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Cool Macworld Product: SketchUp
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Still, even when you've done all the extruding, you'll have nothing but a model with white walls. Luckily, SketchUp comes with a fantastic paint bucket tool, so you can fill your model with color. Want red brick walls? SketchUp has the red-brick pattern built in, so you can just select the pattern and click on all the walls. Same goes for log-cabin patterns, environmentally themed patterns, and of course, regular solid colors. If you've used the paint bucket tool in Photoshop before, you'll feel right at home.

At this point, you can drag your object around to see how it looks from different angles. As you pan, zoom, and rotate your object, the image updates itself in real time; there's no annoying lag as the program renders a view from your new angle. Add a shadow if you want—the program calculates the shadow on the fly, even as you drag your model around at high speed!

Once you've finished playing around, you can export the model in any number of formats. If you're serious about design, you can export the model to industry-standard AutoCAD format, and then import it into a "real" CAD program for more advanced fine-tuning and rendering. Or, if you're satisfied with a regular two-dimensional picture, you can simply export the current view to an image format like TIFF or JPEG and email it to your friends or post it on a website.


Whatever you design with it, playing with SketchUp is addictive, plain and simple. Even if your designs never go into production, the program is a great way to spend a few hours (or days) playing around with concepts bouncing around in your head. Beyond just playing, though, the image-export feature of SketchUp opens up plenty of neat possibilities. You could start a blog filled with your ideas for industrial designs, for example, where each day you posted a picture of a SketchUp model you were working on. Or you could use iPhoto's new photocasting feature to share your designs automatically with co-workers, clients, students, and friends.

If you're really serious about design, though, SketchUp has one of the coolest software features you'll ever see. Hold on to your desk chair for this one: SketchUp can superimpose your models on the surface of the planet using Google Earth. (A quick aside: if you don't have Google Earth for Mac yet, download it now. Then put aside the rest of your day to play with it.)

Now, Google and friends have spent a lot of time putting pictures of every last mile of the planet's surface into Google Earth. The trouble in Google Earth, though, is that most of the world looks flat. With the exception of big cities, buildings don't actually "pop" out of the surface of the planet like they do in the real world--instead, you just see two-dimensional pictures of buildings superimposed on the three-dimensional surface of the earth.

Luckily, that's where SketchUp comes in.

With the help of a free plug-in, you can survey a location on Google Earth and load it into SketchUp. Once there, you can draw a building model right onto the surveyed site. Then you can then export your sketch back into Google Earth, where it will appear, to scale, on the surface of the planet. In other words, you can use SketchUp to re-envision the way your neighborhood looks--and then see the results in the context of your town, county, state, country, continent, and world. (Want to impress a date? Take a truly breathtaking zoom from outer space straight into the front door of a model of your dream house.)

That's not all that the Google Earth integration is good for, though. Once you draw a concept of a house or development, you can email the model—as it's shown in Google Earth—to as many people as you want, completely free. When they get the email, all they have to do is double-click on the attachment to open the model in their own copy of Google Earth. (Pranksters might get a kick out of drawing a big "X" on top of their annoying neighbors' houses, for example—and then emailing the sketch to the neighbors.)

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately for cheapskates, SketchUp is a $495 piece of software. (Luckily, teachers can get a copy for free and students can get a copy for $49 a year.) If all you want to do is see what other people have built with SketchUp, you can download a free viewer program here. But if you want to build models yourself, it's tough to justify the cost unless you're in the design business—or have a lot of spare cash. Still, you can download a free demo version of the program from, which allows saving, importing, exporting, and all other program functions for eight full hours of testing.

The only downside? Eight hours will be up before you know it.

Adam Goldstein is the author of AppleScript: The Missing Manual and also a full-time student.

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