General Software

Low-cost CAD Gets the Job Done

31 Dec, 2005 By: Ron LaFon

CAD for Under $750

For many users, the sheer complexity of upper-end CAD applications is beyond their needs, not to mention their budget. Such applications, while extraordinarily capable, bear price tags that can easily induce a case of sticker shock. For the small firm or individual users, an abundance of moderately priced applications will adequately suit their needs. Design/engineering firms that need a basic CAD application, but not sophisticated bells and whistles such as 3D capability, radiosity rendering and customer-level programmability, can also benefit from these powerful yet economical applications.

AutoCAD easily dominates the midrange CAD market, so it's not surprising that AutoCAD compatibility is a characteristic touted by many of these applications. Many of these budget CAD packages also offer the ability to enter AutoCAD commands from the command line, customization using the same AutoLISP programming language found in AutoCAD and other features that allow them to fit and play well in an AutoCAD-centric work environment. Because users are learning many features that AutoCAD offers, it's easier to upgrade to AutoCAD if need be.

Without exception, the depth of the feature sets in these entry-level applications never ceases to amaze me. It's not uncommon to find OpenGL hardware acceleration, rendering, antialiasing, transparency, reflectance and ray-tracing listed as features. Some programs come with symbol libraries, or access to libraries in generic industry-standard file formats, as well as hatch patterns and linetypes from AutoCAD.

 Low-Cost CAD Summary
Low-Cost CAD Summary

There's also support for external reference files and often programming language interfaces such as VBA (Visual BASIC for Applications) and C++ for customization purposes. These features vary for each application, so be sure to look at the online feature table at for a more complete listing.

Vendors are not content to simply be compatible with AutoCAD. Their products show a substantial amount of innovation, including many features that make design both easier and more productive. This segment of the market continues to be developed—several of the applications here were in late beta release when we looked at them. Many new features and improvements are based on user input. It's encouraging to see so much development in this area, and it bodes well for those interested in an economical solution for their design needs. It's always nice to come across a feature that makes you ask, "Why didn't someone do this before?"

Most of these applications are heavily supported by their users. Newsgroups and forums where avid users share information and resources with one another is often a much faster way to get information than trial and error or calling technical support.

Economical in this market does not equate to second-rate. All of these design tools are capable of a broad array of tasks and types of work, whether they are destined to be a primary design tool or an economical adjunct to other applications.

What We Requested

Reflecting inflation and the increasing cost of almost everything, we upped the price limit for our budget CAD applications this year. We requested applications that cost less than $750 and included only those products that have been significantly updated since the last time we reviewed them. Some vendors simply did not respond, and others had not updated their programs since the last time we reviewed them, so the number of applications reviewed is smaller than in the past. This doesn't reflect the growth rate of these economical design packages, which continues unabated. Even though we raised the price barrier, none of the applications evaluated here are anywhere near that upper limit.

Sometimes you really can get a good deal—as these low-cost CAD applications clearly demonstrate. If you still think of these as toy applications, it's definitely time to take another look.

CADopia 6 Professional Edition

Price: $495, $295 Standard, $395 Premium

CADopia offers a range of products for various budgets and needs. For this roundup, we looked at Cadopia 6 Professional Edition, formerly known as CADopia IntelliCAD. CADopia 6 is available in three editions: Standard, Premium and Professional. A floating network license option is available for volume license users. Educational versions of the products are available at substantial discounts for accredited educational institutions, and CADopia OEM is available to CAD application developers as a platform technology for niche CAD applications.

CADopia (based on IntelliCAD technology) is a powerful CAD program for engineers, architects, designers and drafters.
CADopia (based on IntelliCAD technology) is a powerful CAD program for engineers, architects, designers and drafters.

CADopia 6 Professional Edition includes Columbus document management software and Ralph Grabowski's CADopia Customization Guide and Inside CADopia 6 books. The software is based on Open Design and IntelliCAD technology.

The IntelliCAD consortium provides the base product code to the members of the group, each of which implements the underlying code and adds features and value for their particular release. This release includes support for Adobe Acrobat PDF output and the viewing of both MicroStation DGN and ESRI SHP files as images. Support for opening and saving AutoCAD drawing files (DWG) is incorporated using the DwgDirect technology, and support drawing files up to AutoCAD 2006.

New features in CADopia 6 Professional Edition include the ability to Sweep and Loft solids using ACIS solid modeling technology, as well as the ability to import and export DWF (drawing web format) and enhanced raster image support for more than a hundred file formats, including the commonly used BMP, TIF, GIF, JPG and CALS formats.

Users will find enhanced print style tables in this release, along with an external references manager, enhanced entity snaps and an enhanced FlexLM network license manager with optional floating licenses. The command bar feature is also enhanced. Users familiar with previous releases will note more customization options and performance enhancements in addition to functional improvements.

If users' needs are limited to basic drafting, dimensioning and annotation, the Standard Edition of CADopia is the version to purchase. If users need VBA (Visual BASIC for Applications), photorealistic rendering, raster image capability and Visual BASIC utilities, then have a look at the CADopia 6 Professional Edition.

CADopia 6 Professional Edition is well integrated into the Windows environment. CADopia Explorer lets users review and exchange drawing content using drag-and-drop functionality. Both menus and toolbars can be graphically and easily customized for specific needs.

System requirements for CADopia 6 Professional include a system with at least an Intel Pentium processor (minimum) or greater (recommended), at least 256MB of RAM (recommended), 150MB of free hard disk space for installation, Microsoft Windows 2000/XP/NT 4.0, plus high-speed Internet access for product downloads and technical support. Needless to say, a faster processor and more RAM will give better performance.

Download an evaluation copy of CADopia 6 Standard Edition or request an evaluation CD at CADopia also offers CADopia courseware and Symbols software, a collection of more than 12,000 symbols.

CADVANCE LiTe V12 Release 2005

Furukawa Information Technology
Price: $459

As with several other vendors included here, Furukawa Information Technology offers a range of products, including CADVANCE LiTe V12 Release 2005, which we looked at for this roundup. Priced at $495, CADVANCE LiTe is a 2D drawing and drafting application with a wealth of features, including the ability to import DWF, DXF and DWG files as well as more than ten scanned or raster image formats such as BMP, TIF and HPGL.

CADvance LiTe V12 Release 2005, a 2D drafting tool, now supports AutoCAD DWG and DXF files from Release 2.5 through AutoCAD 2004/2005.
CADvance LiTe V12 Release 2005, a 2D drafting tool, now supports AutoCAD DWG and DXF files from Release 2.5 through AutoCAD 2004/2005.

The full version of CADVANCE, which is available for $1,995, supports 3D and intelligent objects (á la Visio). It lets users work in both 2D and 3D and offers such niceties as perspective view and procedural rendering.

AutoCAD 2004/2005 files can now be read and written directly by CADVANCE V12 LiTe. The program decompresses and decrypts the AutoCAD file on reading and then compresses and encrypts the file when saving to AutoCAD 2004/2005 format. It supports versions of DWG and DXF files from AutoCAD Release 2.5 through 2004/2005.

A new feature in current releases of CADVANCE is the ability to export directly to many popular file formats by using the File/Export dialog box. Here users can size and scale the image, specifying a variety of measurement options and choosing either full drawing or the current view.

Font mapping is now available when importing DWG/DXF files, and TrueType fonts are now supported in the single-line text mode when translating from DWG or DXF files. Exporting AutoCAD files offers options for controlling xrefs. CADVANCE now supports splines and crosshatching in symbols translated from a DWG or DXF file.

CADVANCE LiTe has a very clean interface that proves easy for AutoCAD users to comprehend, making it a good addition where the expense of a full AutoCAD seat is not warranted. The company has focused lot of attention on making CADVANCE easy to use, and that attention has paid off in small details such as use of the mouse wheel to zoom in and out, with the mouse wheel speed controlling the speed of the zoom. Hold down the middle button, and the mouse goes into dynamic pan mode. Double-clicking the middle button performs a View Fit. Though these are small things, they're representative of the attention to usability that has gone into CADVANCE. Many customization options are available with CADVANCE LiTe, from menu modification through a VBA-like macro language and an interface to Delphi, C and C++ programming languages, so users can tailor the application to specific needs and method of working.

For architects, AETools, a separately available product ($375; $275 AETools LiTe), offers dozens of features to supplement existing CADVANCE functions. Download updates, demos and macros from the CADVANCE Web site.

General CADD Pro 4

General CADD Products
Price: $599

General CADD Pro, commonly referred to as GCP by users, is a 2D CAD and drafting program that embodies the features of Generic CADD (CADD6), the DOS-based CADD program that retained its popularity even after it was discontinued some years ago. The primary goal for the General CADD application was to provide these users with a natural-feeling and nearly painless upgrade patch to Windows, while retaining as much as possible of the two-letter command structure of the original program. Customers can reuse their collection of Generic CADD drawings, components, fonts, hatches, menus and so forth.

General CADD v4.0 is revamped version of the Generic CADD 2D application. It offers an array of new features, including support for AutoCAD drawings (up to 2006).
General CADD v4.0 is revamped version of the Generic CADD 2D application. It offers an array of new features, including support for AutoCAD drawings (up to 2006).

Once the goal of duplicating the functionality of CADD6 was reached in 2.1, the development team then, with the help and guidance of many users, added another 50 useful new features. On attaining this goal, the development team began work on GCP 3, which was released late in 2005 with many more requested features. A year later, and we're nearing the final release of General CADD Pro 4. It should be available the time this article appears in print.

General CADD Pro 3 added AutoCAD 2004 file format import and export, user-customizable toolbars, surveyor-specific commands, greatly improved fill and hatch functions, spell check, AutoSave, version control, multi-break and a plethora of other features that took the base application far beyond the old DOS-based program from which it originated.

Version 4.0 is poised to go even further, adding such things as support for AutoCAD xrefs and multitabbed layouts, a revamped hatching system and a free PDF creation driver program. The Quick Edits and Edits menus have been combined and Layer Manager enhancements such as the ability to lock and protect layers have been added. DWG support extends to AutoCAD 2006, and status line feedback is improved.

Priced at $599, General CADD Pro is by a very small margin the most expensive application included in this roundup. It's also the only application that requires a hardware dongle, which is available in either a parallel port or a USB version. Though we had no problems with the hardware dongle provided by General CADD, we have in the past had problems with similar hardware protection features. Upgrades of General CADD Pro include an UpgradeToGCP40 utility for updating the hardware dongle with the correct licensing information. New users will need to install hardware drivers for the dongle.

System requirements for General CADD Pro 4 are relatively modest—at least a Pentium III microprocessor and Windows 98 SE with 128MB of RAM or more. Windows XP Pro is recommended, and General CADD Products notes that the faster the processor and the more memory you have, the better GCP 4 performs.

PowerCAD Pro 6

GiveMePower Corp.
Price: $595 Professional, $299 Classic

GiveMePower offers an assortment of CAD and site management applications that run on a wide variety of computers, from PDAs to full-blown workstations. Two of its applications handily fit into our criteria for this particular roundup: PowerCAD Classic 6 ($299) and PowerCAD Professional ($595) for Windows desktop, laptop and XP tablet computers.

PowerCAD Classic 6 creates 2D and basic 3D designs with its complement of nearly 300 powerful 2D design and 3D viewing tools.
PowerCAD Classic 6 creates 2D and basic 3D designs with its complement of nearly 300 powerful 2D design and 3D viewing tools.

PowerCAD Classic 6 offers nearly 300 easy-to-use 2D design and 3D viewing tools to help get the job done quickly. All PowerCAD versions include the ability to directly open, edit and save existing designs in DWG, DXF and FLX file formats. This means users can work with a variety of existing drawings created in AutoCAD Releases 12 through 2006, MicroStation, FelixCAD and other CAD systems.

New in PowerCAD Classic 6 is Digital Image File Import, which lets users import and embed digital images into CAD drawings. This feature will be particularly useful for CAD operators, engineers, architects, field inspectors, project and facilities managers and GIS professionals. It supports all popular raster image file formats, including BMP, PNG, JPG, RLC and TIF (including GeoTIFF).

PowerCAD Pro 6 is designed for businesses and individuals who want a powerful, fast, efficient and easy-to-use 2D and 3D CAD tool for Windows desktop, laptop and XP tablet computers.
PowerCAD Pro 6 is designed for businesses and individuals who want a powerful, fast, efficient and easy-to-use 2D and 3D CAD tool for Windows desktop, laptop and XP tablet computers.

With PowerCAD Classic and Pro, users can combine images taken in the field using digital cameras, or scanned images imported as a drawing underlay, with 2D and 3D designs. Users can also add an unlimited number of VoiceNOTE audio recordings to the drawings, a handy way to take notes.

Other features of PowerCAD Classic 6 include dialog-based data entry, one-button e-mail, the ability to publish directly to the DWF file format and redline and markup tools. Also available are an inspection list feature, Drawing Xplorer, a Part Library Manager, object grouping and editing, multiple viewport plan sheet layout and an Xpress Update system for retrieving program updates.

PowerCAD Professional is, as might be expected, the more feature-rich entry from GiveMePower. It incorporates direct reading and writing of AutoCAD DWG and DXF files from Release 12 to 2006 (with full round-trip retention of all objects). PowerCAD Pro 6 also includes a new viewing engine for accurate representation of 3D solids. Solids can be rendered and output using PowerCAD's built-in rendering and print tools.

Users will also find object linking and OLE (ActiveX embedding) in PowerCAD Professional, with in-place editing of files from applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

Other features of PowerCAD Pro include a freely distributable stand-alone DWF viewer, direct input for portable wired/wireless laser measuring devices such as Leica DISTO Plus, Bluetooth wireless laser, Disto Pro 4 and Hilti PD 25/28. Like PowerCAD Classic, PowerCAD Pro includes the GiveMePower VoiceNOTE audio note-keeping system, Enterpoint dialog-based data entry and redline and markup tools. It adds a quick-render function (Arender command). Working in PowerCAD Pro is simplified by the incorporation of the Drawing Xplorer, Parts Library Manager and Raster Image Manager (image command).

Whatever designers' CAD software needs are, it's likely that GiveMePower has an offering that will fit their needs and budget. In addition to a well-thought-out feature set, the applications that we looked at also provide a straightforward and easy-to-use interface.

Vdraft 2.21

SoftSource LLC
Price: $250

SoftSource's Vdraft (short for Virtual Drafter) is, at $250, the least expensive of the budget CAD products reviewed in this roundup. It's yet another instance where low cost does not indicate a dearth of features. Vdraft is highly customizable and compatible with a number of AutoCAD DWG file formats.

SoftSource s Vdraft offers direct AutoCAD drawing support, yet is easier to learn and use than AutoCAD.
SoftSource s Vdraft offers direct AutoCAD drawing support, yet is easier to learn and use than AutoCAD.

The system requirements for Vdraft are relatively modest: a PC with a 486 or newer microprocessor, Microsoft Windows operating system, 16MB or more of RAM, about 20MB of hard disk space, VGA or higher resolution, a mouse or other compatible pointing device and a printer or plotter for print output. These system requirements allow Vdraft to fit into almost any work environment, even if newer and more powerful CAD workstations are not available.

Combined with the system requirements, Vdraft's simplicity and direct approach make it a good choice for use in teaching CAD drafting, and a very inexpensive seat where 2D options and compatibility with AutoCAD are needed.

With Vdraft, users can view or edit multiple drawings simultaneously and easily cut or copy and paste elements between drawings. Users can open virtually any number of drawings simultaneously, restricted only by system memory available.

As a training tool, Vdraft Internet Tools provide instructors with a way to show real-world examples of online CAD drawings, and students can use those drawings as part of their classroom CAD drafting projects. The Vdraft education license fee is $100. Grants are available for educational use where Vdraft is integrated into CAD training programs.

The Vdraft manual has been simplified and updated since we last reviewed the product, making it an even better tool for training, particularly with the number of screen shots and diagrams included in the new release. The spiral manual also includes three particularly useful appendices: About the Vdraft Extended Glossary, Vdraft Keyboard Shortcuts and the AutoCAD User's Guide to Vdraft. Vdraft also has an extensive and very visual online Help system.

While Vdraft is a good training tool, it's also a capable 2D drafting application that can meet the needs of many users—both budget-wise and in terms of functionality. For those interested in checking out what Vdraft has to offer, a trial version is available at

In addition to its Vdraft design application, SoftSource also offers CADview for viewing and printing AutoCAD drawings. It has the ability to temporarily turn on and off layers and measure. CADview is basically the Vdraft CAD system with the save drawing functions turned off.

Two commercial plug-ins are available at the SoftSource Web site. One is an AutoCAD/DXF plug-in that allows viewing and printing of AutoCAD and DXF drawings over intranets and the Internet; the second plug-in is for industry-standard SVF 1.1-based drawings. Both plug-ins can be ordered online for $50 or less per workstation.

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor and computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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