Thursday, June 30, 2011

DraftSight part 2 - really good CAD software, for free

I'm sure advertisers hate me. I ignore commercials on TV. I skip over ads in magazines and newspapers, except to snort with disgust at the really objectionable ones. I change the radio station when the commercial breaks get too long or too stupid. And I actually close web pages (and they go on my personal blacklist!) when the ad content starts taking over the page.

And I never, ever, click through on an adlink, which is kind of funny since I have AdSense enabled on my blog.

That is, I never clicked through on an adlink until today.

I was searching for electronic parts on the web, when I saw an ad banner that said something like "DraftSense - a 2D AutoCAD alternative for free," or something like that. AutoCAD is one of the big three CAD systems today. In fact, AutoCAD may be the king of the mountain. AutoCAD is a great program, and I've used and enjoyed it in previous lives. It wasn't the first CAD program, nor was it the first CAD program to dominate the market, but it has become the standard against which all other CAD programs are judged, and its DWG and DXF formats have become an industry standard.

And it's expensive. Oh, it's worth every penny, if you can afford it. Prices start at $1,180 for AutoCAD LT 2012, the lightweight version.

About ten years ago, give or take a few, an alliance of developers set out to make a free alternative to AutoCAD. Their efforts spun off several alternative packages, four of which are documented in an article at Desktop Engineering. The latest alternative is a package called DraftSight, sold by Dassault Systèmes through their Solidworks subsidiary. The beta version was released last summer. The official Windows version was released in February 2011. The official OS X and Linux versions were released in March 2011.

(Before DS acquired them in 1997, Solidworks had their own AutoCAD alternative, called "DWGEditor" and later renamed "2D Editor". DraftSight can be perceived as a direct competitor to 2D Editor, although Solidworks says that they'll keep selling both packages "for the time being.")

(Dassault Systèmes also has a heavyweight 3D CAD package called CATIA, created in 1977 to make airplanes. You knew the name "Dassault" sounded familiar, didn't you?)

There's a lot to like about DraftSight. First, it's free. Like the air you breathe. (We'll cover the exceptions to that "free" part in a little bit.)

Second, it's available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Version limitations are specified on the downloads page.

Third, it has a very familiar user interface. If you've used AutoCAD, AutoCAD LT, or ARES, you should feel right at home when you start it up.

Fourth, it is indeed full-featured. The list of features includes ... well, go have a look. It still has the command line for those who want it. It's infinitely customizable: aliases, menus, keyboard shortcuts, mouse shortcuts, toolbars - it's got it all. It reads and writes files in DWG and DXF formats (all versions from R12 through 2010 - maybe through 2012 by now), and it exports files in PDF format. And it supports add-ons.

Dassault Systèmes created a user community for DraftSight, with access to all sorts of helps, including video tutorials. They also created a 186-page "Getting Started" guide. Ouch.

Reviewers love DraftSight, and so do most users . One reviewer said DraftSight is equivalent to AutoCAD LT, and that he prefers it over Solidworks 2D. (One user said he'd keep using Visio because it's "simpler." Eh.)

DraftSight is small and fast. It's only 47 MB to download, and after installation it only takes 160 MB of disk space. It starts up fast, and it loads drawings fast.

Here are the exceptions to "free":

First of all, only the standalone license is free. That is, if you want to install it on a server and run it on multiple workstations on a network, you'll have to buy a network license. This is all spelled out in the end-user license agreement (EULA), which you really should read before buying or installing any software. The network license also includes telephone support and other goodies, though, so if you're a business it may be worth your while.

Second, there's no LISP capability in the free version. Like AutoCAD, DraftSight lets you write macros and custom programs using a dialect of LISP. In order to use LISP, you'll need to buy the API (application programming interface) package.

Third, all of the add-ons - well, let's say most of the good ones - cost money. That's not a bad thing, just an acknowledgement of reality.

Fourth, "free" is not synonymous with "open source." You can't get the source code. Dassault Systèmes owns it, and they're not letting go of it. That's okay; if you really want to mess with the software, you can buy the API instead.

Why the exceptions shouldn't bother you:

Dassault Systèmes can offer DraftSight for free because they make all their money on these extras. Oh, don't worry; DraftSight is immensely useful and powerful all by itself, without costing you a nickel. Most individual and sole-proprietor users won't need any of that extra stuff. But it's all there if you want it.

So, Zyzmog, do you like it?

I've only played with it a little bit. I'll post updates here as I gain more experience with it. But from what I've seen so far, I like it.

To download DraftSight, click on this link.

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