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AutoCAD on iPad Mini: Tablet as the next 3-D content creation tool?

Tablets are usually considered as content viewing / playback devices, rather than content creation tools, which was the realm of PCs and workstations. However, in 3-D graphics apps such as CAD and 3-D visualization, they have a chance – here’s the first AutoCAD experience on the iPad Mini…

Having used PCs and workstations, and running high end software such as AutoCAD, for the past 27 years or so, I have always preferred larger, more capable devices, with faster CPUs, more memory and higher resolution displays, for interactive 3-D modeling and visualization. Tablets, which I generally don’t use, were never a consideration there, partly due to their performance, resolution and general capability issues, one of them being the lack of keyboard input, among others.

However, those minuses, which usually make tablets seen as content consumption rather than creation devices – try typing a multimedia rich text document on a tablet, for an example – seem to turn on their back when looking at today’s modern tablets as 3-D CAD terminals.

First, the resolution is more than good enough, as we explained in my previous story – 2048×1536 of new Ipad, or 2560×1600 of Nexus 10, are as high as any professional workstations would give you. Then, the integrated flash capacity of 64 GB or more, is sufficient to store quite a number of drawings and 3-D models locally without always referring to the sometimes patchy Web access.

The built-in tablet 3-D GPUs are usually sufficient for real time CAD or CAE, as there is little or no requirement here for anything beyond pure 3-D polygon, shading and basic non moving material texture visualization.

Then, we come to the multipoint touch user interface, far more suitable for interactive 3-D model manipulation than any mouse or cursor would ever be. In fact, it’s likely the most flexible one for this purpose after true 3-D spatial manipulation which is still a bit far from mainstream. And, at least for visual manipulation, lack of keyboard is not an issue as on-screen buttons and multitouch are more than sufficient for the job.

In fact, even the smaller devices like Apple iPad Mini are quite suitable for the job – their compactness and lightness helps the contractor engineers check the actual stuff  against the drawings in real time as they run up and down many levels of under-construction buildings or bridges, for instance.

This time I tried Autodesk AutoCAD WS, a utility to view and edit AutoCAD DWG drawings on iPad and Android tablets and phones, on an iPad Mini, to see whether the tablet-sized CAD has any merit, at least for on-the-fly reviewing and sharing. Especially since the mini iPad could literally fit into big working clothes pockets of a typical on site engineer or contractor, making it easy to carry.

The installation was a breeze, of course requiring the Apple Store for it – as anything else does on the iPad, like it or not. The software lets you download a couple of sample 2-D and 3-D drawings to get used to, and the rest must go via Autodesk’s own cloud – where you must register with an account, which I feel is a little unnecessary as an access restriction. It shouldn’t be the problem to also open drawings locally stored by the user on the iPad itself.

For local viewing, yes smooth real time zoom, pan and 3-D rotate all worked fine, both in wireframe and in solid mode – yea there was no line anti-aliasing, but then, if you want picture perfect lines, there is always the Retina display on the larger iPad for a hundred or so bucks more. And, the multitouch allowed several different operations to be done without any buttons pressed! So, in that sense, it is really a practical improvement over a mouse. Finally, yes, the 4:3 display format really fits CAD waaay more than the 16:9 movie watching stuff, as CAD drawings are rarely, well, elongated.

AutoCAD WS doesn’t offer much of editing, beyond adding simple 2-D elements like lines or polygons, or text. In that sense, it’s more of an annotation and review tool than a true drawing tool, which is fine as it is a free utility to augment the big AutoCAD in the field, rather than replace it.

However, the combination of iPad Mini and AutoCAD WS is a good harbinger of things to come: truly full function, real time 3-D CAD in your – big, though – pocket. If Apple really launches a Retina based iPad Mini follow-on with stronger CPU as well, this could as well be the smallest full function AutoCAD platform soon!

Finally, to think one step further – CAD/CAM/CAE and 3-D content creation professionals are, besides the photo pros, 4K video and desktop publishers, the one category of users that would welcome a larger 17 to 20 inch ‘supertablet’ for their creative design on the road. With a quad-core CPU and associated GPU, and say 4 GB RAM, Apple could have a lovely 4K, 4:3, or to put it this way, 4096×3072, near 13 Mpix display, exactly 4x that of current iPad Retina for easy software scaling, and provide THE tool for these demanding, deep pocket user communities. And oh yes, you may thing the GPUs would be too weak? Not really – just provide quad channel DDR3-LP memory for refresh, and standard 3-D polygon and texture stuff will suffice… how about that? I’d love one ASAP…

Nebojsa Novakovic
In the spare time over the past two decades, editor and writer of high-end computer hardware and design features and analysis for European and US media and analyst houses. Reviews of high end hardware are my specialty for 28 years already.

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