General Software

DataCAD 11

30 Jun, 2004 By: Michael Dakan

Architectural CAD program implements new file format.

Perhaps to mark the product's 20-year anniversary, the latest version of architectural CAD program DataCAD features several major upgrades. The biggest and most significant change to DataCAD 11 from previous versions isn't very visible when you start the program. DataCAD now operates at double numeric floating-point precision and is accurate up to 14 digits, making it equivalent in precision to AutoCAD and most other competing CAD programs.

Of course, the new double-precision database necessitates a new format for files and program operating components. Almost all file extensions have changed. The new drawing database file extension is now AEC in place of the old DC5 extension. Although drawing files are larger because of the additional data inherent with the better precision, the file format uses a compression algorithm to make the new saved drawing files about a fifth the size of comparable DC5 files.

Older drawing files are converted to the new format automatically when you open them in DataCAD 11. Older macros created with the DCAL macro language still use single precision for execution-this allows old macros to run without recompiling them. DATACAD just released a new software development toolkit for DataCAD 11, DCAL for Delphi, so that users and developers can create DLL-based add-ons with double-precision support. Program operating file locations and file associations are stored in the Windows Registry, and DataCAD 11 can run on a computer alongside older DataCAD versions.

This behind-the-scenes modernization is also accompanied by several new program interface enhancements that are visible on startup. DataCAD 11's user interface and its program operation are more Windows-compliant.

 On the Program Message Line, DataCAD displays hints about the command you are in.
On the Program Message Line, DataCAD displays hints about the command you are in.

Menus and Toolbars

DataCAD's screen layout is flexible. You can customize, rearrange, and create new toolbars to suit your drawing needs. Toolbars can be context-sensitive to appear when you select corresponding items from pull-down menus. Readouts on information toolbars such as Drawing Status and Coordinates toggle on and off. You can also dock menus and toolbars where you want them on the screen.

Menu items have hints associated with them that show up on the message bar to indicate program functions and operations (figure 1). You can change the hint text by editing the menu file. Keyboard shortcuts using the <Ctrl>, <Alt>, and <Shift> keys in combination with alphabetic characters and Function keys execute most commands. Tool tips show up if you linger the cursor over a toolbox menu icon.

 From the Symbol Browser, a 3D object viewer is available.
From the Symbol Browser, a 3D object viewer is available.

DataCAD displays multiple windows on screen, including drawing views, menus, object viewer, toolbars, and more. These are referenced in the documentation as multi-view tear-off toolbars because they can remain open and be free-floating or docked on one side of the drawing screen or the other.

You can store symbols as individual files on a hard drive (here) or on a network.
You can store symbols as individual files on a hard drive (here) or on a network.

You can have as many as ten multi-view tear-off toolbars open on screen at once.

The Symbol Browswer provides access to the data fields viewer and editor.
The Symbol Browswer provides access to the data fields viewer and editor.

Symbol Browser

DataCAD's new Symbol Browser provides a multi-pane window to access icons for symbols (similar to AutoCAD blocks) and other objects. You can display a rendered 3D view of symbols in the object viewer (figure 2, p. 31). Symbols are stored on the hard drive as individual files as well as in templates. Insertion options are available when you place symbols from the Symbol Browser, so you can adjust rotation, scale, etc., before placing the symbol in the drawing.

You can get to symbols directly as individual files stored locally on your hard drive or on the network and also through the Symbol Browser (figure 3). You can also access Symbols the old way from templates or from within a drawing. Unused symbols in a drawing can be automatically purged when the file is closed.

Symbol Attributes and Information Fields

You attach information to symbols in the form of attributes (similar to AutoCAD's block attributes) and/or data fields (figure 4). Add user-defined data fields to the default fields to track an unlimited amount of information associated with symbols. You can add and edit data fields when you define and add a symbol to a symbol template. DataCAD is not a BIM (building information modeler), but it was one of the first programs to allow associating a variety of information types with CAD files.

Once you place a symbol in the drawing, the data is not quite as accessible and flexible as you might want. You can't simply pick a symbol and change the information attached to that one symbol. If you do so, it changes all the instances of that symbol. This is a major difference between Symbol Attributes and Symbol Data Fields. You can customize Symbol Attributes on a per-instance basis. Symbol Data Fields remain the same for each instance of a particular symbol. DataCAD plans to release a free update soon that will include an enhanced Symbol Attribute reporting mechanism along with the ability to tie into external databases.

In DataCAD File Open dialog box, a preview window shows the contents of the drawing you are about to open.
In DataCAD File Open dialog box, a preview window shows the contents of the drawing you are about to open.

You can run reports to extract and report symbol information from all symbols in your drawings and define custom reports to list various information types and generate cost estimates for symbol items.

The Object Viewer displays previously rendered views.
The Object Viewer displays previously rendered views.


TINs (triangulated irregular network) are triangular polygons that you can use for terrain modeling. You create them from contour lines or data points. Bring points in from a surveyor's point file or manually enter them in the drawing. Once you generate a TIN, you can fine-tune it with DataCAD's TIN editing tools. For example, you can add or change points to smooth out the TIN and change the valley lines between polygons. Use a finished TIN to generate contour lines and display them in a number of ways.

Ruled polygon lines can help you display a surface contour shape, and different colors can show different elevations. You can add a drop-point directly on a polygon surface to serve as a placement and anchor point for symbols or other purposes. Tools are available to slice the TIN model, and you can create 2D sections from the 3D surface model.

File Management, Backup, and Restore

DataCAD offers an updated Windows 2000-style dialog box to open and save files. The File Open dialog box now has a preview window that shows a thumbnail view of selected files to help you find the one you want before opening it (figure 5, p. 33).

You can open previously saved versions of files going back ten earlier drawing sessions. The backup files are automatically incremented each time you save and exit a drawing. An automatically saved Autorecover file helps restore the most recently saved version of files in the event of an abnormal program termination or crash.

You can create Adobe PDF files directly within DataCAD from plot views.


DataCAD has been around for a long time and becomes more refined with each new release. DataCAD 11 continues this tradition with some important changes and upgrades that bring the program up to date and more competitive with other architectural CAD programs.

It may not have all the bells and whistles of some of the most expensive contemporary 3D CAD and BIM products, but with its reasonable price and capable toolset for drawing architectural 2D drawing and 3D models, it's a great program.

Michael Dakan is an architect and independent CAD and information technology consultant in Pacifica, California, and a contributing editor of Cadalyst. E-mail him at