Cadalyst Labs Review: VectorWorks 121 May, 2006 By: Steven S. Ross
Comprehensive, stable CAD—and works on a Mac, too
This major upgrade of an old standby from Nemetschek North America (formerly Diehl Graphsoft) comes in multiple-feature flavors for Windows 2000 SP 4 and newer and Macintosh (higher than OS X 10.2).
The most confusing thing about the product seems to be the marketing. The software itself worked fine in my tests using Windows XP and Macintosh OS X 10.3. Although the VectorWorks interface has been simplified a bit since v11 (figure 1), it's highly customizable, and most users will quickly adapt to the shorter menu command chains. The Mac and Windows interfaces are almost identical.
Figure 1. Default VectorWorks interface packs a lot of icons into a small space but doesn t cause confusion. The measurements at the top and left side of the drawing window are distances from the drawing s origin point, which can be recentered at will.
I reviewed the Designer version, which used to be called the Industry Collection. It combines VectorWorks Architect, Landmark (for planners and landscape design), Spotlight (stage and movie set design) and Machine Design (formerly Mechanical, for designers and fabricators). The multiple-discipline package and a nifty multimedia CD of core VectorWorks functions carries a list price of $1,795. Individual disciplines are $400 less, and the base product (Fundamentals) costs $995. Street prices through independent dealers tend to be lower, of course. Upgrade of the complete package from v11 runs $500; individual upgrades start at $280.
Vectorworks Designer 12 With Renderworks
On the architectural side, v12 is ideal for small offices doing residential and commercial construction. Because these offices often handle landscaping or coordinate with landscape architects and planners, the Designer package could be a good choice.
For set design, VectorWorks has always been the best dedicated package available. V12 adds better control over lighting (actual contours can be passed on to the company's RenderWorks engine for spectacular accuracy in predicting lighting effects; see figure 2). Users can also export Spotlight models for real-time simulation with ESP Vision, lighting previsualization software from ZZYZX. ESP works with any lighting console, so you can visualize a show in VectorWorks Spotlight and run it in ESP Vision.
Figure 2. This VectorWorks rendering was created using custom radiosity to set the triangle sizes. It includes one directional light and another area light in the window.
You don't want to be building truly complex assemblies (say engines or candy-making machines) with the mechanical design package, but most part design tasks before and including the subassembly level are well within its capabilities.
Users in this target group often have to exchange files with others, often with bigger practices and corporations that use more sophisticated (and more expensive) CAD software. VectorWorks always had fairly good file-exchange features, and they have been enhanced.
Indeed, many current users will find the upgrade well worth the price if only to get the latest AutoCAD 2006 import and export filters, along with the ability to import and handle bound xrefs. The new version has scores of changes—many of them far more than cosmetic and many offering entirely new (and often unexpected) functionality. Version 12, for example, imports and exports ESRI SHP files—the underlying map-boundary files for the older ArcView GIS series (the newer ArcGIS can read SHP files as well). That's an out-of-the-blue add-on.
Another unexpected new twist: You can twist human figures—and a whole lot more. The program comes with a set of predefined 3D body positions, hair styles and clothes, along with a control panel used to modify and position the models (figure 3). Set designers will probably have the most fun with this feature, but it certainly has applications in architecture and landscaping as well. The figures library also has 2D color and grayscale people symbols.
Figure 3. VectorWorks v12 adds the ability to pose a human figure. Note the options for positioning, clothing and so forth.
The new ability to import and export 3DS, a common 3D file format, helps especially with Autodesk 3ds max and VIZ and was more expected, especially for mechanical and Spotlight users. ACIS exchange is important for the mechanical crowd.
Other New Features
As with just about every other CAD upgrade I've seen in the past year, v12 comes with improved roof, door, window, wall and stair design tools; more flexible layering; object class control (figures 4–6) and more-foolproof dimensioning.
Figure 4. Object class mapping dialog box.
Version 12 improves the whole workgroup referencing experience by updating object class definitions and automatically creating layer links from referenced layers through the resource browser. You can update a linked reference to a file, even if the file is being used by someone else. The system won't automatically hunt for missing resources or fix filename conflicts, but it will warn of problems.
Figure 5. Setting roof attributes. As with many programs, it s easy to draw a complex roof shell and do some framing calculations. VectorWorks adds automatic generation of the details.
Figure 6. Window Properties dialog box resembles the boxes for other common objects.
Nemetschek North America clearly is listening to its users. A number of items on user wish lists have been solved nicely. Among them:
- 1. A headache for planners and landscapers has been cured—the drawing units for areas (volumes, too) don't need to be used in the display. You can draw in feet and inches and display in square yards or square meters, or acres for that matter.
- 2. An annoyance for interior design users has been fixed as well. Kitchen cabinets are now hollow boxes instead of solid objects, and they have more realistic doors and handles. This fix makes VectorWorks more useful than it has been for customer visualization sessions.
- 3. Another frustration solved: You can batch import DXF and DWG files directly into a VectorWorks template file. The imported files pick up the dimension style from the template, so you don't have to manually set dimension styles in each drawing sheet.
Xfrog, the botanical modeling shop, provides an improved plant-image library. The plant library always has been large, but now includes more than 100 species with views such as top, elevation, seasonal variations and growth patterns (figure 7).
Figure 7. Plant database also offers botany lessons.
Symbols aren't always smart in the sense that you can, for instance, insert a window perpendicular to a wall or insert a cabinet sideways while working in 2D, but the on-screen view is so intuitive that these missteps are easy to fix. Finding symbols is easy with the graphical resource browser.
Figure 8. Creating a report.
Figure 9. Calculating electrical conduit needs.
VectorWorks is still resource-thrifty. Nemetschek says the package will run in 256MB of RAM on a Mac or Windows machine. True, in a pinch, but the experience will be frustrating. Still, it ran at least as well as v11 on a Mac iBook with 768MB and a Windows XP machine with 512MB, despite having more features. We could not get it to install on a Mac with old OS X 10.2, and Nemetschek says it won't support 10.2 anyway.
The thriftiness is not due to simplicity—VectorWorks simply manages memory well and pages material in from the hard drive as needed when physical RAM is missing.
Views aren't as flexible as for some other architectural programs in its price and capability range, such as Chief Architect and DataCAD. But out of the box, its renderings can be made more realistic thanks to better lighting control. Chief Architect has better framing calculations, although setting them up can be a chore. VectorWorks has a good scripting language, and a good guide for it. The result is that many add-ons are available, and users freely exchange them. On the mechanical side, this package is meant for basic tasks; it's not close to a comprehensive solution.
VectorWorks is almost certainly the most popular CAD program for the Macintosh. The only other truly high-end CAD package for that platform is ArchiCAD, a more capable but more expensive proposition. Both packages were originally Mac only. Both firms have announced support for the Macintosh Intel CPU. VectorWorks v12 makes the interoperability even better by keeping track of Windows filenames on the Mac side. Highly Recommended.
Steve Ross has been reviewing CAD software for more than 20 years.