Here we explore CAD software designed for the Apple Mac®. We look at its native operating systems as well some CAD software running under Windows® using Parallels®, Bootcamp® or VM-Ware Fusion®. We touch on the pros and cons of choosing an Apple® Mac computer for CAD and list all the current CAD software for Mac that is available.
This article is an overview of all CAD for Mac software. Use it to help you choose the most appropriate CAD software for your needs. Also be sure to read and answer the 7 Key Questions to Ask When Buying CAD for Mac article. This is really important.
Choosing the best CAD software for your Apple Mac is much easier once you have some fundamental background knowledge. It is also important to have a brief look at the history of CAD for the Mac as there are several common misconceptions relating to Apple Mac and ‘design’ software.
Most Mac users’ are surprised to learn that CAD has never been ‘strong’ on the Apple Mac platform…. Really !… Relatively few CAD software choices have ever been available for Apple and professional CAD software developers have focused their attention on the Windows PC.
Professional CAD software was originally limited almost entirely to Unix workstations and then migrated to Windows® PC’s, whilst Apple Macintosh® computers dominated desktop publishing. The processors and processes used in Apple Mac machines were designed around handling large flat 2D bitmap images and complex text files but not the world of CAD vectors. Bitmaps and Vectors are different…
Bitmaps are a series of dots that contain data such as hue, color, saturation and transparency whilst vectors are a way of describing the world as a series of linear objects with points in a mathematically defined 3D space. A straight line for instance is described to the computer as two end points and a definition between those two points. As another example an arc is described as four points, one in the center, two at either end and another at some point on the circumference. The advantage of Vectors over Bitmaps is that vectors accurately describe the world in 2D or 3D with dimensional precision. Vectors can also be scaled up or down without compromising the appearance and integrity of the drawing or model. Bitmaps on the other hand simply end up with bigger dots when scaled up and jagged edges as the dots become more visible to the naked eye. They are also totally inaccurate and therefore cannot be relied upon when measuring or scaling. Additionally bitmaps are only 2D flat representations of the world, just like a photograph whilst vectors can be in 2D or 3D space. The processors and processes used in PC’s were particularly adept at handling vector style data.
Blended CAD Technology
In recent times CAD software has married the two technologies, that of Bitmap and Vector graphics into one symbiotic realm, driven in part by the technologies of the lucrative 3D games market. In addition, the Mac and PC are now more similar internally than ever, even to the point of using the same central processor (CPU) chip-sets and being able to run either Windows® or Mac® operating systems. With the increased uptake of the Apple Mac® computer in industry due in part to excellent build quality, sleek, stylish design and the success of Apple’s iPod®, iPhone® and iPad®, more and more technical designers have been switching to Mac and therefore asking for CAD software for their Mac computers. This surge in ‘Apple-centric’ purchasing has meant CAD developers have turned their attention to the production of Mac compatible CAD software. At this point in time however most CAD software for the Mac OS is marginally less functional or less developed than its equivalent Windows® counterpart. The real blend of technology occurs when users deploy Windows alongside their Mac OS so they can use the best of both worlds. Currently there is still a case for running Windows® on the Mac, even if it is just for the sake of using the most appropriate CAD software for a particular need or until that software developer releases a native Mac version.
Types Of CAD
CAD software can be categorized to help eliminate products that are definitely not suited to your needs but include those that are.
- Entry 2D for occasional or non demanding drawing needs. These are usually less featured, slower to operate or lack flexibility but still provide enough tools to create simple drawings. They may lack ability to share drawings using industry standard formats and may have no upgrade path or rapid support or training available.
- Professional 2D for production drafting. This is fully featured design software with important features to make the process of drafting faster and as unrestricted as possible. Professional 2D CAD will usually be well supported by the vendor or developer and will have good training materials to assist you in learning.
- Professional 3D is for the rapid production of virtual models that can be used to visualise a design and then be sent to downstream activities such as 2D drafting and CNC machining or manufacturing. Some 3D programs offer 2D as an integral part of the software. The 2D drawings are generated directly as views of the 3D model, whilst others rely on additional 2D tools to be added to get the views into a flat documentable form.
- Professional 2D with 3D programs are almost the reverse of professional 3D in that they are strong in their 2D documentation ability and offer 3D modeling abilities but without being focussed on the 3D. These are generally best when 3D is a less important aspect of your business design process than 2D documentation is.
- Architectural CAD is for those who are creating our built environment. they have specialist tools for generating walls, opening, roofs, stairs and other such features. They are generally dedicated to this task and as such are not a good choice if you are a product designer or engineering drafter.
- Specialized products are designed for very specific tasks such as Landscape design, electrical schematics, duct design etc. There are so few of these currently available natively for the Apple Mac that we have chosen not to include them here.
- MacDraft - by Microspot is 2D CAD software to produce simple sketches or drawings for mechanical, architectural and engineering designs and technical illustrations. This is an entry level 2D drafting software for the Mac with illustrative ability thrown in for good measure. It has been around for over 25 years and its interface highlights this vintage, however it appears to have a following among less demanding users in particular.
- PowerCADD - by Engineered Software is another of the ‘old world’ 2D drafting packages designed for the Macintosh PowerPC. It offers enhanced color management capabilities and plug-ins for popular file formats. This product could be considered for inclusion into the professional 2D category except that it is not as actively supported or marketed. It has a good set of features and can be expanded by adding additional tools to make it more useful to more regular users.
- VersaCAD - by Archway Systems is another 2D drafting program that worked well for mechanical drawings and runs on older Macs. It was taken up extensively in the USA by professional users for many years but lost popularity in favor of more capable products. VersaCAD appears not be in continued developed. We await confirmation from Archway systems.
- RealCADD - with a double ‘D’ is a basic 2D CAD for Mac program that works something like the old MacDraw with more tools. Written in France by an individual using a programming language known as RealBasic. It appears as more of a University software project and its price reflects this. It may still be useful for some non-demanding users on a tight budget.
We are surprised that the name used is so similar to the long standing professional CAD software RealCAD (single ‘D’) as they are very different products from very different origins. We hope the use of ‘RealBasic’ programming tools was the inspiration for the name rather than any ‘passing off’ as CAD International‘s better known RealCAD (single ‘D’) software?
- RealCAD Draft® (Windows) by CAD International has the same interface and tool set found in its professional RealCAD LT offering but without all the extras required by professionals. You can use Draft to complete CAD level 1, CAD Level 2 online Certificate training; CAD International advise that Mac users will be able to switch from the current Windows version to the new Mac OS X version at no cost when released in 2014.
- HighDesign - 2D CAD and illustration application by Ilexsoft. Not at the high end of the CAD market but may be useful for simple plan and elevation jobs when you want a bit of extra graphical input to make your drawings more colorfull. Developed in Italy it appears not much has been done in the software since 2008.
- CADintosh – by Lemke Software. Basic 2D shareware. This is a limited ability 2D drafting tool, but for those on a very tight budget and without the need for advanced features this software could be a good choice. It has been around for quite a long time and is occasionally updated by the small team that created it many years ago.
- RealCAD LT® - (Windows) by CAD International is a highly evolved and quite simple to use professional 2D CAD program with an upgrade path to RealCAD Pro 3D software. We like RealCAD LT for its simplicity, finesse and feature rich powerful tools. It has a deceptively simple interface but is more capable than other 2D products we trialled so far. There is room for improvement in a few areas related to short-cuts and handling of PDF files (requires an extra tool) but RealCAD LT is currently the best of the 2D CAD software we have used but it is not Mac native OS-X. CAD International advise that current Mac users with RealCAD running on Windows will be able to switch from the Windows version to the new Mac OS-X version at no cost when released mid 2014. This seems generous when you consider the new version will apparently be a completely new rewrite. We guess this is a way of getting Mac users to buy RealCAD now rather than later. After canvassing users we also give it a thumbs-up for the apparently excellent level of support the company provides to its users.
- AutoCAD LT® for Mac - from Autodesk® is not quite the same as its Windows counterpart and one must be careful to understand that a significant relearning may be required to come up to speed with this well know brand. In reality, although the name is the same the product is different. Autodesk have opted for a very Mac like interface. Like its Windows conterpart you can not run applications with AutoCAD LT and there is no official upgrade path to full AutoCAD.
- Rhino3D® - is NURBs surface modeling for Mac by Robert McNeel Inc. The Mac version is still in Beta mode at this stage but if it’s anything like its Windows brother, when released it too will be very popular. Rhinoceros 3D for Windows is a powerful 3D modeler that is particularly good for complex surfaces and is used extensively in the product design, industrial design, ship design and jewelry design industries. It is not as capable as solidThinking, as SolidThinking relates to changing the model parametrically but Rhino is well priced, extremely popular and well supported. Rhino3D has almost become a default standard when it comes to curvaceous modelling for manufacturing and other downstream product design operations.
- SolidThinking® - is advanced 3D NURBS modeling CAD for the Mac by solidThing who are owned by Altair Engineering. SolidThinking Evolve® is the modeling module and brings high-level parametrically controlled Non Uniform Rational B-Spline (NURB) curve ability into play!. What this means is that you can accurately model and subsequently control complex surfaces at any time in the modelling process by adjusting the dimensional and constraint parameters of the model or by visual dragging of control points. This is probably the best Mac based modeling tool for accurate creation of curvaceous and mechanical forms and is particularly useful in product design, jewellery design and curvaceous architectural building design. Model files from solidThinking can be output to regular CAD programs for the creation of 2D documentation. In the same family of products also exists solidThinking Inspire that takes models and applies optimization algorithms to create lighter, stronger, more rigid or more flexible shapes to the design. solidThinking is sold via channel partners of Altair.
- Cobalt, Argon, Xenon and Graphite by Ashlar-Vellum are a range of modular CAD programs designed for Mac and Windows and typically used in product design. We are unable to give a great deal of information on this software directly but their site is informative. Cobalt is the flagship product whilst the others appear to be sub-sets of this program.
- Bonzai® and Form Z® by AutoDeSys. Bonzai is a 3D sketch modelling tool for Mac OS-X and Windows. At one level it is similar to SketchUp but Bonzai provides more advanced modeling because the underlying software has a true solids engine and not just a mesh of triangulated surfaces. Bonzai contains a subset of Form-Z which has been around for many years and still has a strong following among product designers who were early adopters of the Macintosh platform. These days Form-Z and Bonzai also extend their abilities into the Architectural arena for concept modelling in particular.
- SketchUp® - isn’t traditional 3D CAD as we know it but is included here because it is a very popular 3D sketch modeler. There is a free version and a Pro version. The Pro version also has some 2D drafting tools to compliment the 3D modelling environment for the production of documentation and may be used commercially whilst the free version is only for non-commercial, personal use and has no ability to exchange files with other CAD software. Ultimately, SketchUp for Mac is a fast and fairly easy 3D modeler, and should be considered for many design applications. It is best for initial concept design, for fleshing out ideas and for making client presentations. It should not be considered for fast accurate 2D drafting and documentation however. SketchUp can be used in conjunction with other more accurate CAD software such as RealCAD® or AutoCAD® and in many cases combining SketchUp with a good 2D CAD product is a terrific and inexpensive solution. (The current owners of SketchUp, Trimble Inc. recently purchased SketchUp from Google® Inc. who bought it from the original developers @last software). SketchUp is particularly useful for landscape architecture, building design, set and stage design, games development, interior design, cabinet making and many other applications where accurate curves or accurate surfaces are not required. It is best used in conjunction with plug-in applications that manage or automate some of the modeling processes as it is easy to otherwise inadvertently damage your model’s integrity. We particularly like Driving Dimensions for SketchUp. Like many products, used well SketchUp is a great tool, used poorly it can be seen as a bit of a toy.
Professional 2D with 3D
- TurboCAD® - for the Mac by IMSI/Design is a relatively new player in the Mac market, leveraging its well-known retail CAD product brand name to slip into the general purpose CAD for Mac market. Aimed mostly at the consumer, hobbyist and entry level professional market it is well priced and well optioned. The product is very different from its Windows® PC counterpart so if you know the PC version you will still have to relearn this one. It has a dedicated Mac oriented interface and is a good choice when wanting an all-rounder. It should always be purchased with the training DVD as there are many tools to learn and understand. It is available in two versions, one more advanced than the other. We would recommend buying this software from a dedicated CAD vendor rather than from a box moving retail software site like Amazon as you will undoubtedly need some level of support.
- RealCAD Pro® -(Windows) by CAD International has the same interface and tool set found in its 2D offering (RealCAD LT) but RealCAD Pro enables the 3D modelling that is already there to function. RealCAD Pro is the product chosen for delivery of internationally recognized CAD level 1, CAD Level 2 and CAD Level 3 online Certificate training; We understand this is because RealCAD is easier to learn and is free to use whilst learning. If however you are looking for software to do complex surfacing this is not the product for you. RealCAD still needs true solids, parametric ability and unrestricted surface modeling to make it more suited to product and jewelry designers. In general terms though RealCAD currently gets the Editor’s choice award. If you wish to model in 3D easily and produce excellent 2D documentation and you need to get up and running quickly with excellent support then RealCAD is a good choice. CAD International advise that Mac users will be able to switch from the current Windows version to the new Mac OS X version at no cost when released in 2014. RealCAD Pro can further be upgraded if you also require Animation by selecting RealCAD Complete.
- VectorWorks® - by Nemetschek is a well featured well known and extensive 2D/3D CAD program for Mac. Albeit quite intense to use, especially for the beginner, Vectorworks has a large following due to it being one of the first professional level Mac based CAD programs in the market, originally known as MiniCAD. It has a particularly strong user base in landscape and interior design as well as stage and lighting design. On its own Vectorworks compares with AutoCAD® and RealCAD® but most Vectorworks users will add a plug-in for either architecture, landscape or lighting design and rendering to make it even more useful. Whilst historically popular and well supported throughout the world, Vectorworks suffers from a legacy of being complex to use and having much of its screen real-estate taken up with menus and dialogs.
- Draftsight® - CAD software for the Apple Mac from Dassault Systems is also new in this arena and is built on the same platform as ARES CAD for Mac from German company, Graebert GmbH. It is almost identical to its Windows®brother with only a few functions lacking in the Macintosh® version. This product is essentially the same software as CorelCAD® and several other re-badged OEM CAD programs. Designed to feel very similar to the Windows®version of AutoCAD® from AutoDesk Inc., Draftsight is supplied free as a marketing strategy for Dassault Systems to engage new clients and later have them upgrade to its significantly more powerful 3D parametric Windows only software SolidWorks. Support beyond forums or outside USA time zones may be difficult and its functionality must be investigated to ensure it has all the features you are looking for.
- CorelCAD® - a 2D and 3D CAD for Mac is based on ARES CAD from Graebert of Germany. We are not quite sure why Corel decided to enter the already flooded CAD market and OEM ARES CAD but we assume it was to complement their suite of graphics products such as CorelDraw.
- ARES® - by Graebert is the original of the Draftsight and CorelCAD software. Like the others it is an AutoCAD-like program designed to encourage experienced users of AutoCAD away. ARES is also available for Linux and Windows and runs DWG natively.
- iCAD Mac - by ProgeCAD is a new player (or possibly an old player under a new name?) and one we haven’t been able to review fully as yet. This is another of the AutoCAD style ‘clone’ programs so could be of interest by those who already use AutoCAD or know and understand how it operates. It has some redeeming features added that the other three ‘copies’ don’t have such as 3D PDF output.
- AutoCAD® for Mac - from Autodesk® is like TurboCAD® in that it has opted to leverage its well know brand to gain market acceptance. AutoCAD®for the Mac is a very different beast to AutoCAD® for Windows® as they have opted for a very Mac like interface. One could say that AutoCAD for the Mac is not really AutoCAD as we know it at all. At this stage there are very few add-in application available for the Mac version and so in reality, AutoCAD for the Mac has little more to offer that any other generic CAD software on this platform. The other detracting factor is that it is comparatively very expensive. You can create custom scripts, line types, hatch patterns, and command aliases, as well as AutoLISP and ObjectARX applications; however, there is no support for DCL in AutoLISP, nor is there access to some of the custom AutoCAD® user interface controls in ObjectARX. Technologies specific to Windows®, such as Visual Basic® for Applications, OLE® objects, and Windows Media Audio®, are not supported in AutoCAD for Mac. The most commonly used functionality of AutoCAD for Windows is included in AutoCAD for Mac. However, there are a few commands that are not included, including layer filters, layer groups, and layer states; Sheet Set Manager; and DGN, PDF, and DWF underlay support.
Professional Architectural CAD for Mac
- ArchiCAD® - by Graphisoft is architectural CAD for Mac OSX. It is purpose built architectural software that has been around for years and was the leading Architectural CAD software globally for some time. It is at the higher end of the price range and is also available for Windows. ArchiCAD and all the CAD software at this level of professionalism does require time to learn and master. It is a professional software product designed with dedicated professional users in mind. Interestingly Graphisoft since 2007 a part of the Nemetschek Group who also own All-Plan and Vectorworks. All competitors of each other. It will be interesting to see what happens in this space.
- DomusCAD® - by Interstudio of Italy is an architectural CAD program for Mac OSX and supports QuickDraw 3D technology and plug-in renderers. Whilst this Italian software is relatively unknown outside of Italy, it is a powerful architectural tool and extremely well priced. The lack of support options in English outside Italy seriously prevent us from giving the program top marks but for the price it is well featured.
- BOA - French architectural CAD design software for the Mac that allows users to design projects in 3D easily and obtain 2D drawings automatically. By today’s standards this software is quite elementary but could be worth considering if your demands on software ability are not too high.
- Chief Architect by Chief Architect Corp (USA) is a brand new player in the Mac space. We are yet to see the software and test it in an an Apple machine but have used it extensively on a Windows PC. If the Mac version is similar then this product is a major contender. It is easily the fastest building modeler on earth as its promotional catch phrase says. It is perfect for domestic and light commercial work but can be used on bigger projects at a pinch. It is an extremely automated system with dozens of dialogs, each with dozens of options. Once you have your head around the options the software will build your model with incredible speed and dexterity. It is only available and supported from the USA with no reseller network.
- DenebaCAD – DCAD Vectorspace appears to have disappeared from the radar. It was an elementary design system from Italy with strong architectural ability. We can’t advise on this product until we are able to contact the developers and find out where this software has gone in the last few years.
There are quite a few products to choose from and several options to consider before you make your CAD software purchase. Read as much as you can or shortcut the process to some degree and seek expert advice or just contact us by email and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.