Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Considering a Software Change

I haven’t been adding new products to my Shapeways store for a while as I’m trying to fix models that have been messed up by changing material specifications.  This has lead me to a troubling realization.
Trimble Sketchup is going downhill fast.

I’ve been a big proponent of the software for a long time. When I started doing 3d modeling I was pretty convinced it was the best thing since sliced bread.  Its learning curve was very low as most of its tools made clear ideological sense coming from a 2d design background.  It’s overall functionality was low but extensibility meant that the community presented easy solutions to functionality it lacked.  It was over all stable until you tried to something that was absurdly complex (billion triangle models suck in any application).  And above all its community was very helpful to new comers this was extremely helpful for preventing overwhelming oneself with self-created problems.

In the 4 years since I started using sketchup to model miniatures I’ve gotten much more skilled with my modeling.  I can now do what I once did much faster and more efficiently making it possible to avoid many pit falls I once ran into that wasted my time and efforts.  I know how to make models water tight the first time rather than use 3rd party software to achieve the same result. I no longer need to rely on geometric shapes when I can craft semi-organic forms from scratch in half the time.  In the end I’m just better at doing what I once did without hassle.

The trouble is that in those 4 years Sketchup hasn’t evolved.  It has gone from version 8 to 2013 (v9) and no significant changes has occurred.  Small annoyances like my toolbars staying in place have been fixed and the total zoom level has been improved.  But the core is exactly the same.  It can’t open or import any new file types.  Important functions added by outside plugins such as auto-softening, solid solving, and complex 3d shapes haven’t been addressed by the actual design team.  The ruby api used by Sketchup is dated and grows more so every day.  The community which was once so supportive seems divided and bitter with half lamenting the new direction of the software and the other half lamenting anyone lamenting the software.  Sketchup is even still a 32 bit application.  I own 7 computers and everyone is a 64 bit machine, hell my phone is 64 bit.  I have 16gigs of ram in my desktop and can’t use it when working in sketchup’s 3d environment but can when working in photoshop’s 2d environment.

Perhaps the biggest reason I am growing increasingly morose about sketchup is how slow it has gotten.  I did a test. On my desktop, with that 16 gigs of ram and a 3.4gig quad core processor I installed an old copy of Sketchup 6, another install of Sketchup 8, and finally Sketchup 2013m2. I installed no plugins. Then with no other programs running I loaded a new file into each one and saved it.  Then one at a time I rebooted, loaded a version of sketchup and opened the completely empty file I had just saved, doing so I timed how long it took to actually open the blank file.  I did this 15 times each.  On average the fastest was Sketchup 6.  The oldest version loaded the quickest at 3.5 seconds.  Followed by sketchup 8 at 5.2 seconds. And finally the newest version of sketchup at 13.8 seconds.  I know, 13 seconds isn’t a drastic hit on the surface but that’s an empty file.  Do the same with a big file you have geometry in.  I am regularly wait a minutes for files to load.  And that’s just opening, it took 63 minutes to import a model I was working on from Sculptris.  The same model took 36 minutes to import in Sketchup 8.  Twice as long.  Twice.  God that was boring to time too. No wonder I don’t want to do that on my lunch break anymore.

I want to find an alternative to sketchup but there aren’t a lot of those out there.  Yes there are softwares that compete with sketchup but not a lot that are what I’m looking for.  Firstly: Cost, in the long run cost is an issue this is a hobby and I don’t have unlimited funds so I need low or reasonable prices (for the companies that read this I mean it needs to cost less than a whole paycheck).  Secondly: usability, software interfaces should be designed for ease of use not overwhelming to a new or seasoned user (it should be like getting into a car each one is different but you can recognize the damned steering wheel).  Thirdly: Interoperability,  3d modeling requires a bunch of transferring files about to deal with different types of modeling and testing models etc that means you need compatibility with a lot of formats or one major universal format (this doesn’t include STL, stl files are final output and lose all the stuff like scaling and surface directions and important stuff like that).  And lastly: Expediency, software should work quickly with as little hassle to the end user as possible (this seems obvious but a lot of software especially cloud based ones seem to forget this in favor of being proprietary or cutting edge when unnecessary).

The usual answer I get suggested is Blender.  First let me say frankly I consider Blender a bad piece of software.  Oh it works, it does… stuff. But it doesn’t do it in any way that is remotely intuitive.  You can’t just sit down and use Blender.  You have to watch a tutorial, you must take a class, you need to read a book, etc.  Sure there are a lot of extensions and that add compatibility but over all its clunky and I find it slow.  It gives me headaches because anything I want to do with it is hidden behind a different interface I have to find then figure out how to access and is generally not what I wanted in the first place because I don’t know what terminology the blender community has made up to cover what I’m actually doing.

Then someone will mention all those cloud base services like 3d Tin, Tinkercad, or Insight3d.  there are literally a hundred of these things. But they all are limited in the scope of what they import and export and even if they could import just about anything it takes forever to upload files to a server most days where I live.  Having to import/export 15 times as I’ve done with some models would waste 2 hours on its own.  There is also the iffy-ness with end user licensing on some of those sites.  They usually get the rights to use your files as examples and frankly that’s a pretty big violation of my ideas on intellectual property laws, I should have to give away something I designed just for the privilege of using someone’s halfhearted software service to design it.  All these cloud services are really just trying to cash in on the idea of software as a service but SaaS is only of value if the service they provide is wanted, I don’t want to be limited to their file types and browser window layouts, and lack of extensions, etc.  They are con-jobs with no real value unlike larger services like Office 365 which gives you more value for your buck.  There are also a lot of these services who restrict use based on commercial vs personal use which I find patently ridiculous.  If I am given a truck for free it doesn’t change its value if I use it to drive to the grocery store or if I use it to ship sheetrock back and forth to job sites.  It’s still a truck, a tool to do with as I will, IE its mine regardless of how they want to play with it.  This is particularly annoying with autodesk’s 123D tools which they want to sell you under a “Premium membership” for 120 dollars a year so you can sell your own creativity.  Guess what, can’t guarantee I make 120 dollars a year on 3d models so why would I pay you?

So what am I considering? Well the list is below.

Metasequoia4 – interesting, the interface looks decent enough, I’m going to test it out but the 150 dollar price tag for the functions I might use regularly (unit display, measure thicknesses, and FBX import/export) might be a deal breaker if the interface isn’t good enough.

ArchiCad 17 – I’ve been told the interface is well structured.  It’s foremost an architectural tool but has 3d design options. I might try this out. Again the price is high, a little to high for my tastes but I’ll let it try and blow me out of the water.

Moment of Inspiration 3d – a design based software focused on ease of use for the artist.  A good idea I’d like to try it out and see how user friendly it is.  Price is 295 for the full version so its out of my general price range (if I can’t justify 120 bucks 295 is out of the question).

Hexigon 2.5 – I’ve actually owned this software for about a year.  It was given away by Daz so I jumped on the download but never installed it. I’d like to try it out see how the interface is. Free is always a good but it’s likely designed for a more technical user base.

Silo 3d – someone raved about the interface of silo so I should probably give it a try.  Its relatively affordable at 100 bucks at the moment (usually 150 so not terrible).  Not sure what formats it supports or modeling tools it has, it talks about switching between “organic and edge” based modeling.

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