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AECbytes Product Review (March 16, 2005)

AutoCAD 2006

Product Summary

AutoCAD is a comprehensive and powerful general-purpose CAD application that includes an extensive repertoire of tools for 2D drafting and documentation, with some added capabilities for 3D modeling and rendering.

Pros: Continues to be the de facto industry standard for 2D CAD; interface enhanced with a new dynamic input functionality that makes the command line optional for the first time in the application's 20 year old history; dynamic blocks allow multiple symbol representations within the same block, dramatically reducing the number of block libraries needed; attribute data can be directly extracted into tables in which simple math calculations can be done; several other improvements in annotation, hatching, interface, element creation and modification, and customization.

Cons: Pricey compared with other drafting applications; no improvements in 3D modeling and rendering capabilities, which remain sub-standard.

Price: $3750 per seat; $495, $995, and $1495 for upgrades from AutoCAD versions 2005, 2004, and 2002 respectively.

In my newsletter on Autodesk University 2004 held in December (see AECbytes Newsletter #16), I had briefly described some potential new functionality in AutoCAD that was announced in the general session. At that time, the specifics of the next release of AutoCAD were only revealed to media personnel and were under embargo until March 15. Now that the embargo has lifted, this review provides a detailed look at what AutoCAD 2006, due to ship on March 22, has to offer. This is the 20th release of the application, which makes it a rather momentous one.

Recall that the previous release of AutoCAD-which came exactly a year ago-was primarily focused on one key new feature, the Sheet Set Manager, which provided the ability to organize, create, and publish multiple drawing layouts into a single sheet set (see AECbytes Newsletter #6). There were several other enhancements related to drafting and productivity in AutoCAD 2005, but it still did not qualify as a major upgrade of the application compared to its predecessor, AutoCAD 2004 (see my review of AutoCAD 2004). From that perspective, AutoCAD 2006 fares better since it has made significant improvements to several different areas of the application. Let's see what these are.

The Command Line Finally Becomes Optional!

This is my personal favorite among all the new features in AutoCAD 2006. Autodesk has finally introduced a new way to interact with the application that makes the command line optional rather than mandatory. It is called dynamic input, and it comprises of three separate components as shown in Figure 1-a: pointer input, dimension input, and dynamic prompts. When all three components are active and you select a command, all coordinate and dimension values as well as command prompts are displayed near the cursor, and the values get dynamically updated as the cursor moves. These values can be edited here as required, instead of entering them in the command line. The Tab key is used to toggle between values, and the Down arrow key is used to access and select the options for a command. Figure 1-b shows how dynamic input is used for creating a shape with the Polyline command. As you can see, the Command window is now truly optional and has been turned off; previous versions did not provide this option. A new tab on the status bar, DYN, allows dynamic input to be turned on and off. You can also control the format and appearance of the dynamic input functionality by using the settings in the Drafting Settings dialog box, shown in Figure 1-a.

Figure 1. (a) The three separate components of Dynamic Input, which can be turned on or off as required. (b) Using Dynamic Input instead of the Command line to create a specified shape.

Long time readers will recall my review of AutoCAD 2002 in the Dec 2001 issue of Cadence magazine in which I criticized AutoCAD's continued reliance on the command-line interface, calling it a hangover of the MS-DOS operating system days and an aspect that could be very daunting to new users unaccustomed to typing in commands in contemporary software. My suggestion that AutoCAD eventually get rid of the command line sparked a deluge of reader responses and the ensuing heated debate was captured in Cadence AEC Tech News #63 and #64. I reiterated my criticism of this antiquated feature of AutoCAD's interface in my review of AutoCAD 2004. It is therefore, particularly heartening to me that Autodesk has finally heeded this criticism and realized that the command line can be distracting as it requires a constant change of focus from the cursor location to the command line and back again. The new dynamic input interface is a well designed solution to this problem, which will allow users to keep their focus on the drawing area. It is a long overdue step in the overall modernization of AutoCAD's interface.

Dynamic Blocks

One of the most frequently used aspects of AutoCAD, blocks, has undergone a dramatic overhaul in AutoCAD 2006. You can now create dynamic blocks in a new Block Editor interface, where you can add parameters and actions to a block to make it more flexible and intelligent. Parameters define custom properties by specifying positions, distances, and angles for the geometry in the block, while actions are associated with parameters and define how the geometry of a block placed in a drawing will move or change when it is manipulated. The manipulation is done with custom grips and properties that are automatically added to the block. Figure 2-a shows an example of a dynamic block representing a toilet in the Block Editor, showing nine different options for type, set as a Visibility parameter. This allows the same block to represent nine different toilet symbols, the choice of which can be made interactively when the block is placed in the drawing, as shown in Figure 2-b. In addition, for each of these different symbols defined within the block, additional parameters have been defined which allow the symbol to be flipped, rotated, and so on. You can cycle through multiple insertion points to determine which is the best suited to the current placement situation. Dynamic blocks also have the ability to automatically align themselves with other objects when the cursor moves close to drawing geometry during placement.

Figure 2 . (a) Viewing a predefined dynamic block in the Block Editor to see all its parameters. (b) Manipulating the visibility type of the block after placing it in the drawing.

The ability to define multiple symbol types within a block definition and associate each type with parameters that allow it to be varied in shape and size can dramatically reduce the number of block libraries that users have to rely upon for creating drawings. Essentially, you no longer have to create separate blocks for multiple variations of the same symbol. This also means reduced time for search and access of individual blocks. The Block Editor shown in Figure 2-a allows the creation of new dynamic blocks as well as the updating of existing blocks to make them dynamic. Some amount of training will be required before this feature can be used, since there are several different types of parameters and actions that can be applied to them (see the Block Authoring palettes in the Block Editor interface). Also, before you add parameters and actions to a block definition, you need to understand their dependencies on each other and on the geometry within the block. If the correct dependencies are not set up, the block reference will not function properly when placed in a drawing.

I found that a very limited set of dynamic blocks came with the application, and it will be a while before Autodesk and third party vendors provide a comprehensive set of dynamic blocks that can replace the use of the earlier static blocks. But it is definitely a step in the right direction, making the application more intelligent and simplifying the management of blocks.

More Efficient Attribute Data Extraction

AutoCAD 2006 improves upon the Attribute Extraction wizard that was introduced in AutoCAD 2002, which took you step by step through the process of attribute extraction, letting you choose which blocks and which attributes to extract information from. You also had the additional option of exporting this data to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or an Access database instead of simply saving it in text format, and then importing it back into AutoCAD as a table representing a schedule. This functionality has been greatly enhanced in AutoCAD 2006. You now have the option to extract attribute data from multiple drawings or an entire sheet set; previously, this aggregation would have to be done manually. Additional settings are also available that provide more control over which blocks to include. In the attribute selection page (see Figure 3-a), you can choose to exclude blocks without attributes and general block properties to avoid viewing unnecessary blocks and properties; you can also see a visual preview of the selected block. Before finalizing the output, you can preview the data, reorder the table elements, and sort the data before extracting it to an external file, an AutoCAD table, or both (see Figure 3-b). For extracting to a table, you can use a predefined table style; or you can save the format you define as a template for future use. An additional new feature is the ability to perform common calculations on the table data directly within AutoCAD, without resorting to an external spreadsheet application (see Figure 3-c). You can apply simple numeric operations such as Sum, Average, and Count; you can also create arithmetic expressions that combine addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, and exponentiation.

Figure 3 .(a) Selecting the required blocks and their attributes for extraction. (b) Finalizing the output of the table containing the extracted data. (c) Performing a simple Sum operation on the table data.

The direct extraction of attribute data into a table prevents the inconvenience of exporting the data to an external application for formatting and then importing it back again. And unlike manual aggregation of data into a table, the text in the automatically created table is linked to the attribute data. If the data changes, the user is informed and can simply refresh the table to update it. All mathematical calculations in the table will automatically be updated as well.

Improvements in Annotation and Hatching

AutoCAD 2006 provides a number of enhancements for annotating drawings. To start with, you can now edit text in-place instead of in the text editor, allowing you to better judge the size and location of the text in relation to the rest of the drawing. In-place editing works for both single-line and multi-line text. Creation of notes with lists has been simplified with new buttons and options to create lettered, numbered, and bulleted lists that automatically update when changes are made. Both these features are illustrated in Figure 4. Improvements in dimensioning include the ability to vary the linetypes of a dimension object without exploding it, new options that allow fixed length extension lines, a new Arc Length dimension, the ability to specify a jog angle to properly dimension large curves without having to explode the dimension, and a new Flip Arrow option for flipping the direction of either arrow on a dimension line.

Figure 4 .AutoCAD 2006 offers in-place text editing and easier creation of lists.

Hatching has been significantly overhauled in AutoCAD 2006, with additional functionality to position hatching properly and modify it easily. The hatch origin can now be easily specified while creating or editing a hatch using new Hatch origin controls in the Hatch, Gradient, and Hatch Edit dialog boxes. Previously, you could hatch an area by picking a point within its boundary but the entire boundary had to be visible in the display; now you can hatch within boundaries that extend beyond the visible display area, eliminating the need to zoom and pan. This makes it possible, for instance, to hatch the walls of an entire floor plan, even if you are zoomed into just one room. New options are available for adding, removing, and recreating hatch boundaries. The option is also available now to create separate hatch objects from the same hatch operation applied to multiple areas, allowing them to be separately edited later. And finally, a major improvement is in the ability to determine the area of a single hatch or multiple hatch objects by simply selecting them and viewing the Geometry information in the Properties window, as shown in Figure 5. This makes it very easy to determine the area of any collection of shapes in a drawing, be it a group of rooms, a corridor, a parking lot, and so on.

Figure 5. The new Area property for hatch objects allows a quick calculation of the total area of the five rooms to which a hatch pattern was applied.

Other New Features

AutoCAD 2006 has several other enhancements along various fronts. In addition to dynamic input, other interface enhancements include AutoComplete functionality for commands and system variables entered at the command line, and a new Recent Input option that lets you access recently used values including points, distances, angles, and strings in a context-sensitive fashion, depending upon the type of prompt. Zooming has been improved with smooth view transitions, allowing a dynamic display of zooming in and out. A new option allows consecutive zoom and pan operations to be grouped, so that it is easier and faster to return to previous views. A Selection Preview option enables highlighting of objects when the cursor moves over it, helping to minimize selection errors. Area selection is also facilitated by a new semi-transparent window that clearly identifies the selection area.

To enhance efficiency and productivity in object editing, many of the common AutoCAD editing commands have been updated to provide more consistent and efficient command interaction. For instance, the Copy command includes an Undo option that allows you to undo multiple copied objects within a single Copy operation; the Rotate and Scale commands include Copy options, which enable you to create a copy while rotating or scaling an object; the Offset command enables you to offset an object multiple times without exiting the command; and so on. A new Join command has been introduced to allow individual segments of like objects to be combined into a single object. Multiline objects have expanded options that make them easier to create and edit. Basic drawing creation is better facilitated by the ability to create your own drawing scales and add them to custom scale lists. A new QuickCalc tool is available for performing basic mathematical as well as advanced scientific calculations in any units, regardless of the Units setting in the drawing. It also allows conversion between a variety of metric and imperial units (see Figure 6) and enables you to define global constants and variables that remain persistent across AutoCAD drawings and sessions.

Figure 6. Using the built-in QuickCalc tool in AutoCAD 2006 for performing a conversion.

Customization in AutoCAD 2006 has been improved by providing a centralized location for creating and editing user interface components such as toolbars and menus. The old menu files (MNU, MNS, and MNC) have been replaced with an XML-based CUI (Custom User Interface) file and the old Customize dialog box has been replaced with a new Customize User Interface dialog box for managing all user interface components. It also includes a Transfer option for migrate existing MNU-based tools to the new CUI-based tools. You can save task-based User Interface schemes as workspaces, which can then be recalled whenever needed. Tool palettes can be enhanced with separator bars and descriptive text for better organization and explanation of tools. A new Drawing Recovery Manager allows backup files or automatically saved versions of drawings to be retrieved after AutoCAD unexpectedly terminates, without having to manually search through folders and rename file extensions. Merged objects can now be previewed in Plot Preview, and a published DWF file from AutoCAD 2006 can now include information such as block properties and attributes as well as sheet and sheet set properties, which was not available before. The transition process to AutoCAD 2006 from earlier releases has been made easier with the automatic migration of custom settings and files from a previously installed version, and by a New Features Workshop that tailors the learning information based on which previous release the user is coming from.

Analysis and Conclusions

In my cover story, "Should We BIM?" in the June 2003 issue of Cadence magazine, I had predicted that as Building Information Modeling gains momentum in the AEC industry, general-purpose 2D drafting applications such as AutoCAD would lose ground. Clearly, we haven't reached that stage yet. According to Autodesk, AutoCAD is hotter than ever, with sales up over 20% in 2004, marking the highest AutoCAD sales in history. Autodesk is continuing to push the use of BIM applications such as Revit and ADT, while at the same time prolonging the life of its flagship application-to which it owes most of its success-as much as possible. This explains the continued attempts to revitalize the application with new features and enhancements, geared towards improving ease of use and efficiency. The company has apparently planned out the specifics of four more annual releases, until AutoCAD 2010. Even the naming convention of the application reflects the desire to be perceived as ahead of the curve-all versions are named after the succeeding year of their release. Needless to say, from Autodesk's perspective, AutoCAD is not going to be retired anytime soon.

With regard to AutoCAD 2006, the enhancements and features that it offers are substantial and undeniably useful. In fact, most of them seem so obviously necessary that you can only wonder why the application didn't have them before and how you were able to function without them. It is particularly satisfying to see the improvements in AutoCAD's interface that will contribute towards making it smarter and easier to use. Some of these improvements seem very reminiscent of Revit's interface, and this cross-fertilization of ideas across products can only benefit users and should be welcomed.

The only aspect of AutoCAD that has been consistently untouched in several releases is its 3D modeling and rendering capabilities, which badly need improvement. I have kept pointing this out repeatedly in all my AutoCAD reviews, starting with version 2002. I hope Autodesk can either overhaul these capabilities soon, or else, eliminate them altogether. It would be doing a great service to its vast user base, most of whom don't use AutoCAD's 3D capabilities at all, by providing them with a leaner and less expensive top-of-the-line drafting application that makes no pretense at being something it is not.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

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