capsule review

formZ 4.0

At a Glance
  • autodessys formZ 4.0

The program formZ, from autodessys, is a reliable, accurate solids and surface modeler and renderer used in architectural design (where it has its most dedicated following), visualization, illustration, and dynamic media. But formZ's fourth edition has been a long time coming.

Version 4.0 reveals at least one reason for the delay: a complete reengineering of the software's underlying code has made the program OS X native and faster across the board. The improved speed is due in part to a new, timesaving network rendering system, which is included with the $500 RenderZone option. Perhaps more important, formZ's new architecture lets you disable features so you can conserve memory and reduce interface clutter. formZ also has new tools and features that can be added as plug-ins.

A Plug-in Architecture

Architects have long been accustomed to Autodesk's AutoCAD and Bentley Systems' MicroStation, programs that let you add features in response to specific production requirements. So formZ's flexible new plug-in architecture is a welcome change from the program's previous incarnation. And autodessys introduced new formZ plug-ins with this release, including a $300 Sketch Rendering plug-in, a $350 STEP Translator plug-in, and a $350 Point Cloud Re-engineering plug-in.

We tested the Point Cloud Re-engineering plug-in, which lets you create a polygonal or nonuniform rational B-splines (NURBS) surface through points generated by an input device such as a 3-D scanner, and lets you reengineer polygonal objects into NURBS objects. This plug-in is remarkably useful.

The scripting and plug-in technology won't be made public for several months, so it could be some time before third-party plug-ins are available.

But while you wait, you can take advantage of the network renderer, new to this version of formZ. It uses a server application that runs on any machine in your network (PC or Mac); the client software is installed on other network computers via a TCP/IP-connected LAN or WAN. The user sends jobs to the server, which in turn farms out the project to the clients and reassembles the resulting renderings on the user's Mac. If you're producing large numbers of rendered images and you have idle Macs or PCs to conscript into service, this feature can dramatically boost productivity.

Feature Lag

While autodessys was rebuilding formZ from the ground up, competitors such as Alias|Wavefront, Electric Image, and NewTek were giving their products much-desired features, such as subdivision-surface modeling, and making dramatic improvements to interactivity, through effective OpenGL support. As a result, users expect these features in any modeling application.

The biggest change in formZ's modeling options is a new palette of Nurbz tools (autodessys's name for NURBS) and corresponding smooth-curve tools that allow you to accurately model the multipatch surfaces ideal for creating shapes such as car bodies. The new Nurbz tools are a breakthrough for formZ, which previously wasn't adept at making shapes with accurate compound curves, but we found that some features of the Nurbz tool set need more work. For example, projecting curves on a surface rarely produces the expected result, and it's impossible to create NURBS patches from a mix of closed curves and open construction lines.

Meanwhile, the NURBS technology itself, while essential to industrial design, is quickly losing favor in many kinds of visual work where the ability to build a good-looking, seamless model quickly and with adjustable resolution is more important than the precision of the resulting shapes. Although formZ's quadrangle and tessellated subdivisions offer polygonal meshing and smoothing of objects, they lack the interactive, resolution-independent subdivision surfaces found in competing animation systems Universe, Maya, LightWave 3D, and Cinema 4D. On the other hand, formZ's solid and smooth parametric surface tools offer an accuracy and a depth of modeling control that those programs don't match.

New Unfamiliar Face

formZ has redesigned tool palettes and icons that better communicate what its tools do. More important, the user preferences in formZ have been completely reorganized, so customizing the software and fine-tuning the tools and modeling operations are less intimidat-ing. Unfortunately, formZ still treats OpenGL as an afterthought. For example, there's no usable wire-frame-over-shaded view, a view that offers the best utility and visual feedback in other 3-D applications. A final complaint about the interface is that there's no fast, intuitive way to change either the point of view or the snapping options in the middle of modeling operations.

Users of similar programs are increasingly accustomed to interfaces -- such as Maya's -- that offer on-the-fly keyboard-driven navigation and usable full-time hardware shading, so formZ's point-of-view navigation interface will seem old hat.

Macworld's Buying Advice

For loyal users of the program, formZ 4.0 is an exciting upgrade. Still unmatched as a solids and surface modeler and renderer, the program is finally ready for OS X, and it has many important productivity changes. The new network renderer is a breakthrough for artists who need to free up their desktops. However, these productivity changes don't bring improvements to the program's interactivity, and the NURBS tools, while welcome, need work.

Whether formZ's new architecture will pay off for users depends on when autodessys and third parties step in with more plug-in features.

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • NURBS tools for smooth surfaces
    • Network-based renderer
    • Unmatched solids and parametric surface modeling


    • No NURBS-based subdivision surfaces
    • Outdated interactivity, navigation, and shaded-mode modeling options
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