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Review of: AutoCAD Freestyle


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Review of AutoCAD Freestyle, by AutoDesk (Reviewed 2010-05)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola. Recipient of numerous engineering awards, including IEEE Outstanding Member of the Year.

Back in the mid-1980s, I taught AutoCAD classes. The program has come a long way since then, but a core problem with it has remained since the early days. Sometime in the late 1990s, Visio (an AutoDesk competitor) tackled this problem head. The problem was particularly acute for electrical engineers.

What problem are we talking about? You had to draw everything from scratch. You'd build your own library of objects or shapes. Now, imagine this. Thousands of users painstakingly drawing the same junction boxes, panels, and other common components. Building your library took time. If you were an established shop, you had a chance to readily accumulate these "plug in" drawings and amortize the labor time over all of your work effectively. But someone just buying the software and using it for the first time had a great deal of this grunt work to bang out for project after project.

One way beginners solved this was to draw off-grid to make a visual representation instead of a true electronic drawing. This created huge problems for another designer to add anything to the drawing and do any of the real time-saving automation CAD permitted. So quite often, the General Contractor would produce one of these off-grid drawings and everyone else (mechanical shop, electrical shop, architect) would redraw it from scratch.

I haven't worked with AutoCAD for several years, so I don't know if AutoDESK has solved this problem with it. I can see they certainly solved this problem with AutoCAD Freestyle. You can design a simple structure, such as a typical ranch home, in a single evening. With no training classes to attend first and without wading through a 3-inch "how to" book.

With AutoCAD Freestyle, AutoDESK has accomplished this extreme usability and "out of the box" ready to roll factor by several means.

  1. First of all, the software is intuitive and easy to use. The navigation and menus are logical.
  2. The program makes good use of interactive responses such as mouseovers.
  3. Context-sensitive help is available from the first page forward.
  4. When the program first opens, it offers you the "Learning Center." This even includes several short, yet well-done and informative videos.
  5. When you open the program for the second time, it doesn't assume you want to go directly to the Learning Center again. It does, however, dock the Learning Center toolbar at the bottom. Just in case.

This program offers some great handholding, without allowing it to get in the way. Plus, there's a ton of support via a help feature that actually is helpful (I personally find that rather amazing), an online learning center, user forums (not something I care to use, but others might), and some other tools for getting your questions answered.

Now, what about those objects and shapes? Well, yes, it does have an extensive collection of those (including people and cars, not just building components) in its Symbols library. But it takes you to the next level of getting the job done by providing you with a nice collection of drawing templates you can start from. The symbols can snap to various points in the drawings you make from these templates.

So instead of drawing lines, arcs, and other elements from scratch to build a drawing shell and then to build what goes inside, you can assemble most of your drawing from "prefab" that you can drag, drop, and edit as needed.

It does this same thing with dimensions and lines, plus it has a nifty text tool. The use of layers was complicated for many years, but in AutoCAD Freestyle layers are a breeze to work with. That's good news for anyone who doesn't do CAD several hours a week to stay sharp on it but needs to collaborate on drawings. It's also good news for someone who has to manage the project layer assignments in a collaboration setting.

Put all of this together, and it means you can quickly produce professional-quality drawings to scale with dimensions, drawing notes, and layers. And you can save drawings in that mandatory (for engineering projects, anyhow) *.dwg format. I don't know if there are limitations to those files if you subsequently open them in AutoCAD.

Many years ago, after the version of AutoCAD I was using had become long out of date, I tried AutoCAD LT. If memory serves, I gave up on it because it didn't produce full AutoCAD drawings. Or maybe it couldn't open them. Something wasn't right, whatever it was.

File format problems seemed to be inherent in AutoCAD when I was a user, though this may not be a problem in the more recent releases. I noticed AutoCAD Freestyle does let you save as PDF. And it's a true PDF, meaning you can search for text on it. You can save in some other formats, also.

Something I did not like about file saving in AutoCAD Freestyle is it wants to save the data file inside the application folder. I never save data on my OS hard drive, much less in an application folder. That is just monumentally stupid. The program does provide the full Windows "Save As" functionality, so you can easily save the file to a data drive or folder. I just think the default should be some place sensible, or at least the program should prompt you for a data file location on that first save and remember it.

One of the problems I had with the early versions of docking toolbars and docking palettes was they occluded your work area and you wasted a lot of time dragging them around in and out of the way. Programs such as DreamWeaver fixed this by allowing you to click arrows to maximize and minimize, and this functionality is nicely executed in AutoCAD Freestyle. Plus you can drag these to wherever you like.

I'm very impressed with this program. It's also priced just about right. I mentioned Visio, earlier. I think if you're looking for a good basic drawing program, you need to look at Visio as well as AutoCAD Freestyle. You probably can't go wrong either way, but one may be more suited to you than the other. I'd suggest potential Visio buyers also check out AutoCAD Freestyle.