« Previously: Altium CircuitStudio: The good, the bad, the yelling  

Don’t pick your eCAD programme based on pretty schematics. They’re nice, but the important function of CAD is circuit board layout. It’s incredibly frustrating to have a pretty schematic you can’t make into a PCB. To evaluate if I wanted to spend $1,000, I did a layout of that ultrasonic cleaner PCB on a two-layer board instead of single-sided. It was exasperating dealing with a different CAD programme, but my friends came to the rescue. One told me I was an idiot to expect everything to work like OrCAD 9. Several others told me how to navigate and operate CircuitStudio, based on their experience with Altium Designer. I kept at it, yelling at the screen the whole time, and I am very glad I did. The resulting PCB, shown in Figure 1 in 3D mode, came out great (Figure 1).

CircuitStudio_04 (cr) Figure 1: I laid out a circuit board based on the reverse-engineered schematic. At first I missed OrCAD 9’s , 1, 2, 3, to hide all and display layers. With CircuitStudio, I finally realised I didn’t need that to design a PCB. It’s a much more modern programme. The board has a top-side pour and two heatsink pours on the bottom side for diodes D1-4.

One pal tried KiCad since he is an open-source aficionado. He uses Altium normally, and despite his believing in open-source, he found KiCad severely lacking. To his astonishment he read a forum post where a KiCad developer said he saw no need to make a schematic “human readable.” To a programmer a schematic is a silly waste of time, when all he really wants is the netlist. That’s a nice text data-set he can parse. They don’t understand that a schematic is a graphical language and it shows intent and style and causality, just like well-indented and commented code.

Altium understands we need a clean schematic that looks good and is easy to read. They may not have intended for me to plop a picture of a circuit board into a schematic so I can trace over it, but they put in an image embed object to give us the flexibility and it sure worked for me. I do prefer OrCAD 9 schematic for the way it drags wires as you move parts. OrCAD also lets you edit any part with a right-click.

Another fantastic feature of Altium CircuitStudio is that it can read in Eagle as well as OrCAD schematics, libraries, and the old .MAX layout files. Sure the schematic text is the wrong size, since programmers can’t agree if size is based on measuring to the underscore or overscore or any of a dozen other text metrics, but at least the letters are there. And yeah, some Jolt-Cola brainiac programmers at Altium decided I needed to see a little dot on all the imported schematic text. Look at it as an opportunity to learn the filtered select function and the Inspector tool so you can remove all the dots at once.

I want to commend Altium on the excellence of the online help they have written. It’s comprehensive and will solve 90% of your problems. A few hours after I downloaded the trial I got a call from an Altium salesman, but also an email from the Newark support group. When I had problems the Newark people would respond in minutes or hours, not days, and would patiently explain what I was doing wrong.

I should mention that great results are not the only reason to use Altium. They understand you want to make changes to your schematic and “push” that to the PCB, or make changes to the PCB and “push” that to the schematic. You also get to make changes to library schematic symbols or PCB footprints and “push” that to your schematic or layout. I was disappointed that a back-annotation had to use a swap file like goofy old OrCAD 9.

There are things that seem really clumsy in CircuitStudio and Designer. In OrCAD 9, you could right-click on any part in your schematic and edit it. It then asked if you wanted to change all the same parts or just the part you clicked on. It did not affect your library part. Heaven, in 1998. With CircuitStudio you need to manually make a new library inside the same project. Then you copy-and-paste the schematic parts into that library. Then you can change the part in the library and update it to the schematic. Savage. Thing is, once you get the user interface arranged in a sensible fashion, doing a PCB design becomes second nature (Figure 2).

CircuitStudio_05 (cr) Figure 2: This is the way to use CircuitStudio on a single monitor. The four editor tabs are schematic, schematic library, PCB library and PCB. You should create a PCB and schematic library for each board. The left docked dialog is libraries, or library. The right docked dialog is the schematic or PCB Inspector. Inspector is like a properties tag but it lets you change multiple items you select. Click the nondescript button next to the search bar and the ribbon hides. Note I create a fab drawing and assembly top and assembly bottom drawings.

Next time we will look at some of CircuitStudio’s goofiness, like separate files for each schematic page and some of the bugs and crashes, and obtuse user interface. But don’t let that deter you from trying this program out. All big CAD packages have peculiarities. I wish eCAD packages would work more like mechanical engineering packages such as SOLIDWORKS and TurboCAD, but that is a few decades off. All the things that enraged me at first have now become second nature. And there are things like right-click drag for panning that I wish was in SOLIDWORKS. With CAD you win some and lose some, but CircuitStudio is definitely an overall win.

Sure, CircuitStudio will be vastly different than the CAD programme you use now. I hope the above images will convince you to take a whole month, lots of Google searches, a few friends and Newark’s great support, until you learn the programme. I will be writing a series of articles on how I did the schematic and PCB and all the problems I had, and compare things to my old OrCAD 9.

First published by EDN.

 
« Previously: Altium CircuitStudio: The good, the bad, the yelling