@Last Software SketchUp 2.1

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Innovative and intuitive 3D modeling within a 2D-based environment.

Traditionally 3D modeling and CAD are both seen as difficult worlds far removed from the relative simplicity of 2D drawing. With SketchUp those preconceptions are turned on their head.

SketchUp prides itself on its simplicity and, judging on first impressions, I was worried that it had gone too far. Essentially all work is carried out using the two button bars running down the left of the screen, the first of which manages the display - zooming, panning and so on - while the second offers the tools - just 15 in total. The obvious question for a 3D package is where are all the primitives - cube, sphere, cylinder and so on? Can you really be expected to produce a realistic 3D model with just four drawing tools: line, rectangle, arc and freehand? 

The answer is an emphatic "yes" thanks to the intelligence built in to SketchUp. As you work, SketchUp is constantly checking the 2D line you are drawing against the 3D model you are building up, trying to help you produce the results you want. In particular "inference" lines keep appearing to help you ensure that your lines are drawn along an axis, or on a face, or parallel or perpendicular to an edge and so on. It takes a little time to get the knack but, after watching the excellent online training tutorials, you'll be up and running in half an hour.

Advanced models can be drawn with simple lines.

Working in this way you can quickly draw a cube simply by connecting lines but SketchUp has a much more powerful alternative in the form of the Push/Pull tool. Using this, you can simply select a rectangle - or any other shape - and interactively drag it up or down to produce and control the depth of a 3D solid. Once you've drawn your cube, draw another rectangle on its front surface and use the Push-Pull tool to set it back and then hide the inner rectangle and you've created a window and wall!

The Move tool is even more powerful. Quickly draw a line down the middle of the top of your cube and select it with the Move tool and you can drag it vertically up to produce a pointed roof. Using these simple tools and a bit of lateral thinking, SketchUp's inherent restriction to straight lines and co-planar shapes, which looked like being a crippling limitation, largely disappears. And, with the help of new advanced features such as an Offset tool, sectioning and auto-folding, you can let your imagination run wild and produce some staggering results.

Even better, once you've created a more advanced element, say a window with panes of glass or a door, you can save it as a component. Again these have intelligence built-in so that, when you drag a component onto your image, it automatically defaults to following the existing planes of your model. Now, by double-clicking on your component, you can edit it in situ and all other instances will automatically update. SketchUp also allows you to import bitmaps and these too will intelligently snap to the existing model - great for adding photo-realistic touches and background environments. Sadly alpha transparency isn't supported which would be ideal for dotting realistic scenery and inhabitants around your drawings.

Control over components and textures is excellent.

Having said this, making your sketches stand out isn't a problem. SketchUp's support for the 3D handling of bitmapped textures is superb (especially if you use an OpenGL video card). You can, for example, apply a brick surface to all selected walls in an instant and then fine-tune the scale and even colour. Another nice feature is the ability to extend lines and add jitter which immediately gives your drawings a hand-drawn feel. Most impressive of all is the ability to set accurate shadows based on location, time of year and time of day (though I think they've overestimated the amount of sun that Edinburgh gets in January). SketchUp also provides innovative TourGuide technology that lets you specify settings such as camera position and the visibility of sections and layers as separate pages. As you move from one page to any other, the display smoothly animates the changes (though sadly you can't export the results).

It's hugely impressive power but it's also important to remember SketchUp's limitations. To begin with, SketchUp isn't a full 3D modeler. There are no modeling features such as lathing, Boolean operations or metaballs and no photo-realistic rendering. SketchUp is nearer to a CAD program - but it's not that either. You can enter sizes, scales and angles as you work and use the Measure and Protractor tools to read off precise measurements from your drawings - you can even find out the total surface area that's had a particular texture, say brick, applied to it - but you can't add dimension lines, call-outs or even text. In other words, if you're wanting to produce either photo-realistic end results or detailed plans then you're still going to need a dedicated modeler and CAD package.

SketchUp still has a role to play in these workflows as you can export models in 3DS format and drawings in DXF/DWG format, but really that should be seen as an added - and not entirely straightforward - bonus. SketchUp has more than enough virtues to stand by itself. Its great strengths are its simplicity, speed and inspired lateral thinking. These get beginners up and running quickly but prove even more useful for experts. What makes SketchUp so valuable is the freedom it provides to enable users to intuitively explore their 3D design ideas.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

March 2003

requirements Pentium 600 or higher, 64MB of RAM, 20MB of hard disk space, Windows 98, NT4 (SP3), 2000 or XP

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