@Last Software SketchUp 5 review

Price when reviewed

SketchUp is a unique program that bridges the gap between technical CAD and 3D software by enabling you to create 3D models simply by drawing on the 2D screen. But while its working approach is innovative and refreshing, its interface has become increasingly dated. As such, we’re glad to see that this latest release has a new look. It isn’t just cosmetic either, as there’s a significantly more efficient working environment, with enhanced palette-handling dialogs, which now snap to each other and can be quickly minimised or hidden. Add in improved performance, with many operations up to twice as fast, and SketchUp 5 certainly provides a better all-round working experience.

@Last Software SketchUp 5 review

It isn’t just the interface that’s been revamped. Existing tools, such as the Circle, Polygon and Rotate tools, have all been given minor tweaks. More useful are the changes to the Walk tool, which now provides collision detection and maintains eye height while moving up inclines, and the Push/Pull tool, which can now be used to create connected series of volumes. The handling of Components, the building blocks of many drawings, has also been overhauled with a new interface for creating components and new commands for selecting, replacing and locking instances. Most useful is the new Outliner palette, which lets you see and work with your component hierarchies.

SketchUp 5’s rendering options have also been enhanced. New support for effects such as end point highlighting and depth cueing help to create sketches that look as if they’ve been hand-drawn by skilled draftsmen, although it’s disappointing that settings can be applied only globally. At the same time, realistic shadows, based either on location/time or now simply face-on to the camera, help to bring drawings to life. The most welcome rendering advance is the new support for transparency maps in imported bitmaps, which means it’s simple to populate a scene with realistic photographic cut-outs, although sadly these don’t support casting shadows.

It’s certainly possible to produce some striking drawings and animations directly from SketchUp, but the program’s greatest strength is its integration with other applications and wider workflows. To turn a sketch into a finished technical drawing, the crucial DWG/DXF export has been made smoother, with support for a wider range of entities. Alternatively, to turn a sketch into a photo-realistically rendered model, SketchUp 5’s 3DS export now supports smoothing, vertex welding and mesh splitting. In addition, OBJ and VRML support have both been improved – the latter now supporting texture maps – and new FBX and XSI options have been added.

So SketchUp 5 provides welcome enhancements to existing capabilities, but that isn’t enough to set the blood racing. However, there’s a killer feature to be found in SketchUp 5’s new range of Sandbox tools, which are designed for modelling terrains and other organic shapes. This is the one area in which SketchUp has always been weak, as the program’s 3D drawing engine is built on producing models from planar faces rather than from the triangulated meshes of most 3D applications. This opens up the potential to use SketchUp 5 for organic modelling as well as for more architectural work, although it’s less powerful than we were hoping for in practice.

Before you can do anything, you need to create the Sandbox itself. This can be done based on selected contour lines (these can be imported from DEM data files) or, most easily, by using the Sandbox From scratch tool. The result is a grid of triangles, a Triangulated Information Network (TIN). Using the Smoove (smooth mover) tool, you can then sculpt features in the TIN, such as hills or hollows. Alternatively, using the Stamp tool, you can use an existing object to create an impression in the TIN, or the Drape tool to project edges onto it.

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