BrickLink is, as you probably already know, the Internet's premier LEGO marketplace. Since coming under new management a few years ago the company has improved the usability of the website, introduced new features and has also expanded in unexpected directions in an attempt to increase users and sales.
Two of its recent initiatives, MOCShop and CuusooBrick, have perhaps not been the success that it would have liked, but I think that it is onto a winner with the latest one: Stud.io: a new digital designer/CAD program for PC and Mac. This comes at a good time, given that LEGO recently ceased support for its own designer, LDD.
How does it compare to LDD and should you start using it? I have had an opportunity to beta test a pre-release version but I am no expert on digital designers and I have not really used LDD to any great extent so cannot directly compare the two. I am therefore grateful to Martijn, a member of lcc.builders, who is an LDD expert, for providing the words for this article which will help answer those questions.
For a little over a year now, I have used LDD to design and plan the modular-style buildings I like to eventually build. I use it to test designs, sometimes request feedback from the community and fine-tune the model, before I start ordering parts. In the past I took a random guess only to find I had too many 1x4 and too few 1x1 bricks.
Also, building digitally does not require me to clean up afterwards, so it is ideal to scratch a creative itch when time is limited and the workbench is already cluttered with another project. The kids not being able to help and knock things over is an added bonus.
Over time i tried several other programs like Bricksmith as well (I like trains too and LDD has no BBB wheels).
Budget permitting, I like to eventually build a model IRL. So when BrickLink announced Stud.io with its link to the parts database and wanted list, I was overjoyed and immediately signed up for a beta test. Two weeks ago, the invite landed in my mailbox.
Building with stud.io straight out of the box is not all that difficult. If you can build in LDD, it will take you about ten minutes to find your way and you are good to go.
Parts can be rotated with the arrow keys and left-clicking will lock it in place, all familiar. The only thing I had to look up in the manual was how to rotate the main viewport of the building area, as it requires the use of the right click + drag and I have a Mac with touchpad, so that did not come naturally. No visible interface for rotating is provided like LDD. Funny story: after switching back to LDD during the review I found out this method of rotating also works in LDD. Who ever knew.
Unlike LDD, Stud.io also allows you to pan the camera, so there is more freedom to look at your model from different angles. I will get back to that later on. Let me sum up my findings during the first days of using Stud.io
Most components of the user interface will be familiar to experienced users. The parts list deserves a special mention though. During building, every part you add is added to the parts list, on the right of the screen. If you select a part in your model it is highlighted here, but it works both ways, so if you want to know where that sand green 1x8 brick is hiding, you can select it in the list and it will be highlighted in the model. Problems with a part will be shown here with a little warning icon.
This list also allows you to arrange your model in building steps. It is similar to layers in Photoshop or other graphical software, it lets you build up the model and essentially gives you a way to create your own instructions. You do not have to create steps right away, you can rearrange parts later on.
Collision detection and snapping
A major difference compared to LDD is the ability to turn off collision detection (will your brick fit in that spot) and snapping to studs. This allows you to place a brick freely wherever you want. When using advanced building techniques, this can save you a lot of time setting up temporary scaffolding to place a part in a certain position with bars and clips, just so you can position it in a place where you would have no trouble putting when building with physical bricks. (Try putting the vegetables in the crates in a green grocer model and you will know what I mean). The amount of control over your model when using more advanced building techniques is far greater than with LDD.
This is a particularly annoying part of LDD. Rotating 90 degrees is, depending on your viewing angle, easy enough, but using the rotation tool is known to be buggy at best, frequently rotating the entire model around the part you wanted to rotate and every now and causing the program to unexpectedly fail, leaving you with your last saved version to return to. (****!)
Stud.io shows a tiny icon after selecting a part that allows you to rotate it around the x, y or z axis freely. It is instantly clear which axis to select, you can enter a number for a specific number of degrees or just wing it until it looks right.
Presenting your design
Stud.io has semi-built-in rendering with POV-ray. One click and your current view will be sent to a renderer. While I prefer the result of Bluerender which I currently use, I applaud the inclusion as it is very easy to use and gives you a fair representation of the finished model without the need of installing extra tools.
I am sure the look can be improved some in a settings file somewhere, but I consider this beyond the scope of this review.
The parts and set database
The BrickLink parts naming convention is great. Functional, logical, at least to me. Over time I have been forced to get familiar with the LEGO naming of parts (and to a lesser extent, colors), but the BrickLink names for parts just feel more natural. After all, I use this when ordering most parts online. No more endlessly searching behind that unrelated part symbol for the 1x2 rocker bearing but just selecting the hinge category.
Printed parts are mixed in with unprinted ones, which makes it difficult, particularly in the Brick category, to find the plain ones because there are so many printed variants. I would like to see a means to hide printed elements which, after all, are seldom used.
You can use parts in any color you like, but at the same time it warns you of unavailable colors in the parts list. This is for me the best of both worlds compared to LDD, as building in normal mode in LDD does not give you all part types, but building in expanded mode gives you no clue if the part you are using actually exists.
The entire LEGO set database is there for you as well. Entering the set number, in this case 2166 Elephant, will add all available parts to the working area, neatly side by side or into a separate palette for you to choose from.
Now buy the parts
For me, this is a great feature. Click on model info and the link to the BrickLink parts database gives you insight into the average price of the parts used and the total model price. So if you are lazy and unwittingly used a 1x8 sand green brick where you could have used two 1x4 bricks, now you can decide if you want to shell out for that or use less expensive pieces. Bear in mind, it may well be that prices in your area are either higher or lower than average so it is by no means a complete solution, but it is adequate for spotting those incredibly expensive parts.
If you are finished with your model you can upload it to your private model collection on the BrickLink website, a new addition to the site called the baseplate. Uploading takes just one click and from there you are able to create a new wanted list from the parts used and start buying like you are used to. Since the recent improvements to BrickLink this greatly reduces the time needed to source all required parts.
Stud.io is the first digital LEGO tool for more purposes than just creating an original model. It is also a useful and visual tool for people wanting to recreate their favorite childhood set they never owned of that special limited edition model you always wanted. Load the parts into stud.io, maybe replace the parts you are not willing to buy with more common alternatives and delete the ones you already own, to help you create a personal wanted list more easily than the “part out set” feature on BrickLink. Want a medium blue VW T1? It just became an easy task.
Stud.io allows you to work on a model with others. Unfortunately, as I do not have any other digital LEGO fanatics close to me, I was not able to review it at this time.
Stud.io is still in beta, so faults can be expected. And while the release is not public, faults can and will be corrected. But every now and then, a piece just won’t peg to another one. For instance, I did not manage to build a R2D2 as its legs just refused to snap to the body. I tested the legs with a regular Technic brick for comparison, which worked without problems. It is a huge parts database to test and retest, so it will probably take some time to find and correct all bugs.
Stud.io supports multiple viewports, a common feature in 3D modeling software. This means you can simultaneously have a top and side view of your model on-screen that can be individually panned and rotated. While I love the idea, snapping a brick to another tends to get fiddlier this way. Also, it requires a large screen. Stud.io ‘s interface is already less friendly to smaller screens than LDD as it has some extra panels that are constantly open, opening a second or third viewport cramps your workspace even more.
The parts database is not complete. Admittedly, we are talking the more obscure minifigure parts, like a Bib Fortuna head (sw076) but if a part in the database exists that does not mean its 3D counterpart also exists. This also means that when you import a set you do not necessarily get the complete parts list.
I mention this because a less obvious use for stud.io can be to fill a custom parts list for that vintage set you always wanted to order. Load a parts list from an official set, change the expensive parts for some less expensive items, remove the ones you already have and upload the result to your wanted list.
There is only one major flaw in the current version of the software. The enormous load on the processor. My 2016 Macbook pro is constantly using its cooling fan and draining the usually large battery capacity, even when the program is idle and no model is loaded. As it is a beta version, I expect this to improve in the public version.
As I am an avid laptop user and usually build on the couch in the evening while the family is watching TV, this is a major downside for me. It is partially remedied with using the extension cord of course, but the machine is getting uncomfortably hot and noisy.
As with any software, you are required to accept its terms upon installing. The usual fine print. Does anyone ever read these? Well, for some reason I did this time and I discovered a section that I found at least remarkable.
Licensee may upload Licensee-generated contents, including data or designs created using the Software, to BrickLink.com and/or other designated servers (collectively “the Site”). By uploading such Licensee-generated contents to the Site, Licensee agrees to grant and hereby grants to BrickLink an irrevocable, a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive and sub-licensable right to use the uploaded contents in any manner as BrickLink deems appropriate.
In theory, this means after using above mentioned features of uploading to your baseplate, the model is no longer just yours. You forfeit your rights to the model and grant a royalty free licence to BrickLink.com. What would be the practical consequence of this? Well, for one, you could not upload your work to LEGO IDEAS anymore, as the design would not be exclusively yours to hand over to LEGO anymore.
You can use the software and keep your models on your own HD, not upload and not use the want-list generation of course, and all rights to your model will remain your own. But this excludes the most important feature of stud.io, its USP so to speak.
When Huw asked for a comment on this, Marvin Park at Bricklink replied:
“We DO NOT intend to use uploaders’ content without their consent unless they intended to SHARE their creations to the public. That being said, the ToS will not be applied to their creations uploaded to their private space including Wanted List or baseplate simply to manage or purchase parts. The terms should be applied to the cases only when creators agree to share their creations with other BrickLink users.
However, I admit that current language of ToS (*terms of service, licence – ed*) does not clearly distinguish this different user scenarios. By the time we release the first public version of Stud.io, we will revise our software license agreement and BrickLink terms of service for clarification.”
I encourage BrickLink to thoroughly protect the intellectual property of its faithful users. In a time when Chinese clone companies even steal the models of talented builders for their own profit, the last thing a great initiative like this or the LEGO community needs, is uncertainty about rights to a model.
At the same time, I hope BrickLink will expand Stud.io with a digital model marketplace so to speak, where both the creator and BrickLink can profit from fresh new models built by the community and exchanged trough their platform. This will mean changing the royalty-free part of the licence with something mutually beneficial, and possibly attaching this transfer of IP to uploading an individual model as opposed to general terms of service for using the platform.
Stud.io is currently in an invitation only beta test phase, and for beta software it is remarkably stable. It is available for both PC and Mac. I tested the Mac version (and I am running it on a PC -- Huw).
I imagine it will be more widely released in a couple of months once bugs and issues have been addressed, although to be fair they are few and far between.
Should you switch from LDD to stud.io? If the ultimate aim of designing something digitally is to buy the parts to build it yourself then yes, this makes it so much easier to do so. Its integration with BrickLink is impressive and extremely useful. If your models are already in LDD or an LDraw format they can be imported with ease.
I think the tool has a bright future and the potential to become the digital designer of choice.
Thank you Martijn! If you want to read more about it, including how well it handles 21,000 part models imported from LDD, check out Christoph Bartneck's article Revisiting 8230 Coastal Police Buggy – Stud.io Review.