MacDraft 5.5 QE, by Microspot
Posted: 18-Dec-2004

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Microspot Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Marc Haptonstall Class: PRODUCTIVITY

Overview
Looking for a powerful, feature-rich tool for your engineering, architectural or technical illustration needs? Whether you're a professional or the just meticulous type who is a stickler for details, the folks at Microspot may have just what you're looking for in their latest release of MacDraft, version 5.5 QE. MacDraft is a 2D CAD (Computer Aided Design) application that has been around for many years despite the continued competition. MacDraft offers CAD users of all levels a complete set of tools for highly detailed design, drafting and technical illustration drawings. Microspot offers a second version of MacDraft: MacDraft PE V5.5 QE. To minimize consumer confusion with their product offerings, they have kept each product's version numbers consistent. "What's with the alphabet soup?" you wonder? Well Microspot did have the Mac user's best interest at heart in standardizing both products around the OS X native graphics engine, Quartz Graphics, so they added the suffix "QE" (Quartz Edition) to the product name to reflect this enhancement. The "PE" (Personal Edition) is the "lite" version designed for those who don't need the extra horsepower. More about the specific differences later in the review. If you are not sure if MacDraft is right for you, besides reading this review, you can go to
www.microspot.com and download their free demo. The "full" version is the subject of this review and retails for $349.

Requirements (minimum)

  • MacOS X 10.2
  • Macintosh w/G4 CPU
  • 8 MB free RAM
  • 20 MB hard disk space
  • Screen resolution 1024 x 768

This review was conducted on a 17" iMac with a 1.25 GHz PPC G4 with 768 MB RAM, running OS X V10.3.5

Setup
The installation was about as easy as it can get. The software comes on a single CD. Once the CD mounts, it opens a window displaying two folder choices: MacDraft or Microspot Demo Products. Simply drag and drop the MacDraft folder from the CD onto the desired location on your hard drive. There's no extraction/decompression effort involved. Launch the application and enter the serial number and you're done. While the recommended hard disk space is 20 MB, the full installation, including the sample files, tutorials and the electronic documentation, required 37.5 MB. The application itself and the documentation require 20.9 MB (including the 2.1 MB addendum to the manual), which is more in line with the advertised disk space requirements.

In Use
I had started a design of a large deck several years ago using an earlier version of MacDraft (v3, I think), so I welcomed the opportunity to see what improvements Microspot had done to the product. My previous version of MacDraft had been "lost" with the old Mac, but I still had the design file from a previous documents folder backup. The old design file opened with v5.5 with no major problems. The only issues dealt with object arrangement, primarily dimension lines were not all at the front. Some were behind other objects. This was relatively simple to correct. All object properties, layer definitions and even the fills were retained just as I left them.


Figure 1 - MacDraft project window (without deck board layer shown)


Figure 2 - MacDraft project window (with deck board layer shown)


Two of MacDraft's most useful features are the ability to work in layers (even across layers; i.e.: selecting an object on a different layer from the one currently active) and it's extensive dimensioning capabilities. It provides full support for both ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and international standard dimensioning. The dimensioning feature that came in very handy for me was the linked dimensioning feature. As you change (resize or move) an object that is dimensioned, MacDraft automatically updates the dimension information.

As you can see from figures above, MacDraft's tools are heavily palette focused. Many of the buttons on the palettes have sub-functions to reduce the overall button count and resultant clutter. For the most part, the function of each palette is obvious due to its buttons or the descriptive text presented by hovering over a button for a few seconds. Every palette can be positioned anywhere on your screen. You are not constrained to the document window. This provides you with a "clutter-free" workspace. Microspot added a new palette - the Resize Palette (see the large square palette in Figure 1). At first look, the function of this palette is not obvious, but after you use it a few times, you recognize it without giving a second thought.

The Show Size palette (not a new one), is a different matter. When I first opened this palette, I thought that I had found a bug. The palette opened completely blank, except for the close button. (This palette is shown in both figures above as the long empty rectangle in the lower left hand corner of the workspace.) I selected an object expecting it to show me the object's size, but the palette was still blank. So, I consulted the PDF manual and did a search on the Show Size palette and learned that it functioned as designed. It wasn't until I tried to move or modify the object that the palette proved its usefulness. The Show Size palette opens as a blank pallet and does not display any info until an object is selected and it is modified or moved. In some ways, this palette is redundant with the Resize palette as both can perform some of the same functions with respect to the object position as moved. One suggestion for a future "enhancement" that would benefit the user would be having the Show Size and Resize Palettes identified as to their name; but I guess that with familiarity, this will become less of an "issue".

In the Overview, I mentioned that MacDraft V5.5 QE takes full advantage of the new OS X native graphics engine, Quartz Graphics. This new engine greatly improves the quality of object fills and line distinctions. You can actually tell the difference between a hairline and a 0.5pt line. V5.5 QE also supports multiple layers, something that MacDraft PE 5.5 does not. On the other hand, V5.5 PE is about $220 cheaper. There are other limitations of the Personal Edition that account for the lower cost, but that would be the subject for another review.

Layers within same document can have different scales and you can merge multiple layers into a single layer. Another feature that many may find valuable is the ability to import/export professional graphics file formats (AutoCAD) DXF & DWG. I had some DWG files from a work project that MacDraft opened with ease. This is another one of the features that is not available with the Personal Edition, one that most home users would never need.

I tried out the new features in v5.5 and was very impressed for the most part. The Transparency feature allows you to vary the opacity of lines, fills, text and imported pictures (another new feature) from 0-100% opacity. Some of the deck boards shown in Figure 2 have the opacity set to 50% to help identify where the gaps will fall relative to the floor joists/beams. MacDraft now can work with pictures, supporting PICT, TIFF, JPEG, BMP and GIF formats. Pictures can be treated like any other object, i.e.: resized, rotated and have the transparent effect applied. Microspot seems to be broadening the capabilities of their 2D CAD product into the technical illustration market in ways similar to Canvas and Adobe Illustrator, although I doubt many graphic artists will abandon Illustrator for MacDraft. They are simply not in the same market.

For those of us who make mistakes and don't immediately realize it or like to constantly tinker with their design until we get it just right, MacDraft now offers Multiple Undos. It remembers the last 100 actions.

One of the "older" features of MacDraft (still in the product) is the reporting feature based on the integrated data base. Reports can be used for project estimating and generating Bill of Materials. The reports are automatically updated as you make changes to your drawings. The data can be exported as a tab-delimited file for use by other applications. The database also enables objects that are defined in the database to be found/replaced quickly in selected or all layers. This is very beneficial, especially for those persons who would use the product in the business world.

Speaking of use in the business world, Microspot offers an extensive library of symbols for architects, engineers and contractors. These additional libraries (5 currently, containing about 2000 symbols) are available at extra cost ($129 for all five on CD). You can also create your own symbol and use it in any future design if you just need a few or they don't have what you need.

I did find a couple minor bugs with the new Resize palette in how it dealt with data in the "X Position" field for a circle (other objects did not exhibit this anomoly). The field data is not always right justified like the "Y Position" field data is and seems duplicated. When the field is highlighted, however, the correct information is shown (see figures 3 and 4 below). However, when horizontally repositioning the circle using the arrow keys on the keyboard, the circle is moved in increments that are consistent with the grid spacing (1/2" x 1/2"), and all the position data is properly displayed in the field (figure 5).


Figure 3 - Duplicate X Position


Figure 4 - Highlighted


Figure 5 - Keyboard movement


I tried to duplicate this anomoly with a newly created circle and could not duplicate. I attribute this "glitch" to something slightly different in the circle created in the older version of MacDraft that the new version doesn't quite like.

Another bug I found has to do with the checkmark in the View/Palettes/Resize menu that indicates that the palette is "active". The checkmark is not always present when the palette is shown. Selecting the Resize palette, as if to show it, causes the palette to close. Checking the Resize palette option again opens the palette and the checkmark is shown. On occasion (I tried several other times on different days to duplicate with limited success), the checkmark disappears after a different application window is selected as the active window then returning to the MacDraft window. In the picture below, note that the Resize palette is active but the menu option is not checked. There seems to be a relation to the use of Exposé to change active windows with this anomoly. Changing via the dock did not affect the menu for the Resize option.


Figure 6 - Resize palette open but not checked


As with any new feature, tweaks are expected and the Resize palette is no exception, but the bugs I found are minor. In my opinion, both "bugs" are purely cosmetic, and for the majority of users, would never be encountered. Neither are "show stoppers" or significant shortcomings of the product.

You definitely will want to keep the electronic (PDF) manual on your Mac. The printed manual that comes with MacDraft is a massive 560+ pages. The manual is well laid out and very extensive and helpful in explaining how each function performs and is loaded with screen/window shots to guide the user through the explanation. Of course there are those individuals who would rather thumb through a book when seeking help (I'm one of those "old-fashioned" types), but the electronic document makes great use of embedded PDF links to referenced topics. I'll have to admit, having your Mac search the manual for you for your answer and find all related topics is hard to beat. The entire manual is readily available through the built-in help feature of the program. It works equally well using Adobe Acrobat Reader or Apple Preview.

Summary
MacDraft has been around for some time and has survived among stiff competitors such as Deneba Canvas, CorelDRAW, IMSI TurboCAD and who can forget the Claris offerings: MacDraw and ClarisDraw? Of those, only Canvas is still shipping a CAD product for the Mac. Over the years I've used all the above products (except CorelDRAW), including the latest version of Canvas (v9). In my opinion MacDraft v5.5 QE is by far the easiest CAD program and it costs less. On the other hand, Canvas has some very powerful technical illustration features that MacDraft simply does not have (nor is designed to have), so I believe that MacDraft would have a greater appeal to the masses if it were priced another $50 less.

The bottom line is that MacDraft v5.5 Quartz Edition is a very powerful 2D CAD application that is loaded with advanced features normally reserved for high-end, high-dollar CAD applications. For the user who is familiar with the CAD environment, you will find MacDraft quick to learn. For the user who is new to CAD, the intuitiveness of the palettes and the on-screen prompts for many tools will have you creating professional quality designs in a very short amount of time. In my opinion, MacDraft is the best 2D CAD application for the Mac on the market.

Pros

  • Free demo
  • Ease of use
  • Implementation of OS X Quartz Graphics engine
  • Transparency feature
  • Integrated database and reporting
  • Excellent documentation

Cons

  • Cosmetic glitches in new Resize palette
  • Show Size palette function not immediately obvious
  • Could be priced more aggressively against Canvas


Overall Rating

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice