Altium's Free PCB Tool Available for Test and Evaluation

Author: 911EDA News Desk
Jun 9, 2015

Altium Ltd. has just released an open beta version of its CircuitMaker free community-driven PCB design tool. The company is inviting all interested electronics designers as well as DIYers in the maker/hobbyist as well as open hardware communities to download it. Take it for a test drive and kick the wheels to see how it works, then Altium invites you to provide feedback for further improvements.

According to Dan Fernsebner, director of Corporate Partnerships at Altium, CircuitMaker and the website associated with it have been under active development since late last year. They incorporate what both Altium engineers and early visitors to the web site think would appeal to DIYers and professionals alike. “Before going live with a final version, we want to give those who will be using it a chance to further improve it,” said Fernsebner. “The comments and suggestions received will be evaluated and if possible added to the final version of CircuitMaker before the end of the beta period."

He said Altium has been thinking a long time about how to take advantage of the enthusiasm, energy, and ideas in the maker and DIYer community. This beta is the company's best guess at what that community will find useful in a tool designed specifically for do-it-yourselfers.

What makes CircuitMaker different
One of the things that makes the CircuitMaker different from most free PCB programs is its completeness, Rather than make available the first two or three layers in the PCB development process and leave a developer hanging with a far from finished board design, CircuitMaker has virtually the whole range: from schematic creation through simulation to final pre-production stages. There are also no limits on board size or configuration, the number and types of components, the number of layers used or the number of net connections.

Some of the features in the professional Altium Designer version are not included on the free CircuitMaker. "Missing are such high-end and legacy features required by very advanced high performance designs such as rigid flex design, high speed routing, and signal integrity simulation," said Max Clemons, Product Engineering Manager at Altium. "But virtually everything else is there."

Altium Designer

CircuitMaker uses a user friendly and familiar Windows-based GUI to simplify access to various tools for printed circuit board design.

"I think everyone will be more surprised at what we included in CircuitMaker rather than what we did not such as full impedance load control and differential pair routing, 3D modeling, cross-probing and a variety of navigation features."

Not just another pretty face
"The user interface on our Altium Designer is one that professional PCB developers are familiar with, but for the uninitiated it can be confusing," said Clemons. "So, for newcomers to PCB design the CircuitMaker tool is designed deliberately with the look and feel of the Windows environment.”

The first thing that will be apparent is that unlike many embedded cloud-based tools, the user is not limited to working within a program resident on a remote server someplace. Instead, for performance purposes, CircuitMaker is downloaded as a native application resident on a Windows platform. However, all work done on a design is saved to a location set aside for a developer's work on the CircuitMaker.

Altium Circuit Maker

Part of collaboration on the CircuitMaker PCB design site is the ability to leave comments and suggestions for a PCB project creator to consider.

The second thing to note is that the user interface of the CircuitMaker is not a carbon copy of the professional version. It is specifically designed with the look and feel of a typical Windows app, with the main features organized for easy access in a ribbon menu horizontally across the top. Other familiar Windows-like features include multi-tab design editor windows, dockable panels for working with design documents, a set of command shortcut keys, user configuration preferences, and of course, a context-sensitive, web-based Help reference.

Altium Designer

CircuitMaker Libraries panel is populated by entries from the Ciiva parts aggregation data base and linked component 'packages from the cloud-based Community Vault.

Because the company hopes that CircuitMaker will rapidly become a site for active community involvement, a lot of work was put into collaboration, including unlimited access by registered members to contributed designs. Clemons said users can leave comments at the location of an existing design, make changes to it if the original contributor allows it, or create a fork to an alternate location on the site where they can start a design using it as a starting point. "We want to make CircuitMaker not only participatory, but hands-on", he said.

No PCB tool is any good without parts with which to populate a design, so integrated with CircuitMaker is the online Ciiva part aggregator database. Using the database, project creators can search several major part suppliers for information about pricing and availability, as well as component parameters and datasheets.

"We have populated this database of parts with hundreds of thousands of component models (symbols, footprints, and 3D models)," said Clemons. "This means about 90% of the components a designer needs have already been created, and can simply be placed directly into a design project. The remaining parts, those without models attached, can be created by users and added to the community."

Since the open beta program started last Friday (5/22/15), over 28,000 users have registered. And since the site was launched in October of last year, 1,283 projects have been created. "So far we are off to a good start," said Fernsebner. "I hope everyone who tries it out will be as excited as we are."

Those interested in in trying CircuitMaker and adding their two cents to the discussion can register for the open beta at the CircuitMaker website. If you are undecided or want to learn more, a detailed set of on-line how-to documents is available, as well as a brief video tutorial on You Tube. To drill down deeper, there is a CircuitMaker Video Vault on the site with additional official YouTube tutorials on project creation, collaboration, schematic capture, PCB layout and component acquisition and creation.


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