Google SketchUp 6 review

Over the years, @Last Software’s SketchUp managed to win itself a small fanbase, particularly among architects, for its valiant attempt to make 3D modelling as simple as 2D drawing. The program’s fortunes changed radically when it added a plug-in to enable its models to be integrated directly into Google Earth. Google took notice, bought the company, added new internet-based model searching and sharing capabilities and opened up the renamed, and now completely free, Google SketchUp to a whole new market.

For this first major update under the Google brand, the SketchUp interface has been reworked to make it more accessible to its new wider audience. By default, the main toolbar has been simplified, there’s a new Instructor palette, the Components and Materials browsers have been streamlined, and the new colouring of sky and ground planes plus the inclusion of a default figure in new scenes greatly helps orientation. Most importantly, SketchUp now offers quicker handling – Google claims up to five times faster for some operations.

SketchUp’s core drawing capabilities have also been made easier to use with new modifier keys that let you quickly create copies of objects and force the direction in which a line should be locked. More advanced drawing power comes through enhancements to its intersection capabilities, which can now be limited to currently selected objects or to the current group or component. There’s also a Paste-in-Place command, which makes it simple to move selections in and out of geometry as desired.

SketchUp’s text capabilities have also been overhauled. As well as the existing ability to create text and linked annotations that either remain fixed onscreen or follow the object they’re linked to, you can now set a fixed height for text so its size changes, like the model itself, depending on the zoom level. There’s also a new 3D Text tool that lets you set a font, size and extrusion depth, and creates actual geometry you can place into your scene.

The most impressive new addition is the Photo Match capability. This is accessed from a new floating palette from which you load your images. Based on the photo, you can quickly mark up horizontal and vertical lines, for example, based on a building’s windows, and then set a central origin, such as the point where two walls meet. Using this information, SketchUp works out the camera position, field of view and perspective accordingly, meaning you can quickly build up your model’s geometry using the image – ideally multiple images handled as scenes – as your guide. Best of all, once you’ve finished your geometry, you can simply project your photos onto it to create an immediately recognisable textured model.

You’re then ready to integrate your finished models with Google Earth and to post them to Google’s 3D Warehouse if you want to share them. To use your models in further 3D-based workflows, you’re going to need the commercial Google SketchUp Pro 6, although native SKP file format support is spreading. You can still print directly however, and also output to a number of bitmap formats. Before you do that, though, you need to get your scene looking just the way you want it.

SketchUp isn’t intended for producing photorealistic renderings, so there’s no advanced control over materials or lighting, although you can quickly apply bitmap textures and set up accurate location- and time-based shadows, as well as add fog to create a sense of depth. Instead, SketchUp is designed to produce drawings that look like they’ve been created by a draughtsman. In this latest release, the options on offer for producing these more artistic renderings have been extended to include “sketchy effects”, which make lines look looser and hand-drawn, and watermarks that can be used to brand images or give them a textured surface such as canvas. There’s also a central Styles palette in which you can choose from a set of preset rendering effects, customise them and create your own house style.

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