Part I: CAD and AutoCAD

Chapter Three: The Software.

      1. What is AutoCAD
        1. CADvise: you get what you pay..
      2. Operating Systems
        1. Window NT
        2. Windows 95 and 98
        3. Windows 3.1 and DOS
        4. UNIX, Linux OS/2, Mac
      3. AutoCAD 'Releases'
        1. release 2000
        2. release 14
        3. earlier releases
        4. specialized packages
      4. Training
        1. magazines and trade journals
        2. the internet
        3. CADvise: reality check often
        4. AutoCAD University
        5. user groups
        6. classes
        7. trade shows
        8. books

last chapter. AutoCAD Backstage home. AutoCAD Backstage Index. next chapter.

What is AutoCAD:

AutoCAD is the leading professional CAD software designed for the PC market. AutoCAD is produced by Autodesk and sold only through Autodesk authorized dealers. Autodesk also produces a stripped down version of AutoCAD called AutoCAD LT. AutoCAD LT has most of the 2D drafting cababilities of AutoCAD and will serve the needs of many drafters. Not all of the techniques outlined in this book, will work for AutoCAD LT. AutoCAD LT is sold through standard software suppliers and costs a lot less than AutoCAD. There are also several inexpensive CAD packages available which may or may not serve your particular needs.

The chief reason that many users stay with a market leader is compatability. AutoCAD drawing files can be transferred electronically and used with little or no editing by another company, designer, contractor, or whomever. On the other hand, if your company uses a CAD package from a discount store, those AutoCAD files may be of no use at all. Secondly, it is much easier to find drafters familiar with AutoCAD than other lesser know CAD programs.

You get what you pay for. Don't spend money on, and more importantly time learning, a software that will not serve your long term drafting needs.

While less expensive drafting packages may not require the same system resources that AutoCAD does, CAD is graphics intensive by nature and will require a computor that can handle a lot of graphical information. Computor games, graphical softeware and graphical platforms are all pushing the hardware envelope, to the benefit of the CAD market.

chapter index.

The Operating System:

Hardware and software are is such a rapid state of flux that it is difficult to stay ahead of it. Whatever is current at the time I write may be two generations old before you read it. I should also warn you: I am not a software expert, so use this as a guide to ask questions, not as a bible. That said...

AutoCAD, in the past, could be obtained for many operating systems, or platforms, from small, affordable computer systems, chiefly the Macintosh or IBM PC compatibles, to larger RISC based workstations. AutoCAD was a DOS product that was ported over to other operating systems or platforms. AutoCAD is now firmly entrenched in the Microsoft Windows/Intel world, with little or no support for other operating systems or platforms. There is no DOS version of the most recent releases of AutoCAD. AutoDesk has dropped all support for Macintosh and appears to have little interest in Alpha stations or OS/2. These days, AutoCAD basically requires a Wintel system.

Phil Kreiker, an AutoCAD dealer, programmer and columnist for CADalyst, claims that Windows NT is the fastest platform for running AutoCAD, including UNIX based workstations. Phil further suggests that UNIX is a terrible platform for AutoCAD users. Windows NT is Autodesk's recommended platform, followed by Windows 98. I trust Phil's judgement on this matter.

The difference between Windows 95 and Windows NT is essentially that Windows NT is designed for the "serious business user." They are both 32-bit platforms. Windows 98 is designed for the "toaster" approach, plug in peripheral devices and Windows 98 will make them work ("plug & play"). Windows 98 includes limited networking capabilities. Windows 98 is designed for the x86 processors only.

Windows NT on the other hand is designed for both x86 and RISC processor machines. It is generally a much more robust platform with greater crash protection and full multi-threading (simultaneous processing or devise operations). NT is also very difficult to configure and is not as well supported by device manufacturers.

Windows NT will not run all windows software, and some hardware will not work with Windows NT without special software drivers, if they exist. Windows NT is not for the computor neophyte. I have used both Windows 98 and Windows NT 4.0 with AutoCAD. The performance difference isn't great. However, the fiddle factor can seriously tap the time and patience of users who don't understand all the inner workings of the operating system. Windows NT is platform of choice only for power users.

Windows 2000 will eliminate the question by merging the two platforms, for better or worse. There will undoubtably be levels of Windows 2000 packages, much like Windows NT today comes in a Workstation version for stand alone computers or small networks and a Network version for medium size networks.

For optimum performance, Autodesk offers several suggestions for tuning Windows:

Get more RAM.
32 megabytesis an absolute minimum. AutoCAD users suggest 64 megabytes as the minimum for smooth operation of AutoCAD release 13 or 14 in Windows NT. If you are working with large 3d drawings 256 megabytes of RAM is definately not too much
The virtual swapfile must be large.
Autodesk suggests 4 times the size of your RAM. To change the virtual swapfile size: in Windows 95 or 98: open the Control Panel, System, Performance, Virtual Memory Section. Change the Virtual Memory to permanent with a large file size. This will wall off a section of the hard drive, so use Scandisk and Defrag first. Make sure there is room. Never fill the hard drive. Leave lots of room for temporary files.
STATUS command.
The STATUS command will tell you what your memory demands in a given drawing are.
Check the ReadMe.doc in the ACADWIN directory.

If your company already has a large network or at least an installed base of computers, it may make sense to stay with the common platform. That assumes that the platform is supported by Autodesk and still has some life to it. Advice, software and that occasional emergency floppy will be much easier to get, if you are using a similar system to your colleagues. Networking with an existing system is simpler with a compatible computer.

It is important that you talk to your AutoCAD dealer before making any equipment or software purchases. Failure to do so can cost you a lot of time and money. Your dealer can give you the best advice. Talk to several dealers. Find the dealer that uses AutoCAD themselves and convinces you that they understand what they are selling. When you run into trouble, which you will, you want a dealer who has answers. Bad advice can cost you plenty. If your dealer can't solve your AutoCAD problems have them conference call the Autodesk technicians.

chapter index.

AutoCAD, Releases:

Like most software, AutoCAD continually being improved and updated. Each significant new version is given a new Release number and feted with a lot of marketing hoopla. The current version is AutoCAD2000. There still a larger number of AutoCAD release14 users.

AutoCAD is forward compatible. This means a Release 10 file can be opened and edited in Release 13, but AutoCAD Release 13 files are not backwards compatible to earlier releases without conversion. As a rule, assume that drawings produced in a later release are not compatible with earlier releases. The one exception is between Release 11 and Release 12, which are fully compatible in both directions. The reason for this is that Autodesk continues to add capabilities to AutoCAD by altering the file structure. Earlier releases are unable to recognize new parts of the file.

AutoCAD Release 13 files are 30 to 40% larger than Release 12 files owing to new information stored in the file format. This is part of the reason that some commands take longer when using Release 13. Release 11 files are larger than Release 10 files for the same reason. Release 11 and 12 files are identical. Release 13 can save files in a Release 12 format, Other backwards or cross-CAD translation is possibe with the correct translation software.

As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, AutoCAD LT is a low cost version of AutoCAD which does not include all of the capabilities of AutoCAD. AutoCAD LT will open and edit AutoCAD files from compatable releases. AutoCAD LT is intended as a low price CAD program and is often used along side of AutoCAD as a platform for the occasional user, adding a second AutoCAD station cheaply. Full AutoCAD must be bought from a dealer, whereas AutoCAD LT can be bought from any software supplier.

AutoDesk has also packaged specialized versions of AutoCAD for separate industries such as mapping (GIS), architectural and mechanical assemblies. Backstage AutoCAD generally comes closest to "Architectural Desktop" released for architects and construction industries. I have never been convinced of any need for architectural specific features and remain with plain vanilla AutoCAD. Because I am not familiar with Architectural Desktop, I cannot give advice on the subject. The fact is that I draw up mechanical assemblies for parts fabrication, electronic layouts for panel assemblies, conduit runs and circuit diagrams, plumbing layouts for air and water lines (I do water shows currently), landscape or architectural layouts, depending on whether the project is indoors or out, and finally 3d models for renderings. Those of us in the entertainment industry don't often pigeonhole in traditional fields. We are by nature "Jack of all trades".

chapter index.


Unless you or your present personnel are already whizzes at AutoCAD, some training will be to your advantage. AutoCAD does take time to learn. Get a book on AutoCAD drafting even before you decide to buy a system. This will give you a feel for how drafting in AutoCAD works. Take a training course at the local college. And read this book. When I got my first AutoCAD system, I jumped in and started drawing. I had read a tutorial, and the local college assured me that I was already at intermediate level. This made me confident and totally unaware of huge mistakes I was about to be making.

The first show I drafted on the computer was My Fair Lady for Houston Grand Opera using AutoCAD release 11. When I finished, I saved my files to floppy disks for storage. This was my first hard learned lesson. Saving to disk required eight 1.44 Megabyte disks. My drawing style was clearly clumsy and inefficient. I quickly learned to change my drawing style and brought my drawing sizes down so that they would fit in a reasonable one or two megabytes. After six months, I was still making major changes to my drawing style. I was forced to edit many of my earlier drawings. By the end of a year I managed to find a fairly stabile system of drafting, although I still find ways to improve my technique.

The two leading CAD magazines, CADalyst and CADence are usually provided free for a year to registered AutoCAD owners. Both magazines are similar and provide excellent AutoCAD tutorials, reviews of CAD related hardware and software and industry news. They both have excellent websites.

The internet has hundreds of websites for AutoCAD users (see: Appendix A). There are lots of very pricey training programs, including those endorsed by AutoDesk. There are also user groups and helpful user websites with training, free or shareware downloads and lots of links to other sites. AutoDesk has extensive resources on its website. One of the largest user groups is AutoDesk User Group International (AUGI) which has online training by AUGI volunteers. AUGI also publishes a small but useful newletter WorldView, which available through membership or on their website.

Reality check often by seeking out other AutoCAD users and talking shop.

The best place to find other users it at a local user group. Most major metropolitan areas have AutoCAD user groups. These provide continued learning, discussion forums, and opportunities to meet trade representatives. Most community colleges provide AutoCAD training including advanced AutoCAD and AutoCAD certificate testing. Preferrably choose one endorsed by AutoDesk. Continued training is another opportunity to meet and talk to other users at your level.

Trade shows offer excellent opportunities to meet other users, see hardware and software demonstrations and hear speakers discuss relevant topics. From the user's point-of-view, "Autodesk University" is the place to be. Autodesk University offers productivity classes and technical training, as well as the AUGI play pen for hands-on testing. The Autodesk website offers schedules, locations and other details. AUGI also has their own on the road technology events for Autodesk users (see their website).

You should also have at least one good AutoCAD book. There are several excellent beginning and advanced tutorials, books on customizing AutoCAD, and troubleshooting books.

For those who do not draft constantly, the learning curve will be longer. The main purpose for this book is to shorten the learning curve and to let you, the drafter, get to a stabile drafting system quickly. This is only a guide. Develop the style of approach that works for you. Never be daunted by the prospects. Even though I started out making mistakes, my productivity stayed high. As I learned better computer drafting techniques, my productivity increased dramatically. Like getting a fax machine, you will soon wonder how you ever got on without AutoCAD.

chapter index.

last chapter. AutoCAD Backstage home. AutoCAD Backstage Index. next chapter.

Copyright © 1999 Wm W Wells. All rights reserved.