CADblets

cadbletComputer Aided Design (CAD) software has always been at the leading edge of computer hardware, and for good reason. CAD is a demanding application, and seemingly there’s never quite enough memory, processing power, screen real-estate or storage available. CAD: Punishing graphics hardware since 1964. As the compactness and mobility of high performing hardware improves, certain preconceptions about CAD accessibility and portability are being challenged. Laptop machines are now commonly used where previously only a desk-devouring workstation would suffice. But now, believe it or not, one company is attempting to bring full-fledged CAD into the tablet space. Will your next CAD workstation be a beefy tablet? A CADblet? The very concept just seems impractical, perhaps even ridiculous, or is it?

As Desktop Engineering reports, the first company jumping into the Android CAD abyss is Graebert offering Radon. What’s the strategy here? The article quotes Graebert founder and CEO, Wilfried Grabert:

“By 2015, tablets will outsell PCs by a significant margin — as such, the importance of making the full ARES CAD experience available on mobile devices became a top development priority. By 2017, there will be touch devices (smartphones + tablets) shipped for each PC and we fully intend to be the go-to solution for handheld devices long before then.” Graebert doesn’t think the tablet version CAD program will replace the desktop version, but “it’ll be a natural extension of the desktop version.”

But we’ve heard this sad tale many times before and hence; declaring the death of the PC has become a semi-annual ritual in Instagram-friendly circles. The continued rise of mobile platform sales and the fall of corresponding PC sales is often cited as smoking-gun evidence that the desktop has finally kicked the bucket. As I’ve discussed before, not every PC really lives, and we’re witnessing the extinction of the mainstream PC perhaps, but not the PC altogether. Even Graebert’s strategy admits this point. Aye.

While many consider tablet CAD unthinkable, others point out that similar attitudes plagued prior generations of CAD technology. Remember when it was thought impractical that a Windows PC could possibly replace a Unix workstation, or before that when it was heresy to think a desktop computer was capable of running CAD at all? Those barriers fell long ago, and seem rather quaint by today’s standards.   Bothered with a command line for anything lately?

Then there’s the question of interface. Tablets are mostly a touch and accelerometer driven interface – such control is likely too imprecise for serious CAD work unless some innovative technology arises that provides finer control. Yet there’s absolutely no practical reason tablets could not also use the keyboards, mice and other peripherals commonly used to drive modern CAD. A more important question would be will incoming engineers even care about such peripherals in a few years, being acclimated to operating touch interfaces from birth. What then?

With the introduction of devices like the Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, the lines between a small laptop and a tablet have become relatively arbitrary. Barriers of storage, processing power, and operating systems are falling away. Some might argue with that level of advancement in portable power and full up Windows, will a mobile-OS CAD variant be viable or necessary at all?

Regardless of the technological advance of devices like the Surface Pro 3, tablets and ultrabooks have little hope of matching the kind of colossal hardware available in the desktop space. The desktop doesn’t stand still after all, and available graphics power continues to rise to levels previously unimaginable. While tablets are impressing buyers with 2160×1440 resolution (even my phone sports 1920×1080) on a single screen, PC is now at the edge of affordable 4K display technology across multiple screens. My first exposure to a multiple display setup was in the CAD world, and that was over a decade ago. My 3-screen 5120×1200 desktop is seemingly rather pathetic compared to 4K configurations that provide a juicy 11520×2160. So many pixels… Now, where was I?

So perhaps the CADblet question is ultimately one about graphics performance and information density. Sure you could run CAD on a tablet, but when absolutely insane display technology is available, why bother? It would seem that the desktop is secure in providing the best experience for CAD, but perhaps will the need rise for “mainstream” access to full CAD features at a hardware price point lower than a full-up desktop rig?

Selling CAD on a mobile OS will no doubt be difficult, software price points just don’t fit the cheap-as-free mobile paradigm where people actually paying for stuff is downright weird. Perhaps even illegal in Utah. CAD is an outsider in an overstocked universe of free apps underwritten by a variety of advertising revenue models, content with making money off your contacts, location, or DNA.

So then perhaps the solution for mainstream access lies in streaming technologies to lightweight desktops and laptops or even game consoles. After all we’ve witnessed the attempt to make CAD available on Steam, Valve’s PC Gaming service. I’ve also suggested in that past that game consoles, like the Xbox One or Playstation 4 could very well be the affordable CAD platforms of the future with the right balance of affordability and raw graphics performance.

So, are you eager to covet your own CADblet, or is it just nonsense?

  • Ah Tablets!!!

    Yes, I could use a tablet….

    First it would be a 17″ Display. HD I suppose. Resolution for CAD is really not that important, How clear do arcs, lines and splines have to be? Engineering professionals rarely waste time doing realistic rendering. Graphic speed? Most of the time we are looking up standards, working on single parts.

    The display/tablet would be a windows 8 stand alone system. I suppose we could have some viewing software, oops, APPS, with some markup capabilities.

    But!!!

    The Keyboard would hold a I7 cpu with 8 gig ram (min) 2 gig Video, Hard drive..who really cares they are all large.

    When attached to the keyboard the tablet would serve only as the display or monitor…Hmmm with a support for the display it could be put anywhere with a small cable or blue tooth??. I suppose the data on the tablet should be available.

    Now that is a CADBLET!!!

    You know we would have had this years ago if they would have put the cpu in the display…. But why in the world would we do that??

  • Ryan

    You forgot one major component. Battery.
    I actually teased a guy when I was using my Surface RT tablet to “run” Solid Edge and NX! I was actually projecting my tablet screen onto the projector screen and was remoted into my laptop! It was fun and I eventually had to spill the beans and let him in on the fact that I wasn’t really running off of the Surface RT!

    • Ryan, Nice trick with the Surface RT – there is certainly potential for the streaming technologies that go beyond just a simple remote desktop.
      I really didn’t think to address battery, since the beefiest tablets (that run full up windows) seems to have about the same battery life as a full up laptop. What’s your opinion on that?

  • Okay…. I could easily run my IronCAD and ZW3D on this tablet!!!

    Dell Venue 11 Pro Tablet
    http://computers.woot.com/offers/dell-venue-11-pro-intel-i5-tablet-4?ref=gh_cp_3_d_ph

    • Have you looked at the MS Surface Pro 3, Joe? It has all the specs your were asking for below, i7 with 8G of RAM and 512G of SSD and about 1.8G (shared) with the graphics adapter. It’s pricey though. The Intel HD 4400 graphics are passable, but can’t hold a candle to a dedicated desktop card… but still for single part use as you mention below might just do the trick.

      • That is incredible… It is the size of the display that would hold me back. I have a great HP 17″ laptop and a W8 tablet would be so much fluff for me. I rarely travel and if I did my android tablet would probably keep me entertained. LOL.

        I can usually wait until I have a nice desk to place my laptop to go to work. I don’t know if I would like to be that busy that would require me having work always available.

        It is a bit of a myth that you need a huge graphics card to do grunt work design. I had the cheapest computer you could by with I think a 500 meg video card. The card went away and I still kept working on the shared 4 gig memory on Vista!! LOL But I am not designing airplanes… and most of us aren’t.

        • That’s a great point, Joe. It may very well be that commodity graphics are good enough for some – which lends more credence to the rise of mainstream CAD.

  • Andrea Veress

    People and tasks are differentiated, so it is also a possible direction not to think in one ultimate CAD solution, but in an ecosystem of different but easily integrated apps, and other desktop/web components.

    In this sense cloud, tablet, server, streaming and desktop are not competitive solutions, but part of a system.

    We believe focusing and being very good in one thing is the key of success. Our product, OrthoGraph follows this concept and our goal is to make the best surveying and floor plan creating tool for on site use but not willing to replace the major features that the PC CAD applications can do.
    If you are interested check our video that introduces OrthoGraph’s key features:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krTG5k15VcY&list=PL0y9XtxK40d2hZL7bSFMpZrZ3GghEZ2nO

    What functions could you imagine in this system on the tablet? A site capturing tool? A drafting platform? A sharing tool? A tool for interaction with customers or coworkers? We already see specialized apps covering partly these functions, but are there others?

    http://www.orthograph.net

    • Andrea, thanks for your thoughts and the video! Your thoughts on “an ecosystem of different but easily integrated apps” has its advantages, by allowing the best functionality to rise to the top in an ocean of participants, but there are two problems in making that a viable reality. Problem 1: Integration – independent apps focused on specific functionality need the right platform to create a complete solution – and lately everyone seems to be in the platform business (you won’t find unity any time soon) and 2. Assuming the integration problem is solved, licensing gets complicated when you are using a multitude of different vendors in everyday use. We’re already feeling that pain with many cloud enterprise solutions.

  • Ross Bernheim

    Strip out some of the bells and whistles, and current tablet or even smart phone hardware is up to the task of running CAD software.

    A quad core 32 or 64 bit processor running at greater than 2 Ghz is pretty much standard for many of these devices today. This would have been better than anything you could buy at any price just a couple of years ago.

    With bluetooth an external keyboard and mouse or trackpad and many tablets are as capable as the graphics workstations used for CAD just a few years ago. ARM based processors will most likely be the processor of choice.

    The problem is that most CAD users want a desktop solution with all the bells and whistles,

    • What about displays? What level of screen real estate do you prefer?

      • Ross Bernheim

        As I mature, my eyes don’t focus in close anymore and I need glasses to read and do close up work. This means that screens are critical to me.

        I can read in fairly closely with glasses, so as long as the typeface is not too small, I’m happy. But high resolution screens make things smaller and give me trouble if I can’t adjust the size up. For CAD work, a large screen is helpful so I can have a large work area and the menu strips and dialog windows open as well.

        With a tablet The smaller screen will mean that zooming in for detail and out for an overall view becomes much more important than on a larger screen.

        I expect that it will take a while for the user interface to be optimized for tablet use. I expect that the best CAD programs on tablets will have a number of interfaces that are easily switched between to do different tasks more efficiently and to accommodate different user preferences on how they work.

        Basic rendering will be a part of the program, but the fancy realistic rendering will be in another program or done on the desktop.