SketchUp, by @Last Software
Posted: 7-Apr-2006

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: @Last Software Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Rich Bushey Class: PRODUCTIVITY

Overview
SketchUp is a 3D design application which claims to offer a combination of simplicity, power, elegance and spontaneity, with a capability to give drawings a rough, hand-drawn feel as well as a more polished technical drawing appearance. It differs from conventional CAD software in focusing on support for the conceptual stages of design rather than the nitty gritty detail of a final design.

Features

  • Push/Pull Tool - enables you to click on a shape and simply push or pull it to create your desired 3D geometry.
  • "Sketchy" Rendering - lets you visually "soften" your drawings with rendering effects like jitter lines, extended edges and dynamic profiles.
  • Material Exploration - experiment with color and texture directly on your model.
  • Accurate Realtime Shadows - lets you see exactly where the sun falls as you model, allowing unprecedented dynamic solar planning.
  • Interactive Sections - allows you to place cutting planes interactively, and to move them around as you are modeling to dynamically reveal inner details of your model.
  • Versatile Component Architecture - Quickly organize geometry for convenient selection, while keeping it isolated from other lines and faces in your model.
  • Dimensions and Annotation - pull out dynamic dimension strings as you work, or call attention to a special feature.
  • Imports and Exports - import a DWG/DXF site plan as a starting point for design, work up a quick 3d model, then export back to DWG/DXF to create construction documents. SketchUp also exports 3DS, VRML, PDF, EPS, JPG, TIF, PNG and a variety of other file formats for use in all kinds of projects.


System Requirements

  • Mac OS X v10.3 or later
  • G5/1GHz processor or faster
  • 512MB RAM
  • QuickTime 5.0 and web browser for multimedia tutorials
  • 3 button scroll-wheel mouse
  • 80MB free hard disk space
  • A modern browser - Mozilla, Netscape, 1.5 or higher
  • 100% OpenGL compliant video card

Price

$495


Installation
The Sketchup disk image is downloaded from
Last Software's web site. Once the disk image is mounted, you simply drag the software from the mounted folder to your Applications folder. Upon first running the software, you will need to enter your serial number and product key to unlock the trial-mode.

First Impressions
SketchUp is a hoot to use. I started with the 3 tutorials that are installed with the program; each tutorial takes place in a window which is divided into two parts - left and right. The tutorial progresses step by step on the left and you copy the actions in your version on the right. The tutorial steps are shown in a row of buttons from 1 to 15 along the bottom of the top tool menu. As each step is completed, you are prompted to click the next button to move ahead and see the model built beginning to end. If you fail to do a step correctly, you can go back and try again.

The help files are well organized and quickly understood, with even more tutorials available online demonstrating features and techniques that can be put to use right away, in easy to follow flash videos. Last Software's website provides FAQ and user forums adding more opportunities for education.

SketchUp works with a toolbar palette (see picture to right) that gives you quick action to most of its features. The toolbar has tools for filling in objects, erasing, drawing, extending sides, rotating, zooming, and much, much more.

It's worth mentioning that you can download SketchUp for a free trial. However instead of the usual couple of weeks or 30 days, the SketchUp free trial is an unprecedentedly brief 8 hours from the first time you start the application. If you do take advantage of this offer, make sure you don't start the program until you have some time to devote to it.

In Use
Once I got into using the tool, I was impressed with how easy it was to get started. The tutorials definitely helped. In one of the tutorials, I used SketchUp to create a simple house with a side-load garage.

To start off the drawing, I first selected the rectangle tool from the palette and began the drawing with a simple square.


Creating a rectangle to start off the drawing

At the top of the drawing window you can see controls for making your model transparent or opaque, as well as controls for setting the date and time in order to determine the position of shadows (aka, as the sun moves in time, the shadows change). SketchUp starts out thinking your model is located in its home town of Boulder, CO, but you can change the location using the Model Info dialog. Select the orbit tool and spin in 3D to look from the side rather than the birds-eye view:


Changing to a 3D view

One of the really neat things about Sketchup is how easy it is to modify a plane to turn it into a 3D object. Starting with the square in the figure above, I select the push-pull tool, hover over the upper surface of the square until it is highlighted, then click and drag up to make the square into a solid 3D object.


Creating a 3D object

You can use the pencil tool to establish break points in the 3D object. For example, I drew a line from one side of the top surface to the other. Once the line was drawn, the line can be acted upon to transform the shape. Further, SketchUp helps by showing tooltips and little colored squares when you are on the top surface or at the midpoint of an edge. In my drawing, I used the push-pull tool again, this time hovering over the area to the right of the line. SketchUp will highlight just that section. Then it was a click and drag down to push this part of the surface down. I used the same method to draw another midpoint line on the higher part of the object, and then time used the move tool by dragging upwards to create the roof shape. I repeated this on the lower part of the object, resulting with the following drawing:


Creating a roof using the move tool

I made up a very rough model of my house in less than an hour. I also found that there are libraries of built objects categorized under a menu drop down as components, and within that I found prebuilt windows and doors to speed up my model construction.


Quick Sketch of my House using Sketchup

The speed of the building my model was achieved through what the authors call "inferencing." This is the uncanny way to figure out which direction you wish to draw; then "locking," you fix the direction you want to go in and reference it to other points on your model. SketchUp invariably guesses your intentions correctly, although the tutorials advise keeping a hand on the undo cmd-z key in case any edit isn't what you intended. You can step back through several operations with undo.

There are excellent visual cues throughout SketchUp's 3D space to help navigate and create. Since the computer screen is 2D, finding your way around can be confusing without the visuals provided by SketchUp. An example: dragging the mouse over the edge of an object, a cyan (blue) dot will appear when you reach the midpoint of that edge. Dragging or drawing a line away from the centerpoint to another edge, inferences display to show which axis you are moving in (x, y, or z) and the location of the other edge's midpoint to which your drawing line will snap to or the nearest highlighted dot. This feature makes working in this 3D world nearly painless for beginners and welcome to experienced users.

You can be as loose or precise as you wish, so you can do a rough approximation of an idea for a simple addition to a dwelling or a full blown detailed architectural rendering to sell an idea.

The default appearance of sketches have a rough, Magic Marker look that is just right for getting an idea across. If you want to show more, switch on X-ray mode to have transparent surfaces to show hidden lines and objects. That way you can see both the outside and inside structure of your model. A very slick feature is the section plane tool (think of it as a virtual knife) that can cut through a model without breaking or destroying the geometry; you can move or rotate the cross-section plane to your heart's content to reveal the best cross-section view.

For projects that require precision, there is the draw dimensions tool, which displays edge length, curve distances and diameter - very easy to use. Just click and drag a straight or curve edge. Since all the work is done in real time, modifications can be made to update the dimensions on the fly. Very slick. Dimensions are measured in feet and inches or metric units.

Rendering is limited to solid colors (via the color picker), a small set of supplied textures, or use imported textures to create flat surfaces on your built model. On the web there are advanced tutorials that demo ways to use photos to create models and use the same photo image to texture the model. Line styles can be hand drawn using a jitter-line effect, or minimized for a more polished look without being too hard edged. While there are sufficient textures in the default install to develop decent models, there are more textures available at the SketchUp website providing more surfaces, expanding man-made and natural choices.

Complex drawings
SketchUp supports larger and more complex models in many ways. An object outliner allows you to view, name and manipulate the groupings of objects in your model. You can temporarily move an object from one group to another to facilitate moving or resizing a part of your model in one operation.

When you declare an object or group such as a window or a chair in your model as a component, you can then make multiple instances of the component. If you change any of the instances in any way, all the other instances change to suit. So resizing your window or stretching up the back of your chair can have the same effect on all the windows in your house or all the chairs in your dining room set.

Layers are a familiar concept in Photoshop and they work just the same in SketchUp's 3D space with the obvious exception that layers don't obscure each other as they would in Photoshop. So you can state that different objects in your model are in different layers, and then hide and show the layers in order to reduce the number of visible objects while you work.

Terrains and Landscapes
To make a terrain, you can import one from an existing terrain file or use SketchUp's sandbox tool. With the sandbox, you draw a flat planar mesh and then make it bumpy by changing the height of the mesh using the "smoove" tool. I found this didn't work at all until I changed the default parameters for mesh size and "smoove" radius - both of these appear in a box in the border of the drawing window, so this is quite easy to do once you know you have to do it. The "smoove" tool lets you bump your surface up or down from the plane - you could model a bumpy double black diamond ski trail in seconds.

Once you have a terrain, you can use the drape tool to superimpose a landscape architecture plan such as a house footprint with a driveway and positions for trees. Having done this, these outlines will work with the push / pull tool so that you can raise the house or drive up from the undulating surface of the landscape.

If you're planning to plant trees, SketchUp has several to choose from. With your model correctly aligned to the sun and its true geographic position entered, you can see where the tree shadows fall at different times of day and in different seasons and even resize the trees to check out how their growth will affect your house in years to come.

Pages and the Tour Guide
SketchUp has controls for positioning and moving the viewpoint of the 3D model, or "camera". You can store different camera positions as well as other model attributes such as object positions and time of day on different pages in your model. Having set this up, you can then animate your model using SketchUp's Tour Guide function and export the tour as a Quicktime movie.

Target Audience
Sketchup is geared towards graphics professionals already comfortable working with 3D concepts of space, and programs that work in an x, y, and z orientation. The target customer would be someone who works in a architectural or mechanical fabrication workflow. Sketchup is a nice tool to use for "sketching" out an idea or developing a concept, such as fireplace trim or a small enclosed desk, without having to fire up a massive multi-palette program. Sketchup would be a fun tool to use by many people, but it is currently priced out of reach of everyday hobbyists who may just want to sketch their kitchen or backyard. It would be nice to see a scaled down version, perhaps a version that doesn't provide the high-end exports, at a hobbyist price.

File formats
There is an expanded range of export formats with: OBJ, 3D file format which supports free-form and polygonal geometry; XSI, native Softimage file format; and FBX (Filmbox), for Alias' Motionbuilder and other applications. Of these, the last two are more relevant to digital art and film rather than building design. Think in terms of creating 3D storyboards or roughing out a film set with simple figures to block out a shot. In fact there is a plug-in available at the SketchUp site specifically for film and stage development. You can export your creations to industry standard DWG and DXF for CAD/CAM Industrial or Architectural projects. SketchUp can save out formats that can be expanded and read into more powerful CAD programs.

Sketchup can import 2D and 3D DWG or DXF geometry, as well as Autocad formats. It can read in 3DS, digital elevation models (DEM), such as terrain elevations. Google recently acquired @Last Software, so this could be a possible enhancement to working with Google Earth. These features are useful for urban planning and architectural presentations.

Lastly, SketchUp supports raster image formats of JPEG, PNG, TIFF, EPIX, PDF, EPS and AutoCAD DWG and DXF.

Summary
SketchUp is an easy-to-use 3D design tool that truly makes it simple to create 3D drawings. It uses amazing push and pull technology on 3D objects, fantastic real-time shadowing effects, and photo source texturing. It provides both the power and elegance of a drawing program, with a very Mac savvy and intuitive interface. Sketchup is a great drawing tool that focuses on the conceptual stage of designs, and a very precise modeling tool for industrial or architectural concepts. Sketchup comes with a high price tag, making it out of reach for the average Mac user or design hobbyist. I'd love to see a scaled down "poor man's" version made affordable for casual amateur use. The evaluation version only provides 8 hours of use, which seemed a bit short. Overall, I was very impressed with the product. Examples in the sketchup.com galleries include architecture, construction, interior design, landscape, film and stage design, geographical information systems, game development and mechanical design. Sketchup is a great tool for professional designers, architects, engineers, modelers, and carpenters wishing to show a 3D idea to a client before building or constructing.


Pros

  • Intuitive, easy to learn, easy to use
  • Unique 3D sketching tools
  • Built-in and online tutorials
  • Variety of file formats for import and export
  • Sunlight modeling for time of year and time of day

Cons

  • Free evaluation only lasts 8 hours
  • Priced out of reach of hobbyists


Overall Rating:

4 out of 5 Mice