At a Glance
Typically, 3-D modeling has been a tool for architects and engineers with access to expensive CAD programs and many hours of training. However, SketchUp 2.2, from @Last Software, puts 3-D modeling into the hands of the masses. As its name implies, SketchUp is primarily a tool for making a sketch of any kind -- from a design for backyard furniture to a representation of your fantasy house. It allows you to express concepts quickly in 3-D, even if you barely know what CAD is.
Couldn't Be Easier
To start using SketchUp, you draw lines and objects with the pencil, rectangle, circle, or curve tools. Then you adjust these shapes and add textures to bring the 3-D model of your kids' new tree house or of your remodeled living room to life. Because @Last Software has kept it simple with just a few intuitive tools, you can master this program in a couple of hours. Our favorite is the Push/Pull tool: when you use this tool to grab one face of an object and move it, adjacent surfaces are automatically adjusted. You can also grab any edge or point and adjust its position, and the model updates automatically. But it's a little irksome that you can control transparency only on a sketchwide basis.
Along with intuitive tools, good screen hints are a tremendous help, as is other feedback in the form of cursor-shape and color changes that tell you which axis or object you're drawing parallel to, when you're touching a surface, when objects are lining up with one another, and so on. SketchUp also includes a small but expandable component library for adding elements such as windows, landscaping, and furniture. However, it lacks a way to add text or dimensions to the finished product.
Once you have your sketch, SketchUp gives you various ways to view it, ranging from a simple 3-D hidden-line drawing to animated views from the inside or outside of the model (called walkthroughs and flybys, respectively), which can include textures and shadows. Unfortunately, there's no way to export those animations.
SketchUp comes with a large number of video tutorials that play from the installation CD and are the best we've ever seen. They're broken down into logical, useful subjects, such as "Common Mistakes to Watch Out For" and "Using Pictures for Context," and they average several minutes each. The video tutorials are so good, there's actually no need to read a manual -- they'll have even 3-D novices working comfortably in a short time.
Pros Sketch, Too
SketchUp is intended to create models that are conceptual rather than technical, but the program can still draw dimensionally accurate objects. It's a great tool for architects and engineers to use when starting the design process, allowing them to move a sketch to a higher-end CAD program once they've fleshed out the concept. SketchUp can import and export to CAD programs using DXF and DWG formats, common in most CAD packages.
Macworld's Buying Advice
SketchUp 2.2 is definitely 3-D for the rest of us. In fact, the program brings back the magic feeling we had when we first used MacPaint way back when the Macintosh was introduced. While SketchUp's price is steep for nonprofessionals who may not need to use it very often (but who will find more reasons once they try it), we recommend SketchUp to anyone who has a need or a desire to visualize in 3-D but neither the patience nor the time to deal with complicated CAD programs.
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