Do-it-yourself magazines like MAKE and basement-brewed steampunk anachronisms might be at the forefront of home engineering projects, but 50-year-old Lego is still the name builders know best. Now you can play with them on your computer in the official freeware program Lego Digital Designer, available for both Windows and Mac.

The main screen provides a brick palette for choosing bricks and a smoothly rendered editing window. (Credit: CNET Networks)

Aimed at users who just want to play around and those looking for a bit of planning before diving into intricate projects, the program gives you the chance to build whatever you can imagine out of pieces from three kinds of Legos that are available to the public. The dozen or so sets included are organized under their set number and the kind of set, so users can match up their themed Factory, Mindstorms, and Creator subsets to their real-world counterparts.

Lego Digital Designer will explode and instantly re-assemble your project. Just because. (Credit: CNET Networks)

In fact, a big part of the program is the link to the Lego online store. However, there's much more going on here than just mere shilling for more tangible Legos. The graphics-intensive program does more than let you drag-and-drop bricks from a predetermined list into an editor. Seamlessly, you can zoom in and out, rotate your point-of-view 360 degrees, connect bricks to each other, rotate them, and move any hinges that they might have so you can explore just how your various pieces fit together.

The range of available parts stretches from the basic bricks and bodies with yellow heads and limited articulation to model jet engines, train tracks, and motors to light, sound, pressure, and infrared sensors. The Brick Palette puts all your bricks in one basket, so to speak, so that managing them is no more difficult than keeping track of more than two dozen subpalettes that catalog the variations.

In other words, at times the range of options can be overwhelming. This is the kind of problem this program should have: you don't want to be underwhelmed by a limited number of things to build.

The Digital Designer comes with 17 prebuilt models, spanning the three themes. These are good for those who do get overwhelmed, and are also good practice for figuring out how the program works. All of the prebuilt models function as if you built them yourself, so it's easy to manipulate a base design into something radically different.

The animated builder's guide, while a good idea, often shows you how to build from left to right instead of from the bottom on up. (Credit: CNET Networks)

People can do more than just build, though. You can place your model against a somewhat-realistic 3D background, save the model or take a screenshot with the built-in screencapper, explode your model to send its various pieces flying to the corners of the screen, only to have them reassemble with the next mouse click. There's an option to watch an animated step-by-step guide on how to recreate whatever complex design you just built. In addition to all this, you can send your model to to share with other Lego builders.

The user interface for version 2 is a huge leap over the unnecessarily complex one featured in previous versions, but it still lacks intuitive controls. Some useful hints include holding down the right mouse button to rotate the perspective, using the center wheel to zoom in and out, but using the keyboard arrow keys to rotate a selected piece. The application also leaks memory like a bucket perforated by a six-shooter and is very resource intensive, so those with older machines should be prepared for some serious slowdowns if they can get the program to run at all.

This program is probably the best facsimile around for replicating the fun of Lego bricks in a digital environment, and since it's free, it's certainly the cheapest Lego experience you'll ever have.