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BlueCAD- by Pete Grubbs

As any homeowner will tell you, making the monthly mortgage payment is only half the battle. The other half is maintaining what you're paying for. I've always preferred to do as much of the maintenance on our property as possible. Since I have an introductory background in drafting and design from college, I wanted a CAD package I could use for basic plans (a woodshed, doghouse, maybe an addition) that wouldn't break my budget or take months to become familiar with. For years I've used IMSI's TurboCAD, a Windows 3.1 application, with a fair amount of success. However, like many diehard OS/2 users, I wanted to get something on my machine that was native to my operating system. When OS/2 e-Zine! offered me a chance to review CadWare's BlueCAD, I jumped at it. I'm sorry to say, however, that I should've taken a long look before I took that leap.


CadWare, BlueCAD's creator, recommends running their software on either an Intel 386, 486 or Pentium processor with 8 megs of RAM and 9 megs of free space on the hard drive. As you can see, this package isn't a hardware hog.

BlueCAD comes on 3, 3.5" floppies. Installation is as simple as popping in the first disk and typing "A:\install" from an OS/2 prompt. The entire operation went smooth as silk and took just under six minutes. BlueCAD set up its own directory and seven sub-directories and put a folder on my desktop which included the program object, reference objects, and a URL for CadWare's home page (more on that below). From here I eventually found and downloaded a patch that upgrades the base product that I originally installed (v1.0) to the latest release (v1.008). This upgrade was as easy to install as the original product, but I can't say that I noticed any great difference in product performance or capabilities.

The Basics

Loading BlueCAD takes my machine (with a Cyrix 100mhz chip) 24 seconds and presents me with a large, clean work area (GIF, 20K). Users can access all of the application's commands from the Menu bar or from the Horizontal Tool bar below the Menu or the Vertical Tool bar at the left of the drawing area. BlueCAD also has two bars which display information. The Upper Status bar echoes drawing commands, displays line color, type and current layer and includes buttons to change various attributes. It also allows the user to toggle snaps. The Lower Status bar displays the cursor's location and messages from the program ("No selected entity" seems to be its favorite whenever I'm working). This area will also display basic command information when the user right clicks on any icon in the Upper Tool bar. No such help is available for the Vertical Tool bar.

The Good

BlueCAD is tightly integrated with the WorkPlace Shell. Users can drag and drop different selections from the System Setup Color Palettes to choose colors for lines, grid points and the drawing area itself (which defaults, on installation, to a black background with white lines, a choice that I found a bit unusual). It is also possible to drag and drop fonts onto the BlueCAD Menu bar if the default font doesn't meet the user's needs. However, this capability doesn't extend to the fonts the application uses for dimensions or other text within a drawing and the font that I changed reverted back to its default setting after I closed and re-opened BlueCAD.

Users can open different "windows" filled with tool buttons (think of them as moveable, mini icon bars) which contain all of the commands to draw and edit lines and polygons. These "windows" can be dragged about and dropped anywhere on the drawing area, making it easy for the draftsman to keep those tools immediately needed close at hand.

Printing under BlueCAD is a breeze. It worked with my Canon printer the first time and produced a crisp drawing in about 2 minutes. Multi-tasking with BlueCAD loaded is also a snap. With many other programs running alongside, I have had no discernible system lag or conflicts.

The Bad

All of the other drawing programs that I've used (Windows Paint Brush, Embellish, DrawPerfect, Generic CAD for DOS and TurboCAD) have supported rubber-banding for every basic line-drawing function. According to CadWare tech support, BlueCAD does as well, but I have yet to get it working whenever I draw a black line on a white background. If I work with any other combination (blue lines on a gray background), I have no problems, but I really don't like working in alternate colors. Maybe it's just my own quirk, but I'm more comfortable with a set up that feels a little more like my old drawing board.

For that matter, I have not been able to change the basic color of my drawing space in the manner that BlueCAD's manual recommends. The procedure is quite simple: From the File menu, select "Settings," which pops open a notebook containing basic selections to set up the application. From there, choose "Color" and simply drag the desired color to the workspace and drop it. So far, though, I can't get it to work. I can drag and drop colors from the OS/2 Color Palettes to the Color page in BlueCAD's "Settings" notebook and I can drag and drop from the Color Palettes to the BlueCAD workspace, but I can't change colors the way the manual suggests. I can offer one other observation: When BlueCAD rubberbands, it draws the rubberband in the opposite color as the final line, i.e., a blue line rubberbands in yellow; green rubberbands in purple. If this holds true for all colors, black must rubberband in white which, of course, would disappear against a white background. I tested this theory by selecting a dark gray background with black lines, but I still had no rubberbanding. If drawing black on white isn't important, or if you can live without rubberbanding, I suppose this becomes a non-issue, but I find it a definite weakness in the application.

I have also found it a bit hard to adjust to BlueCAD's use of the grid layout instead of real world measurements. Other CAD programs, notably TurboCAD, allow the user to work in scale with real world feet and inches (or their metric equivalents) displayed on-screen. Depending on the type of line drawn, BlueCAD will display its length dynamically as the user draws but only in terms of grid points. If there is a way to work with real-world units, I haven't been able to find it.

As mentioned above, BlueCAD's installation program includes a URL inside the desktop folder. When I tried to surf the site, I was greeted with an error message in English and Italian telling me that the site I requested did not exist. Another URL (www.cadware.it) is listed in an ad on the inside cover of Indelible Blue's Spring and Summer '97 catalog. I surfed this site and found it to be up and running, however, it suffers from the same faults that haunt BlueCAD's documentation (see below). CadWare offers free tech support via e-mail from this page. I have contacted them concerning an issue that I'll deal with in detail below and found them to be courteous and dedicated. As of this date, we have not resolved my problem, but I am hopeful that we can. The greatest drawback that I see to this way of providing tech support (one that is endemic to the system and not a fault of CadWare) is the time lag. It has taken an average of 48 hours for me to receive an answer to a request. This isn't bad if one isn't working to a tight deadline, but could be catastrophic if one is. As of this date, the FAQ and bug report pages on CadWare's site were still under construction, another deficit which one hopes CadWare will address soon.

Another feature that BlueCAD lacks is a working file history. The app does not track recently opened files so users have to constantly use Ctrl-O (or Alt-F, O) to access files. While this isn't an unforgivable fault, it is certainly a weakness that I hope CadWare will address.

The Ugly

In my review of Lotus WordPro, I spent some time taking Lotus to task for not providing decent documentation for their product. After wading through most of BlueCAD's manual, I have a greater appreciation for the time and attention that Lotus put into their work. This is, without question, the worst piece of text that I have ever had the misfortune to deal with. It is awkward, misleading and, generally, awful. But don't take my word for it. Here are two excerpts from the instructions that accompany BlueCAD:

Updating installation serves for when the user wishes to have a more recent BlueCAD version than the currently installed one. This operation entails the overwriting of the program's files, while the macros and the executed designs found in \DRAWINGS and \MACRO are not cancelled. (p. 13)

BlueCAD offers many commands to draw segments, other than obviously the 2 Points (ends given segment). In this way, many geometrical constructions, otherwise laborious, turn out immediately. (p. 35)

BlueCAD'S manual is filled with gems like these which makes it almost impossible to work with. In fact, I spent more time wading through 10 pages of CadWare's tutorial (33 - 43) to draw a very simplified picture of a bolt than I did following TurboCAD's tutorial for the floor plan of an office which included double-line walls, doors, furniture templates, a filing cabinet system and dimensions. In one case, I worked for 40 minutes to try to draw a simple rectangle according to the directions on page 33. Rather than draw the figure freehand, I meticulously entered the coordinates given in the instructions but could not produce a figure on my screen identical to the illustration in the manual. I finally realized that my error lay in not including a minus sign ( - ) before one of the coordinates. While the proper instructions are present in another place on the page, the particular section that I was following (a bit too closely, perhaps) had the minus sign separated from the rest of the number by a line break. If I had been in less of a hurry, I might have noticed the error sooner and corrected it. However, in a world where people need to be productive with their machines immediately, this kind of slipshod writing is unacceptable.

And, lest the reader think that I neglected to check, I'm sorry to say that the on-line documents suffer from the same malady that afflicts the manual. For example:

in [sic] the input field you can write numerical expressions up to 80 characters long. Given the small dimension of the field, if the expression is longer than that, it will be only partly visible. There are two ways to write in the window, either placing the cursor and clicking the mouse or writing the expression with the keyboard. In this window, you will read by default the last number you gave as an input, highlighted as wholly selected : any character you write will take its place. If you do not want to have it deleted, but you wish to modify it, you place the blinking cursor in the field at the position you like or with the mouse either with the left and right navigation keysor with the start-line end keys: in this way the number will not be highlighted any longer, so you can change it.

This document, like the manual, is in desperate need of serious repair. After reading a few pages, I developed the impression that it was prepared in a different language and translated into English by someone who either is not a native English speaker or has never successfully completed a college-level writing course. Whatever the real case may be, this product's strengths are so clouded by its dismal documentation that I cannot find them.

I find this situation doubly frustrating. I am, by nature, a person who would rather find good in a product than trash it. There's little doubt in my mind that this program has some definite possibilities but these are buried under a manual that is impossible to understand. In the months (yes, months) that I have worked with it, I learned to dread loading BlueCAD. I never once found myself working comfortably. As soon as I began to get the sense that I was in control of the interface, I'd encounter another stumbling block. Turning to the manual or the on-line help only deepened my exasperation. I finally reached a point where I had to say that I simply was not being productive with my time and moved on to other work that I have pending. I know of nothing I could say which would more accurately convey my opinion of this product.

Which Way the Wind Blows

In the same Indelible Blue ad mentioned above, BlueCAD bills itself as a package "designed and developed specifically for professional users and students" that's "quick and easy" to learn and use. I can't agree, but you, gentle reader, do not have to take my word for it. CadWare is offering a demo of version 1.008 for download on their web site. By all means, surf their site, download their files and put this product to the test. The total download is a bit less than 4 M (depending upon language version). Perhaps the fault lies with me and you will find BlueCAD to be everything you need in a CAD program. If that is the case, I'd appreciate hearing about it.

It is my sincere hope that those at CadWare responsible will take steps to address the problems which plague their product. I would like to see a more mature version of BlueCAD which has a manual that doesn't require the wisdom of a saint to untangle and a tutorial that actually teaches something besides patience. Until then, I would only recommend this product to someone with a lot of spare time whose spirit of adventure is not easily daunted by the frustrating. Those of us with work to do and deadlines pending need something else.

* * *

BlueCAD 1.008

by CadWare
MSRP: US$185

Pete Grubbs is a self-described OS/2 wonk, a doctoral candidate in English literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a part-time faculty member at Penn State and is currently developing a copy editing/creation service, The Document Doctor, which tailors documents for small businesses.


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