MicroStation V8i

Is it worth buying?

MicroStation from Bentley Systems is the second largest CAD package on the market today. It’s the single largest competitor for AutoCAD and it holds a large share of public transit and infrastructure market. MicroStation is a fully developed drafting package that does everything its competitors can do but it has something of a reputation of being difficult to work with. That view by drafters isn’t entirely warranted, MicroStation is actually a user-friendly package but its problem lies in its decision to do everything differently than their larger competitor.

Why is that a problem? Well, most CAD people out there use AutoCAD, or one of its verticals, and that’s what they’re used to. MicroStation’s designers made a conscious choice to separate their terminology and methods to distinguish themselves from AutoCAD and I think they hurt themselves with that decision. In trying to market their own “brand,” they inadvertently alienated a large chunk of their potential users. MicroStation is a solid CAD package but the simple truth is it gets a bad rap because CAD users don’t want to learn a whole new way of doing things. With that said, let’s take a look at MicroStation so you can see that it’s more than you might have heard.

Engineer designing gearboxes using computer aided design (CAD) software
Monty Rakusen / Getty Images 

MicroStation Handles All the Same Basic CAD Features

You can draw lines, arcs, polylines, primitives and annotation objects. The problem veteran drafters have is that the most basic entry and control functions (mouse picks, right-click, ESC, etc.) are unique to the program. I always have difficulty in remembering how to draw a simple line in MS when I haven’t used it for a while. I have to remember that there is no text-based command line to speak of and that neither a right-click nor the ESC key will end my command.

In MicroStation, object control is handled primarily by pop-up boxes that allow you to input lengths, angles, and other object data in conjunction with your basic start/end picks on screen. To end a command you need to right-click, then select the “reset” option from the fly-out menu. MS is primarily a tool based program, where tool selection is based almost entirely on selecting the appropriate buttons from toolbars on the top and sides of your screen. That’s not an uncommon approach for CAD systems but I’ve found that most drafters aren’t big fans of excessive toolbars. They prefer to keep only a small selection of the ones they use regularly on screen.

MS presents a larger learning curve for a new drafter because they need to familiarize themselves with hundreds of button icons and their locations. This becomes even more of an issue when people move from system to system within a company or even to a new firm entirely because the toolbars can be moved and customized by each user, making finding tools more difficult.

Built-In System for Separating Objects Into Controllable 'Levels'

Like most CAD packages, MicroStation has a built-in system for separating your objects into controllable “levels” that you can turn on/off, alter color and line weights, etc. In past releases, MicroStation made use of a numbering system for controlling levels but that wasn’t popular with users and they have moved to an alpha-numeric naming procedure that you can customize to your own needs. MicroStation also allows you to generate assemblies out of primitive objects that can be named and saved for future use. These objects are referred to as “cells” and they are kept in libraries — logical lists of similar cells- that can be accessed across multiple drawings.

One of the areas where I’ve watched people struggle when they’re first becoming familiar with MicroStation is in the creation of new drawings. Most CAD systems launch a new, blank, file as soon as you open the program but this program does not. MicroStation requires you to have a named, saved, file to work with. That means you have to create and save a file to the network before you can begin working on it. To help with that, the first thing that comes up when you run MicroStation is a dialog that lets you either open an existing file or create a new one. The biggest problem I’ve found here is that there is no button titled “New” that gives people an idea of how to proceed, instead MS has a small graphic icon on the top right of the screen that you need to hover over before a few seconds before it tells you that it’s for creating new files.

MicroStation handles all the same drafting functions that its competitors do and you can accomplish anything in MicroStation that you can with any other CAD package. Bentley even provides an extensive array of vertical add-on packages to address the drafting and design needs of specific industries. You can design in specific coordinate systems, have multiple layout spaces per sheet, cross-link multiple sheets together and insert raster images into your plans, just like you can in any other CAD software. The truth is a lot of the more advanced drafting tools, such as volume calculations or referencing GIS and BIM data are much easier to do in MS than they are in AutoCAD and other systems. MicroStation is a solid and very stable drafting system that can meet all your needs, regardless of what industry you work in.

Why Does It Have Such a Negative Reputation Among CAD Users?

MicroStation has two major problems.

  1. Consciously choosing a completely different user interface than almost every other CAD package on the market.
  2. Their pricing, licensing, and support structure.

Bentley doesn’t make their pricing publicly available, you have to contact a salesman to get a price on their packages, which most folks hate to do because, let’s face it, salespeople won’t leave you alone once they have your contact info. Bentley also sells all its product line in a modular format, meaning that each product line they sell can have as many as a dozen modules you need to purchase separately to get their functionality. They tout this as “paying only for what you need” but most folks see it as being charged for every little thing they might want. It’s such a confusing structure I once had to wait three days while a Bentley sales rep had to contact their headquarters to work out a price quote for me because even they don’t have full access to the myriad licensing and subscription options available. Maybe it does give the user cheaper options but, in the end, Bentley always comes off to me as the used car salesman of the CAD world. You may get what you want, but you walk away feeling like you just got taken somehow.

In the end, MicroStation is a perfectly acceptable drafting system but I’m afraid I’m one of those CAD folks who will just never like it, even though I am forced to use it because so many DOT offices in this country require it. Which, in my opinion, is another example of Bentley’s car salesman tactics; as I understand it, they offer their products free to government agencies in order to ensure that design firms doing public work will be required to use their products as well. Now, that may only be an urban legend but it gives you an idea of the type of reputation this package has among most CAD users.