SmartDraw is an incredibly power but easy to use diagramming software. In this review we look at why it’s the best tool we’ve used to draw everything from flowcharts to using it as an alternative to Visio.
SmartDraw is Cloud based so it works just as well on a Mac as it does on Windows. The Windows version also has a desktop app but it’s really no advantage to using SmartDraw Cloud.
If you like what you see here, you can try SmartDraw for free to judge for yourself.
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To get going with SmartDraw Online, you simply sign-up for a free SmartDraw account by entering your email account and creating a password and you’re instantly on the main dashboard.
In the latest version of SmartDraw 2020, you can now also sign-in with your Google account.
SmartDraw is also fully integrated with G Suite – you just need to download the add-on from the G Suite marketplace.
The main User Interface will open immediately once you’ve signed-in and the first thing you notice is the UI is clean and streamlined.
The good news is that SmartDraw Online isn’t just a port of SmartDraw Desktop for Windows and offers almost all the same interface, functionality and performance.
It never feels like it gets in your way and it’s easy to access advanced tools and assets when you need them.
The other thing we noticed straight away is that SmartDraw is extremely fast and responsive. There’s almost no lag as you use SmartDraw and it really is as if you were using it on desktop.
One of the main attractions of SmartDraw is the ease of use compared to Visio.
Creating professional looking diagrams is extremely quick and easy mainly due to the drag and drop support and automated templates which do a lot of the hard work for you.
When you make changes to a diagram, SmartDraw automatically closes any branch gaps and re-adjusts or re-balances the diagram so that it still flows and looks professional.
This is particularly time-saving when drawing highly complex and technical diagrams such as electrical circuits and engineering documents.
When you drag a shape or symbol into a connector, SmartDraw automatically re-balances the layout and even rotates symbols in circuits so that they snap into place. Removing symbols is equally painless – just remove them and the line reconnects instantly.
The way smart templates automatically re-balance and adjust is something definitely missing from Visio where asymmetrical diagrams or broken connectors are easier to miss in large diagrams.
Note that not all templates are automated in SmartDraw but the most commonly used ones are including Flowchart, Network Diagram, Organizational Chart and Decision Tree templates.
Templates are of course nothing new in diagramming applications but it’s the sheer choice of both templates and objects in SmartDraw that impresses.
SmartDraw definitely leaves Visio standing with 4,500 templates on everything from CAD design and mind maps, to brainstorming charts and even crime scenes.
This is not to mention hundreds of infographic and chart templates.
To select a template, you simply go to the Template Browser Screen you have a selection of templates along the left-hand column.
When you select one, you’ll then see some template variations to choose from, depending on how you want your diagram to look.
If you select Circuit Panels for example, you’ll then see several different types of Circuit Diagrams in the sub-category.
Infographic creation is something that Visio definitely lacks (although arguably it’s not really designed for that anyway) but when it comes to Visualization of diagrams, SmartDraw offers a huge choice of infographic templates.
These include population templates, world map templates, process/cycle templates and many more.
The same goes for chart templates. You’ll find there’s everything from basic pie chart and bar chart templates to 3D charts and Relative Value charts for calculating ROI.
SmartDraw is regularly updated with new infographics, reports and presentation slide templates to keep presentations fresh too.
You can easily export infographics and indeed any diagram made in SmartDraw to Microsoft Office (although only in image format). You can’t dynamically edit them in Office either.
Vector Graphics & Objects
Whichever template you choose, SmartDraw has an additional 34,000 objects, items and clip-art to choose from (compared to 1,840 objects in it’s nearest online competitor Lucidchart).
SmartDraw has replaced the pixelated rasterized bitmap graphics that most cloud applications use with higher quality, smooth, clear SVG vector graphics so that it looks just like the Windows desktop version on Mac.
If you’re a design professional, you’ll already know that bitmap graphics are rasterized and as a result, look pixelated and blurry when you zoom-in. Not so with vector graphics – the edges are smooth and straight so that the image retains quality no matter how far you zoom in.
When a template is open, you will see the SmartPanel to the left of the drawing area.
If you’re a Visio user, you’ll notice that the symbols and images provided in SmartDraw are noticeably more modern, varied and better illustrated than in Microsoft Visio.
To access objects, simply select the More drop down and select More Symbols. Search for the type of symbols or images you’re looking for and you’ll then see the appropriate library. Simply click OK and Add Library.
Online Storage, Sharing & Collaboration
Anything you do in SmartDraw is saved in real-time automatically on its own servers.
However, you can choose to save diagrams or export Visio files by linking your SmartDraw account to online storage services such as Google Drive, G Suite, Microsoft OneDrive for Business and Dropbox.
To use Google Drive with SmartDraw for example, you simply need to sign-in with your Google account details – you don’t even need to create a SmartDraw account.
You can then easily share diagrams with other users via those services or alternatively, share via email by selecting Share from the Menu Bar and assign permissions to it.
In contrast, Microsoft only allows you to share diagrams via Visio Online users that have a commercial Office 365 subscription.
Most recently SmartDraw has added the ability to connect to Microsoft OneDrive for Business and SharePoint.
You can also work with others in your team on the same diagram. You can see when another member of your team is working on a diagram although you can’t work on documents simultaneously. You must wait for your colleague to finish editing before you can go in and make edits yourself.
Since it’s web-based, you can access SmartDraw Online on any mobile device including iPhone and iPad.
Using SmartDraw on iPad provides exactly the same responsive experience as on Mac.
You can also enable and disable editing to prevent unauthorized or accidental edits being made to diagrams while you are on the move.
There is no SmartDraw mobile app for iOS or Android.
SmartDraw vs Visio
So how does SmartDraw measure up against the power and clout of the biggest diagramming software out there, Microsoft Visio?
SmartDraw has never intended to take-on Visio head to head, with all the technicalities and complexities of Microsoft’s industry leading software.
It’s aim has always been to provide a far more user-friendly alternative to Visio and SmartDraw Online has certainly solidified that position.
Long time Visio users will no doubt look at SmartDraw and think it looks too simplistic to be a serious alternative to Visio but the fact is there are few things you can’t do with SmartDraw than you can do in Visio.
Visio file import support is particularly impressive. To import Visio files, you can simply go to the Account Menu and select Import Visio:
Importing is fast and smooth with formatting preserved perfectly. After importing a Visio file, you can ungroup, change fill color, resize shapes and edit the Visio diagram with SmartDraw.
You can now also import and export VSD/VSDX/VST/VSTX files as well as VSS and VSX stencils.
Crucially for professionals, SmartDraw is the only diagramming application which allows you to export to both Microsoft Visio VSD and VSDX format.
Most diagramming software on Mac can only export to the older VDX format used by Visio 2010 and below which is no longer supported in the latest version of Visio 2016 (there is no Visio 2017 or 2018 but there is now Visio 2019). This creates some serious headaches if you need to send diagrams to clients or colleagues on PC that are using Visio.
To export to Visio format you simply go to “File > Export” and then you can choose to export to either Visio 2010 or earlier and Visio 2013 or later.
Like importing, exporting Visio files works extremely well with no loss of formatting or glitches when files are opened in Microsoft Visio.
Here you can see how a floor plan in Visio looks like when it’s imported into SmartDraw – the results are very exact.
Another big difference between SmartDraw and Visio is how much easier it makes finding objects and elements you need for your specific diagram.
For example, SmartDraw provides custom shapes and tools based on the type of diagram you’re going to draw such as a Flowchart, Org Chart, Gantt Chart etc. In Visio you end up spending much longer finding the right shapes and connectors because the toolset is generic no matter what type of diagram you’re drawing.
We also liked the way that text boxes and shapes adjust to the amount of text you enter into them rather than spilling-out as it tends to do in Visio if you add a lot of text to diagrams.
You can see how SmartDraw compares to Visio in our testing below.
For a good overview of how SmartDraw compares with Visio, check out the comparison table below.
SmartDraw vs Visio
|Works on a Mac|
|Works Online||Only some features|
|Visio Import & Export (VSD/VSDX)|
|Import Visio Stencils|
|Easy Sharing via URL||Limited|
|Real Time Collaboration|
|G Suite Integration|
|Microsoft Office Integration|
|Google Drive, Dropbox, Box Support|
|Build Class Diagrams from Data||Some support|
|Build ERD from data|
|Build Sitemaps from Data|
|Standard Engineering Scales|
Microsoft Office Integration & Export Formats
If you live within the Microsoft Office for Mac ecosystem, Visio will obviously be more integrated into your daily workflow than SmartDraw. If you just want to create simple diagrams, Microsoft Office drawing tools are accessible directly from the Office ribbon where you can select Shapes, SmartArt or Chart.
This is fine if you just need to do basic sketches or diagrams and there’s really no need to use a professional diagramming software like SmartDraw.
But if you’re aiming to create something more complex than just a basic flowchart, the drawing tools in Microsoft Office are extremely limited, not to mention there are very few templates.
Making changes in large diagrams also gets very messy in Office and it takes a lot longer to manually adjust them to make them symmetrical and organized again.
SmartDraw exports to Microsoft Office although the reality is that the file it exports in SmartDraw Online isn’t editable in Microsoft Office. Rather it’s an image that you can paste into Office applications such as Word.
In the desktop version of SmartDraw for Windows, you can actually embed diagrams into Office documents and right-click on them to edit them in Word. This is missing from the Cloud version although it’s very easy to export to Excel, PowerPoint or Word via the Menu Bar.
You can also export diagrams to Microsoft Office from the Export button with options available in PDF, SVG or PNG format.
SmartDraw vs Lucidchart
The closest equivalent to SmartDraw currently available is Lucidchart. Although SmartDraw has been on the market for more than twice as long as Lucidchart, Lucidchart has been online only for some years now and has stolen a march on SmartDraw in some areas.
As a result, it’s gained a lot of traction with Mac users and although it doesn’t have a native Mac client, it does have a Google Chrome extension which allows you to launch Lucidchart from your Mac desktop and even work offline if you want to.
However when it comes to overall features and functionality, SmartDraw Online definitely leaves it standing.
SmartDraw has 4,500 templates compared to Lucidchart’s 125 with 34,000 symbols versus 1,840.
SmartDraw is also able to export to Visio 2016 VSDX format which is essential if you’re working alongside Windows based Visio clients or colleagues. Lucidchart only exports to older formats of Visio.
But it’s from a usability standpoint that SmartDraw really excels over Lucidchart. The SmartDraw SmartPanel contains symbols and tools that are specific to the diagram template you’ve chosen, whereas Lucidchart requires a lot more manual searching of relevant objects.
Lucidchart’s templates don’t intelligently adjust to changes like those in SmartDraw and you can automatically adjust the space and sizing of a chart in SmartDraw whereas Lucidchart is more rigid.
Lucidchart also suffers from some of the formatting issues found in Visio such as failing to automatically adjust boxes to text entered.
There are differences between specific templates in Lucidchart and SmartDraw.
For instance SmartDraw shows dimensions for both walls and objects which you can adjust simply by typing which isn’t possible in Lucidchart.
Apart from this, there are other small touches such as the ability to set the thickness of a wall and flip doors and windows too that make SmartDraw a little easier to work with.
When it comes to Cloud apps, security is always a concern which is why any reputable online service should be SOC compliant. SmartDraw is SOC 2 Type II compliant because it has passed an independent audit by the AICPA Service Organization Control Reports (formerly the SAS 70 Reports).
This means that SmartDraw has been found by a service accounting firm to implement strong internal controls on protection of client data.
New In SmartDraw 2020
One of the things we really like is that SmartDraw keeps moving with the times and is frequently updated at no extra cost to users.
SmartDraw 2019 now allows you to use it in more than 100 languages which is unique in diagramming software due to the complexities of supporting foreign characters and right-to-left languages such as Arabic.
All User Interface elements and buttons are translated to the language of your choice including languages such as Icelandic, Urdu and Hindi.
What’s neat is that you can switch UI translations on and off in real-time whenever you need them. Although you’ll probably be working in one language, it does make it easier when sharing diagrams with non-English speaking colleagues or clients or if you need to add foreign language elements to a diagram.
Complex electrical drawings have been made easier with more intelligent snapping and healing of lines and circuits when you drag and drop complex objects and elements.
Ungrouping of complex symbols and objects has also been significantly improved.
Working with complex symbols has been improved in SmartDraw so that you can now un-group and edit components of complex symbols to make working with technical documents much easier.
Another major addition to SmartDraw is integration with Atlassian products. If you’re a Confluence or Jira user, you can now use SmartDraw within them without ever having to access the SmartDraw app itself.
You don’t actually need a SmartDraw license to use the add-ons, only if you need to import existing diagrams from your SmartDraw account.
In Confluence for example, if you don’t have a license, you can create SmartDraw diagrams directly in Confluence or Confluence Cloud.
If you do have a SmartDraw license, you can link your SmartDraw account to Confluence and export them from in one click from within the main interface.
The Confluence add-on also adds a useful Insert SmartDraw Diagram macros to the context menu within Confluence so that you can easily draw and add diagrams to tasks without leaving Confluence.
Any diagrams you create in Jira or stored as attachments in Jira – not your SmartDraw account – and can be edited by anyone in Jira that you grant permissions to. In this way, you can effectively enjoy all the benefits of SmartDraw without ever leaving Jira or accessing the SmartDraw app itself.
Integration has also been extended as a Power-Up to Trello. Simply click on the Power-Ups link in Trello and select SmartDraw.
You can then access SmartDraw from any Trello card from the Power-Ups options on the right hand side and start creating diagrams such as Floor Plans, Org Charts and Flowcharts directly within Trello.
This allows you to draw SmartDraw diagrams within Trello without ever leaving the application.
There’s also a new WordPress plugin which makes it easy to add SmartDraw diagrams to WordPress blogs and websites using a shortcode.
It’s easier now to find your files and projects in SmartDraw without having to know the filename.
File thumbnails allow you to browse projects visually which makes it easier to manage large numbers of diagrams or files:
SmartDraw is also an excellent tool for 2D CAD design with flexible scaling and import support for AutoCAD files.
Although it can’t do 3D CAD design, SmartDraw can easily extend to the needs of 2D CAD designers with plenty of engineering templates to create electrical wiring plans, industrial designs and architectural blueprints.
It can also import files in AutoCAD DXF format and as a user-friendly 2D CAD design tool, it’s an excellent choice as it’s so easy to use.
Another new handy feature is that previous versions of diagrams are saved so you can roll-back to previous edits if you later realize you’ve made a mistake.
This is similar to the way Microsoft Office allows you to view document histories and restore older versions of documents or enables you to see who edited it.
Just right-click on any document in the document thumbnail browser and select View History.
You can now also easily break down complex diagrams into sub-charts, sub-processes and sub-maps. This makes bigger and detailed diagrams more manageable. It’s particularly useful when you need to interlink one org chart to another or add greater depth to any diagram.
Apart from all this there are other interesting improvements including:
- Templates and themes have been updated with a fresh look.
- Floor plans have been made significantly easier as you can now show and set angles between walls and lines and set angles by typing. You can also print the grid, easily adjust dimension lines, adjust walls more easily and improve the rotation of shapes attached to walls.
- You can add shape data to diagrams and also import data to add to diagrams.
- You can now generate diagrams from data using the VisualScript API such as ERD database diagrams. SmartDraw’s open API is easy to work with and allows you to build data driven diagrams. It also enables you to create your own applications via Extensions. For example, you can now build org charts from external data using an Org Chart extension so that your org structures are continually updated automatically.
- There’s a new one price license site wide for organizations and you can assign roles for Editors, Read Only Viewers, License Administrators etc.
Despite all this, SmartDraw isn’t perfect and there are some drawbacks to it compared to Visio.
For example, one notable absence in SmartDraw compared to Visio is the Fit To Drawing button which conveniently auto-sizes drawings in Visio.
The Microsoft Office Export feature in SmartDraw is quite basic too.
Although there are buttons to export to Word, PowerPoint and Excel, the reality is that it only exports to Office in PDF, SVG or PNG format – you can’t actually edit it dynamically in Office after it’s been imported.
In the Windows desktop version however, you can export SmartDraw files and embed them in Office documents which you can then edit using SmartDraw by right-clicking.
There also isn’t an iPad version of SmartDraw which would make the whole diagramming process much easier for those that need access on the move.
However, even the web version is still one of the best alternatives to Visio for iPad.
Although you can use SmartDraw in a browser on your iPad, it’s not easy to use due the way touch screens work and it would be nice to see an iPad app added for a better mobile experience.
In terms of pricing, SmartDraw definitely works out cheaper than comparable diagramming software like MS Visio.
SmartDraw has a both a Windows desktop version and a Cloud version.
The Cloud version is available to Mac users as well and offers almost everything you get in the Windows desktop version but without the expensive upgrade fees.
SmartDraw Online Edition (formerly known as SmartDraw Cloud) costs $5.95 per month for teams of 5 or more and $9.95 per month for individuals.
This is very competitive when you consider Microsoft charges $299 for Visio Standard and $589.99 for Visio Professional.
The Office 365 version of Visio (now confusingly marketed as Visio Online Plan 2 by Microsoft) costs $15.00 per user/month annually or $18.00 per user/month monthly.
There are also no upgrade fees with SmartDraw like there is with MS Visio and no extra cost for premium support which is included in team plans.
For companies, an Enterprise Plan works out good value for money at $59.90 for up to 50 users compared to around $156.00 for a comparable Microsoft Visio license. The savings increase exponentially with the number of users.
SmartDraw Enterprise plans now include administrative controls for site licenses. This means that IT admins have full control over who can access SmartDraw and which documents they can access including those stored in the Cloud. Admins can also consolidate accounts under one account.
Note that there is no SmartDraw for students special pricing and no educational or NGO discounts.
SmartDraw Customer support is free via email or phone (Monday – Friday: 6 AM to 5 PM PST) and is provided at SmartDraw’s HQ in San Diego rather than offshore in India like with Microsoft Visio.
Experienced Visio users will be surprised at just how easy and automated SmartDraw makes things compared to Visio while new users will find a far gentler learning curve than opting for Visio on Windows.
SmartDraw also feels more forward-looking than Visio with Smart Templates saving so much time and hassle by auto adjusting to changes.
In summary, SmartDraw is a user-friendly but powerful and cost-effective diagramming software for all abilities.
You can start diagramming now for free with SmartDraw to judge for yourself.