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Win a 12 Month Licence to Altium CircuitStudio! - Review

Scoring

Product Performed to Expectations: 9
Specifications were sufficient to design with: 10
Demo Software was of good quality: 10
Product was easy to use: 8
Support materials were available: 8
The price to performance ratio was good: 7
TotalScore: 52 / 60
  • RoadTest: Win a 12 Month Licence to Altium CircuitStudio!
  • Buy Now
  • Evaluation Type: Independent Products
  • Was everything in the box required?: Yes - n/a
  • Comparable Products/Other parts you considered: Altium Designer
  • What were the biggest problems encountered?: Designing simple boards with Circuit Studio should be fairly easy. I can't single out any particular problem.

  • Detailed Review:

    Altium Circuit Studio review Part 1 & 2

    I will try to answer questions related to how an individual would value Circuit Studio vs. Altium Designer in their small-shop business. First I want to give you an idea of my experience so you know where I'm coming from.

     

    I started using EDA software in 2001 with Eagle, then made by cadsoft. Actually I started a little earlier by using Protel EasyTrax when there was a free version of that. I used Eagle up until around 2012 when I was designing a VME board for a real-time control system. It was the largest and most complicated PCB I had ever designed. Eagle simply could not do it. It became bogged down. Routing traces was an absolute mess because it was so slow it would crash. The manual router had no online intelligence of design rules so you had to guess about where you were placing traces and cross your fingers when running the DRC check. It was OK for small boards, but I had moved in scope and complexity. I was designing boards with high speed buses and controlled impedance.

     

     

    VME board designed in Eagle 6.

     

     

    I was able to get my employer to pony-up for a license of Altium Designer after significant research and watching how-to videos on YouTube. I use Altium to this day at my current day job. They have a single license of Altium but for "official" designs I have to use Mentor Graphics DxDesigner. I do significant work on hobbyist projects at home, and my experience working in my home office stems from being a part time design consultant in this regard.

     

     

    Installation and first impressions

    01-install

     

    CircuitStudio has an installer downloader – 8 MB initial download. Full install is around 530 MB. I didn't have any trouble downloading the installer. I am not sure if you can acquire a standalone download of the software. Installation went along without a hitch. I have to say - at least Altium has figured out installers. If you've installed Dassault or Autodesk or Mentor Graphics software lately you might realize how wrongly it can work out.

    Schematic Editor

      The color scheme for CircuitStudio is a little different than Altium. Altium is heavy on the yellows and CircuitStudio has a much larger panel with logos. Here they are next to each other:

     

    07-ribbon-circuitstudio

     

    08-ribbon-altium16

     

    Circuit studio is new and flashy looking. I’m getting the feeling that Altium Designer is going to be less frustrating for professional CAD people. I don’t look at the toolbar when I’m using Altium, after all, I’ve been using it almost every day for a couple years. Most of my work is done through shortcut keys. On the other hand I think the designers made a good effort of reducing the confusing user interface features of AD. They appear to have reduced the options (and features) to what they think the price point justifies.

     

    When I first started this review I was using a very early version of Circuit Studio. Altium has updated the software and I'm using version 1.3 now. There's a handy button on the toolbar now to open up a cheat-sheet of shortcut keys:

     

     

    Unfortunately it doesn't look like you have the ability to change any of the shortcut keys.

     

    Making a new project

    One of the first things I noticed about CircuitStudio is that it doesn’t have Workspaces.

    Note the lack of Workspaces

    09-altium-projects

     

     

    Fortunately you are still able to open more than one project at a time. This would have been a serious limitation. It’s common to have several projects open at the same time. I often have several libraries open at minimum. The libraries panel is very similar to Altium:

     

     

    11-libraries-panel

     

     

    Look familiar? Fortunately CS had no problem loading my existing AD libraries. If you’re like me, you’ve been creating your own part models for years. The sweat equity should not be discounted. In doing some backup research for this review I noticed that Altium seems to have gone back and forth on features that they would allow in CS. I noticed some people complaining about old Altium libraries not working in CircuitStudio. I can confirm that I opened all of my Altium Designer libraries in CircuitStudio and they worked just fine.

     

     

    11-librariesaltium

     

     

    Making a simple board - impressions

    Schematic Entry

    Drawing the schematic for this simple design seemed like no big deal. The schematic editor in CS appears to be identical to AD.

     

    15-draw-schematic

     

    One positive for Altium is that their schematic entry is easy to read by default. I use Mentor Graphics software at my day job and it uses that horrible stroke font that is designed for pen plotters. It's not 1998. Nobody should be using pen plotters! Anyway I've always been reasonably impressed with Altium (and hence CircuitStudio) schematic editor because it's right there at the top, as good as or better than the most expensive tools.

     

     

    Component Parameters

    I took some screenshots of common schematic editor windows so you could see that they're almost direct copies.

     

    13-edit-component-parameters-on-sch

     

     

    14-sch-annotation

     

     

     

    Update PCB / Forward annotation

      CircuitStudio has a slightly different feel than Altium Designer. The flow is a bit different but the underlying concepts are the same so I'm hesitant to say the process is fundamentally any different. The basic flows is:

    1. Draw the schematic
    2. Annotate parts
    3. Run ERC
    4. Add a PCB to your project
    5. Update PCB Document (also known as Forward Annotation)

     

    17-schem-show-differences

     

     

    In Altium a lot of the design flow process was spread out over several different menus. CircuitStudio has condensed a lot of this into primary drop-down menus from the UI. It actually stresses me out a little seeing how much functionality from AD is packed into one menu in CS. Generate Outputs is in the same menu as adding new files. It just seems odd, that's all! Inconsequential complaining aside, like I said, a lot of the underlying functionality is nearly identical in AD and CS. For example here is the forward annotation / ECO window in CS:

     

    18-forward-annotation

     

     

    For those of you playing along at home, you might notice I'm designing a very simple little microcontroller PCB here. After updating the PCB I get the parts on the layout which, no surprise, looks exactly like Altium Designer:

     

     

    20-pcb-parts

     

    One thing I notice here is that CS does not seem to know about the concept of Rooms.

     

    I haven’t completely explored the shortcut/hot keys yet, but I have to say I don’t understand why they changed them. In Altium you hit ‘Z’ on the keyboard to bring up the Zoom context menu:

    21-altium-zoom-menu

     

     

    Pressing ‘Z’ in CS does nothing at all. Interesting. I have to remember the illogical keypress Ctrl+PgDn to “zoom all” which is the extremely easy to remember keypress sequence: Z,A in Altium.

     

     

    The default layer coloring for a board in CS is thus:

     

     

    22-layer-colors

     

    Ouch! That’s rough. You’re going to want to know how to change the layer rendering color if you want to have any chance of understanding what’s on what layer. Fortunately it is pretty easy to change layer colors. Right click on any layer tab on the bottom of the PCB editor and select “Layer Colors…”

     

     

    23-change-layer-colors

     

     

    I can’t find the PCB List panel.

    In Altium you can select several components, for example the 4 mounting holes on this board:

    27-simple-pcb-design

     

     

    And it would allow you to edit properties of all four components in spreadsheet form. It’s a really handy tool. I'm not very happy that it's missing.

    HOWEVER you can still use the filter panel to choose specific components by their parameters, then use the inspector panel to edit the component. This seems like a reasonable alternative.

     

    Net classes are missing entirely

    Circuit Studio doesn't have any concept of net classes unless I'm mistaken entirely.

    I believe this is a major differentiation between Altium's products. If you're going to be designing highly complex boards you're going to need the advanced design rules capability of Altium Designer over Circuit Studio.

     

    The 3D view still works in CS:

     

     

    28-simple-pcb-3d

     

    Obviously this simple design I made here would be easy in any EDA CAD software. I just wanted to get started and show you the "unboxing" and first impressions.

     

    I would like to hear feedback from you - what would you like to know? I'm willing to check out a particular feature or capability for you.


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