This month, Michael is taking a break (don't worry fans, he'll be back next month) so you'll have to put up with me. To be honest, I've quite enjoyed putting together this month's Corner. Hope you like it and maybe learn something new.
I've been putting off the move to AutoCAD 2009. Well, I have a couple of long-running projects and the transition will disrupt my workflow. On the other hand, what productivity gains am I missing out on? Also, come September, I have to begin teaching AutoCAD 2009 to CAD newbies; I really ought to take a look. This month, I'm bringing you my thoughts (good and bad) on the dreaded ribbon.
I'm also taking a look at Autodesk Freewheel. Never heard of it? You will - it's probably the most exciting development in interactive web-based drawings since… well, you know - the web. In the Odd Spot, I've got some news for people with Quadro FX graphics cards and in The Basics this month I'm telling you how to get your hands on free copies of AutoCAD (no, really).
Thanks for listening!
There's never a perfect time to upgrade AutoCAD and when that upgrade incorporates the biggest interface change since the move from DOS, it's a bit scary. Fortunately, AutoCAD 2009 does allow for a graceful transition by continuing to provide most of the interface gizmos you are familiar with. Pull-down menus and toolbars are still there if you know where to look. Of course, for those of you who would like a seamless transition, there is always the refuge of the "AutoCAD Classic" workspace but you'd be missing out on some nice new features and anyway, the AutoCAD classic workspace is for wimps!
OK, so you just upgraded to 2009 and you still have to get that drawing out before the end of the day - what to do? The first thing to do is to change the workspace to "AutoCAD Classic". The Workspace Switching menu is now located on the right-hand end of the application status bar and still uses the familiar cog wheel icon. Click and hold the button and select "AutoCAD Classic" from the fly-out menu. The interface now changes back to the old familiar configuration except for one detail. The status bar tools are still displayed as icons and not the traditional text buttons. To change them back, right-click on any of the inactive (grey) icons and uncheck the "Use Icons" option in the menu. OK, so now you should be feeling right back at home and you can finish that drawing. Ah, except that a couple of the button icons have changed. Sadly, we've lost the stick of dynamite which has been replaced by something less interesting and… Well, you'll work it out.
I don't know about you but I find the AutoCAD Classic workspace in AutoCAD 2009 visually unappealing - those toolbars look as though they may fall off at any moment. I don't know if that was intentional but Autodesk have gone out of their way to make it easy for us to transition to the new interface and it seems such a shame to ignore all that good work. So, my advice is that after that drawing has been sent, take a good look at the ribbon. Begin by reversing the steps taken above; set the workspace back to "2D Drafting & Annotation" and set the status bar tools back to icons.
Before tackling the ribbon head-on, let's devise a fall-back strategy. What happens when you can't find the tool you need? Simple, you use the Menu Browser. See that big red "A"? That's the Menu Browser button. The Menu Browser is cool; it's like having all the old stuff and all the new stuff together. Yep, that's right; you have the ribbon and the old pull-down menu structure in one handy strip across the top of the screen. So, you can work with the ribbon and be confident that if you can't find what you want there, you'll find it in the Menu Browser. In fact, the Menu Browser improved on the pull-downs because it also includes an interactive search box. Have a go, begin typing the name of a command - how cool is that?
OK, so now you're ready to go. There is way too much to cover in a short article like this but let me give you one important piece of advice. When I first installed AutoCAD 2009, I did my usual thing of just "having a go". After all, I've been using AutoCAD for over 20 years - how difficult can it be? I was pretty soon frustrated by my lack of progress and so I did what I rarely do - I worked through some tutorials (if you're a subscriber, I recommend the e-learning tutorials) and that worked a treat. I suggest you do the same otherwise you run the risk of never migrating to this excellent new interface. For a kick-start, take a look at Heidi Hewett's excellent video tutorials and you'll be up to speed with the new interface before you know it. One of my favourite new features is the expanded tool-tips. Hover your cursor over any tool and not only does it tell you what it is but it tells you how it works - fantastic for beginners. But if you don't like the tooltips (and old-timers probably won't) see last month's Corner for information on how to tame them.
Well, I like the ribbon and I think it's a vast improvement that will ultimately improve everyone's productivity and certainly make AutoCAD easier to learn.
Also, the new interface looks and feels modern - something we haven't been used to with AutoCAD over the years. It's also aesthetically pleasing - this may not seem important but to designers like me, it makes a difference.
Don't get me wrong, I don't have unreserved admiration for the ribbon - there are a few things that really bug me. For example, why isn't it possible to drag the ribbon panels to enlarge them and make space for those tools currently hidden in the expanded area? Well, I could use the CUI to customise the panels but why should I have to do that just to make best use of my wide-screen monitor? Alternatively, I could just pin the expanded panel so that it remains open for one-click access to those "hidden" tools but here's another annoyance; why do the icons stack up on the left, leaving a blank area of the panel? Why don't they just flow within the available space making best use of screen real-estate? Again, I could use the CUI to correct this but it ought to be automatic.
If you look at how the panel contents are defined in the CUI, you will see that each row of icons is discrete - each row is defined independently - there's no flexibility built in. So for now, if you want to optimise the way the ribbon uses space on your screen, the only option you have is some serious CUI editing. But even that isn't a perfect workaround - what happens when you upgrade your monitor? Another round of editing? No, a better solution is required. I guess we'll have to wait for AutoCAD 2010.
There are numerous other niggles. For example, who thought it might be a good idea to remove the zoom window/zoom previous pair and replace them with a single zoom fly-out on a panel called "Utilities"? It doesn't work for me - reach for the CUI.
The fact is that this is just the first ribbon and it will inevitably evolve. If you'd like some inside information on the development of the ribbon and some hints about its future, read the interview with Matt Stein, senior product designer on the AutoCAD team at Cadalyst magazine.
I've heard a lot of complaints from users about the ribbon of the "why can't they just leave it alone" sort but the truth is that the old AutoCAD interface had become too fragmented and inconsistent. The new interface aims to make an increasingly complex tool more useable for everyone. And it appears to be working; take a look at Shaan Hurley's article, AutoCAD 2009 Customer Real World Ribbon Usage Data for an insight into how users are getting on with the ribbon. My view is that the ribbon is by no means perfect but it is a very good first step towards what could be an excellent interface.
Tip: If you'd like to get to know the ribbon but aren't yet ready to do without the pull-down menus, just type MENUBAR at the command prompt and set the value to 1. This will give you the pull-down menus and the ribbon at the same time.
Oh, and one final thing, do take a look at those quick reference cards that came with your media pack, they are actually very useful and give a good overview of all the new stuff in AutoCAD 2009. That's it - you're right out of excuses!
Ever thought it might be cool to publish interactive versions of your AutoCAD and Revit drawings on your website? Well, of course this has been possible for a while but it has always required that the viewer download and install a special plug-in. Now, with Freewheel, it couldn't be simpler - no difficult coding and no plug-ins.
The example below is a sample drawing from the Freewheel gallery and contains 29 different views (layouts) of the drawing. Essentially, what you're looking at is a DWF file presented via the Freewheel API. Coding couldn't be simpler, it's just an iframe tag pair containing a source for the API and a parameter for the drawing.
Here's the code for the example below:
<iframe scrolling="no" width="600" height="450" src="http://freewheel.labs.autodesk.com/dwf.aspx?path=http://freewheel.labs.autodesk.com/sample/Hotel5.dwf"> </iframe>
The width and height attributes can be set to whatever you want, so it's very easy to configure the Freewheel interface to suit your site.
To display your own DWF files, all you need to do is make them available somewhere on the web - your own website or any service that allows you to store files online and then add the full path to the source (src) attribute of the iframe.
It's been a long time coming but NVIDIA recently released their new AutoCAD Performance Driver for Quadro FX cards and this is the first time that Windows Vista users have been able to benefit properly from their specialist graphics adapters. If you have a Quadro FX card in your PC, take a look at NVIDIA's Built for Professionals page for details. Curiously, despite Autodesk's involvement in the development of the AutoCAD Performance Driver, at the time of writing, it still wasn't appearing on the Certified Hardware list but I imagine it will be there soon. In any case, you should always make sure your graphics card driver is up-to-date, it's one of the cheapest ways to improve the performance of AutoCAD (it's free!).
One question I am always asked by AutoCAD beginners is: "how can I get hold of my own copy of AutoCAD so that I can practice at home?" In the past, there wasn't a great deal of choice and the sheer cost of AutoCAD caused many to seek illegal solutions to their problem. Fortunately, things have changed recently and there are now two potential routes a beginner can take to facilitate their learning. If you're a student or an employee working with AutoCAD at work, there's a pretty good chance you can install a legitimate copy of AutoCAD at home for free.
Students have a great choice of free Autodesk software at the Autodesk Student Community. Any college or university student can sign up and download whatever they want from the extensive list that includes 4 AutoCAD vertical products. The only limitation is the usual educational product overprint and the 13 month licence. Other than that, these are fully functioning products and are provided in the latest versions.
With the release of AutoCAD 2009, Autodesk improved some of the benefits to those with a subscription. The big headline change was the opportunity for subscribers to install and use any previous version of AutoCAD, even if we never owned it in the first place. While this may be useful for some, the most useful benefit of subscription for beginners is the opportunity to install a second copy of AutoCAD at home. So, if you use AutoCAD at work and your company has a subscription, ask your subscription manager to request a copy for home use. Take a look at the Home Use FAQ for more details.
Both the student and subscriber home use versions of AutoCAD are available for free so if you are entitled to either of these, what are you waiting for?
Subscription brings further benefits to beginners in the form of some excellent e-learning materials. These are essentially self-paced slide-show tutorials with simple quizzes at the end of each section. I have to admit that I found them incredibly useful for getting to grips with the new interface.
And finally, as an added incentive to subscribe, Autodesk have made Impression a free download for subscribers. As you may know, Impression can be used to transform your AutoCAD drawings into rich presentation images like the one on the right (see the Impression Design Gallery for more). Again, if you're a subscriber, it's free so why not give it a go?
Oh, and while we're on the subject of free stuff, don't forget that you can discuss any of the topics in this month's Corner (and/or other stuff) over at our forums.
Watch that crater! - The first lunar landing took place on 20th July 1969. The chosen landing site was Mare Tranquilitatis (Sea of Tranquillity) because it is a relatively smooth and level area. It does, however, have a high density of craters and in the last seconds before landing, the lunar module had to be manually piloted by Neil Armstrong to avoid a sharp-rimmed ray crater measuring some 180 meters across and 30 meters deep known as West. The lunar module landed safely some 6 km from the originally intended landing site.
More great Apollo 11 facts at The Apollo Program.
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Note from Michael: I want to thank all of my customers for continuing to retain my training services (some for over two decades!) and let you know your donations do not go to me personally, but to the ongoing maintenance of the CADTutor ship as a whole and to support the yeoman efforts of my friend and CADTutor captain, David Watson, to whom I am grateful for this monthly opportunity to share a few AutoCAD insights.