Feature-rich AutoCAD 2000 debuts

Autodesk Inc. has dubbed the new release of its flagship product "AutoCAD 2000," instead of Release 15, to symbolize the move into the next millennium. For AutoCAD, the next millennium begins with a bang: The new release adds 400 or so features, including significant changes to the user interface.

Keeping in mind that the transition to AutoCAD 2000 probably will not be as smooth as upgrading to Release 14, this is a hot upgrade.

Among the most welcome of AutoCAD 2000's new features is the program's real-time object snap tracking, together with the new polar tracking.

As the user draws, AutoCAD shows geometric relationships, such as the precise midpoint of an object or the center of an arc. The new parallel object snap shows when one object is precisely parallel to another. When polar snap is turned on (15 degrees is a value useful for most kinds of drafting), AutoCAD displays a dashed construction line whenever the cursor is at the 15-degree increment, along with a tooltip showing the distance and angle.

In another nice enhancement, most objects now can take on a width, called "lineweight" by AutoCAD. Note that you first need to turn the feature on (via the new LWeight command) to see the thicker lines.

Also with the new release, AutoCAD finally can load more than one drawing at a time. This has implications for those who use the xref (externally referenced drawings) feature because you can edit the xrefs at the same time. Layout mode has replaced paper space. It allows users to create multiple layouts, accessed by tabs under the drawing area, that are suitable for plotting and presentations.

The new Properties dialog box displays all the data that AutoCAD knows about an object. The dialog box allows you to change most properties interactively. This one dialog box eliminates the need for about a half-dozen commands in older versions of AutoCAD.

The new AutoCAD DesignCenter is meant for project management: It allows you to view thumbnails of other drawings as well as pre-drawn symbols, and it allows you to copy standard objects, such as linetypes and layers, from one drawing to another.

AutoCAD 2000 also improves on some features first incorporated in Release 14. The last release had introduced hyperlinks to AutoCAD, but they were not "hot" until exported in an Internet file format. AutoCAD 2000 makes hyperlinks live in drawings. This lets users create, for example, a set of construction documents by linking a master drawing with construction drawings and contract documents.

And some features that had been an extra-cost option in earlier releases are now included free with AutoCAD 2000, including the Visual LISP programming environment and Express Tools, which is a collection of productivity enhancements. However, I was surprised to see useful features found in the lower-cost AutoCAD LT 99, released last fall, not included in AutoCAD 2000. These include unlimited redo, drag-and-drop hatching and dialog boxes for the Purge and Array commands. Perhaps we'll see those features included in AutoCAD 2002.

Some improvements may not be welcome by all users. For example, command prompts have been cleaned up so that the wording is clearer and there are fewer "hidden" options. A dozen or more command names have disappeared, which may trip up longtime AutoCAD users as well as programming scripts they may have written.

Performance a Mixed Bag

New features, of course, sometimes come with a price, in terms of performance. In some operations, AutoCAD 2000 is somewhat slower than its predecessor. Generally, however, it is as fast or faster.

I timed AutoCAD Release 14 and AutoCAD 2000 on a 400 MHz Pentium-based system. The time to initially load the program is the same for both versions.

Regeneration time, which is the time AutoCAD takes to refresh the drawing from the file, is also the same.

Loading a sample drawing file, Watch.Dwg, provided by Autodesk, took 12 seconds with Release 14 but 20 seconds with AutoCAD 2000. This 3-D drawing loads the ACIS solid modeler DLLs and displays an embedded raster image.

I think the newer AutoCAD is slower because it opens additional views, known as "layouts," that contribute to the delay. I found one dialog box in particular, the Dimension Styles Manager, to be painfully slow. (Autodesk technical support told me that only one other user has reported this problem. The Autodesk technicians believed that the slowness was caused by my hardware configuration, and said the company is working to find a solution.)

In other operations, AutoCAD 2000 is faster. The new 3DOrbit command, for example, allows users to zoom, pan and rotate fully rendered 3-D models in real time.

Autodesk recommends installing AutoCAD 2000 on a 133 MHz Pentium with 64M of RAM and a 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution screen. I usually run AutoCAD 2000 on a 400 MHz Pentium II with 192M of RAM, but I also was able to load the software on a 75 MHz 486 notebook computer with 20M of RAM.

Hardware configuration is automatic. AutoCAD simply uses the Windows system devices already configured for your computer. Of course, some AutoCAD users have specialized input and output devices, such as digitizing tablets and large-format ink-jet plotters.

For digitizing tablets, AutoCAD supports the WinTab standard. And AutoCAD supports printers and large-format plotters compatible with PostScript as well as with printer languages from Hewlett-Packard Co., Oce Printing Systems USA Inc. and Xerox Corp. Unfortunately, to optimize the plotter with AutoCAD, you'll need to run the Plotter Manager wizard, which is a piece of software that we found complicated to use.

Installing AutoCAD is the same as all other large Windows 95/98/NT applications. You insert the CD-ROM, type the serial number and CD key and select the options you want installed. A full installation takes just more than 200M of disk space. A minimal installation occupies about 70M.

After AutoCAD is installed, you need to obtain an authorization code from the Autodesk, although you can continue using the program for 30 days without the code. That's a good thing because neither the automated e-mail nor the World Wide Web site options for registration worked for me. That left fax, e-mail, a phone call or a letter as registration options.

To share multiple copies of AutoCAD over a network, you need to install the Autodesk License Manager. This software allows many users to run a single copy of AutoCAD over the network, up to the number of licenses purchased.

Gaps in Documentation

I have worked with a dozen or more CAD packages over the years. One area that Autodesk excels in is documentation. In general, every aspect of AutoCAD's operation, commands and programming is documented in detail. I did find, however, that a few new features were not as extensively documented.

To help with the transition from Release 14 to AutoCAD 2000, Autodesk includes a migration package. This collection of software analyzes your drawing files, AutoLISP routines, menus files, toolbar macros and command aliases. It then helps you convert these into AutoCAD 2000-compatible versions. Of special note is that AutoCAD 2000 DWG files are 100 percent round-trip compatible with Release 13 and 14.

-- Grabowski is the author of 30 books about AutoCAD, including The Illustrated AutoCAD 2000 Quick Reference (Delmar Publishers).He can be reached at ralphg@xyzpress.com.

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Autodesk Inc.(800) 964-6432www.autodesk.com

* Price and Availability: Available on DLT Solutions' General Services Administration schedule for $2,325. For more information, call (800) 603-4834.

* Remarks: AutoCAD 2000 makes significant changes to its user interface and the plotting process; greatly improves drafting assistance, 3-D viewing and project management; and enhances its Internet connectivity.

* Final Score: Very Good

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