DoubleCAD XT : Changing the Way African Architects Draw – For Free!

The recent introduction of DoubleCAD XT heralds a completely new era in architectural computing in Africa. Released by IMSI/Design, the Turbo CAD people, this free version of an "AutoCAD work-alike" is somewhat different from its predecessors and current competitors: it has no license restrictions confining it to "personal use" nor does it have any obvious restrictions, such as file size, disabled functions, snag lines or expiration date.

It is truly the first time in the history of commercial architectural computing that you can download a completely free and legal copy of commercial grade CAD software and introduce it into the practice without fears of piracy, disruption or poor performance.

Since its introduction just under a year ago, DoubleCAD XT has become the free CAD of choice in many practices in Africa. Many suspect that IMSI/Design has become the leading supplier of legal CAD software for Africa. This has helped reduce the levels of software piracy afflicting many parts of our continent. (I know a few architects who sleep better at night now that they have legalised their CAD seats without affecting their office standards or losing functionality - in exactly the same way that OpenOffice legalised their office software.)

This leading position, however, is bound to be temporary as the first company to release a free "commercial grade" GNU/Linux version will take the African market by storm. In this regard IMSI/Design appear to be lagging. More and more computers in Africa are running the Ubuntu GNU/Linux operating system, particularly at professional level. So whilst they are to be commended for "shaking up the CAD world" they do not quite score a 10. (Read more about the availability of CAD for Linux here )

TurboCAD was originally developed in South Africa by Hendrik Vermooten and Hein Oosthuizen. This first version of TurboCAD fitted on a single 360k floppy so that it could run on the original IBM PC. The source code could also fit on a single floppy disk along with the 30k required by the "development environment": Turbo Pascal 2.0. (See Wiki Article about the company.) We like to think that it is thanks to the founding efforts of Hendrik and Hein that DoubleCAD XT exists today, but maybe that is stretching it a bit…

Twenty five years later, TurboCAD is now a fierce CAD/3D package that competes head-on with AutoDesk's products. Think of DoubleCAD XT as TurboCAD's younger brother; not as clever but much more athletic, better looking and full of yet to be realised potential. He's been brought in to help with marketing and he is doing a magnificent job so far.

Our practice, small as it is, does not spend a lot of money on software. We prefer to pay better salaries. For this reason we abandoned the standard commercial options available in South Africa a few years ago and adopted TurboCAD as the office standard. The reason was simply one of economics - and practicality. Every time we needed a CAD/3D "seat" in the office we would simply pop down to the nearest Incredible Connection and get one for around R5,000.00 (US$600), including the PC and monitor. The commercial option would typically cost five to ten times more.

Until last year this was our policy but then things changed: the CAD paradigm shifted - again. Three things happened for us that caused our document production system to change one more time. This has happened to us (and everyone else) many times over the last twenty five years but this is the first time that we are happy about the change.

The CAD paradigm has shifted - and the shift finally favours the architect.

1. Ten years ago we had to send all staff to CAD training before we could get a single drawing out of them. The costs of training all these people were enormous and their absence was disruptive. In addition, as soon as they became CAD literate they would invariably find a better paying job elsewhere. Today we expect anyone who works here to be CAD efficient. It is a given.

2. Ten years ago buying a new PC for the office was a big deal - we even had to take out loans at exorbitant interest rates. Today's workstation requirements are minimal; we simply provide a power point for personal laptops and wireless access to the Network. Our attention is focused on the Linux Server - not on individual workstations. The architects in our practice all use personal laptops to produce documentation and to design, draft and doodle. The only significant issue is file format; we don't care who uses what CAD program so long as all the drawings produced are in AutoCAD DWG format.

3. Functional, cheap or free AutoCAD work-alikes are available. Only one free CAD can be really legally used in the office - DoubleCAD. There are two CAD packages that have reduced the number of pirated AutoCAD copies out there; IntelliCAD / ProgeCAD Smart and DoubleCAD XT. They are both excellent drafting and detailing packages which will feel familiar to AutoCAD users. We do not allow our employees to use pirated copies of software installed in their personal laptops and insist that they install and use either of the above packages instead. We favour DoubleCAD's capability but many of our architects prefer ProgeCAD's interface which is a replica of the original. The office computers have ProgeCAD installed primarily because there is no "nag line" on printed drawings saying "FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY!".

Ten years ago setting up a CAD station would break the bank: today it generally costs less than buying a pencil.

What about the cost of TurboCAD, our 3D modeller? A "funny thing" happened when DoubleCAD XT was introduced to the practice: nobody uses it anymore, except for high level final presentation 3D's, which doesn't happen that often. This is so particularly because Google's SketchUp has all but taken over as 3D weapon of choice. I think DoubleCAD's tight integration with SketchUp is the probable cause.

SketchUp, DoubleCAD and IDX-Express are all the tools most private practice architects are ever likely to need for personal/ commercial use. A Modeller, A Drafter and a Renderer - all cutting edge technology and all well supported, solidly backed and enjoying the following of millions worldwide. Besides their awesome computing power, these software titles also have a common killer attribute: they are completely free and completely legal to use in the practice.

Double CAD XT Screenshot

So what's the catch? 

There is no catch. Just clever marketing and a realistic awareness of the CAD market. By giving you these fine instruments the makers hope that you will support the concept of voluntary upgrades; if you feel you need more power in the future you can acquire it for a very reasonable cost. This is a "win win" strategy that is finding strong support amongst architects in Africa and heralds the return of the cost effective private practice.

The Long Awaited Test Drive:

I took DoubleCAD XT for a spin for a few hours. After the initial irritation of customising the interface to my exact decade old habits I loaded up a DWG file of one of our projects and ran though the motions of habitual drafting for some time.

Although you can download and print a very useful User Manual (PDF) I found the interface so familiar that I didn't refer to it until afterwards.

It worked very well, never crashed and produced the results as required. The only noticeable drawback was response speed. My PC has a two year old CPU on it and I think he was a little overwhelmed by the demands of DoubleCAD's new generation architecture. I imagine that this slight lag wont be present in newer CPU's with more memory. If your PC is old you are perhaps better served by an IntelliCAD clone such as ProgeCAD which appears to make less demands on the CPU.

The speed issue is related to the power computing levels to which Double CAD aspires - not poor code. The package offers very powerful on-screen feedback and input options which makes sure your CPU is kept on its toes - and sweating.

It is not all plain sailing though; there are still a few quirks to sort out relating to the AutoCAD "work-alikeness", but remember this is not a clone, it is a TurboCAD engine with a new UI: it simply offers the ability to configure the interface in a familiar AutoCAD manner. There are always more product specific options which one can adopt and which work just as well if not better. As this is only the first version of the product we expect that the second version will have addressed some of these issues when it is released.

progeCAD Screenshot

My personal verdict is this: if you like legacy computing go with IntelliCAD - it is familiar, reliable, warm and friendly. If you want something forward looking, a little faster, more adventurous, with more power and an unfamiliar, slightly alien, feel then Double CAD XT wins hands down.

Either way you have been freed from the shackles of CAD software slavery and piracy.

Go forth, and celebrate.

(c)Pedro Buccellato, 2010.