AutoCAD and IntelliCAD

by Jennifer DiBona, That CAD Girl

Thinking about purchasing a CAD package? Sure, you’ve heard about AutoCAD, but what about IntelliCAD? If you thought, “What’s that?” you’re not alone. Here I review and compare the two packages to illustrate each one’s particular strengths that can suit a variety of needs and budgets.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Carlson Software reseller and, because I currently own two copies of Civil 3d, I am also a patron of Autodesk software.

Carlson has developed their software on top of AutoCAD products for more than 20 years, and in 2008 they also began building their products on top of IntelliCAD. As a reseller of Carlson Software, I directly compete with Autodesk in sales of civil and survey software, but I truly don’t have a dog in the fight between AutoCAD and IntelliCAD. This is because Carlson runs on top of both platforms and there is no advantage to me if my customers choose one over the other.

As we speak, I currently have Carlson software installed on top of Civil 3d 2012, AutoCAD 2012, and IntelliCAD 7 on my computer. The intent of this article is to compare the platform products—AutoCAD and IntelliCAD—from the point of view of a land surveyor or civil engineer. Bottom line: I am a big fan of both.


All about AutoCAD

AutoCAD is, well, AutoCAD! Now, on to IntelliCAD! No, just kidding. Seriously, what can be said about AutoCAD that hasn’t already been said? Hopefully, I can fill in a few gaps here.

AutoCAD: Driving New CAD Technology

According to Wikipedia, AutoCAD was first released by Autodesk in 1982 and was the first CAD software to run on a personal computer. As of this writing, AutoCAD 2013 is getting ready to ship, and the verticals (Civil 3d, AutoCAD Architecture, etc.) will ship soon after. Today, it’s safe to say that AutoCAD is the de facto leader in CAD software. My quick research found reports with AutoCAD having between 40 to 85% of market share depending on whether you consider 2D or 3D CAD solutions. In addition to the new features AutoCAD adds to each yearly release, AutoCAD also drives new technology by updating the DWG* file format every three years. The 2013 release brings with it a new DWG format. (This means that anyone using any other version of AutoCAD will require 2013 files be “saved back” to their previous version in order to access the drawing file.) Other ways that AutoCAD pushes the envelope can be seen with the release in 2011 of a Mac version and in 2010 of a mobile version called AutoCAD WS.

Purchasing AutoCAD

To further support the notion that AutoCAD has become a commodity, you need to look no further than how easy it is to purchase. Unlike their vertical products such as Civil 3d and AutoCAD Architecture that must be purchased through an Autodesk reseller or from Autodesk’s website, AutoCAD can be purchased through a reseller, from large retailers such as CDW or directly from Autodesk’s website. The current retail price of AutoCAD 2012 is $3,995.
When purchasing AutoCAD you also have the option of purchasing “Subscription” for an additional charge. This comprises two features: automatic updates to new versions of the software that are released during the subscription term and access to online technical support through the Subscription Center on Autodesk’s website, Purchasing and remaining on subscription allow customers to budget their software expenditures each year while ensuring that they always have the latest version of the software. The current retail price of an AutoCAD subscription is $450 per year. 

AutoCAD Support

As of this writing, Google reported that there were “about 93,800,000 results” when I searched for “AutoCAD Help,” and there were 5,568 books available on Amazon when I searched for “AutoCAD.” Seeing all that, it’s tempting to suggest you go ask your next-door neighbor for CAD support, as they will probably be able to help!If you’ve purchased AutoCAD through your local reseller, this is typically your first line of support. Your Autodesk reseller may offer additional support contracts or resources.

There are two other avenues of support that I find are overlooked. People on subscription have online access to Autodesk technical support. This is a ticket-based system where you submit your question/bug/issue online and then receive follow-up communications by phone or email. I usually find my answers by other means, but I had a very good experience with the support service recently. It was an easy question, but I received at least one email and a telephone call to follow up and repeated email requests to evaluate the response.

The other overlooked resource, available free to everyone, is the AutoCAD Discussion Group. This is primarily a community of AutoCAD users, although Autodesk staff pipe up every now and again. The Discussion Group allows members to submit questions and offer solutions, and it’s full of great debates on the relative merits of features and versions of the software. If you’re trying to decide whether to take a leap to upgrade to the next version or are trying to find a way to do something more efficiently, try the Discussion Group—you’ll probably find the answer.
AutoCAD System Requirements

Although AutoCAD has had a 64-bit option for several years, because we’re comparing AutoCAD to IntelliCAD and IntelliCAD is currently still a 32-bit program, the system requirements shown below are for 32-bit AutoCAD 2012:

  • Microsoft Windows 7 Enterprise, Ultimate, Professional, or Home Premium; Microsoft Windows Vista Enterprise, Business, Ultimate, or Home Premium (SP2 or later); or Microsoft Windows XP Professional or Home edition (SP3 or later)
  • For Windows Vista or Windows 7: Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon dual-core processor, 3.0 GHz or higher with SSE2 technology; for Windows XP: Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon dual-core processor, 1.6 GHz or higher with SSE2 technology
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 2 GB free disk space for installation
  • 1,024 x 768 display resolution with true color
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.0 or later
  • Install from download or DVD

AutoCAD Features

Each new release of AutoCAD brings with it hundreds of updates, some major and some minor. Because there are too many minor improvements over the past few years to do justice in this column, I’ve listed below some of the larger, recent feature additions that I believe are under-used and that would be worth your time to investigate.

Annotative scaling: allows you to create text styles, dimension styles, or blocks that have an “annotative” property that allows a single entity to be displayed at multiple scales. For instance, tick marks and station labels along a centerline could be shown at both 100-scale and 50-scale at the same time on different plotted sheets.

Layer properties per viewport: allows you to display a layer with a different color or linetype depending on the viewport in which it’s visible.

Multi-leaders: allows you to very easily create and format a Text or MText entity having one or more dynamic leaders at various attachment points.

Ribbon: allows you to organize menus and commands using the same interface that the Microsoft Office products introduced several years ago. Those who love the Ribbon interface really seem to love it and those who hate it, well, you know. I believe it’s a feature that more people will start using even if they never truly love it. The good news: It can be deactivated and menus and commands returned to normal.

All about IntelliCAD

In researching the history of IntelliCAD, the word that’s most often used to describe its past is “tumultuous,” and that seems appropriate. The grandfather of IntelliCAD is, surprisingly, Dave Arnold—the founder of DCA Engineering Software and Softdesk Inc., whose software eventually became part of Land Desktop. Softdesk purchased IntelliCAD and started developing it, secretly, as an alternative to AutoCAD, until Softdesk was eventually purchased by Autodesk. To prevent a monopoly, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Autodesk to divest itself of IntelliCAD. For a time, IntelliCAD was owned by the Visio Corporation before it ended up in the hands of the IntelliCAD Technology Consortium (ITC) where it now resides.

Dave Lorenzo, the development director of the ITC, describes it as such: “The ITC is a non-profit organization, directed by its members, that creates a CAD development platform on which members can build their vertical products. The ITC does not control its membership; the members dictate the direction of the ITC. The role of the ITC is to support and backstop its members.”

Members of the ITC pay an annual fee for access to and licensure of the IntelliCAD code.  There are currently 35 to 40 members of the ITC—some are publicly acknowledged and some are not. According to Lorenzo, Carlson Software and MicroSurvey are the two largest IntelliCAD developers in the civil/survey market. MicroSurvey started developing their solutions on IntelliCAD in 2005 (version 6) and Carlson started in 2009 (version 6.4).


Getting to IntelliCAD 7.0

The current version of IntelliCAD is 7.1a, released on February 1, 2012. IntelliCAD 7.x is the first version of IntelliCAD to read/write Autodesk DWG 2010 format drawings. In order to accommodate users’ need to access the new 2013 DWG format, the ITC plans to release IntelliCAD 8.0 as soon as possible after the release of AutoCAD 2013.

Noting the release of IntelliCAD 6.0 in 2005 and the release of 7.0 in 2011, it’s easy to assume that the ITC developers were spinning their wheels for those six years. But, according to Dave Lorenzo, it was more like re-inventing the wheel during that period. As the core architecture of pre-7.0 versions of IntelliCAD did not support custom objects or UNICODE or allow for easy updating and revising of the code, the ITC undertook a complete restructuring of existing code. They now have a solid foundation for future development and are able to provide more rapid releases to their users.

ITC and Member Development

The ITC develops and maintains the IntelliCAD base code and then provides the code to the other members of the ITC as the platform on which to build their vertical solutions. In addition to developing their own solutions, some ITC members have developers who can also write directly to the IntelliCAD code. Some even have their own beta-testing teams who provide feedback on IntelliCAD as well as their particular program.

IntelliCAD Purchase and Support Options

Reviewing and comparing AutoCAD and IntelliCAD is a difficult task because of the way that IntelliCAD is sold and distributed. The ITC does not sell IntelliCAD directly to consumers; that’s left to its member organizations. And, each of the member organizations puts its own name on, and incorporates its own improvements into, its version of IntelliCAD. A quick internet search shows that a plain, “vanilla” version of IntelliCAD, without any vertical solution, can be purchased for $300 to $400.

Because Carlson Software and MicroSurvey are the largest survey/civil members of the ITC, let’s look at them specifically. Neither company sells a vanilla version of IntelliCAD, but they both develop a variety of products on top of it.

Carlson Software

Carlson GIS or Carlson Hydrology are the Carlson programs that are most comparable, feature-wise, to both IntelliCAD and AutoCAD. These programs include full IntelliCAD plus either GIS or hydrology functionality. Within each program there is a toolbar icon or menu item that loads the standard IntelliCAD menu.

Carlson offers free telephone or web-based technical support. They also sell a separate annual maintenance program that allows users to stay up to date with the most-current software for 10% of the retail price of each program or $109.50 per year for Carlson GIS or Hydrology.

Carlson also has a searchable knowledge base and a library of pre-recorded webinars and training videos available on their website. Carlson GIS and Carlson Hydrology each sell for $1,095 retail. Carlson Survey sells for $1,595 retail.


MicroSurvey CAD Standard is the MicroSurvey program that is the most comparable, feature-wise, to both IntelliCAD and AutoCAD. This program has core surveying computation tools plus a full IntelliCAD engine. The pull-down menus at the top include all of the standard IntelliCAD menus. MicroSurvey CAD Standard sells for $1,495 retail.

MicroSurvey offers three months of free ticket-based technical support via telephone or web. For additional technical support and regular program updates, users can purchase annual maintenance for $295 per year.

MicroSurvey CAD Standard also has more than 11 hours of built-in training movies in short segments (172 in all) to help speed the learning curve.
In addition to the support provided by member developers of IntelliCAD, each program includes a separate “IntelliCAD Help” item in the help menu. A PDF version of the IntelliCAD User Guide is available from the help files or can be downloaded from the IntelliCAD website. A hardcopy version of the User Guide can be purchased for $40.

The ITC recently incorporated crash reporting and a “Send Feedback” feature to the IntelliCAD help menu to address bugs, issues, or feature requests. Users who submit bug reports or feature requests to the ITC receive follow-up notifications when tickets are created and again when issues have been resolved. As anyone who has used IntelliCAD on a regular basis over the past few years can attest, updates and bug fixes to the 7.x programs are being implemented much faster than in the past.

By far the best IntelliCAD support and training resources will be the same ones available to AutoCAD users. The programs are really so similar that workbooks and guides for AutoCAD can be used as tools for learning IntelliCAD. 

IntelliCAD System Requirements

IntelliCAD 7 – 32-bit:

  • Microsoft Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP any edition, including 32-bit and 64-bit
  • Intel Pentium 4 or comparable, faster processor recommended
  • 1 GB of RAM minimum for Windows Vista and Windows 7; 512 MB of RAM minimum for Windows XP
  • 500 MB of free hard disk space recommended for typical installation
  • 1024 x 768 VGA or higher resolution, video adapter, and monitor
  • Graphics card compatible with OpenGL Version 2.0 or higher
  • 64-bit machines are supported, but application itself is 32-bit

IntelliCAD Features

Because most new IntelliCAD users are making a switch from an AutoCAD product, the first priority of the ITC is to match existing AutoCAD commands as much as possible in order to increase the comfort level of those making the switch. While they’ve committed the last several years to rebuilding the program, the ITC foresees many true improvements to come in short order.

Many of the updates in IntelliCAD 7.x have resulted in increased stability, responsiveness, and ability to handle larger datasets. Because these are “under the hood” improvements, they may not be obvious to the casual or new user. Beyond this, improvements to IntelliCAD 7.0 include, but are not limited to:

  • A new foundation for IntelliCAD and third-party developers
  • Support for the Teigha C++ API 
allowing developers to create 
custom objects
  • Improved object model for VB, COM, and C# development
  • UNICODE support for SDS/ADS 
C/C++ development
  • Enhanced display devices to 
improve performance
  • Support for 2010 .dwg format
  • Dockable/hideable Properties Dialog box
  • Dockable IntelliCAD Explorer (similar to AutoCAD’s Layer Manager and Design Center)
  • Support for non-rectangular viewports
  • Updated plot dialog box with page setup support
  • Support for lineweight screening through CTB files
  • Display of PDF, DGN, and DWF files
  • Enhanced display of proxy objects
Redesigned interface for several commands such as MText Editor, Page Setup, Dimension Styles Manager, Print Styles, and Profiles.
Enhanced right-click, context menu with various commands such as: Bring to Front, Send To Back, Copy with Base Point, Paste to Original Coordinates, and Change Space.

Some of the improvements expected (but not guaranteed) to be in the spring 2012 release of IntelliCAD 7.2 are:

  • Improved stability and performance, particularly for large data sets and raster images
Export capabilities for Google Earth (.dae format)
  • Import of DGN files
  • Support for MrSID files
  • Find and replace
  • Filter support for selection
  • Various layer utilities
  • Object tracking
  • Improved parallel and extension entity snap (object snap)
  • VPCLIP command

As noted earlier per Dave Lorenzo, IntelliCAD 8.0 will include support for 2013 DWG files and will be released as soon as possible following the release of AutoCAD 2013. Once IntelliCAD 8.0 has been released to the member organizations, the members will have to port their programs to IntelliCAD 8.0 before releasing it to their users.


Now that I’ve covered the specifics about each program, let’s see how the various features and benefits stack up against each other.

When comparing features of the two programs, it’s easier to accept AutoCAD as the baseline and see how IntelliCAD fares. By no means is this an exhaustive feature comparison between the two programs, but I’ve compiled the features I believe are “make or break” when deciding on one program over another.
What’s the same in IntelliCAD:
  • The same drawing (.dwg) files can be used.
  • The same template (.dwt) drawing files can be used.
  • The same linetype (.lin) files can be used.
  • The same font (.shx) files can be used.
  • Model Space/Paper Space/Layouts are generally the same, although you can’t drag and drop layouts in IntelliCAD like you can in AutoCAD.

What’s different or missing in IntelliCAD:

  • IntelliCAD does not currently include support for ribbons, custom tool palettes, annotative text, dynamic blocks, a comprehensive CUI (customized user interface) editor, or a dialog user interface for Filtering selections.
  • Some of the commands in AutoCAD Express Tools have been incorporated into some members’ versions of IntelliCAD, but not all.
  • IntelliCAD can run on 64-bit computers but it currently uses only 32 bit.
  • There are minor differences in command/feature names: Object Snap (OSNAP) in AutoCAD is Entity Snap (ESNAP) in IntelliCAD and ERASE in AutoCAD is DELETE in IntelliCAD.
Purchase Price and Yearly Update Cost
There is no getting around the fact that the price difference between AutoCAD and IntelliCAD is the prime motivator for considering IntelliCAD. If IntelliCAD sold for the same price as AutoCAD, would anyone consider IntelliCAD? I doubt it. However, with AutoCAD’s price point being between three and four times that of IntelliCAD, we should consider and evaluate IntelliCAD as an alternative.

Each product manufacturer offers its own version of an annual contract that allows users to stay current and make it easier to budget the expense. Again, like the purchase price, staying current with an IntelliCAD product is significantly less expensive than with AutoCAD.
Autodesk and AutoCAD—the brand
This is second only to purchase price as a determining factor for those trying to decide between AutoCAD and IntelliCAD. I’ve personally used AutoCAD-based programs since 1990 and have a comfort level with the product that’s been more than 20 years in the making.

This is what makes even considering IntelliCAD seem like cheating on your significant other. And, Autodesk knows that. Opening a drawing in AutoCAD that was previously saved in IntelliCAD produces this message:

“Non Autodesk DWG.  This DWG file was saved by a software application that was not developed or licensed by Autodesk.  Autodesk cannot guarantee the application compatibility or integrity of this file.”

Can you trust DWG files created by IntelliCAD? Yes. These files are fine, and it’s not like AutoCAD drawings never crash or get corrupt. Again, drawing on my comparison with PDF files, this is like Adobe warning against “Non-Adobe PDF Files” for every PDF file created by AutoCAD’s “DWG to PDF” plot feature.

But, it gets your attention and the point is made: “You’ve been with us for a long time; will you actually move on and try something new?” For many folks, that long-term relationship with Autodesk is enough to stick with it.

System Requirements
It’s not obvious when comparing their respective system requirements, but AutoCAD seems to be much more hardware intensive (and sensitive) than does IntelliCAD. When I consider my own use and that of people I’ve had using it in training classes, IntelliCAD seems to run pretty well even on computers that are five- to seven-years old, but not so with AutoCAD. Also, if you are in the market for a new computer, IntelliCAD will run on most store-bought computers, whereas you should pay much closer attention to the system specifications when purchasing a computer to run AutoCAD.

There are still some issues with IntelliCAD regarding system performance and stability, particularly with very large files, but in my personal experience it seems as if the newer versions of AutoCAD have become so hardware sensitive that stability has become an issue for me.  I recently had a drawing that I could not PURGE in AutoCAD without receiving a blue-screen and having my computer shut down. I had no problems doing the same thing in IntelliCAD. It turned out that there was a conflict with my graphics card. I spent an hour online with Dell technical support to figure out the issue. This is just a random example, but it’s an issue I don’t remember encountering as frequently with earlier versions of AutoCAD.
A big difference between Autodesk on one hand and Carlson and MicroSurvey on the other is the ability to speak directly to the manufacturer for technical support issues or feature requests. Even for those under an Autodesk subscription contract, the only way to correspond directly with the developer (Autodesk) is through the online subscription center. However, both MicroSurvey and Carlson Software can be contacted directly via phone or email.
Other than the support services offered by each developer, the resources available for AutoCAD or IntelliCAD are mostly a wash because the products are so similar.  As I mentioned previously, the best options for training and support of IntelliCAD are AutoCAD training classes, books, and online blogs.
Another consideration when purchasing software is its longevity: How long will I be able to use it and receive updates and support? Autodesk retires all of their products after three years. For instance, with the release of AutoCAD 2012, AutoCAD’s active versions were 2010, 2011, and 2012, which is why AutoCAD 2009 is being retired and no longer supported this year.
Because each member of the ITC handles their development cycle independently and decisions on release and retirement can vary from product to product, I’d recommend that you ask Carlson Software, MicroSurvey, or other ITC members about this specifically prior to purchase.
So, which is more important: features or benefits such as price, brand, and longevity?
When considering the newest features of any software, I think it’s important to recognize that a new feature may be an enhancement to one and it may be a hindrance to another; it’s in the eye of the beholder. And, it depends on whether the “beholder” is someone I’d classify as a CAD power-user or a leave-me-alone-user. With every release,
  • a power-user is the first to install and the first to research and investigate the new features.
  • a leave-me-alone-user groans and says, “Another one? I just want to get my work done.”

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the business owner/CAD draftsman-designer is most likely to fall into the leave-me-alone group whereas it’s the employee/CAD draftsman-designer who will be the power-user.

With a few exceptions, I’d recommend that the power-user use AutoCAD and the leave-me-alone user work in IntelliCAD. I said it in the first section of this article: I truly like both of these programs. Unlike most of you, I’m not trying to get plans out the door every day so I’m more of a leave-me-alone user right now, and I tend to go to IntelliCAD first. If I were a power-user, I’d want AutoCAD.

It took me awhile to start using the IntelliCAD version of Carlson because I was so comfortable with AutoCAD. But, I noticed that launching Carlson with IntelliCAD seemed much quicker than with AutoCAD. Only because I could get into the program those 90 seconds faster, I started working in the IntelliCAD version more regularly and came to appreciate it as a no-frills version 
of AutoCAD. Now I use IntelliCAD most of the time and in my training classes for anyone who doesn’t have AutoCAD. I use AutoCAD when I’m working with a feature that isn’t available in IntelliCAD.

But, that’s me. I wholeheartedly believe in the “Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken” doctrine: If you’re happy with AutoCAD and don’t consider the cost prohibitive, stick with AutoCAD.

Also, if you’re a power-user or in an organization that has standardized around the use of tool palettes, dynamic blocks, annotative text, sheet set manager, or CUI customizations, IntelliCAD is not for you at this time. All of these items are on the ITC’s to-do list but are not available now. If you’re working in files of considerable size that currently give AutoCAD headaches, I’d also say that IntelliCAD isn’t a good fit for you at this time either.

The good news for both Carlson and MicroSurvey users is that you can purchase the IntelliCAD version of these products and then, if you’re not satisfied with IntelliCAD, purchase AutoCAD and re-install the program over that instead. My customers can attest to me saying these exact words: “Don’t spend more money than you need to. Purchase the program and try it with IntelliCAD. Then, if your frustration level hits about $4,000 worth, buy AutoCAD and run it on top of that instead.” It sounds a little snarky, but that’s really how I see it. Some people will reach a $4,000 frustration level quickly and others will never reach it.

What’s the answer? Try them out. Autodesk, Carlson Software, and MicroSurvey all have trial versions of their software. If you decide to go with IntelliCAD, find out ahead what the cost (if any) will be to cross-grade to an AutoCAD version in the event you’re not satisfied with it.  Either way you go, it’s a lot of money and an investment in your business, so take advantage of the trials to make sure you make the best decision for yourself and your company.

Jennifer DiBona is an independent consultant doing business as That CAD Girl. She is a Carlson Software reseller and provides CAD training, technical support, and other CAD-related services. Visit her website at to find out more.

*DWG is the native file format for Autodesk’s AutoCAD software and is a trademark of Autodesk, Inc.  

The CAD Market for Civil and Survey

Before learning about and learning to use IntelliCAD several years ago, I thought—like many of you I’d guess—that there were only two CAD programs available: AutoCAD if you want DWG files and MicroStation if you want DGN files. Until this time, I’d also thought that only AutoCAD-based programs could work with a DWG file. I’d never realized there were other programs that were compatible with the Autodesk DWG file format. IntelliCAD is the most well known but there are also a few others.

For people who are shocked to learn this, I like to compare DWG files to Adobe PDF files. For many years, Adobe products were the only programs that created a PDF file. Now, I can export a PDF file from my QuickBooks accounting software and I can use “DWG to PDF” in AutoCAD’s plot dialog box to create a PDF file. While DWG has been trademarked as “the name of Autodesk’s proprietary file format and technology used in AutoCAD software and related products,” there are many other software solutions available that can read DWG files and, more importantly, natively create DWG compatible files.  

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