Monday, July 26, 2010

Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck software review

Summary: My trials and tribulations with the Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck software package.
A few months ago, I moved to a new home. Expecting to make some changes -- pouring concrete around the house, installing a patio cover, painting the fence, landscaping, converting a bonus room into a bedroom, etc -- I wanted to try modeling design changes in software. I've never used home/landscape design software, nor did I have any experience with 3D modeling, so I looked for reviews of the popular consumer home/landscape design packages with the $100 or less price tag. Unfortunately, I did not find many in-depth reviews, and the few ones I read were often conflicting. So I went by the TopTenReviews recommendations and decided to try their choice #6: Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck Premium Suite 11.0 by Individual Software.

I chose Total 3D software for two reasons. First, at least based on the feature summary, it seemed to cover more areas of my interest than other alternatives (I was more interested in landscape part, but interior design support was a plus). Second, the software was on sale at a local Fry's, which (after rebate) ended up costing me just the CA sales tax.

In short, Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck Premium Suite 11.0 did not work that well for me. Here is a brief summary of my experience with the package.

Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck Premium Suite 11.0 comes with two disks. The first one contains the program. I'm not sure what the purpose of the second disk is. I installed both disks on a laptop running Windows XP SP3, but once I upgraded it to Windows 7, the second disk failed to install. After working extensively in both the XP and Windows 7 environments, and I did not notice any advantage of having the second disk installed.

The online registration failed on both systems (XP and Win7), so I had to register the software manually (via a fax!).

The application desktop shortcut tried to check updates (on every program launch), but always failed. I contacted support and received instructions explaining how to change the shortcut to point to the main program instead of the update checker. It worked, but now the program does not check for updates.

Although I found the help articles and tutorials accompanying the software helpful, I still had a pretty vague idea of how the workflow should go, so it took me a few false starts and a couple of days to figured out the right approach.

I started my project by importing a blueprint of my home's floor plan (I had a hard copy of the blueprint, which I scanned to generate a PDF file, which I converted to a JPEG image). I then placed the home areas (garage, halls, rooms, kitchen, bathrooms) over the corresponding blueprint areas, which was rather easy. The software created the wall and roof, producing a reasonable 3-D mock-up (even the roof was done right). I then placed the home on a lot and defined the landscape/hardscape features: lawn, walkways, fence. I found the 3-D (aerial) and walk-through views impressive. They allow you to rotate the home and look at it (both from inside and outside) at different angles.

I added windows, doors, and openings, but with mixed success. For example, for some reason, adding a porch made the exterior door totally invisible. So did the patio. I assume that this is a bug in the software; the door looked fine (when I added it in the Design Plan tab). I then added a porch in the Space Plan tab, and it looked fine, too. I then switched to the Aerial tab, and once I clicked the Design Plan tab again, the door seemed to be covered by the wall. It also disappeared from the Aerial view. I raised this issue, but got no response from support (not even an acknowledgement of my message).

In addition to the disappearing doors, quite a few things did not work as promised or at all. Here is a brief list problems that I encountered.

The software promises to produce photo-like 3-D images assuming that you can apply photos to the design (which was one of the selling points for me; I wanted the software to produce real-life images). You are supposed to cut out an area from a digital photo and apply it to the corresponding area of your design. I tried many times, but could not make it work. The cut-out area from a photo did not stick to the right place.

I also had many issues with cabinets and other interior elements. While they worked okay in some areas, in other ares the cabinets kept moving from the positions I placed them causing overlapping. Sometimes they would appear normal, but once I switch the tabs and come back or make an unrelated change, I would find them stuck to the ceiling or on the top of each other. I raised this issue to support, too, but got no response either (at this point, I gave up on support; and I gave up on designing internal elements: cabinets, appliances, bath tubs, etc).

Total 3D allows you to import custom textures. I tried to import the texture of the external wall from a digital photo, but it ended up producing tile-like texture which looked worse than the built-in textures and colors. Textures and colors is a major pain area. First of all, it's next to impossible to find the right color or texture. Instead of using a standard and logical color palette, you have to navigate through several levels of screens. Many colors appear the same and some colors are missing. For example, I could not find the basic white color to paint the doors and window frames. The Favorites feature is a joke: instead of keeping your favorite colors and textures in a dedicated area for easy selection, it simply marks your favorites with labels, but you still have to remember how to find them in the maze of screens.

The software comes with extensive set of built-in objects, but it lacks the most basic options, such as popular patio covers (lattice or solid), sliding built-in closet doors, realistic gazebos, granite counter tops, and much more. With some creativity, you can mimic some objects (I used marble texture instead of granite, and a stair step to imitate the outside A/C unit), but for others, you're totally out of luck (there is no way you can produce a realistic lattice patio cover).

One of the major hassles is that the program seems arbitrary in allowing you to remove objects from the design. For example, you may not be able to remove a wall once you add it to the floor plan. I ended up creating a backup project after making a few changes to make sure, I do not have to start from scratch after making a change (I cannot count the number of times I had to revert to these backups).

Screen navigation is yet another hassle. It's often needed to zoom the plan in and out or move it around the screen. There is a dedicated tab for this, but using the specialized tab means that you need to switch between this tab and the working tab constantly. It would be much easier to allow zooming and repositioning the plan right in the Space and Design plans.

I also noticed that sometimes, when I keep the program open for some time, it stops working. I click the tabs (work areas) at the bottom, but the screen still displays the same view. I could only fix it by restarting the program.

The program crashes quite often resulting in lost work.

The TopTen review praises Total 3D's collection of plants, but I found them unrealistic looking and limiting (many plants looked the same to me).

I still found Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck somewhat helpful in planning the hardscape/landscape elements (walkways, lawns, etc), but using it was too much hassle that produced very modest results. If I did not get it for less than $3 (after rebate), I probably would have returned the software, which is too bad, because the software has potential.

Here are some recommendations which would make Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck Premium Suite a much better software package:
  • Fix the obvious bugs: object placement, disappearing elements (doors).
  • Make the photo import feature work as promised.
  • Redesign the favorites feature.
  • Redesign the color/texture selection tool.
  • Make it crash less often (and make the auto-save feature work).
  • Integrate zooming and panning functionality into existing tabs.
  • Add common design features: granite counter tops, more realistic tile roofs, stucco exteriors.
  • Add common structures: small garden tool sheds, A/C units, patio covers, realistic gazebos.
  • Create a moderated user forum for customers using the software.
Until then, I would not recommend Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck Premium Suite to the general public.

Friday, July 2, 2010

ASUS RT-N13U wireless-N router quirks

Summary: Tips for new ASUS RT-N13U users.
After a long search for a decent 802.11n router (and not finding one that would satisfy my real and perceived needs), I decided to wait until the makers produce something that is feature-full and reliable. In the meantime, I needed something basic:
  • no dropped connections
  • decent signal
  • USB port
  • built-in print server
ASUS RT-N13U seemed to meet these requirements. Since Tim Higgins (the SmallNetBuilder guy) gave it pretty good marks, I thought I would give it a try.

I got a new ASUS RT-N13U from Amazon for about $35 (after $20 mail-in rebate). [And I would've had it for less - $25 after rebate - had I waited a bit longer.]

After using the router for a couple of months, I can say that I'm rather happy with it: the signal is stable (no dropped connections) and reasonably strong. However, the setup process took me much longer than it should've had. Here are several issues that I encountered.
  • Can't connect
    ASUS RT-N13U can act as a router, access point, or repeater. Which is a good thing. The bad thing is that it comes from the factory with the repeater mode turned on. It took me about an hour of frustration until I realized why my system could not see the router during initial setup. Once I switch it to the router mode, the setup process went fine.
  • Still slow
    Although, I set the router to work in mixed 802.11g/n mode, I noticed that the speed did not exceed 54 Mbps on my laptop and nettop, both of which have wireless-N cards. I played with various settings in the admin panel: all to no avail. Finally, I found an FAQ that explained the reason: the authentication method of my router had to be set to WPA2-AES (it wasn't); at other authentication settings, the speed will not get over 54 Mbps. It would be helpful if the router's admin panel somehow conveyed this limitation when detecting a wrong authentication method (it does not). Anyway, I changed authentication to WPA2-AES, and...
  • Can't connect (again)
    Once I changed authentication to WPA2-AES, my systems could not connect. I submitted the issue to tech support but the person handling my ticket was even more clueless than me (he suggested that my laptop's network card might have not supported 802.11n, even though I had mentioned that I could connect to 802.11n network at work just fine). After spending a few hours contemplating this problem, I finally figured out that I used the wrong variation of WPA2-AES: instead of Enterprise (which is how I connect to WiFi at work), I should've used WPA2-AES Personal. After changing authentication mode to Personal (and setting up the password), I was able to connect.
  • Software
    ASUS RT-N13U comes with a CD containing software and documentation. Although I successfully used the setup wizard (software) for initial configuration, the software stopped working (it cannot detect the router). This is not a big deal for now because I can access the admin panel via a browser.
Additional tips for new ASUS RT-N13U users:
  • Make sure you download and install the most recent firmware updates (see the Downloads page).
  • IP address of the admin panel:
  • Default admin credentials: admin/admin (it's recommended to change them).
So far, I've been using the router only for wireless networking (not for printing or file sharing, yet). I'm planning to update this post once I get to test its wireless print server and drive sharing capabilities. Stay tuned.

UPDATE (4/28/2010): Since the original post, newer routers have been released to marked. Among them, ASUS RT-N56U (featuring dual-band processor, hardware NAT, 5 internal antennas, fast gigabit ethernet and 128MB DDR2) seems to be getting pretty good reviews from professionals and users. Although, it's a bit more expensive, ASUS RT-N56U is much more capable, and it's still cheaper than comparable Cisco or Netgear routers (and seems to be less buggy).

Best wireless routers on the market

See also:
ASUS RT-N13U Wireless Router with All-in-one Print Server (product info by ASUS)
ASUS RT-N13U (review by Jeff)
Amazon product reviews (some good info there)