Monday, 27 April 2015

Circuit Maker Beta Testing

Circuit Maker Beta Testing


The info below was true for the closed Beta, but no longer is the case.  The open beta now offers no limitations, and in the words of the CM team, free should be free!

Read all about it here:


I was recently contacted by Altium to find out that I was invited to join the Closed Beta for Circuit Maker.  Initially, I had to agree to an Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and thus couldn't discuss my impressions of it with the outside world.

Well, I've just received an email that's released my from the NDA - I guess they want want to spread the word - and thought I'd share what I know.

Free, as in Beer

Yes, Circuit Maker is free, to start with.  With the free package you get:

The two layers, 100 sqcm limitations were rumored to be limits before CM's release, and you can see those here.  However the 75 nets / components limits are a shocker.  You can reach 75 nets pretty damn quickly.

For comparison, here are some of my past Altium projects:

My 4 channel voltage and current meter, clocks in at 166 Nets, with 234 parts.

And my Alarm Interface clocks in at 99 nets and 122 parts.  What's interesting there is I use a 100 pin QFP micro in that design, but the unused pins do not count as nets (nor should they).  

So for the projects I like to build, I'll need to upgrade.  But to keep comparisons fair, your run of the mill Current Load project:

Has 15 parts and 10 nets - which is a great starter project.

Anyway, you can upgrade CM - all the options follow:

Notice that the subscriptions are quarterly, so you could got to 8 layers only when you need them.  Fully optioned, you're looking at $60 a year, but from a personal point of view I'd be happy with 2 layers, 150 sqcm area, 350 nets / parts and 5 private projects, for only $24 a year.  Not a bad deal at all, but I wonder what happens when you come up to a hard limit?  Get creative, I guess.

For those who don't want to share their projects, the option for 1000 private projects is a winner.  I like to share my stuff, but only when finished and a limit of 5 private projects will keep my works in project to a manageable level.  You know, where I actually finish something....

Let's Make a Board

Getting Your Bits Together

The first thing you need to get your head around is that there isn't any local libraries.  You need to find something in the Commmon Parts library, based on what is available from Octopart.

To start with, I built a new project with the highly imaginative name of "TEST00" .  I've left this project as public, and you can see that no one has forked it yet.  This I think is a nice touch.

As an aside, you can view community projects by selecting the "Open Projects" link in the Tasks panel.  

Once loaded, you can open your files. It looks like they are cached locally - when you first open a project you can see the task bar progressing while the files load.  But once loaded the work with these files is snappy.  That said I'd *LOVE* an off line mode but that's not the cloud model.


Ok, so it's Beta so I'm expecting some clunky behaviour.  

If you've ever used Altium, you know right click is your happy friend, and if you want to place a part, the menus are there in Circuit Maker.

Menu's bring up the familiar library dialogs, but there it hits the wall.

You can chose from 'Favorites' and 'Octopart' libraries, and if you're a new starter this will confuse you as they will show up as empty libraries.  I since learnt that you can associate Octopart library parts with your favorites library, and the Octopart library will only show what is in the Octopart search in the library menu.

If you open up the Library window on the right, you can then search Octopart for your parts.  If you find one with a schematic icon and footprint, you can then just drag that part into your schematic.  If not, you may find a part that needs it's icon and footprint created.  

Believe it or not, I had to do this for a 10k 0603 resistor!  Of course I didn't screen shot that part, so here's one I tried later:

You right click on the part in Octopart, and then the following editor is available.

You can then select 'Add New Symbol' or Add New Footprint' and familiar editors to those used in Altium open.  I simply reused one of the canned schematic symbols.

For the footprint I built my own, and then I was able to place the part in my schematic (after committing to Octopart).  

You also end up with a very long winded part comment - but you can simply edit that out.  Double click the part and the editor dialogue pops up.

As this is really just my first impressions, I ddin't have a real project in mind.  So to get to a PCB test I just added some LEDs (complete from Octopart with Schematic Symbol and PCB Footprint) and whipped this little circuit up.  Net labels, ports, power ports are all there and easily found in the Ribbon menu.  Yes I could whine that the keyboard shortcuts from Altium aren't there, but thinking like a new user, the Ribbon is well laid out and you can easily find what you want to do next.

To get to PCB, you add a file, then from the Project command in the Ribbon, you import changes and your parts are there with net lists and the like.  

The routing tools are easy to use and rely on the use of right click menus.  This is one personal gripe and I prefer to use a scratchpad on a laptop, and hotkeys are your friend here.  

Two minutes later, I had this. The 'l' keystroke still swaps the part from top to bottom layer, '*' toggles between top and bottom traces, so that helps.  You even have good polygon pour tools and some really powerful tools that I'd not expect in a free CAD tool are there (such as Net Classes ability to colour individual nets).  So that's good.

But - and you knew there were some buts coming - it's far from perfect.

Schematic Hell

If you drag a part in the schematic editor, it drags the wires with it.  OMFG NO!

I moved two parts, caused a bunch of shorts and screwed up my schematic.  THIS IS A VERY BAD THING.  If you hold control while dragging a part, the traces get left behind.  I really wish that this could be set to be vice-versa, or disabled all together.

Some other things I think Altium should address:

  • You cannot import DXF or other cad files into the PCB.  This is something I do all the time in Altium to help define my board shapes.  But you can't even define a board shape  from selected objects.  This is aggravating!
  • In comparison, you can define a polygon pour from selected objects.  WHY YOU MAKE BOARD SHAPE SO HARD?
  • You can't open Altium files in Circuit Maker.  Okay, they need to protect their high end tool, and I believe that Altium can open Circuit Maker files.  Fair cop, but it kills my plans to share my existing designs done in Altium in Circuit Maker.  This could help Altium rapidly grow their community (maybe they could limit imports to match your licence options?)
  • Zoom hotkeys.  I miss ZA (zoom - all) 
One plus I didn't mention above is that Circuit Maker also allows the use of hierarchical schematic sheets (yay) but all the Altium 'room' features aren't there.  

Closing Thoughts?

Are Altium onto a winner?  At the moment I say no.

My internet access can be temperamental at time, and the loading from the cloud, and Octopart searches just take too long.  Local files would be great.  

A paid option to allow local libraries (and files!) would go a long way remedying this.

Aside from that,  it's a slick interface, it's doesn't crash randomly, copy - paste just works (looking at you KiCAD!).

But the real deal breaker?  You must have an Octopart part to use - things that you need on a PCB that are not parts include Fiducials, Edge Connectors, Programming Headers, Custom RF coils, mounting and tooling holes are things you cannot make in Circuit Maker.  

Sadly, that's a deal breaker for me.

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