ZWCAD 2018 Hands-on Review
Phillip Keane posted on October 02, 2017 | 2943 views

ZWSOFT has released the latest version of its flagship CAD package, ZWCAD 2018. It will, for many, serve as an alternative to much more expensive AutoCAD. And, thanks to the wonder of 30-day free trials, ENGINEERING.com is happy to bring you another hands-on review.

ZWSOFT, headquartered in Guangzhou, China, may not be as well-known to Americans and Europeans as CAD giants Autodesk and SOLIDWORKS, it still has a large and loyal customer base, having amassed some 550,000 clients across 80 countries over their 20-year tenure in the CAD industry. 

The company website describes its goal as to be “the world's leading CAD/CAM software provider” with a mission to “provide cost-effective software & services for CAD/CAM users.” That’s a noble mission—and a lofty goal.

Is it cost-effective for CAD/CAM users? And is ZWSOFT going to be the world's leading CAD/CAM software provider anytime soon?

The answer to the first question is absolutely “yes.” And as for the answer to the other question, read on and decide for yourself!

ZWCAD vs Everybody Else

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the review (and while my copy of ZWCAD downloads), let’s take a look at the main differences between ZWCAD and other CAD packages. Why might we want to abandon a more popular package in favor of ZWCAD?

Well, fundamentally the biggest difference—and the sales pitch being pushed by ZWSOFT—is the price.

According to the ZWSOFT website, ZWCAD is “budget friendly,” has no mandatory annual updates, and comes with a non-expiring license.

How “budget friendly” is the product exactly? A permanent license for ZWCAD 2018 will cost between $799 and $999, depending on whether you purchase the STD or the PRO version. The PRO version has basic 3D modeling capabilities as well as 3D rendering, while the STD version does not have these features. From this, we can say that the core purpose of ZWCAD is comparable to a 2D drafting program, rather than a dedicated 3D modeling package, as evidenced by the fact that 3D modeling is not a standard feature across the different versions (whereas 2D drafting is). That’s totally fine, as ZWSOFT has a dedicated 3D modeler called ZW3D, so if you need advanced 3D features, then you should take a look at that software instead.

ZWCAD is more comparable to AutoCAD, and so is geared more toward drafting, design and documentation, rather than 3D modeling and finite element analysis (FEA). This comparison is alluded to on the ZWSOFT website, where it mentions that ZWCAD is designed to be “familiar” (to AutoCAD users).  It even boasts that ZWCAD will require no retraining time for previous users of AutoCAD. 

Starting Up

Anyone who wants to have a free trial version of the software need only click this link, register their details on the website, and receive a confirmation email. You can then log into the download section on the ZWSOFT site, and access the free trial version of ZWCAD. It’s a very small download, only 300 MB, which is great if you’re using a slow hotel Wi-Fi as I am right now.

Once the software has downloaded, you can click the application file to be guided through the installation process. It takes a couple of clicks and a couple of minutes to install the software.

After opening the software, the first thing you are greeted with is a user interface (UI) that is very similar to AutoCAD. It has the same classic ribbon interface, tool palettes and a lot of the same commands and even icons AutoCAD users are used to seeing.

Many other AutoCAD features are here in ZWCAD as well, including command line, drawing area, properties panel and a calculator (the calculator is new to the 2018 version of ZWCAD).

Figure 1. The main ZWCAD menu.
Figure 1. The main ZWCAD menu.

Inputs can be made via the command line (many commands are exactly the same as they are in AutoCAD), or via the various menus on the ribbon at the top of the screen. As already mentioned, ZWCAD is designed to be “familiar” enough to AutoCAD users so that a minimal retraining period is needed for AutoCAD converts. An amateur AutoCAD user would be comfortable using the software after a couple of minutes without needing a refresher. For a more experienced AutoCAD user, the learning curve would likely be fairly non-existent.

Features

In using ZWCAD and testing out some of its main features, it’s easy to see how it can be worked into your existing CAD workflow by taking advantage of the wide range of file compatibility. ZWCAD is compatible with AutoCAD file types such as DWG, DXF, DWF and DWT. You can also import DGN files, making it compatible with MicroStation. 

Other AutoCAD-like features were very easy to use and added to the overall performance of the software. Dynamic Block, for example, allows you to create and use one block in multiple instances. No need to have two separate blocks for a left-hand and a right-hand swinging door or a door that is shown open 45° as opposed to 90°. One Dynamic Block set up with multiple parameters will work in all those instances.

Though both AutoCAD and ZWCAD have an External Reference Manager for managing all attached DWG files, ZWCAD also has a Reference Manager, which lets you bring in and control additional resources for your CAD files such as text, images and more.

Other features I found quite useful were: Match Property, Object Isolation, File Compare and Super Hatch which allowed me to use not only the predefined hatch patterns, but a block, external drawing or an image to create my own hatch patterns.

ZWSOFT is also keeping up with other 2D CAD providers by offering the ability to move between your desktop and your mobile device. ZWCAD’s mobile solution, CAD Pockets, will allow you to work “on the go” by using your tablet or smartphone.

3D Tools

The 2D sketch tools that are the basis of creating 3D models are very intuitive for anyone who has used AutoCAD, or used any sketch feature in other similar CAD packages.

As stated earlier, ZWCAD is marketed as a 2D program that is meant to compete with the likes of AutoCAD and other 2D software platforms. With that said, ZWCAD does contain some entry level 3D modelling capabilities. It was very easy to create solids and surfaces in the software, but I noticed that once a solid had been created (an extruded cylinder, for example), it was not so easy to alter the parameters of the extrusion. But then again, you’re paying for a powerful 2D drafting and detailing software, not a dedicated professional 3D modelling software. A very big price difference.

In addition, the default page format can be changed in the menu, and once my drawing and annotations have been completed, I can export them as a DWG file, meaning that this is also compatible with all of the main CAD programs. 

Figure 2. Basic extrusions and other primitives.
Figure 2. Basic extrusions and other primitives.

And likewise, compatibility with DWG means that I can import files from AutoCAD, as per the gear image shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. A sprue gear imported from AutoCAD into ZWCAD.
Figure 3. A sprue gear imported from AutoCAD into ZWCAD.

Rendering

Similar to some of the basic 3D modelling features mentioned above, ZWCAD also includes some basic rendering options via its integrated third-party render engine.

After creating some primitives and some extrusions, I quickly found the render menu in the ribbon, and clicked the conspicuous Render button. Rendering is easy to find, easy to use, and is a fairly basic feature. I would compare the render engine interface to that found on SketchUp.  It’s very simple, and has limited options. You can pick a default scene, or create your own, and a number of basic lighting preferences and material appearances are available.

Figure 4. The rendering feature in ZWCAD.
Figure 4. The rendering feature in ZWCAD.

So, it’s great if you want to render something quickly, but ZWCAD lacks many of the functions found in high-end renderers. But that said, as ZWCAD can import and export DWG files without any issue, there is nothing stopping you from exporting a DWG file into another package, and converting it to a 3D model if required and rendering it elsewhere. In fact, that’s what you have to do with most other CAD platforms anyway.

Let’s be honest, nobody buys AutoCAD for the rendering anyway. They buy it because it’s AutoCAD, and because they are used to it, or because they have industrial partners who prefer the software. There’s that word again—familiarity.

New Stuff

Generally speaking, ZWCAD has a fairly uncluttered UI, and it is fairly comfortable on the eyes. Apparently, this low brightness, high-contrast UI is a new addition to the 2018 release, and is designed to be less strenuous to stare at for long periods of time. That’s great news for those of us that spend 8-plus hours a day at our CAD workstations. You’re also able to customize the UI to fit the way you work.

Other innovations in the latest ZWCAD package include the “SmartMouse” feature, which allows you to activate commands via mouse gestures (such as opening the circle command by swiping the mouse along an arc), and also the “SmartVoice” feature, which allows you to annotate your drawings with voice notes. The notes can be played back by clicking the voice icon in the drawing.

Another great new feature is the software’s API, which includes LISP, VBA, ZRX, SDS, and .NET, allowing you to customize and create your own commands or series of commands by using a basic form of programming. ZWCAD’s API is also compatible with AutoCAD’s APIs (AutoLISP, VBA, ARX, SDS, .NET), so if the user has an application that runs on AutoCAD, it can easily be ported to ZWCAD.

Also new to the 2018 version is the new and improved SOLPROF command, which AutoCAD users will recognize. The SOLPROF (Solid Profile) command allows you to project the different faces of a 3D solid into different 2D viewports.

You can see how SOLPROF works in this short video.

Money

As mentioned, ZWSOFT prides itself on the affordability of its products. How affordable are they exactly?

Currently, a one-year subscription of AutoCAD will cost you $1,470 (or $185 per month).  The fully loaded PRO version of ZWCAD will (initially) cost slightly more at $999 but then, this package is a permanent license rather than a subscription service, so you pay once, and you get to keep the fully functional software forever. And those wishing to upgrade to the next annual release can do so by paying a small fee.

Conclusion

So, it seems that ZWCAD is aimed at people who want an affordable and accessible drafting solution, and also require all the familiarity of AutoCAD.

Is ZWCAD cost-effective? If you are planning on using it frequently, then yes. Or, if you’re planning on using it for more than one year—and you’d like a drafting package that never expires—then absolutely.

ZWCAD is designed to be an alternative to AutoCAD, and has much of the functionality and features of that package. And at its core, it does this job very well, and without numerous unnecessary features getting in the way. 

Why buy a Swiss Army Knife, when you only need a corkscrew? ZWCAD is the corkscrew of CAD packages, and it does its one job very well, without any bells and whistles.

If you have a small to medium-sized business, and you want DWG compatibility for your AutoCAD users, without the mounting expense of a subscription, then you might want to check out this software. It’s not a lot of money, and your traditional AutoCAD users will have no problem adapting to this alternative. It didn’t take me long to navigate the clean UI and start drawing and creating basic models, so a veteran AutoCAD user will be at ease with the familiar layout, commands and functions.

You can get your free trial copy of ZWCAD, and see for yourself, right here.

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