Premier Products15 Dec, 2004 By: Sara Ferris
Cadalyst's Top Product Picks for 2004
Once again we undertake our semiannual search for the top products of the preceding six months. Candidates for Editors' Wow! awards are drawn from the many new product announcements we receive each day, augmented by what we find on display at the various industry events we've attended.
Selection is based primarily on the Wow! factor: Is the product innovative? Does it solve problems creatively? How distinctive is the product compared with others in its market segment? In most cases we aren't able to base our assessment on hands-on experience with the product, though sometimes we can defer a decision until after we send the product off for review.
In the following pages, we also honor Cadalyst All-Stars, picked as outstanding among the products that received Highly Recommended ratings in Cadalyst Labs reviews from July through December.
NOT MUCH NEWThis time around, the Wows were hard to come by. Though there's certainly no shortage of new and updated products, most of the improvements were incremental—feature refinements, support for new formats, and so forth.
On the flip side, the activity in some areas is so rapid-paced that we can't really single out a particular product that soars above the rest. A case in point is found in this month's 3D publishing options feature starting on p. 20. All of the products covered offer some advantage, or unique selling point. Which one is most compelling depends on what your needs are.
We run into the same problem when looking at 2D publishing options. Autodesk's DWF Composer came out in late summer with features comparable to those offered by its competitor, Adobe Acrobat Professional, but at half the price. Now Adobe has countered with a new version of Acrobat Professional that adds some appealing new features that may well justify the higher price.
OLD FAVORITES REVISITEDLast year we honored @Last Software's SketchUp! 3D modeling software (www.sketchup.com). There's a new version of SketchUp out, v4, and perhaps more significantly for those who want to use their SketchUp models as the basis for further designs, an assortment of plug-ins for applications such as Architectural Desktop and ArchiCAD. SketchUp is also looking to expand beyond its AEC bailiwick with a plug-in for ESRI ARCINFO and a version for film and stage design.
Informatix issued a long-awaited new version of its Piranesi program, also a previous Wow! winner. The program adds a hand-drawn look to computer-generated architectural visualizations and renderings. The new version implements the ability to place 3D models as 3D cutouts in your printing environment. A new tool manager organizes often-used panels to maximize the work area, and users can define keyboard shortcuts. More than 300 new cutout and texture images are added to the thousands already available in Piranesi's library.
ALL-STAR AWARDSNVIDIA Quadro FX 1400
In our first look at graphics cards based on the new PCI Express standard (October), the most impressive entrant was a midrange card that retails for around $650. With benchmark scores more in line with those turned in by high-end cards, "the NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400 redefines our expectations of price and performance for midrange graphics cards," says reviewer Ron LaFon. Best of all, performance is expected to improve even further—we had to use a prerelease version for our testing. The NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400's achievement is particularly remarkable in light of the technology changes wrought by PCI Express—problems are inevitable when trying to get new cards, new motherboards, and new drivers to all work together. www.nvidia.com
COSMOSWorks from SolidWorks exemplifies the ongoing trend toward analysis for the desktop—tools that integrate directly with CAD software so designers can run quick design checks and what-if simulations as they work. COSMOSWorks performs FEA (finite element analysis). It simulates the working conditions of SolidWorks models and predicts their physical behavior. COSMOSWorks balances the need to make analyses simple for new users with providing additional sophistication for more experienced users. Reviewer Jeffrey Rowe was particularly impressed by the new drop test, "especially for an analysis product in this price range." He predicts that few users will outgrow COSMOSWorks: "The more they use it and become better acquainted with its settings and how to interpret its results, the more they discover what it can do ." www.cosmosworks.com
Dell Precision M60 Mobile Workstation
Relatively few vendors are brave enough to enter the mobile workstation arena, where constraints on size, weight, and battery life amplify the challenge of maximizing CAD performance. The top performer in our July roundup was the Dell Precision M60 Mobile Workstation. Reviewer Ron LaFon noted that "it's among the first generation of portable systems that I consider to have workstation performance, although it's slow by current desktop standards." Its benchmark scores fell within the range expected from a low-end desktop workstation. Such power comes at a price. The Dell Precision M60 is on the hefty side, and battery life is just more than three hours when the system is idle. www.dell.com
@Xi Systems 3600E MTower Workstation
Perennial prize-winner @Xi Computer once again gets the glory for its 3600E MTower. It's hard to beat a system that delivers both the highest performance figures and the lowest price—$3,499—in our November roundup of single-processor workstations. That price includes a 3.6GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor and 2GB of RAM. The @Xi system nosed out excellent performances by three other Highly Recommended systems to take the top spot in the review. www.xicomputer.com
cadalyst labs reviewMicroStation V8 2004 Edition
The latest version of MicroStation, V8 2004 Edition is not on the same level of technological revolution as other releases, but it incorporates many of the elements we've come to expect and admire in MicroStation updates. Bentley's approach to interoperability involves developing relationships with vendors whose products are used by its customers. Through its ties with the Open Design Alliance, Bentley is able to provide direct DWG support in MicroStation, and its alliance with Adobe enables it to offer direct support for the PDF format (and the U3D 3D format in a future release). Though the MicroStation interface is still in the process of transitioning to a Windows-standard presentation, the underlying design engine is powerful enough to support large and complex projects. We're also eager to see the progress of Bentley's Generative Components environment, in which you can perform parametric modeling by assigning relationship rules to core CAD geometry. www.bentley.com
EDITORS' WOW! AWARDSAutoVue SolidModel Professional v18
AutoVue SolidModel Professional v18 from Cimmetry Systems takes viewer technology to the next level by implementing what the company calls digital mockup capabilities, with which you can display several files, in different formats, in the same environment. For example, users can combine a part created in Pro/ENGINEER with parts from AutoCAD or SolidWorks. These parts can then be combined with an EDA file such as a circuit board to create a mockup of an electronic device. Precise measurements and part alignments are easy to accomplish, as is interference checking, according to reviewer Ron LaFon. The program supports more than 450 file formats. www.cimmetry.com
VRcontext's Walkinside (contact company for pricing) is a design review tool for the energy, plant, and manufacturing segments, but its value extends beyond that to serve as a training tool for production, maintenance, and HSE departments as the plant is built. Personnel training can take place in a true replica of the facility so employees can become familiar with it before commencing work. www.walkinside.com
AMC's GPS2CAD v3 ($345) is a handy, low-cost way to survey a site using a handheld GPS unit. Enter waypoints at the site into your GPS receiver, then connect to your computer, download the points, and plot them in AutoCAD. You can overlay imported points on aerial photos and topographic maps. PS2CAD translates the GPS points from its satellite-based coordinate system into more than 40 worldwide coordinate systems, including NAD 27, NAD 83, and the U.S. State Plane Coordinate systems. The program is compatible with AutoCAD v14.01-2004 and with most Garmin handheld GPS receivers. www.aztechsoft.com
SEARCH ENGINES FOR SKETCHESFinding data in drawings has always been limited by the text-based nature of most search engines. If it's not text, it won't be found. Various entities are working on a solution in the form of sketch-based search engines. You simply draw what you're looking for, and the engine retrieves instances of similar geometry.
The first commercial offering we've heard about is CADFind Sketch and Search (shown at right) from Applied Search Technology of the United Kingdom (www.sketchandsearch.com). It finds 2D engineering drawings based on a user sketch or existing drawing. According to the company, it offers retrieval accuracy of 95% for the most basic drawing. It's currently limited to searching DXF files. The master program, used to code part properties to create a searchable catalog, costs $850 for a single license. Clients with search-only capability are free.
Karthik Ramani of Purdue University (http://tools.ecn.purdue.edu/~cise/dess.html) created a system that can find computer-designed industrial parts based on a sketch of what you're looking for. If a search result appears close, you can manipulate a sketch of that part to bring it closer to what you have mind, then search again.
The search system can be used as a stand-alone feature for CAD repositories or in conjunction with PLM systems. The search engine works by converting stored CAD models and user-inputted sketches to voxels, the 3D equivalent of a pixel. It then compares voxel patterns for similarities.
Princeton University professor Thomas Funkhouser and colleagues developed a 3D search engine (http://shape.cs.princeton.edu/search.html) that lets you use your mouse to sketch 2D or 3D object, add a text description, and then search for similar models. There's also an option to upload your own file and search for similar models. VRML V2.0 is the only supported file type, but other formats such as DXF and Unigraphics UG usually work if they contain only geometry.
Sharp Actius RD3D AutoStereo notebook computer
3D without the funky glasses is the promise of the Sharp Actius RD3D AutoStereo notebook computer ($2,999). A button toggles between 2D and 3D display. To create viewable 3D images, you need special software such as that included with the notebook: Sharp Smart Stereo Photo Editor/Slide Show, TriDef Movie Player from Dynamic Digital Depth, and Personal CAChe, a chemical molecular modeling application. CAD models are supported via integration with EON Studio 5.0 and EON CAD, which convert existing 3D models into stereoscopic-enabled files. In action, the Sharp Actius RD3D AutoStereo notebook computer commands attention with its crisp 3D display, a definite plus for effective design presentations. www.sharp3d.com
GeoPraxis Green Building Studio
One of the more polished applications to take advantage of the building information model created by such applications as Graphisoft ArchiCAD and Autodesk Revit is Green Building Studio from GeoPraxis. This free Web site conducts building energy analyses and aids in the selection of energy-efficient materials and products. It uses the gbXML (green building XML) format developed by the International Alliance for Interoperability's aecXML group. The BIM products generate a gbXML data file directly from the 3D CAD geometry information in the building model. The user then logs into the Green Building Studio Web site, where the gbXML data is used in analysis and reporting routines on the server to generate a preliminary energy analysis for the building design. www.greenbuildingstudio.com
GEOMATE's ToleranceCalc v3 offers tolerance analysis tools for the eminently affordable price of $95 per seat. Its minimalist interface presents four tabs through which you access a variety of powerful analysis tools for stack-up and producibility analysis. The simple interface also keeps the learning curve to a minimum. www.inventbetter.com
DSI Digital impressed us at the AIA Convention with its IntelliRoof and IntelliWall software for AutoCAD. These products are designed for metal roof trussing, wood framing and trussing, tilt-up construction, concrete and masonry construction, and steel framing design. They automate the creation of roof, truss, and wall elements, then generate shop drawings and a bill of materials. www.differentialsolutions.com