CSF) for publishing 2D drawings. We have a similar article focusing on 3D publishing planned for later this year.

We intended to use MicroStation for some tests, but though it accurately loaded our selected test drawing, willhome.dwg, the beta version we received didn't support the current beta of Informative Graphics' Net-It plug-in for MicroStation. We tried to use the current version of MicroStation, but it didn't load wilhome.dwg correctly, though it does work with the current beta build of the Net-It plug-in. To avoid confusion and the compounding of errors across multiple beta versions of software, we elected to pull MicroStation from the article at the last minute. We plan to include MicroStation and SolidWorks in the upcoming 3D publishing article.

Another not-quite-ready product was Autodesk's DWF Composer, which we plan to review in a future issue. I did test Autodesk's DWF Writer 2, which is available for free from Autodesk ( See the box on p. 24 for more information.

With the exception of the Net-It plug-in for MicroStation, I conducted all tests on a single-processor AMD Opteron-64 (246 at 2GHz) system with 2GB of RAM. I started the timings after I selected the document settings and filename and pressed Save. For PDF documents, the timings include loading the PDF file into Adobe Acrobat. With some PDF-generating applications, there is no visible confirmation when a file is written, so timings for PDF files were considered complete when they completely loaded in Acrobat.

CSF files from Informative Graphics applications and DWF files from AutoCAD 2004 and Autodesk DWF Writer 2 don't load in Acrobat, so timings are shorter. CSF files load very quickly when opened in Informative Graphics' Brava! Desktop. It takes about 1 second to load Brava! Desktop and display a 396KB CSF test file. The current iteration of Autodesk DWF Viewer (formerly named Express Viewer) loads DWF files a bit more slowly, taking about 7 seconds to load the viewer and a 283KB DWF test file.

I used AutoCAD 2004 with SP1a installed running on Windows XP Professional for all test results other than the MicroStation test. We used the wilhome.dwg that ships with AutoCAD for these tests. For the MicroStation plug-in test, a 1GHz Athlon system with 256MB of RAM and Windows XP Professional was used.

Where options were available, such as including all layers, we tested with the default settings and with all layers turned on, noting the differences in timing and file sizes in the test results section of the accompanying feature table you can find online at

Adobe ACrobat v6.01

Adobe Acrobat PDFMaker dialog box appears in AutoCAD 2004 with wilhome.dwg open. Here you can select the layers you want included in the final PDF file.
Adobe Acrobat PDFMaker dialog box appears in AutoCAD 2004 with wilhome.dwg open. Here you can select the layers you want included in the final PDF file.

Price: $449 Professional; $299 Standard

With the introduction of Acrobat 6 last year, Adobe expanded its portable document application into a family of products that integrate with other products such as AutoCAD. The initial release includes a plug-in for AutoCAD 2002 that adds menu items and a toolbar inside AutoCAD 2000–2002 to produce PDF files, along with the Acrobat printer driver to directly print to PDF. The Acrobat Toolbar for AutoCAD offers capabilities such as turning drawing layers on and off in the final PDF file.

The Adobe Acrobat family of products currently includes Acrobat Elements (licensing only, starts at $28/seat, 1,000 minimum), primarily a business-oriented product to create PDF files from Microsoft Office and other Windows applications; Acrobat Standard ($299; $99 upgrade) for those with collaborative and tracking requirements; and Acrobat Professional ($449; $149 upgrade), a full-featured version that includes plugins for AutoCAD, Visio, and Project. Rounding out the Acrobat family is the free and freely distributable Adobe Reader, for those who just need to view or print PDF files (including those with layers), not create or edit them. The Reader is available on a broad range of platforms in many different languages.

Since Cadalyst last reviewed Adobe Acrobat (October 2003, p. 18), Adobe released an incremental 6.01 update for Acrobat Professional and Acrobat Standard that addresses known issues and includes updated plug-ins for Microsoft Office 2003 and AutoCAD 2004. I received AutoCAD 2005 the day before the editorial deadline so I didn't have time to test compatibility with this new release.

Though you can easily access and use PDF files created in Adobe Acrobat for a variety of purposes, they tend to be relatively large and fairly slow to produce, even on speedy CAD workstations. Acrobat's Reduce File Size function certainly helps to produce smaller files, but they still can be sizeable.

The Acrobat PDF Writer processed and loaded our test drawing in 8 seconds and compressed the file to 1.4MB. The AutoCAD plug-in took 2 minutes, 25 seconds and produced a 1.7MB file. The complexity of Adobe Acrobat and its various plug-ins makes for a rather slow-loading application. Some third-party applications disable the loading of the various plug-ins so the Acrobat Reader loads more quickly.

Much of Adobe Acrobat's strength lies in its breadth, flexibility, and security features. It's used in massive document retrieval systems such as PLM and ECM, the publishing industry, and for general office use. More often than not, it's the format specified for delivery of drawings in electronic format. Adobe Acrobat defines the PDF file that has become an industry standard.


AutoCAD 2004 displays the Bluebeam Pushbutton PDF dialog box for selecting PDF creation options.
AutoCAD 2004 displays the Bluebeam Pushbutton PDF dialog box for selecting PDF creation options.

Price: $249

Bluebeam Pushbutton PDF is a nimble application that produces PDF files via its Bluebeam PDF printer driver that works with all CAD and Windows applications, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, AutoCAD LT, MicroStation, Pro/ENGINEER, Unigraphics, and Inventor.

In addition to printing to the Bluebeam printer driver to create a PDF file, you can access Pushbutton PDF via a toolbar in AutoCAD 2000 and later, including Mechanical Desktop, Architectural Desktop, and Land Desktop; SolidWorks 2001plus and later; and Office 2000, XP, and 2003. Bluebeam Lite, for AutoCAD LT and Windows Office users, adds a Bluebeam button to that application. I was able to more quickly convert files using the application plug-ins than using the printer driver alone.

You can maintain your original drawing's scale, lineweights, color, rotation, and resolution when you use Bluebeam Pushbutton PDF via AutoCAD and SolidWorks plug-ins. The Bluebeam PDF printer driver recognizes which application it's converting from and has predefined settings for most major CAD applications, including AutoCAD, Inventor, SolidWorks, MicroStation, Pro/ENGINEER, and Unigraphics, as well as other programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. A built-in batch wizard that simplifies batch PDF creation is accessible via a toolbar. You can also create, save, and edit batch lists.

You can use the default AutoCAD and SolidWorks setups or custom-define your page settings. Pushbutton PDF supports custom page sizes along with most large architectural and engineering page sizes.

Bluebeam Pushbutton PDF creates single or multipage PDF files. It also transfers hyperlinks and file properties (SolidWorks) or block attributes (AutoCAD). You can create customizable text stamps for a PDF file and any number of file attachments, such as Excel files and solid models. In addition, you can add digital signature fields.

The PDF files that I created from within AutoCAD 2004 using Bluebeam Pushbutton PDF imported readily into applications that import PDF, including Adobe's InDesign and Illustrator. Hyperlinks and formatting appeared as expected in the created PDF document, including a couple made from very complex Microsoft Word documents. The Bluebeam PDF printer driver processed the willhome.dwg file in 18 seconds (1.8MB). With the AutoCAD plug-in, a 2.2MB PDF was created in 16 seconds.

Pushbutton PDF now supports line merge for PDFs created from AutoCAD. Colored overlapping lines, shaded areas, and text above and below shaded areas are now visible in the PDF file. You can adjust settings that control the creation of line-merged files.

Bluebeam Software is partnering with US Reprographics Network to offer Bluebeam blue-print, an online printing service, to Pushbutton PDF users who use AutoCAD. From within AutoCAD, you can submit a single drawing or batches of drawings to a US Reprographics Network reprographer. You can also customize your order through various print selections and select expedited delivery options.


AcroPlot Pro outputs two different file formats, PDF and DWF, each in three forms.
AcroPlot Pro outputs two different file formats, PDF and DWF, each in three forms.

Price: $249

The two previous applications produce the PDF file format, but CADzation's AcroPlot Pro is adept at both PDF and DWF file creation. AcroPlot Pro is a stand-alone application, and AcroPlot Jr. operates from within AutoCAD to produce PDFs only.

AcroPlot Pro outputs in six ways to PDF and DWF formats. With either file format, it generates output as a single file that contains all associated files, one for each single file, or one for each layout or view. AcroPlot outputs to DWF 6.0.1+. You can select the PDF output version, including v1.3 (Acrobat v3.0 and v4.x) and v1.4 (Acrobat v5.x). The Windows system printer driver included with AcroPlot Pro also outputs to v1.5 (Acrobat v6+), although if your recipients don't have it installed they'll have to download Acrobat Reader v6, which requires more hard drive space and in general views PDFs more slowly than Acrobat Reader v5.

With AcroPlot you can add bookmarks and a title page and then e-mail the PDF file to a client or associate. Using a built-in wizard, AcroPlot extracts the title block attributes to use as the text for the intelligent bookmarks it creates.

You can perform batch conversion of an entire job of DWG, DXF, DOC, RTF, and TXT files all at once. You can also merge existing PDF files. Save project and job set information for quick retrieval when converting updated files. Conversion options include the ability to drag and drop AutoCAD paper space layouts into the correct set order, converting only the layouts that you want.

The program converts model space and paper space layouts, 3D views, and named views. It supports CTB and STB plot styles, along with embedded pen widths for accurate plotting to the final output file format.

During testing, AcroPlot Pro and AcroPlot Jr. produced very compact files in both PDF and DWF formats. AcroPlot Pro processed the test drawing into a DWF file in 1 minute, 12 seconds (283KB) and into a PDF file in 23 seconds (124KB). PDF files generated from both application easily import into Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign, and Acrobat Professional, all of which were tested. The created DWF files loaded readily into the Autodesk DWF Viewer without any problems.


Bentley MicroStation V8 shows the Net-It CAD plug-in for MicroStation Options dialog box.
Bentley MicroStation V8 shows the Net-It CAD plug-in for MicroStation Options dialog box.

Informative Graphics Corp.

Price: $99 plug-in, Net-It Now free

Informative Graphics Corp. offers its own CSF (2D) and 3DF (3D) portable file formats that are supported across its family of products. Cadalyst Labs looked at three products that publish 2D CSF files: Net-It Now and the Net-It CAD plug-ins for AutoCAD and MicroStation (in beta). Cadalyst expects to look at the 3DF (3D) file format options more closely later this year. Net-It CAD plug-ins are also available for Inventor and Solid Edge, with support coming soon for SolidWorks and MicroStation.

Net-It Now publishes any document, illustration, and image file to the compressed CSF file format. You can apply what Informative Graphics calls Visual Rights persistent security, such as adding password protection, an expiration date, disabling viewing of internal parts (3D only), adding onscreen watermark and print banners, and disabling printing, markup, measure, and republishing.

The Visual Rights settings are stored within the CSF and 3DF files, so they apply to any viewer. The converted files are viewable only with Informative Graphic's free Brava! Reader (2D) and ModelPress Viewer (3D). You can freely distribute both of them. The Brava! Reader is included with the individual Net-It products.

Net-It CAD products let you publish either 2D or 3D designs directly to CSF or 3DF files from within the CAD application used. You set any desired Visual Rights options when you create the file. Files created using the Net-It CAD products maintain layer, sheet, and other information. We didn't review it, but Net-It Central is a server-based software application that lets you immediately share documents on an intranet. Net-It Central is also available with CAD and markup support.

The Net-It CAD AutoCAD plug-in with defaults on processed willhome.dwg in 2 seconds (218KB); the print driver version processed the drawing in 3 seconds (396KB). As I mentioned in the introduction, the beta version of MicroStation that Bentley sent for testing was not compatible with the beta version of Net-It CAD for MicroStation that Informative Graphics sent, so I was unable to directly test the new plug-in. Informative Graphics tested it for us using the MicroStation plug-in on the released version and sent the speed, size, and system information on the PC used to create the test.

The Net-It family of products produces compact files extremely quickly. Some of the generation times were less than a second, making it difficult to time them accurately. If you need speed and compact files coupled with good security features, the Informative Graphics applications are definitely worth a look.

About the Author: Ron LaFon