Altium recently released their latest PCB CAD tool: Circuit Studio. Known for ‘Altium Designer,’ the company is among the premium PCB CAD tool creators. Their Circuit Studio (CS) offering was created to make getting a PCB to the board house fast and easy while still being a professional tool. At $2,990 plus $495/yr subscription, which includes the first year subscription (subsequent years $495/yr), the price point is much friendlier than their more expensive ‘Designer’ software but certainly more expensive than the entry-level or free systems out there.
With many different PCB CAD options available that target the same basic goal of producing PCB artwork, how does this new CS program fit in? The list below shows it lands among the different options available to engineers:
- Freeware & Open Source (e.g. KiCad): Programs that are put together by people and/or organizations that contribute their time and skill to make neat software. They give away what they make for free which *should* work, and don’t really cater to those that ‘just want it to easily work.’ The program can do anything you want, but it may involve writing code. Supported only by the community.
- Fee-Based Entry-Level (e.g. EAGLE): Programs that have more polish and carefully-coordinated version releases. A big part of their value proposition is the support that comes with a license. EAGLE can do anything a user wants, but will likely be implemented through a script.
- Altium Circuit Studio: Targeted to users who ‘just want it to work.’ The features of the tool are integrated and thought-out. Limited in capability and options for both simplicity and to drive performance users to the high end.
- High-End (e.g. Altium Designer): The software package for those who want to ‘design like Apple’ and are willing to pay for it.
Since Altium makes both CS and Designer, they will be releasing the ability to import CS files into the next version of Designer. While the two programs don’t use the same file format, CS is based on the same technology. There is a good chance that this importer will work reliably, but only time will tell if CS files can play nice with Designer.
What does it mean for Circuit Studio to be ‘integrated and thought-out’? It’s giving designers features, options, and performance integrated in the software without having to worry about finding scripts or implementing options via a text editor. Moving from a clunky but flexible script approach to a smooth dialog box with a menu of options is, by definition, limiting. Being well thought-out makes it so the limitations aren’t really noticed since needs have been anticipated.
Of course it’s all about using the tool. Everyone has their own preferences regarding details such as ‘what should the right mouse button do?’ so there can never be a ‘right’ answer to that question. Many tools make it easy to create a schematic and dive right into placing components and routing signals. While this is possible with CS, the software is really tuned for the engineer to define the design rules for the system before placing the first component. It takes a fair bit of PCB design experience to know how to set rules before starting, but it can be a real time saver. One neat example of their nice setup is that it is possible to define rule exceptions for specific portions of the board or even down to signals and components. Gaining that level of rule resolution is a huge asset on complex designs.
There are more specific user interface features that just make the tool more pleasant and fast to work with. Many tools back-annotate every change between schematic and PCB, however CS runs a ‘compare’ tool which allows the designer to manually process the updates in order to be sure a bad change isn’t transmitted to the other part of the design. I also appreciated the interactive routing capability. Being able to push/shove other components, reroute, and rearrange routes produced a more elegant look in less time. Errors also pop up instantly to prevent the designer from basing future routes on a bad one. Finally, the component search function looks more like Google’s advanced search where other programs’ component search is more like AltaVista.
With CS’s focus on engineers being able to quickly produce PCBs, it does a great job of coordinating gerber file generation. A user can define a release package of not just gerbers, but also a customizable BOM, assembly drawing, 3D drawing, drill drawing, and schematic that are all created together. This ‘snapshot’ feature could save some confusion in manufacturing when the BOM doesn’t match up exactly with the PCB.
As with any v1.0 of software there will be some bugs. But the only snag I hit when following the getting started guide to create a board from OSHpark was finding that one needs to define a board shape and draw a board outline – something that seemed redundant. But this is minor and didn’t interfere with easily getting a board designed and ordered. (Note: the default drill settings needed to be adjusted for OSHpark).
You can watch some of element14's videos on using CircuitStudio here. Future articles will look closer at the features and performance of the tool, but it looks like CS has positioned itself nicely in the PCB toolset marketplace.
2015/04/13 Update: As part of my test, I sent the PCBs to OSHpark to be sure the boards came back as expected. As you can see below, Success!