Bargain Buys-7 CAD Packages to Stretch the Budget

31 Dec, 2004 By: Ron LaFon

Cadalyst Labs checks out CAD programs that deliver impressive capabilities for less than $600

We set two basic criteria for this roundup—CAD applications had to cost less than $600 and be significantly updated from the last time we reviewed them. As capable as these applications were when we looked at them last January, these new versions offer many improvements and new features. This is definitely not a stagnant area for application developers, much to the benefit of end users.

With AutoCAD dominating the midrange CAD market, it's not surprising that many of these applications tout their AutoCAD compatibility. Not only are many incarnations of the the DWG file format supported, DXF support is readily available. Some applications here also support DWF. It's even possible to use some of these applications to modify a DWG file that originated in AutoCAD, then open the modified drawing in AutoCAD again. Many of the applications here offer compatibility with AutoCAD commands from the command line, customization via the same AutoLISP features supported by AutoCAD, and other features that allow them to fit comfortably into a work environment that uses AutoCAD. In addition, these same features make it much easier to move to AutoCAD should that be necessary, so there's not much effort wasted in training.


Rich Feature Sets

Whenever we cover inexpensive design applications in Cadalyst, the richness of the feature sets in these entry-level applications never ceases to amaze us. In addition to the CAD features considered standard requirements, some of these programs offer sophisticated capabilities such as OpenGL hardware acceleration, rendering, antialiasing, transparency, reflectance and ray tracing. Some also include fairly extensive symbol libraries, support for VBA customization and support for external reference files. These capabilities vary by application, so for a more detailed view of a particular application's capabilities, see the feature table.

All told, these applications are remarkably capable, far beyond what you'd expect for such bargain prices. And the extra features make the low cost an even greater bargain. Most of these applications benefit from avid user support, with newsgroups and forums for sharing information and resources with one another.

The Future

Vendors continue to develop these products and regularly add new features and improvements, some of which are certainly based on user input. At least one of the vendors covered here was in the late stages of beta testing a major release. The level of development activity in this category is encouraging and should speak well to those interested in an economical solution to their design needs. New features such as freely distributable stand-alone DWF viewers and audio notekeeping systems appear in this roundup, along with support for the latest versions of the DWG file format.

We've noticed some degree of specialization in budget CAD applications, which traditionally tend to be all-purpose drawing programs. For example, a low-cost tool specifically for AEC design is now available. But all of these design tools are capable of a broad array of work, whether they're destined to become a primary design tool or an adjunct to other applications.

Though new versions of many familiar products are included here, a few are missing for one reason or another. Autodesk discontinued QuickCAD last year, electing to concentrate its development energies on AutoSketch.

Also missing are IMSI's TurboCAD products, TurboCAD Deluxe and TurboCAD Professional, because we did a stand-alone review of TurboCAD Professional in December 2004. We do, however, cover another very capable IMSI CAD application here—DesignCAD 3D MAX v15.

With software prices climbing industry-wide, we're considering a survey of moderately priced CAD software in a future issue. Several adept design applications are priced higher than our $600 cutoff, but still substantially below applications such as AutoCAD and SolidWorks.

There are many options for CAD applications these days, depending on the feature set you require and the price you can afford or justify.

AutoSketch 9

AutodeskPrice: $129

800.538.6401, 415.507.5000

In addition to AutoCAD, Autodesk offers design applications ranging from the entry-level AutoSketch and AutoCAD LT to such higher-end applications as Autodesk Architectural Desktop and Inventor. Autodesk recently released AutoSketch 9, a new version with tools for creating professional-quality drawings.

Autodesks AutoSketch 9 offers a range of drawing tools. The content librarian, on the right, helps users insert objects.
Autodesks AutoSketch 9 offers a range of drawing tools. The content librarian, on the right, helps users insert objects.

Autodesk last year discontinued QuickCAD, leaving AutoSketch 9 as its economy offering. AutoCAD LT has steadily crept out of the budget CAD price range—it now sells for $899. QuickCAD 8 CAD files are compatible with AutoSketch 9, so those of you who used QuickCAD are not left out in the cold as far as file support is concerned.

Included with AutoSketch 9 is a series of tutorials designed to get you up and running quickly, and the Microsoft Windows XP-like interface provides a familiar environment for basic drafting. AutoSketch 9 is, as one might expect, compatible with the Autodesk DWF file format, so you can create and share drawings with a variety of design applications, including AutoCAD. The AutoSketch Content Librarian lets users incorporate ready-made content by dragging and dropping desired symbols and blocks into a drawing.

AutoSketch 9 comes with predrawn content such as kitchen, bedroom and bathroom symbols, as well as decks and landscaping icons, architectural graphics, mechanical parts, plumbing and electrical symbols and an assortment of hatch and fill patterns. This content covers a fairly broad range that will prove useful for the home user as well as the novice user in a business environment.

To help new users become productive quickly, a wizard automatically steps through the process of choosing the most appropriate symbols libraries, drawing scales and toolsets for the type of drawing desired. Beyond providing a basic grounding in CAD concepts, AutoSketch 9 offers customizable grids and construction guidelines, associative dimensioning, and 3D special effects—including extrusion and transformation options (though no true 3D). Other notable features include in-place text editing, automatic snaps and locks to align objects precisely and hold them in position, pan and zoom capabilities and drag-and-drop functions.

A printed "Getting Started" guide covers software installation, making the transition from paper to CAD, and AutoSketch basics. It also contains four tutorials: Create and Trim Entities, Create a Birdhouse Drawing, Create an Office Layout Drawing and Advanced Exercises, which discusses creating 3D effects, using Web tools and generating a database report. An appendix to the "Getting Started" guide includes several pages of sample drawings created with AutoSketch to give an idea of the variety of drawings that are typically created with the program.

AutoSketch 9 runs on systems with Microsoft Windows 2000/XP/XP Tablet and a minimum of 128MB of RAM. Pricing is an economical $129.

DataCAD 11


Price: $195


DataCAD LT 11 is a new, low-cost ($195) 2D/3D architectural CAD program for design professionals. It's also a great way for those unfamiliar with CAD to get started. DataCAD LT 11 is useful for everything from developing construction drawings to creating architectural presentations.

DataCAD LT 11 uses double-precision floating point math to calculate and store values in the drawing database. Previous versions of DataCAD LT had an effective accuracy of ~7 decimal places, but DataCAD LT 11 has an effective accuracy of ~14 decimal places.
DataCAD LT 11 uses double-precision floating point math to calculate and store values in the drawing database. Previous versions of DataCAD LT had an effective accuracy of ~7 decimal places, but DataCAD LT 11 has an effective accuracy of ~14 decimal places.

All of the fundamental architectural drawing and modeling features of DataCAD are included in DataCAD LT. It provides automatic door and window insertion, associative dimensioning and hatching, unlimited undo/redo, 23 standard and hand-lettered fonts and OpenDWG-based DXF/DWG translators. 3D models created in DataCAD LT can be exported to o2c format for Internet distribution. Comprehensive online documentation is included with DataCAD LT 11 for quick answers to questions.

Investment in DataCAD LT 11 is protected, because if after using DataCAD LT, you later decide to move up to full-strength DataCAD, you can apply a $150 credit toward the purchase. All drawings created with DataCAD LT are fully compatible with DataCAD.

DataCAD LT 11 features a 64-bit, double-precision floating point drawing database. Designers can work on much larger projects without running into rounding issues, especially when importing large models.

DataCAD 11 can now query other instances of DataCAD 11 and DataCAD LT 11 running on a network to determine whether a given file is in use or not. DataCAD LT 11 incorporates a streamlined backup and recovery system, with automatic purging of unused drawing data, welcome capabilities for those managing large workgroups.

Table 1. Budget CAD Features
Table 1. Budget CAD Features

Perhaps the most visible change is the updated user interface. DataCAD LT 11 now provides Windows 2000-style properties and support for Windows XP themes and skins. Users can position toolbars and menus anywhere on the screen by tearing them off and docking them. DataCAD LT 11 will also inherit the visual style of the current desktop theme.

This release incorporates basic system improvements such as greater precision. Improved symbol management means better tools for symbol browsing and reporting, including user-defined fields and text attributes. Symbols can be dropped directly on the surface of a polygon. The DXF/DWG translator is also significantly improved and supports symbols with layers as well as block attributes.

In addition to the comprehensive online documentation noted earlier, you can purchase a hefty 617-page printed reference manual complete with screenshots and illustrations that elaborate on given topics for $39.95. The reference manual is remarkable in its scope, but the documentation doesn't end there. Another option is the tutorial manual with some 434 pages and an accompanying CD-ROM that encompasses a broad range of topics for $49.95. The "DataCAD Essentials Tutorial," with the examples included on the CD, is spiral-bound for easy use at the computer. This makes DataCAD LT 11 the best documented of any of the applications reviewed here. If you're a fan of printed documentation, as I am, this is definitely a good thing.

General CADD v3.1

General CADD

Price: $599


At an estimated street price of $599, General CADD v3.1 falls just shy of the $600 ceiling for applications included in this article.

General CADD v3.1 is a 2D CAD application that offers an array of new features, including support for AutoCAD 2004 drawings.
General CADD v3.1 is a 2D CAD application that offers an array of new features, including support for AutoCAD 2004 drawings.

As I prepared this article, General CADD was readying its release of General CADD v3.1, which I saw in regular weekly updates during the course of this review. General CADD v3.1 was released in December

General CADD Pro, commonly called GCP by users, is a 2D CAD and drafting program that embodies the features of Generic CADD (CADD6), the DOS-based program that managed to retain its popularity even after it was discontinued some years ago. The primary goal for the General CADD application was to provide Generic CADD users with a natural and nearly painless upgrade to Windows while retaining as much as possible of the two-letter command structure of the original program.

Once General CADD accomplished moving the old Generic CADD to Windows, development began on General CADD Pro v3.1, which is nearing release. The new version will include another fifty needed, requested and useful new features. General CADD supports Windows 95/98/98SE/ ME/2000/XP.

Table 1. Budget CAD Features continued
Table 1. Budget CAD Features continued

Customers can reuse their current collection of Generic CADD drawings, components, fonts, hatches, menus and so forth. New features include AutoCAD 2004 file format import and export, user-customizable toolbars, 16-button digitizer support, several surveyor-specific commands, vastly improved fill and hatch functions and trim and extend to all objects and components. Also new are Spell Check, AutoSave, version control, multi-break, 3-point rectangle, autopan, autosave, offset, persistent commands, image load and PDF file creation.

Version 3.1 offers a number of new two-letter commands such as UB (Multibreak), OS (Ortho Stop), OT (Offset), TJ (Text Justify) and SE (Fence Selection). Stretch commands have been added to selection options. These two-letter commands are accessible from the application's command line and drop-down menus and through small icons that appear above the drawing editor window.

General CADD is the only application included in this roundup that requires a hardware lock, or dongle, which is available in either a parallel port version or a USB version. Though we had no problems with the dongle provided by General CADD, we've had difficulties with similar hardware protection features in the past. General CADD includes an illustrated HTML manual that you can print or use online. It's comprehensive and clearly written.

General CADD has successfully brought an older, popular DOS design application into the Windows age. From what we see in the beta releases of General CADD v3.1, it has refined and updated the product without losing of the character of the original version—no small feat.

PowerCAD Professional 6


Price: $595

888.977.6937, 403.287.6001

PowerCAD Professional 6 offers excellent compatibility with AutoCAD file formats. It supports the direct reading and writing of AutoCAD DWG and DXF files from AutoCAD Release 12 through 2005, with full round-trip retention of all objects.

PowerCAD Pro 6 includes Spatial Technologies ACIS viewing engine, ensuring accurate representation of 3D solids saved in this popular format. Users can render and output solids using PowerCADs built-in rendering and print/plot tools.
PowerCAD Pro 6 includes Spatial Technologies ACIS viewing engine, ensuring accurate representation of 3D solids saved in this popular format. Users can render and output solids using PowerCADs built-in rendering and print/plot tools.

This new release includes Spatial Technologies' ACIS viewing engine, which ensures accurate representation of 3D solids saved in this file format. Solids can be both rendered and output using PowerCAD's build-in rendering and plotting tools. PowerCAD Pro 6 also adds complex linetypes, leaders, tolerances, and many other time-saving objects not supported in previous releases.

At $595, PowerCAD Professional 6 is priced near the top of the range covered by this article, but it offers several sophisticated new features typically not found in low-cost design applications.

PowerCAD Pro 6 can export compact DWF (design web format) files for review by others and includes a stand-alone DWF viewer that is freely distributable for collaboration purposes, though some redistribution restrictions apply.

Yet another new feature is obvious right away—PowerCAD Pro 6's new Microsoft-standard interface with Object Linking and ActiveX Embedding, which supports in-place editing of files from applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

Table 1. Budget CAD Features continued
Table 1. Budget CAD Features continued

Other new features include VoiceNOTE, an audio note-keeping system, and XpressUpdate, a product update download system that lets users regularly check for new PowerCAD versions and any updates or enhancements that might be available online.

PowerCAD Pro 6 also includes support for mobile, as-built floor plan creation. Connect a Leica DISTO, Hilti PD 25/28 or Bosch DLE 150 portable laser measuring device to an XP tablet or laptop PC, and you have a mobile wireless design station that can produce laser-drafted, on-site drawings in record time, increasing productivity substantially over manual methods. It's surprising to find such support in such an economically priced application.

Among the features of PowerCAD Pro 6 are EnterPoint dialog-based data entry, redline and markup tools, object grouping and editing and an inspection list feature. Other useful tools include a Drawing Xplorer, Part Library Manager, a quick-render function and a raster image manager. System customization cababilities are strong with a second-genearation visual dialog, menu and toolbar editor, plus full LISP, C++ and Delphi programming support. All told, PowerCAD Pro 6 offers a substantial number of features for a very attractive price.

PowerCAD Pro 6 is available from GiveMePower Corp. and supports Windows 98/NT/2000/ME/XP, including XP Tablet. GiveMePower also offers several applications for the handheld PC.

PowerCAD SiteMaster, designed for XP tablet, laptop and Pocket PC, is an automated mobile/wireless building surveying solution that creates finished, AutoCAD-compatible drawings from input from a laser measuring device. Using a wireless portable laser, SiteMaster creates as-built floor plans and inspection drawing with intelligent walls, windows, doors, openings and areas. Digital photos, audio VoiceNOTES and 7,000 symbols proved on-site details.

DesignCAD 3d max v15

IMSI Software

Price: $89.95


DesignCAD 3D MAX v15 is the only IMSI CAD product we're including in this roundup because we just reviewed IMSI TurboCAD Professional in the December 2004 issue.

IMSIs DesignCAD 3D MAX v15 handles 2D and 3D drawing tasks as well as animation and 3D rendering.
IMSIs DesignCAD 3D MAX v15 handles 2D and 3D drawing tasks as well as animation and 3D rendering.

At an estimated street price of $89.95, IMSI's DesignCAD 3D MAX v15 has the lowest price of any application included in this roundup of economical CAD applications. As with other budget CAD entries here, a low price does not indicate a lack of capabilities. There is, in fact, a wealth of new features in this release.

With DesignCAD 3D MAX v15, users can now set the base drawing units in the current drawing or can choose to draw in the classic unitless mode. Unit options include miles, feet, inches, millimeters, centimeters, meters and kilometers. In addition to setting units for the current drawing, users can specify default units for new drawings or for opening unitless drawings.

A new integrated raster-to-vector converter lets users scan paper drawings and convert them to editable CAD files, saving hours in design time. DesignCAD 3D MAX v15 also comes with a stand-alone utility called Instant Estimator that offers project cost-estimating capabilities.

Also new in this release is Hatch Pattern Position, which allows the user to change the seed location from which a hatch pattern is referenced, effectively panning the hatch pattern within its boundary. Users can now add words to hatch entities and double-line entities with hatch pattern fills.

With a toggle, users can hide or restore all toolbars to temporarily increase the drawing area—this is useful when working with complex drawings.

Running snap settings allow the user to turn running snaps on or off and toggle the use of individual running snap modes. Optional snap modes are GravitySnap, LineSnap, MidpointSnap and TangentSnap.

Dimension commands now let the user indicate a units multiplier, making it possible to dimension in some unit other than a drawing's base unit.

In addition to the application CD, DesignCAD 3D MAX v15 includes an installable Fundamental Training CD with tutorials that walk through various features and projects.

Fans of printed documentation will welcome the 262-page, well-indexed reference manual that covers the fundamental features of DesignCAD 3D MAX v15, including screenshots of various dialog boxes and operations. Though its price is low, DesignCAD 3D MAX v15 delivers a lot, particularly when you consider that this is an application that can operate simultaneously in 2D and true 3D.

For those concerned with compatibility, DesignCAD 3D MAX v15 supports the AutoCAD 2004 DWG file format. DWG, DXF, HPGL, IGES and other file formats can be both imported and exported.

The program comes with a good assortment of symbol libraries, as well as a coupon for 20% off all symbols from New World Graphics. DesignCAD 3D MAX also comes with a free CD of house plans from IMSI's

IntelliCAD 5 Standard


Price: $249


The IntelliCAD Consortium recently released IntelliCAD 5. For this article we looked at the Standard version. IntelliCAD 5 supports DWG 2004 and 2005 while maintaining compatibility with previous versions of DWG back to v2.5. DWF import and export and SVG export are added to this release, along with numerous stability and performance enhancements.

IntelliCAD 5 Standard Edition offers an array of drawing tools and uses DWG as its native file format.
IntelliCAD 5 Standard Edition offers an array of drawing tools and uses DWG as its native file format.

Visually, new tabs located at the bottom of the drawing area allow users to switch how they want to view their drawing. The new Model tab can be used to create a drawing. When printing, users can use one or more Layout tabs to determine how the drawing will look when printed.

In IntelliCAD 5, the width of entities in a drawing can be controlled with the new lineweight feature. Users can assign lineweights to entities and layers and can also specify if they are to be displayed or printed. When multiple entities overlap, a user can change the order in which they are drawn and plotted. Draw order can be used to move entities to the front, back and on top of or below another entity.

IntelliCAD 5 also includes improved solid modeling, audit and recovery of damaged files, template files and improved printing support. Additional new features include support for i-drop, new system variables, improved documentation, a customizable status bar, new toolbars and improvements to the Trim, Extend and Offset commands.

If users have existing applications that were built using ADS or AutoLISP libraries, they can quickly use them in IntelliCAD, using the same languages and functions that they are accustomed to. IntelliCAD also includes a VBA object model.

The price for the base IntelliCAD 5 Standard edition is $249, but add-ons and options from members of the IntelliCAD Consortium can push the price upward substantially, depending on the options and features selected. A professional version of IntelliCAD 5 is available for $349.

IntelliCAD differs from the other applications here in that it's developed and marketed by a consortium, an independent organization of commercial software developers that has been established specifically for the purpose of licensing and coordinating broad future development of CAD technology.

The ITC (IntelliCAD Technology Consortium) licenses the IntelliCAD technology to commercial members, who in return receive source code, documentation, installation software, developer support and such to develop the technology into commercial CAD products.

Commercial members can offer options such as VBA, rendering, ACIS solid modeling, raster image display and other features. They can also add their own improvements or applications. There is no one IntelliCAD product, but rather a variety of products based on IntelliCAD technology. A complete list of current commercial members authorized to provide stand-alone versions of IntelliCAD, and products that are powered by IntelliCAD technology, can be found at

Cadopia (, for example, offers a collection of symbols for its versions of IntelliCAD. Autodsys ( adds capabilities such as bird's-eye view, a block manager and an Autolayer feature based on AIA or custom standards. Its version of IntelliCAD also comes with a bonus toolkit that contains 75 tools such as flatten, revision cloud, block count and curved text. BricsCAD ( offers an IntelliCAD version, BricsCAD v5, that supports the company's add-ons for architectural and structural design.

IntelliCAD is an alternative development platform for CAD application developers. It provides DWG file compatibility, as well as support for industry standard commands, menu files, script files, shape files, text files, hatch patterns, linetypes, LISP commands, ADS/C++ programs and VBA.

VDRAFT AutoCAD Drafting System


Price: $250, $100 educational seat (includes modeling program)

800.877.1875, 360.676.0999

Softsource's Vdraft (short for Virtual Drafter) is a highly customizable design application with a wealth of features and compatibility with a variety of AutoCAD DWG file formats. Its simplicity and direct approach makes Vdraft a good system to use for teaching CAD drafting, and it runs well on standard PCs with Windows 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP. Priced at $250, Vdraft falls near the middle of this group of products.

IntelliCAD 5 Standard Edition offers an array of drawing tools and uses DWG as its native file format.
IntelliCAD 5 Standard Edition offers an array of drawing tools and uses DWG as its native file format.

Vdraft's improved hyperlinks are now compatible with AutoCAD hyperlinks. Simply hold the <Shift> key down and move the mouse over a drawing object to view the hyperlink information, then click to load the Web page.

A sketch mode, Sketch Freehand, is incorporated into Vdraft for making fast sketches of ideas before committing them to a drawing.

With Vdraft, users can view or edit multiple drawings simultaneously and easily cut or copy and paste elements between drawings.

Included with Vdraft is a 226-page printed, spiral-bound manual that includes some very useful appendices. For example, an appendix, Type in this AutoCAD Command, shows the equivalent Vdraft pull-down menu for accessing the command and the command(s) that Vdraft executes. This is great for users familiar with AutoCAD commands to learn how Vdraft functions. Commands are broken down alphabetically and by groups, such as AutoCAD system variables and dimensioning commands, and there's a section on Vdraft-specific commands.

The illustrated manual covers the basics of Vdraft—drawing setup, blocks, xrefs, attributes, dimensioning and working with drawing spaces and layouts, among other topics. Another useful section covers sharing data with other users and other programs, as well as a listing of Vdraft keyboard shortcuts. The documentation is extensive and very well done. Vdraft also continues to offer an excellent online AutoCAD Help system that provides quick reference to supported AutoCAD commands and where they are located in the menu structure. Many Vdraft commands use AutoCAD terminology, among them blocks, polylines, layers and attributes. For those interested in checking out Vdraft, a trial version is available from the company's Web site.

Vdraft Internet Tools provide instructors with a way to show real-world examples of on-line CAD drawings, such as the Army Corps of Engineers CADD standards library and NASA Langley facilities drawings. Students can be exposed to real-world drawings and 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 existing CAD training programs.

In addition to its Vdraft design application, SoftSource also offers CADview for viewing and printing AutoCAD drawings. CADview has the ability to temporarily turn layers on and off and to measure. An AutoCAD/DXF plug-in gives users the power to view and print AutoCAD drawings in Netscape or Internet Explorer. Users can zoom in on drawing details, turn layers on and off and print the current view or entire drawing inside the Internet browser. Last but not least, SoftSource offers a SVF plug-in as a simple solution for access to SVF (simple vector format) drawings from a Web browser.

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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