ZWCAD 2012 vs AutoCAD 2013

December 22, 2017

ZWSOFT has been over the last decade working diligently to produce a respectable AutoCAD workalike. Like many other reasonably-priced CAD packages, ZWCAD was for a time based on IntelliCAD, but then the company rewrote the code to make it faster. And so in 2012 they delivered ZWCAD+ 2012-- the '+' indicating the new code base. 

All along, ZWSOFT emphasized ZWCAD's compatibility with AutoCAD -- the subject of this article. But it is not their only CAD system. The company made in 2010 the surprising move of purchasing VX of Florida, USA, a firm best known for its CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software. ZWSOFT renamed VX "ZW3D," and then put it through an aggressive upgrade schedule. More recently, the company release ZWCAD Mechanical, an add-on for doing 2D mechanical design. Today, its line of CAD software is sold by dealers in 80 countries to 320,000 customers.


About ZWCAD+


ZWCAD+ is a cost-effective AutoCAD workalike. When AutoCAD users fire up ZWCAD, they will find it similar to that with which they are already familiar. (See figure 1.) Indeed, ZWSOFT claims their software "has the closest user experience as AutoCAD, compared to alternative products." Let's take a look at how ZWCAD+ compares with AutoCAD in the areas of user interface, commands, drawing display, and customization. (Because Autodesk uses the year+1 method for release numbers, the current version of AutoCAD is 2013 even though the current release of ZWCAD+ is 2012.)


User Interface Compatibility


As you gaze around figure 1, you'll find (clockwise from upper left) the application menu (under the big Z), quick access toolbar, ribbon, palettes, scroll bars, layout tabs, command prompt area, and a status bar that's not quite a feature-packed as AutoCAD's.


ZWCAD+ 2012 looks in many areas like AutoCAD
Figure 1: ZWCAD+ 2012 looks in many areas like AutoCAD


ZWCAD+ does come with toolbars, but they appeared when only I switched to Classic mode, which replaces the ribbon with the menu bar. I found that menus are always available in ribbon mode by clicking the Menu button in the upper right corner. (See figure 2.) While ZWCAD+ does not have workspaces, clicking the adjacent button lets me switch skin colors.

Secret button for accessing menus in ribbon mode
Figure 2: Secret button for accessing menus in ribbon mode


My favorite feature is the "document head," those tabs that let me switch instantly between open drawings. Right-clicking one of these tabs presents a menu of common file-oriented commands. See figure 3. (In contrast, AutoCAD has awkward drawing switching systems involving toolbar buttons or the application menu.) The Ctrl+Tab keyboard shortcut works in both CAD systems.

Document tabs switch instantly between open drawings
Figure 3: Document tabs switch instantly between open drawings


One curiosity is that to switch between the ribbon and menu bar (aka the "Classic" interface), I have to restart ZWCAD+. In AutoCAD I need only enter a system variable to toggle the menu bar on and off. After I activated Classic mode, I found the menu bar to be very similar to that of AutoCAD, the only differences being those that relate to ZWCAD+'s extra and missing commands.


Power users tend to as much as possible employ the keyboard to enter commands and options, and here ZWCAD+ matches AutoCAD in command bar functions. It has command history, and so I can press the up arrow to recall earlier commands. When I start to type a command name, ZWCAD+ presents a list of similar names. There is, however, no dynamic input; for me, that's fine, because I don't like it in AutoCAD.


Among palettes, there is Tools, Design Center, and Properties; of other palettes found in AutoCAD, you can use dialog boxes for accessing layers, external references, and so on. There is no block editor environment, nor are there the related dynamic blocks.


ZWCAD+ takes the user interface lead over AutoCAD with something it calls SmartMouse: by holding down the right mouse button and dragging the cursor in the shape of a letter of the alphabet (or in a specific directions), I activate a command. For instance, when I drag the mouse to draw the letter E, the Erase command starts; I drag to the left, and Copy starts. In figure 4, I composted screen grabs of the mouse movement with the resulting command. Best of all, the SmartMouseConfig command fully customizes any of the movements.

Drawing an E with the right mouse button starts the Erase command
Figure 4: Drawing an E with the right mouse button starts the Erase command


Command Compatibility

ZWCAD+'s commands, express tools, and system variables use AutoCAD names. All of ZWCAD+ commands are identically named to those in AutoCAD, except for those that are unique to ZWCAD+. I didn't do a thorough check of which commands are included, except to note that there are over 500 of them in ZWCAD+ -- as compared to around 1,200 in AutoCAD. Once you leave out the AutoCAD commands dedicated to 3D, the numbers compare more favorably. (It can be hard to decide precisely which should be included in AutoCAD, because it has many duplicate and undocumented commands).


ZWCAD+ supports command aliases; you edit them through the zwcad.pgp file in Notepad. I do wish ZWSOFT would include more workalike aliases, such as having an 'externalreferences' alias for the Xref Manager dialog box.


The ACIS modeler is part of ZWCAD+, and so I am able to create and edit 3D solid models. Hidden line removal and shading of 3D drawings are included, but not rendering.


Drawing Compatibility


ZWCAD+ reads AutoCAD drawings made by releases as recent as 2012.I sometimes consult on compatibility for competitors to Autodesk, and from this I have a collection of tough drawing with which test DWG files. Here ZWCAD+ scored excellent, displaying every test drawing correctly. Now, this is largely due to the diligence of the Open Design Alliance, from whom ZWSOFT licenses its DWG read-write capabilities.


So the question becomes, "What happens when I import an AutoCAD drawing that contains entities not supported by ZWCAD+ " For instance, it does not do constraints or point clouds. Well, the full answer involves a lot of detailed, time-consuming investigation for which I charge clients thousands. But for this article I opened an AutoCAD drawing containing a point cloud; ZWCAD+ displayed it correctly, with the Properties palette reporting it as a "proxy entity." This means that I perform simple editing tasks on it, such as move or delete it, change its color or layer, and print it; being a proxy, I cannot edit it with command specific to point clouds.


When I opened a drawing containing xrefs that could not be found, ZWCAD+ reported them as such, but unhappily gave me no opportunity to find them on its behalf. An icon in the lower-right corner shows that xref files are attached; it also warns when they are lost. On the positive side, however, ZWCAD+ places drawings, raster images, OLE objects, and WMF hybrid images into drawings.


Customization Compatibility


In terms of user interface customization, most of this is done through the Customize command (figure 5), and not the CUI command. This command works simply, the way I liked it in old releases of AutoCAD, before Autodesk switched to the overly complex CUI command.


To add and remove buttons from toolbars, for instance, I need only drag them from and to the Customize dialog box; the same goes for customizing Tools palettes. As for menus, well, I think we are stuck customizing them old-style, by editing the source MNU file.

The Customize dialog box
Figure 5: The Customize dialog box


This dialog box also handles the creation and editing of keyboard shortcuts, like pressing Ctrl+N to execute the New command. You cannot add "commands" through macros, as in AutoCAD; also not customizable is the ribbon.


The Options command lets you tweak user interface elements through a tabbed dialog box (figure 6) that looks like the one in AutoCAD, through with fewer options, which may well be a good thing as AutoCAD's become more overwhelming over time. This dialog box lets you customize the action of right-clicks, interface and selection colors, smart snap settings, and more.

The Options dialog box
Figure 6: The Options dialog box


The Drawing Settings dialog box in ZWCAD+ is not as comprehensive as AutoCAD's; nevertheless, it lets you choose options related to object snaps, snaps and grids, and polar tracking -- all crucial for creating accurate drawings.


ZWCAD+ reads many AutoCAD customization files, including the following: menu MNU and MNS; linetype LIN; hatch pattern PAT; font SHP and TTF; script SCR; plot style CTB and STB; and plot configuration PC5. It does not read CUI or CUIX files.


When it comes to programming, ZWCAD+ handles LISP, DCL, Diesel, COM, and script files. It does not support .Net or DVB, and it lacks the VLISP integrated development environment. It has its own version of ARX called ZRX, and it has its own SDS (not the one from IntelliCAD), which is compatible with ADS. ZWCAD+ supports VBA through its own ZPVB format. LISP routines can be encrypted, something no available in AutoCAD; this protects the source code from being stolen.


ZWCAD+ Bonuses


In addition to encrypted LISP, SmartMouse, and drawing tabs, ZWCAD+ includes FCMP, the awkwardly-named command that displays the differences between two drawings. It's short for "File CoMPare" and is found in the Express Tools section; see figure 7.

 File compare using colors to emphasize differences between drawings
Figure 7: File compare using colors to emphasize differences between drawings


Not only does it illustrate differences through colors, I can use it to discover differences that are not obvious from the geometry, such as properties.



There is much more to ZWCAD+ that I did not have the room to write about in this review, such as viewing and editing commands, dimensions, and the full range of AutoCAD-compatible plotting controls – ZWCAD+ supports eTransmit, plot stamps, plotter configurations, batch plotting, publishing of drawing sets, and outputting drawings in PDF, DWG, and raster formats.


While AutoCAD costs $4,000, ZWCAD+ Pro is priced at around $1,000, depending on which country you buy in. ZWCAD+ costs a quarter of AutoCAD, which means your office can run CAD on 4X more stations, which is pretty cost-effective.


You can download a 30-day demo of ZWCAD+ 2012 from

Ralph Grabowski is a renowned CAD expert that has published 140 books and several hundred magazine articles about computer-aided design. Ralph holds a civil engineering degree from the University of British Columbia. He was awarded "Best CAD/AEC/PLM Editor" by Strategic Research in 2005 and received the CAD Society's "Community Award" in 2002.

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