Whether you need to find a particular design in a set of files or mark up and communicate data with your design team, a drawing viewer of some sort is essential. In the viewer market, no one-size-fits-all application exists. A small, AutoCAD-only design firm has different requirements than a large design house that might use SolidWorks, Inventor and CATIA in addition to AutoCAD. Your needs might extend to showing models to clients, in which case you may need more-sophisticated viewing options than suffice for in-house use.
When deciding which viewer is appropriate for your needs, the first question is whether the viewer supports the file types you use most commonly. Do you work in just 2D, or is some of your work 3D? What do you need to do with the drawing files? Is a simple viewer enough, or do you need to control layers, view attributes or view cross sections? Do you require markup and redlining tools? Are you working alone or do you need an enterprise-wide viewer? Does the viewer enable easy navigation within both files and directory structure? What is the cost of the application compared with the feature set? Lots of questions, but fortunately there are many capable applications from which to choose.
For this roundup, our original intention was to test CAD 2D/3D file viewers with both AutoCAD and SolidWorks test files. As it turned out, the scope was broader than I expected: some excellent viewers supported only a few AutoCAD file formats and no SolidWorks formats, and other viewers supported more than 400 different file formats. I ended up testing each of the viewers with a variety of file formats, including specific files that I knew would be problematical based on past experiences. I was impressed with the overall quality of the viewers and their nimbleness in handling a variety of files.
File formats, both 2D and 3D, change frequently. Take AutoCAD files as an example and note the number of changes that have occurred to the DWG file format over the years. You may well need to view and work with files that go back a number of years, so even a single format such as DWG has numerous variants—some of which may contain components that are not supported by a particular viewer. Expand this situation for many file formats, each with its own history of variations, and it's sometimes amazing that viewers work as well as they do. And they do work well—very well—based on my findings from this roundup.
With the variety of viewers in this roundup—11 vendors responded to Cadalyst's invitation—it was impossible to include a report card. What may be an A+ viewer for one user might be considered a C viewer for another. Needs vary, often widely. By using the feature table that accompanies this article at www.cadalyst.com/0506viewers/, you should get some idea of which viewers will meet your needs. The overall quality is very high—you'll have to determine which is appropriate for your intended usage. A significant number of products were prerelease versions, indicating that viewers definitely are not a static segment of the software industry.
At the upper end of the viewer spectrum, I found remarkably useful features. For example, the new Actify SpinFire 8.0 software has forward label viewing, which I saw in beta release. If you've viewed and rotated a 3D file that includes dimensioning information, you'll note that when viewing the object from the back the dimensions read backward—often making it difficult to get the information you need. Forward label viewing results in the dimensions reading correctly—not backwards—when viewed from the back. As applications evolve, usability features such as this one provide a path for vendors to distinguish their product from others. The end users benefit by having products that are both more capable and easier to use.
Rasterex Software is headquartered in Oslo, Norway, and sells a variety of visualization and collaboration tools that are used by companies working in AEC, manufacturing, reprographics, engineering, oil- and gas-related industries, utilities and other disciplines.
Supporting hundreds of different file formats, Rasterex applications are updated regularly to fix any bugs and add additional file support. The two primary viewing applications from Rasterex are RxView and RxHighlight v7.3. RxView enables users to view and print more than 250 different file formats, including 2D and 3D CAD, plot files, PDF files, Microsoft Office documents and raster images—all without the originating design software. RxHighlight R7.3, which I evaluated for this roundup, contains all the features of RxView and adds advanced functions such as markup, file conversion and text search and extraction. It's particularly useful for collaboration between design team members. Rasterex also offers a popular Web-based client–server edition called RxViewServer, which is mentioned as an ActiveX version of the company's viewer software in the accompanying feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0506viewers/).
Among the new features in RxHighlight v7.3 are significant GUI improvements, recover file (AutoCAD), load as 3D (AutoCAD files now can be loaded in 3D mode), support for snap-to-line intersections, password protected PDF and RxContent files and the implementation of internal PDF links (page coordinates). RxHighlight now uses the last used color or layer from the previous session, if a user is allowed to change colors and layers.
A wide array of licensing options are available, including both static and floating network licenses as well as single-use licenses. License management typically is handled by a FlexLM license system and support for Sentinel dongles provides additional flexibility.
RxHighlight has a clean and easy-to-understand interface that can be customized by adding, modifying and removing toolbars and menu items. Further customization options are managed by a plug-in manager. I found navigation to be smooth and the extensive file support to be solid on the array of file formats and complex design files I tested.
You can download trial versions of RxView, RxHighlight and a 3D add-on that provides additional features and file format support. Pricing for RxHighlight is $595 and for RxView is $395. See the accompanying feature table (www.cadalyst.com/0506viewers/) for additional price and licensing options.