SketchUp made quite an impression when it was launched last year, thanks to the impressive ease of use that it brought to 3D. Since then, it’s gone through six upgrades, now reaching version 3.0.
SketchUp isn’t a conventional 3D-modelling program; it’s described by its developers as a ‘sketch-based 3D design tool’. This means that you can use its 2D drawing tools to sketch out your designs, and then convert those designs into 3D.
Most modelling programs provide an extrusion option that converts 2D shapes into 3D, but SketchUp takes a slightly different approach. You create 2D sketches by using its drawing tools to draw a series of edges, which can be joined together to create enclosed surfaces. But instead of extruding an entire object in a particular direction, SketchUp’s clever Push/Pull tool lets you select any edge or surface and then push or pull the selected item in any direction. This feature provides enormous flexibility, and is extremely easy to use.
However, SketchUp’s limited range of drawing tools meant that creating more complex designs sometimes took a long time. One of the major improvements in this upgrade was to make the tools more versatile, particularly in the way that they deal with curved shapes and surfaces.
Previous versions of SketchUp provided tools for drawing 2D arcs, circles and ‘polyline curves’ (squiggly
lines to you and me). But once you started to edit these shapes, they were treated simply as a series of lines and edges. Version 3 treats these shapes as ‘curved shape entities’ that allow you to modify properties such as the radius of a circle or the direction of an arc whenever you want. These properties can also be edited after you’ve used the Push/Pull tool to stretch a curved shape out into three dimensions.
Another useful option is the new ‘Soften’ feature. This smoothes out the onscreen appearance of edges between adjacent surfaces so that they’re no longer drawn as distinct edge lines, unless viewed in profile. You can apply this effect by pressing the Option key and then applying the Eraser tool to a particular line, or by activating the Soften/Smooth palette, which allows
you to specify settings such as the angle required before an edge is smoothed out. This is an elegant feature, allowing you to achieve a less hard-edged appearance for your designs, without sacrificing precision.
The program’s transparency controls have also been improved. As well as the existing ‘global’ transparency option, which made all visible surfaces slightly transparent, you can now apply varying degrees of transparency to individual surfaces. And, for more technical work, there’s a handy new dimensioning feature that lets you select edges or points and will then automatically display the dimensions of the selected item as part of your design. Additional export options for PDF, EPS, QuickTime and .AVI formats round out a nice, solid upgrade.
SketchUp 3.0 isn’t a spectacular upgrade. There’s nothing particularly showstopping about any of its new features, although some users may want to upgrade for the improved transparency option alone. But, if you like its relaxed, intuitive approach, then you’ll certainly want to get this upgrade – especially as it’s free to anyone that bought the program since January this year.