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Altium's CircuitMaker saves the day for Max & Duane at ESC Minneapolis

October 16, 2015

Max The Magnificent-October 16, 2015

Where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday that I was waffling on about the introduction of Altium's free CircuitMaker schematic capture and board layout tool; in reality, however, a year's worth of Pooh Sticks have floated down the river of time (see Free CircuitMaker PCB Tool From Altium).

Well, so much has changed that I don’t really know where to start. First of all, the original idea was for CircuitMaker to follow the "Freemium" model -- that is, you start off with a free but limited tool, and then you pay to add more layers and/or more nets and/or greater board sizes.

Now, I'm not saying this is a bad model -- it seems to work OK for tools like Eagle PCB -- but I know to my cost how frustrating it is to have almost finished a design when you run up against some limitation wall or other.

Happily, the folks at Altium have had a re-think -- they've decided to embrace the maker movement and students and hobbyists and professionals -- so the latest-and-greatest version of CircuitMaker is unlimited in terms of layer count, net count, number of layers, and almost any other thing you care to mention. Furthermore, you can use CircuitMaker to create production products, sell millions of units, and become fabulously rich -- the only requirement being that you make such designs open source, which I personally don’t regard as being in any way unfair.

Another way in which CircuitMaker distinguishes itself from lesser competitors is that it's based on the same underlying data structures and engines as Altium Designer, which is an incredibly powerful, robust, and proven tool. The main difference is in the user interface; as opposed to having multiple ways to perform every task, CircuitMaker's interface is much more streamlined and intuitive.

One area where CircuitMaker really distinguishes itself from the pack is its integration with the Octopart database and search aggregator, which allows users to search across hundreds of component distributors and thousands of manufacturers.


CircuitMaker & Octopart (Source: Altium)
(Click here to see a larger image.)

Octopart boasts 30+ million component records. In addition to standard components, it allows users to track down unusual parts from obscure vendors, and it also identifies the distributors who currently have those parts in stock, including quantities and prices. Furthermore, the library has been seeded with 200,000+ schematic symbols and layout land patterns -- the ones that are used for the vast majority of components. One really cool thing here is that the library is crowd-sourced, so any user can create a symbol and/or land pattern that becomes available for everyone else to use.

In addition to the symbols and land patterns (see also Footprint Graphics or Land Patterns?) and 3D models, Octopart also links you up with datasheets, device documentation, and reference designs, all of which makes one's life so much easier.

CircuitMaker to the rescue!
By some strange quirk of fate, I'd no sooner got off the phone with Ben Jordan from Altium and Sam Wurzel from Octopart (actually, they are one and the same company now, since Altium acquired Octopart about two months ago), when my chum Duane Benson called me with a problem.

Do you remember my recent column: Is this the Coolest Ruler Ever? Well, Duane and I decided that -- although this offering was pretty cool -- we could do better. We're going to keep the primitive logic gate and flip-flop representations, but we're going to enhance the signals with bi-colored LEDs, so there's always something going on.

Furthermore, we're going to replace the 4-bit up-down binary counter with an 8-bit LFSR-based random number generator. But wait, there's more, because we're going to add a piezoelectric sounder and equip our little beauty with continuity checker capabilities. Also, based on a suggestion from Rich Quinnell, we're going to add yet more LEDs and a MEMS accelerometer/gyroscope so the ruler can be used to detect and represent horizontal and vertical levels.

Even better, we're going to power this with a low-power 3.3V Microchip CPU, make the whole thing chipKIT-compatible, and include a USB-micro port so as to make it hackable (yes, of course we're going to make it open source -- we'll be providing the design files in a future column).

Duane's problem was that he was using the free version of Eagle PCB to lay out our ruler/board, and he'd just run into the size limitation. Now, this actually happened to us once before when we designed our Screw-Block Proto-Shield for Arduino Kickstarter project. In that case, however, we managed to come up with an innovative solution, which pretty much boiled down to cutting the board in half. We ended up positioning this as an advantage -- the main board worked with the both the Arduino Uno and the part of the Arduino Mega, while the extension board could be used to handle the rest of the Mega.

Sad to relate, this is not a viable solution when you're creating a 6-inch ruler; it would be a very hard sell to persuade anyone that two 3-inch rulers had quite the same panache as their 6-inch counterpart (LOL).

You can only imagine Duane's delight to discover that CircuitMaker has no such limitations. Even better, he can import his existing Eagle PCB designs -- including any of his home-grown schematic symbols and layout land patterns -- directly into CircuitMaker (you can also import from OrCad, Pads, and DXF). This is a big deal for us, because we don’t have the time to re-create a bunch of stuff if we have any hope of building them in time to take them to show off at ESC Minneapolis, which I just realized is less than three weeks away as I pen these words (Eeeeek!).

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