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CAD Software & Hardware

AutoCAD

AutoCAD is the most widely used CAD software, but it is expensive, even in the LT version. And if you are contemplating learning CAD there is a steep learning curve. So what is the alternative? I have tried a number of these.

Old copy of AutoCAD?
I have an apparently legitimate copy of AutoCAD 2000i. This will not install on any Windows PC running Win 7 or 8, except on a virtual drive, which is slow and painful to use. (2000i is 32bit but the setup.exe is 16bit.) Longbow Software have a converter available for around $50 that overcomes this problem for most versions of AutoCAD. They also have software that can do the same for other "incompatible" software.


IntelliCAD

I used to have a copy of IntelliCAD Professional. Version 7.2 appears to be a big step forward, and Version 8  now includes 64 bit. Generally, if you need to do things like pasting raster images into drawings, you will need a Pro version. Prices start at $A200 plus.

ARES
There are currently three retail CAD programs employing the Graebert ARES CAD engine; Graebert's own retail package ARES Commander, Draftsight, and CorelCAD.  ARES has most of the functions of full-blown AutCAD and nearly the same commands and synax, but not the same code base. AutoCAD add-ins will not necessarily work in basic versions, but some functionality is available in retail paid-for versions, such as LISP routines and VSTA (Microsoft® Visual Studio Tools for Applications). There are a few add-ins.

DraftSight
Production version available for Windows (XP onwards), 32 and full 64 bit. There are versions for Mac OS X and Linux (DEB and RPM installers). Free with registration. IMHO likely to be the best alternative to full AutoCAD/IntelliCAD for most 2D CAD work, and as yet the only free CAD package worth considering on Linux. Will load/save standard DWG & DXF, AutoCAD 2.5 to 2013. I have Windows 32 & 64bit and Linux versions, The Linux version is beta, and is a bit more likely to crash. 

Progression beyond the basic version has improved, in that a single licence for the Premium version is available. Slightly cheaper than CorelCAD but with annual updating charge, whereas CorelCAD is more flexible with upgrades, eg you can miss one or two without loosing entitlement. I use CorelCAD 2016, while retaining Draftsight basic and NanoCAD on backup machines.

CorelCAD

There is no free version. The full version is around $A600 - 700 for a single licence, updates free, more or less annual upgrades for $199. I have the full version running on two PCs - main workstation and laptop. Both activated without problems. CorelCAD has the additional ARES enhancements plus a few more provided by Corel. Versions for Windows and Mac, but not Linux. Support documents available from Graebert.
 
BricsCAD
Very close match with AutoCAD, Linux version, none free but competitively priced, eg "Classic" version around $A475.

"Freeware" CAD
The only package I have found that is freeware in the sense that you just download and install, and has a syntax similar to AutoCAD  is LibreCAD. This looks promising, but has long a way to go.
For free in the sense that you don't have to pay, there are a few offerings, mostly with a "catch" of some sort.  The best I have found is NanoCAD. NanoCAD requires registration, has a single advertising screen for the "plus" version, but there is apparently no problem with installing it on a number of machines. It is the only CAD package I have found that will run comfortably on an old laptop with limited graphics. It will allow raster image inserting and modifying, recognises LISP, VBA scripts and Javascript, and has numerous extras that I have not yet explored.

My current recommendation for anyone learning CAD or needing to do 2D CAD on a limited budget is to start by downloading a copy of DraftSight and/or NanoCAD. Once you are up to speed, get CorelCAD or BricsCAD. Six-figure turnover dependent on CAD? Get AutoCAD :-)


Hardware:
I have attempted to use a tablet for some types of out-of-office work. Gave up. My solution was to go back to a laptop. Ok they are harder to keep charged in the field - you usually need 19 volts and 3.5 amps. That can come from a dashboard plug-in or similar, with a monitor on the vehicle battery so you know when to switch off or start the engine.
 

"Dedicated CAD workstations" are expensive - because they are supposed to be expensive?
My tips:  
1. Buy a gaming machine via EBay. You don't have to buy one with flames or dragons on the cabinet. It is still the case that gaming and entertainment is the cutting edge. Back in the Cold War days, the Russians built their missile control systems using  video game machines, imported from the west, and not classified as military hardware :-)  A decent rig can be obtained for $A600 - $A1100, even including a few extras. 
2. Get all the memory that the model will hold. Get a decent graphics card if the machine only has on-board display. 24" LCD monitors can be had for around $A150.
3. In February 2016 I got fed up with errors and crashes caused by Windows 10 updates and upgrades, and switched to Linux. Ended up switching back as there were still a few things I needed WIndows for. 
4. If you are only ever going to be printing to A3, get a Brother MFC - J6910DW or succeeding model. Will install on Linux (Ubuntu 14.04) with a bit of fiddling. Prints to A3 borderless, is economical with ink, and has a full A3 scanner. This produces very sharp prints, so you may need to modify line-weight settings. I print direct from CAD, and print to pdf. 
5. If you need imaging, get a good digital camera. If you have experience with 35mm SLR cameras, go the extra and get a Canon or Nikon DSLR. Once you venture outside the "auto" settings, you will find that inside the viewfinder or screen, the camera is talking about things you already understand. Also, don't believe all the flim-flam about image density. You don't need 24 megapixels unless you are printing signs the size of a house. 10 - 12 megapixels is more than enough.

Linux:

One of my backup systems is a Dell Optiplex 760, 4GB RAM, purchased from Australian company Reboot-IT for $32.50 plus carriage. Cleaned off  WIndows Vista and installed Linux Mint 18, and Draftsight runs fine on this. (I started out with Ubuntu 14.04, but got tired of the proprietary annoyances such as the Unity desktop.) I had previously tried dual-boot Windows/Linux on my main workstation, but Windows 10 has a habit of breaking dual boot, and I am lacking in Grub2 skills so found it difficult to fix the problem.