Altium Circuit Studio review part 1

Disclaimer:
I was given a license of Altium CircuitStudio in exchange for my opinion. I’d like to think I’m not biased, but the fact is that I was given free stuff. So I’m going to present facts in the hope that you’ll find it useful. You should use your own judgement where applicable.

I did not agree to, nor was I asked to provide positive feedback about any product in exchange for goods.

Altium Circuit Studio review Part 1

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. But I had no idea what I was doing then. I was pretty young.

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.
VME board designed in Eagle 6. Do you like pain?

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.

 

Enough of that for now. Let’s get on with it.

 

Installation and first impressions

01-install

[ any image can be clicked to view a larger version ]

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, but who cares? DxDesigner looks like it was designed in 1995 and it still works fine.

I’m starting to get the feeling at this point that Altium is going to be less frustrating for the professional CAD types out there. 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.

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
Note the lack of Workspaces
09-altium-projects
Altium Designer has workspaces

 

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
CircuitStudio 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
Altium Designer libraries panel. I find this design less confusing but perhaps it’s just because I’ve been staring at it for years.

 

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
CircuitStudio schematic editor

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
Component parameters

 

14-sch-annotation
Part 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 know about the concept of Rooms. That’s fine with me. They always get in my way anyway. Maybe you like Rooms if you’re designing highly compartmentalized and complicated designs.

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
Altium Designer hotkey context menus make a lot of sense. CircuitStudio – doesn’t have them at all.

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.

The 3D view still works in CS:

28-simple-pcb-3d

Obviously this stupidly 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.

A few questions I plan on answering for my own edification in future posts:

  1. How sophisticated are the PCB rules?
    1. Can I constrain trace impedance?
    2. Can I define differential pairs?
  2. Does the software limit me to through-vias?
  3. What other signal integrity features exist?
  4. What export formats exist?
  5. Can I import DXF to the layout?
  6. Does the push-shove manual router work like it does in Altium Designer?

I will go into more depth in Part 2 when it goes live. I would like to hear feedback from you – what would you like to know? I have access to several different tools so I can compare features. What do you care about?

 

2 thoughts on “Altium Circuit Studio review part 1”

    1. I don’t think you can beat the price. I used EAGLE from 2003 to 2014 and it was stagnant in that entire time. I can’t predict the future but I would suppose that Autodesk isn’t going to drastically improve it. I imagine they don’t really know what EDA software should do.

      I haven’t personally used all of the alternatives however. If I were you I would check out some of the competing software such as Diptrace, MultiSim BLUE, and Mentor Graphics’ Digi-Key partner software. I haven’t tried any of those so perhaps you will find something better. I think honestly ANY is better than EAGLE and probably less buggy than KiCAD at this point.

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