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SketchUp - complete package review: SketchUp - complete package

This superb 3D modeling tool lets you design all sorts of objects and structures, then store them online or drop them into Google Earth to share with the public, but professionals will want the $500 version.

Susan Glinert
4 min read
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.


SketchUp - complete package

The Good

Google SketchUp is free; elegant, with an intuitive interface and flexible 3D modeling tools, instant learning curve; tight integration with Google Earth.

The Bad

Google SketchUp doesn't allow you to push or pull curved surfaces easily to make them three-dimensional; currently Windows only.

The Bottom Line

Google SketchUp is a flexible, powerful app for quick 3D sketching on the fly, but professionals will want the $500 version.

Google SketchUp
This scene took us only a few minutes to assemble and colorize, thanks to SketchUp's prebuilt components and its Materials panel.

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.

Google SketchUp
Visual cues and snapping points make the construction of objects, well, a snap.

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.

Want your design's blue-sky setting to evoke high noon? The Shadow Settings palette is especially cool: just use the sliders to set the time of day and the month to add the properly angled shadowing effect to an object. Other neat features include the ability to display a transparent version of your model, inspect hidden geometry, walk around or orbit the scene, and rotate objects in all directions.

Google SketchUp
SketchUp can import images, size them appropriately, then apply them to objects as surface skins.

When you import artwork from Google 3D Warehouse or elsewhere to use in your model, SketchUp is intelligent about guessing your intentions. For instance, when we imported a picture of a zebra, then clicked the wall of a house, SketchUp correctly positioned the zebra as a wall mural and automatically gave it the proper perspective.

Once you've finished your model, you can upload and share it with other users, thanks to the unlimited, free storage space at Google's 3D Warehouse Web site--where you can also grab other people's models (we dropped the Taj Mahal into the center of the Pentagon). Even cooler, you can populate Google Earth with your own models. We sketched a house, dropped it into Google Earth's satellite photos, then e-mailed our street address to some friends in Japan so that they could see what we drew. Checking within Google Earth, our friends were also able to view a 3D car model that we had dropped into the parking lot of an apartment house in Japan.

Google SketchUp's support Web site offers a searchable knowledge base, FAQs, and a contact link to reach technical service via form e-mail. A user group and detailed video tutorials provide extra assistance.

The simplicity of the free Google SketchUp makes three-dimensional drawing possible even for those who lack knowledge of design or perspective. In addition to its ease of use, Google's free online storage for your designs and SketchUp's integration with Google Earth allow you not only to create your own world, but also to share it with others. We look forward to seeing how users will explore the creative potential offered by SketchUp.


SketchUp - complete package

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 9Performance 0Support 7