Creating diagrams, such as organizational charts and network infrastructure maps, used to require either a designer or a whole lot of patience. Not anymore. Diagramming app SmartDraw intuits the shapes and objects you’re going to put into a diagram based on the template you choose. It gives you buttons that quickly add the new elements, align them, and make them look professional. The program is dead simple to use, and it’s available as a Windows app and as a Web app, called SmartDraw Cloud (which is what I tested). SmartDraw is a top diagramming app, but it’s also one of the most expensive. Aside from price, its other downside is that it has only lightweight sharing and collaboration capabilities. For its ease of use and huge library of templates and objects, SmartDraw is an Editors’ Choice, but it shares this honor with Lucidchart, which costs (and offers) less and supports real-time collaboration.
Pricing and Plans
There are a few ways to purchase this excellent productivity app. One it to buy it as the downloadable software SmartDraw for Windows, and the other is to subscribe to the SmartDraw Cloud service. The downloadable product comes in three different versions: Standard, Business, and Enterprise. SmartDraw Cloud, which is what I used to test the service, does not have various tiers.
If you choose the Windows app, it costs a flat fee of $297 for Standard, $397 for Business, and $2,995 (starting price) for Enterprise. The Standard and Business apps are on the expensive side, given some of the other diagramming tools on the market, but are about the same price as the Visio Windows app ($299.99). The Enterprise package includes premium support, content updates, advanced administration capabilities, and access to SmartDraw Cloud if desired.
The Standard account has fewer templates and objects than the other versions, but it covers a lot of ground. It includes templates for emergency and disaster, engineering and CAD, floor plans, healthcare, infographics, landscape plans, legal, retail, science and education, and software and Web design among others. The Business account includes everything that comes in the Standard package, plus access to more business-themed templates and objects. These assets cover the following themes: cause and effect, decision trees, flowcharts, maps, mind maps, marketing charts, network design, and org charts.
When you buy SmartDraw for Windows, it includes access to SmartDraw Cloud and premium support for your first year. For ongoing maintenance after that, you’ll need to pay an addition $49.95 per year. But the installed software is yours to own and use with no additional fees. If you choose to buy only the Cloud app, the price is $179.40 annually. You get everything that’s included in the SmartDraw Business account. The Cloud app has a few unique features that aren’t available in the Windows app, such as support for Google fonts.
SmartDraw’s prices are on the high end compared to the cost of other diagramming software—except Visio. Online diagramming tool Creately, for example, charges a lot less for a single user online account, at just $49 per year. Gliffy also charges less, with a price tag of $47.40 per year for a single-user Standard account, and $59.88 annually per user for a Business Team account.
Lucidchart costs just $5.95 per month or $59.40 annually for a single user account that includes 100MB of storage. Lucidchart Pro costs $9.95 per month or $107.40 annually. Both of those prices are less than SmartDraw Cloud’s. Lucidchart competes better with SmartDraw than Gliffy, but SmartDraw has more templates and tools that make diagramming dead simple for non-designers.
Another locally installed piece of software, Omnigraffle ($99.95), is even cheaper than SmartDraw. Omnigraffle is only available for Mac, while SmartDraw’s locally installed version is only available for Windows. If you need a totally free solution, Draw.io is the app to try.
To create a SmartDraw account, you need to provide an email address and set up a username and password, or authenticate with a Google account. As mentioned, I used SmartDraw Cloud to test the service, and the rest of this review reflects that.
One of the first things you notice in SmartDraw is the plenitude of templates. The left side of the interface holds a list of template categories, which itself is impressively long. They include Decision Trees, Emergency Planning, Floor Plans (both commercial and residential), Flowcharts, Infographics, Maps & Geography, Marketing Charts, Org Charts, Web Design, and many others. There are even specialized templates for organizations in healthcare, legal services, and science and education.
Many of the categories also have subcategories. By the time you reach the page with actual templates, you will have drilled down to a very specific use case, which SmartDraw takes advantage of. The closer the template is to your intended use, the better SmartDraw can intuit what you will do with the template. For example, within the Networking Design section is a subsection of templates called Cisco Diagrams, and the objects and symbols in that template include an IBM mainframe, access point, modems, and so forth.
The sheer number of templates in SmartDraw gives it an edge over most other diagramming apps. While Lucidchart, for example, has a plentiful selection, SmartDraw’s is even bigger and more diverse. Comparing the two libraries, SmartDraw covers a lot of ground that Lucidchart misses entirely. In SmartDraw, you cqn find templates for world maps, crime scenes, emergency evacuations, and even anatomy. Lucidchart isn’t nearly so expansive.
Opening a template puts you into the SmartDraw workspace. Here you find two tabs on the left that let you toggle between SmartPanel and Symbols. The SmartPanel is one of SmartDraw’s signature features. Based on the template, it provides quick action buttons that add not only the shapes the services has determined you will likely need to build your diagram, but suggestions for positioning and elements showing relationships (such as arrows and lines connecting one shape to another).
For example, in an organizational chart template, let’s say I start by updating one of the objects already on the page to indicate someone in my organization. Now I want to add her subordinates, peers, and bosses. The SmartPanel has options to add a new rectangle containing sample text for name and title and plus an arrow that will go up, left, right, or down from my selected person. It also contains options so I can use a standard rectangle with just the name and title, or an object that also leaves space for a photo. A few other options in the SmartPanel are Add Co-Manager, Add Assistant, and Draw Dotted Line.
SmartDraw intuits other qualities that it’s pretty sure you want to see in your final diagram, too, such as alignment and even spacing. It makes sure that text stays within a shape, rather than leaving you adjust sizes. And it has a handy Quick Action button to make all selected objects the same size.
The usual diagramming tools for aligning, grouping, rotating, and flipping objects are all provided as well. When I was creating diagrams, I had moments when some of the tools acted finicky, however. Putting a table onto a chart was no problem, but selecting it to delete it was, oddly, frustratingly difficult. Aligning objects worked perfectly when they were basic shapes, but when I went digging through library of symbols to find more unusual imagery, such as a beaver, the alignment was technically correct but visually wrong. The true center of the beaver takes into account its long tail, but the visual center is the center of its body. SmartDraw makes it easy to adjust the alignment as necessary, but I give the example to point out that sometimes what the software intuits isn’t necessarily exactly what you want. It does, however, get you most of the way there, even if it’s not exactly as you imagined. Making a few tiny tweaks in SmartDraw is a cakewalk compared to the old-school way of building diagrams in vector software.
Supported File Types
A major concern for anyone in the market for a diagramming app is whether it supports a variety of file types. With SmartDraw, you can export to PDF, PNG, SVG, or “for Office.” That last option creates a flattened image file of the diagram that automatically copies to your pasteboard. The idea is that you open your Office document, whether it’s a PowerPoint presentation or a Word Doc, and paste the image into it.
Lucidchart doesn’t have that copy-and-paste feature, but it does add a few more export options not found in SmartDraw, namely Visio VDX, which requires Lucidchart Pro, PNG with transparent background, and SVG with transparent background.
While SmartDraw can’t export Visio files, it can import them. It worked fine when I tested it, preserving the diagram and all its attributes with no problem. But SmartDraw can only import Visio and SmartDraw (SDR) documents. Lucidchart is much more capable at importing files. It supports files that come from AWS Architecture, Gliffy, Omnigraffle, and Visio.
Collaboration and Integration
SmartDraw offers some collaboration support, but it’s fairly limited. If you want to share your diagram so that other people can edit it, too, you’ll have to meet a few requirements.
First, you need to save the diagram to SmartDraw Cloud’s own service. There is some ability to share documents from other connected storage spaces, such as OneDrive, but it’s clunky because you need to then go to that other storage provider to share the file.
Second, if you give your collaborators editing permission rather than read-only access, only one person can be logged into the document and editing it at a time. Let’s say I share my document with Kyle. He wants to edit it. He opens the link and logs into SmartDraw. If anyone else is already in the process of editing it, Kyle will see a notification on screen that the document is locked and he can only open a read-only version at this time. So, there is no synchronous, collaborative editing in SmartDraw. There is in Lucidchart, however.
Lucidchart has the best collaboration support I’ve seen in a diagramming app. It works much the same way as it does in Google Docs and other G Suite apps, such as Sheets and Slides. When more than one person has a file open, everyone can see who is in the document and what changes they make as they work. Collaborators have a chat box to discuss issues live, as well as commenting tools for asynchronous communication.
Many other diagramming apps also support collaboration, including Lucidchart, Visio, and Creately. The ability to collaborate in real time is quickly becoming a standard feature in diagramming apps, especially cloud-based ones. SmartDraw is behind the curve in this respect.
I mentioned that you can save files to OneDrive. You can set this integration up directly in SmartDraw. You can also connect Google Drive and Dropbox to easily save files to or import them from those storage solutions.
Dead Simple Diagramming
SmartDraw is a PCMag Editors’ Choice because it’s the most thorough yet simple diagramming app there is. Keep in mind that despite its excellence, it’s expensive and it doesn’t support real-time collaboration. It shares the Editors’ Choice with Lucidchart, which costs less, and has correspondingly fewer templates and features, but offers excellent collaboration features.