Choose the Best AEC Cad Program

The leading packages for your industry

Architect using keyboard on top blueprints, next to calculator, and phone - representing using autocad


Kittikorn Nimitpara / Getty Images 

Each industry has its own design needs and CAD packages specialize in different disciplines. In the AEC world, Autodesk and Microstation are the major players. Let's take an overview of each.

AEC Industry (Architectural, Engineering & Construction) SoftwareAutoCAD

AutoCAD is the most used CADD drafting package in the AEC world. It's structured as a core drafting package with additional, industry-specific, add-ons called "verticals" that can be installed on top of it to enhance its design capabilities. For example, the base AutoCAD program can be expanded for architectural work using AutoCAD Architecture, or the Civil 3D vertical for civil work. Autodesk, the manufacturer of AutoCAD, has over fifty vertical packages to handle most every aspect of design, regardless of which industry you're working in. Autodesk products are the industry standard and they are robust packages but -no surprise- you will pay a premium for that level of development and reliability. The base AutoCAD package runs at $3,995.00 for a single license and their vertical design packages go a good bit higher (Architecture at $4,995.00/seat and Civil 3D at $6,495.00/seat) which can put them beyond the reach of most individuals.

AutoCAD is the father of all CAD systems. It's been around since the advent of personal computers, back in the early 1980s. The simple truth is, almost every other CAD package on the market is essentially a variant of basic AutoCAD. Yes, AutoCAD (and its add-ons) can be very expensive but to our mind, the most important selling point for this product is this: once you master AutoCAD, you'll be able to work in almost any other CAD package out there with minimal training. That benefit alone makes AutoCAD worth the extra expense in our book.


MicroStation is a drafting package from Bentley Systems, that focuses on civil and site-related industries. It is noted for being the package most often used by State and Federal agencies, particularly in the transportation and road design fields. While not as widely used as AutoCAD products, familiarity with this software and its verticals is highly recommended for anyone dealing with public works projects. From a cost perspective, Bentley is much more within reach of the average user, with MicroStation vertical packages (Inroads, PowerSurvey, etc.) selling for about half the price of their Autodesk counterparts. The MicroStation product line does have a reputation for not being "user-friendly user-friendly". Its commands are not very intuitive and its display options take a good bit of training to fully understand. The other major drawback to working with MicroStation products is that outside of the public works arena, it's not widely used and sharing files between yourself and other users can be problematic. Pricing plans for Bentley products are complicated and hard to find on the Internet. You need to contact a Bentley sales representative directly to get a quote and even then, the myriad options they have can boggle the mind.

A nice benefit to working in MicroStation is the extensive array of design software the Bentley has put together to run on top of it. Products like StormCAD and PondPack are very powerful engineering design systems that use MicroStation as their primary drive engine. They work well, but you really need to have an extensive design background to use them effectively. One other area where we think Bentley has done a good job is in their interoperability with other CAD systems (particularly AutoCAD.) MicroStation allows you to open and save files in many different file formats and it does a much better job of translating data between different CAD systems than just about any other software out there.