@Last Software SketchUp 5

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Welcome enhancements to SketchUp’s existing capabilities, especially import/export, but the new organic modeling is disappointing.

For system requirements and discount pricing please click here.

SketchUp 5’s interface, rendering and component handling have all been enhanced.

SketchUp is a unique program that bridges the gap between technical CAD and 3D software by enabling users to create 3D models simply by drawing on the 2D screen. Its working approach is innovative and refreshing but its interface has become increasingly dated. As such, the first thing that strikes you about the latest release is its new look, making the most of some attractive new icons. More productive for creating an efficient working environment is the enhanced palette handling with dialogs that now snap to each other and which can be quickly minimized 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.

It’s not just the interface that has been revamped. Existing tools, such as the Circle, Polygon and Rotate tool, 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 create sketches that look as if they have been hand-drawn by skilled draftsmen, though it’s disappointing that settings can only be applied globally. At the same time realistic shadows, based either on location/time or now simply face-on to the camera, help bring drawings to life. The most welcome rendering advance is the new support for transparency maps in imported bitmaps which means that it’s simple to populate a scene with realistic photographic cutouts - though 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 far SketchUp 5 has provided welcome enhancements to existing capabilities, but there’s not really been anything to set the blood racing. It looks like the missing killer feature is to be found in SketchUp 5’s new range of “sandbox” tools which are designed for modeling 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. So can you now use SketchUp 5 for organic modeling as well as for more architectural work?

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.

sketchup 5 organic modeling

Sandbox tools promise organic modeling capabilities - but this is better left to the new 3DS import.

It might sound simple, but in practice it’s awkward and inflexible – you can only Smoove objects vertically for example - and the end results rarely look completely smooth and natural. To workaround these limitations, SketchUp 5 includes an Add Detail tool for breaking down areas of the TIN into a finer mesh and a Flip Edge tool for manually adjusting triangulation to avoid plateaus - but these just highlight the inherent complexity of the system. Overall I can’t imagine many SketchUp users making regular use of the sandbox tools and @Last Software seems to admit as much as the tools aren’t even switched on by default - you need to enable them via a new Extensions Manager.

Ultimately its sandbox capabilities, which @Last is pushing as the major selling-point of this latest release, prove a disappointment. However you can still get the benefits of combining SketchUp’s planar models with more organic mesh-based models thanks to version 5’s most welcome, though relatively unsung, advance: the ability to import 3DS models. Leaving organic modeling to traditional mesh-based modelers makes much more sense and allows SketchUp to concentrate on what it does best – enabling the fast, creative development of non-organic models.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

For system requirements and discount pricing please click here.

Tom Arah

October 2005

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