Lego is a troubled company. Since its release of the famous Lego brick in the 1950s, the company has faced serious competition from other toys on the market, especially the video game craze which has been going on since the eighties. And, of course, since its bread and butter is the Lego brick, its forays into computer games and other areas has been somewhat mixed.
Enter Lego Digital Designer (LDD), its newest attempt at making something akin to a computer Lego program. It is, of course, supposed to be similar to AutoCAD and many other (freeware) Lego programs on the market, including (most importantly) LDraw, a Lego CAD program.
Now, of course, I’ve used LDraw, both on its own and with MLCAD, an addon to the LDraw software. I’ve also used other systems, and each has its own style. For example, LDraw’s LEdit software is very much undeveloped, and makes the user move the bricks using his keypad. MLCAD uses an unusual four-pane system (with front, right, top, and isometric views). Some–including LDraw and LDD–use an isometric system alone.
Each has its own specific pros and cons. LEdit is probably the most intuitive interface, with very simple controls. However, it’s also very slow, and it can be extremely tedious. MLCAD’s four-pane system works very well, and allows the user to easily see where a brick will go. And LDD is generally fastest to use. Not only that, but LDD lets you automatically buy bricks from Lego’s website.
In terms of features, MLCAD has the most, including programs specifically designed to provide screenshots (like POVRay); LDD has the least by far, including a user-interface that is so simple as to be tedious in the extreme: I could live with LDD’s lack of features, but unfortunately, the program is very difficult to use. Because so little is left for the user to do, you also can’t fix its annoying problems, which are many and widespread: pieces don’t fit together properly, especially tiles and unusual pieces; they go behind walls; the program crashes without warning, and has no file retrieval (meaning that if you don’t save regularly, you’re out of luck); and it gives you little or no control over where the pieces go. For example, if you try to put a brick in a certain place and it won’t fit, you have to rotate the screen to try to find a viewpoint that will tell the program to put it in that place. If it still doesn’t fit, you have to remove pieces. And sometimes, nothing will work, and you have to live with parts askew.
Now that isn’t to say that LDD is the worst program of the three. MLCAD, for example, is a bear to install, and LDraw is far too difficult for children to use. In some ways, LDD is best for kids (although I wouldn’t recommend kids using any of these programs).
I have no idea how well Lego is at actually giving you these parts. They’re supposed to, but I haven’t received mine yet. For now, let me say this: The site doesn’t inform you that debit cards are allowed (they are), and it seems to take awhile for them to get the parts to you. This wait I’ve experienced is close to that by sellers on Bricklink, and is annoying, considering that parts are just as expensive, despite being firsthand, and despite the fact that you have a greater range of parts (some new) on Bricklink.
If you really want a program and don’t know much about the inner workings of a computer, choose LDD. If you don’t want to mess with Lego’s parts lists and difficult system of actually buying your parts, use MLCAD. That is of course assuming you can install it. And once you do, give Bricklink a try before you try out the Lego method.