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GCN LAB REVIEWS

AutoCAD 'light' makes design program easier to use

LT 2011 lets buttons do the work of command lines, although it's limited to 2-D

It’s been many years since the GCN Lab has looked at computer-aided design programs. Quite honestly, the main reason is that it can take weeks or even months to get up-to-speed with a new CAD program, and devoting a lab reviewer to a single product for such a long time isn’t all that practical.

But readers have been asking about the best CAD program to purchase, so we gritted our teeth and prepared to re-enroll in the CAD academy.


Autodesk AutoCAD LT 2011

Pros: Easier to use than a 3-D CAD program; very precise; clean user interface.
Cons: Runs slowly even on high-end systems; expensive.
Performance: B-
Ease Of Use: B
Features: A-
Value: B
Price: $1,200


Thankfully, Autodesk came out with AutoCAD LT 2011, where the LT stands for light. The idea is to make a CAD program that is easy, or at least easier, to use. Thus, a lot of the hardcore, unfriendly command lines of previous programs have been replaced with helpful buttons that perform the same functions. So if you want to select or modify a drawing in a certain way, there is probably a button for it along the top or side of the screen. There still is a command line for those who want to use it, but most common tasks are only a click away.

This simplicity comes at a slight price, depending on what you want to do with your CAD program. The biggest is that AutoCAD LT 2011 can only make drawings in 2-D. So if you remember when we created a 3-D model of a space shuttle and a fire hose nozzle for another CAD review, well, it won’t be happening this time.

But AutoCAD LT 2011 does 2-D extremely well. From creating circuit patterns using standard symbols to laying out your new home or office, this program has you covered. It could even be used to create a master pattern that could then be easily modified by people in the field.

The one thing to note is that “light” is a relative term. It’s like saying that Stephen Hawking is the light form of Albert Einstein. Any CAD program is going to take a lot of training to get used to, and all the beautiful menus won’t change that learning curve very much.

However, it does make a dent, and Autodesk capitalized on this with some really nice tutorials. Played as a series of Flash movies, the tutorials walk you though most of the functions needed to use the program. We would have preferred that the tutorials were interactive because some of the movies are quite long, and you have to wait till they are finished to go back and try some of the things you were just shown. But the movies do go into a lot of detail and should keep most people from getting completely lost, even if they have never used a CAD program.

Even so, to become truly proficient, you will likely need a good guide book because the program doesn’t come with any paper instructions.

The program can do quite a lot, as long as you are talking about the 2-D drawings. We were able to create a floor plan of the GCN Lab and surrounding offices in a couple of hours. Then, after we had the master plan, we began to conquer other offices and expand the lab by knocking down walls and moving into the new space. By the end of the day, we were proficient enough that we could create plans that building engineers could easily follow and had taken over almost the entire floor, other than the space we left for the margarita machine.

There are a lot of samples to get you started and even a materials library if you want to add realism to your creations beyond just the precise measurements.

The one disappointing thing about AutoCAD LT is that it ran a bit slowly on most of our test systems. For the 32-bit version of the program that we tested, the minimum specs are a 1.6 GHz Intel Pentium 4 system with a full gigabyte of RAM. We wouldn’t recommend running the program on a system like that. When we tried, it took a very long time to perform even simple functions, not to mention the half hour of installation time. Even on a hefty dual-core system, a lot of the commands took a while to activate. Perhaps the beautiful menus were to blame, as commands in the command line interface seemed to go off almost instantly. We guess that is the price you pay for convenience.
 
At least the program did run on laptop PCs, albeit slowly. Our recommendation would be to install AutoCAD LT on a well-equipped workstation or desktop for all the heavy lifting, such as creating new files and stuff like that. Then install another copy on laptops if you need to travel, but stick to mostly minor modifications of existing designs when using the portable platform.

There is also a 64-bit version of the program. We briefly tested this and found that it was identical for the most part with the 32-bit version but ran much faster because of the 64-bit architecture of our test system.

The price of $1,200 is not too high given how much CAD programs generally cost. If you only need to make 2-D designs but need access to every conceivable tool and variant within 2-D capability, then you can’t really go wrong with AutoCAD LT 2011.

Autodesk,  www.autodesk.com

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