Software Review: “Test Driving” Preview Software

Jan. 9, 2009
Autodesk Labs lets users give the developer’s “preview” software a whirl, online
Visit Autodesk Labs at Autodesk Inc.
San Rafael, CA 94903
(415) 507-5000.

Autodesk Labs lets users give the developer’s “preview” software a whirl, online, before its official distribution. Designers in industries such as engineering, architecture, manufacturing, automotive, and entertainment will find plenty of nifty programs to try.

Project Draw is the first to catch my eye. Click the link with that name to access a vector-based drawing program that lets you create simple floor plans, circuit diagrams, and the like, without having to download anything. A few YouTube videos introduce the program and include such topics as how to work with pictures and how to design a deck. Another video shows how to share drawings via e-mail directly from the program. The videos made the tasks seem easy. Open Project Draw by clicking on the Try It link.

The page layout is straightforward. Toolbars for common tasks align along the top of the canvas. On the left side is a Shape palette. A Properties dialog box at the bottom left dynamically changes attributes, such as page grid and shape width, depending on whether users are focusing on the canvas or on different shapes. To add a basic shape such as a rectangle or a circle to the canvas, choose Basic Shapes, click on the shape, and drag it to the canvas. Click the drop-down arrow on the selection box to see other predefined shape palettes such as Flowchart, Callouts/Arrows, and Floor Layout. Changing an attribute of a shape just takes typing the new number in the dialog box and then pressing the Update button.

To add lines to a drawing, click on the line, polyline, or curved-connectors icon on the toolbar, then move the mouse over the drawing board. Click to establish one end point and drag to the intended length. Directly above the canvas is a display of instructions as you work. This is handy for getting confused users back on track. To precisely move a line or shape, click on it and then tap the appropriate arrow key on the keyboard. Return to Select Mode to clear a previous command.

The saving of a drawing on the server necessitates creating a log-in name and password. Dialog boxes walk you painlessly through this process. Once a drawing is saved, a click on an icon opens links to your saved files. To send a file to a colleague, open the file and click on another icon above the file’s link. As a test, I sent a drawing to my personal e-mail address and received a message with the link to the file residing on the Project Draw server.

Project Draw can work closely with Project Freewheel, another application on Autodesk Labs. Project Freewheel lets users see and collaborate with design data without installing additional software. Users can import DWF files from their local machines or the Web and manipulate them directly with Project Freewheel in Draw. Users can pan, zoom, and rotate models, just as they would in Project Freewheel. Click on the Create New Shape button and the Freewheel box disappears. Selecting the DWF drawing lets users change its background color and transparency. Double clicking on the drawing opens it again in Freewheel.

Freewheel is also a Web service that lets users embed an interactive viewer of their own design data in HTML pages. This is just a matter of clicking the File icon in Autodesk Labs, typing in a URL to a public file or uploading a file from your local computer, and then pasting some code into your HTML.

Of the two apps, I especially like Project Draw. It is easy to use and intuitive. Because the relatively powerful vector-based program is available free for use on the Web, it seems to bolster the theory that all software might eventually end up as an online service.

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