Google SketchUp is a fast, flexible, and fun 3D modeling application that allows you to quickly mock up designs of objects, buildings, or anything else you dream up. You can use SketchUp for fun to draw three-dimensional virtual neighborhoods or for practical projects, such as renovating a kitchen or building a bookshelf. Google broadens the power and novelty of this program by enabling you to share your creations with the public online; just upload your designs to Google's 3D Warehouse Web site or drop them into Google Earth. In turn, you can view models made by other SketchUp users and save them to integrate into your own designs.
You can download this 19.11MB app for free to a PC running Windows 2000 or up with at least 128MB of RAM (512MB is recommended). Installation took us just a few minutes in our tests on a Windows XP computer. SketchUp can serve both amateurs and professionals, but commercial designers with sophisticated printing and exporting needs should consider the $495 SketchUp Pro 5, a higher-end modeling app that includes animation and organic terrain modeling, or the pricier AutoCAD.
Most 3D software is complex and confusing for newbies, but immediately after loading the free Google SketchUp, we swiftly mastered the basics by finishing its three short tutorials. There's not a drop of difficult CAD terminology, and you can leave open a neat, context-sensitive, animated Instructor panel for additional help if you need it.
Google SketchUp's no-frills interface consists of a large, central canvas flanked by a single left-hand toolbar containing most of the icons needed to build models, with the rest of the features available from the Main Menu atop the screen. This compact setup leaves maximal space for drawing; however, if you wish, you can display up to 12 floating task-specific toolbars, such as those for Drawing, Construction, and Camera.
SketchUp is intuitive; just drag around the mouse to draw rectangles, arcs, segments, or circles, then select the Push/Pull tool to extend shapes into the third dimension. The tools do most of the heavy lifting for you. For example, as you draw freehand, with straight lines, or with the pencil tool, SketchUp guesses where you want endpoints to meet and snaps them shut for you. SketchUp also highlights the edges and the centers of shapes when the cursor passes over them, making it painless to draw with accuracy. Similarly, guidelines appear when you cross the cursor over another line, so you can visualize how your object relates to the rest of the scene. Unfortunately, you can't easily push or pull curved surfaces to produce rounded objects, such as a bubble skylight.
SketchUp helps you color in your models instantly via the Paint Bucket tool or by choosing from the more than 100 swatches, including vegetation, glass, and metal, in the Materials palette. Once you draw, say, a three-flat building, you could detail its red bricks, ivy-laced walls, and gravel driveway in a matter of minutes.