Altium CircuitStudio review: The glory

-March 30, 2017

Last December I downloaded a trial of the Altium CircuitStudio circuit board CAD (computer-aided design) program. It’s buggy, slow to load, crashes occasionally, and has a new and infuriating user interface. I absolutely love it. After a month of misery being a stubborn guy learning something new, I gave Newark, the exclusive distributor of CircuitStudio, $1000. I didn’t ask for a freebie as a writer for EDN. I figured I should share the precise user experience of you folks.

For occasional use, CircuitStudio is identical to Altium Designer, which costs over $5k. For $1000 you get a perpetual license and a year’s updates and access to the Altium Vault of library parts. Maintenance is $150 a year for continuing updates and access to the Vault. CircuitStudio can open and change Designer schematics, but not Designer PCB files. Designer can open CircuitStudio PCB files, but they then get converted to Designer file format. There is nothing on the market even close to the capability of CircuitStudio at this price point.

I want to stress how great the program is, even as a stripper Altium Designer. They took out database library creation, which I wanted to use to make an integrated library. Maybe I can con one of my pals to use his Designer to do that. They took out the parametric editor, but you can use the inspector tool for most of that. They took out the bottom-right menu where you can make all the schematic parts into a library. You can create a library, and cut-and-paste the schematic parts into it. No snippets, no flex design, no scripting. There is a work-around for some things, but all the important features are in CircuitStudio.

Those important features may take a little while to figure out since CircuitStudio uses a ribbon interface like Microsoft Word. I hated that too. But there is a colorable argument that context-sensitive ribbons can make for a simpler interface. Best yet, some ace programmer at Altium sneaked in a search bar. You can use it like a command-line interface. Many times I would learn about an Altium Designer command, so I would type it into the CircuitStudio search bar to see if it existed. You can run it with a double-click, and then a minute of searching would reveal which ribbon the middle managers stuck it on if you wanted to use it again.

Despite being different than OrCAD 9 and a little buggy, I like CircuitStudio because it can make beautiful documents that help you do a good job (Figure 1). When Altium came out with 3D PCB views back in 2007, I thought it was a silly show-off feature. Then my buddy Paul Grohe, a Texas Instruments application engineer, told me, “The 3D view let me catch a mistake I would have missed and saved me a board spin.” He was able to see inside the board and note a hole violating a trace that his design rules did not flag. My own 3D project showed I had not refreshed a copper pour, and that would have saved me a spin. The more ways you can check your work, the better.

Figure 1
I designed this ultrasonic cleaner driver board, here displayed in CircuitStudio’s 3D view. You can paste a texture image on simple 3D extrusions, so a picture of the actual 2,2µF capacitor appears on top of the 3D rendering. The heatsinks and other 3D parts are from STEP files I made in SOLIDWORKS and TurboCAD.

To evaluate CircuitStudio, I reverse-engineered an ultrasonic cleaner driver board that I was trying to fix (Figure 2). The cleaner failed and it still didn’t work despite my replacing the power FETs (field-effect transistors). Having already used Altium Designer years ago, I knew that CircuitStudio would make a better-looking schematic than the spindly ones out of my old OrCAD 9. CircuitStudio let me put a picture of the PCB into the schematic. I could then plop down circuit components and trace the wires over the PCB routes. I erased the picture and re-arranged the components into a sensible schematic (Figure 3).

Figure 2
Here is the ultrasonic cleaner driver board I reverse-engineered in Altium CircuitStudio. This is a single-sided board. I did a double-sided board to replace the vertical copper heatsinks with copper pours on the board. I also took out all the unused pins; my unit did not have a heater or timer. I replaced the tiny axial 3A fuse with a 20mm snap-in fuse.

Figure 3 The initial goal in the reverse engineering was to create this schematic, so I can troubleshoot the broken PCB in my ultrasonic cleaner. Altium Designer and CircuitStudio make good-looking more flexible schematics. You can change fonts, pin numbers, and name placements, embed images, and show grids. They are much less “spindly” than OrCAD 9 schematics.

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