I have been using Altium a few hours a day now for just over one year. My thoughts and half a review follow. Although I have 20 years experience with high end mcad systems in electronics integration, outside of dabbling in Eagle this was my first experience with a professional ecad system.
I have to say I just hated the experience for the first 6 months, but now I rather enjoy using it. That is exactly what I said about Pro/Engineer mcad when I first purchased a seat incidentally – a program which I now love dearly. Of note here is the fact that the bulk of my criticism elbow is of features that would not even have been present in an ecad program a decade ago –this is therefore as much a sign of the times as it is a critique of the software. So much that could be wrong in Altium is not.
For any mcad professional the process of schematic to board engineering on an ecad system is generally an alien experience – true for multiple procedural reasons – and this is certainly true of Altium. That being said, having got some flying time under my belt I am warming to the system – and the further that I get into Altium’s deep features the more I understand that Altium was designed from practical experience.
I should mention that I don’t use the FPGA or code functionality (yet) so I am barely touching 50% of the system’s functionality – or so I am told. My projects are typically power conversion and management – mixed signal, micro plus 10 thru 50 SMT components, 2 sides, 2 – 3 layers, 100cm sq and under is a typical project.
My software rule of thumb: it takes around 2 years full-time to become expert in a high end engineering software system. It feels like Altium has the same menu depth as does say a Pro/E mcad and as a result will have the same approximate learning curve. …Still learning the ropes here in other words.
As a schematic capture and board layout tool Altium is excellent. As a beginner actually easier for me to use than some lower end products and I definitely feel Altium assists me in delivering rapid professional board results. 3d board visualization is adequate –definitely alien to 3d mcad users, but no doubt enough to see what is going on. The component creation and cloud access to distributor data is excellent – the first time ever I have not been stuck for a component footprint in fact. The copper pour and via capabilities are deep and impress clients. The output / export and manufacturing interface is close to being great, but consistently trips me up at a project’s end – I can never quite get what I want from the multiple outputters and when I do close something out I find that changing it is a PIA. So close though… That being said the video export function is the greatest thing ever as a means of communicating ideas to engineering teams – very powerful. All in all impressive results in not much time once you get a handle on Altium’s truly immense menu structure that is. I suspect many of my problems stem from my expecting an mcad interface and getting an ecad interface– which brings me to my next point…
Peeves: I wish that all ecad developers would make their GUI designers sit on a high end mcad system for a year before they let them loose on mechanical shape and placement functionality in the ecad program. To an mcad user the Altium board shape interface is weak to say the least. In my own recent experience the 2d board cad profile import functionality is limited and Altium’s built-in board shape creation system lacks the finesse expected by engineers used to a 2d / 3d sketcher interface for solid shape creation. For instance – try creating a part-circular board with a complex mix of mating polygonal and compound curve cutouts and screw holes on critical spacings – a challenging task in Altium to say the least – something that really should not be the case today given the state of core solid model platform development. I described the board interface recently as “like undertaking mcad on an Ipad” – mcad users will know what I mean.
What interests me personally in an ecad system is integration and data interchange with mcad and other engineering design and simulation software. What bugs me about all of the ecad systems I have looked at to date is the continuing difficulty in data exchange. Although most ecad systems advertize a degree of mechanical data interchange capability to mcad software I have sadly found that in comparison to the ease of transferring data between comparably priced 3d mcad systems today the functionality of all ecad systems is quite minimal. In ecad 25 years ago effective data set manipulation was the challenge. That number crunching no longer seems to be an issue, but in accommodating that we seem to have let some engineering shape functionality slide imho.
Yes, you certainly can bi-directionally move components and also change and edit shapes in Altium with some effort, but compared for instance to moving data between the two alien worlds of a Pro/E Wildfire and a Solid Works the comparable interchange functionality of ecad systems is decades apart – Altium included. Often in a typical development project a design team will go through 10 top level system re-spins in multiple cad systems in just one day as the various engineering disciplines tweak features – optical, electronic, mechanical, thermal etc. In that list today the ecad remains the ponderous data interchange step. Altium a case in point, the interchange being mechanically accurate today yes, but rapid simple and seamless no it is not. In mcad terms we remain stuck in the mid-90’s as far as moving 3d files around without delay or issue.
I feel that the preceding mcad comments are a valid criticism of an ecad system given the predicted development path of collaborative electronic engineering design. Perhaps what needs to happen is an acquisition – put the GUIs of the two disciplines on the same page? If a true engineering software system integration was accomplished with an ecad system the labor savings would be truly massive and the arising software product would become de facto compulsory in design studios. We are not there yet.
To close, I suspect that in due course I will fall in love with Altium. I want to. Today I am fond of it only and am currently remain impressed only as often as I am frustrated. I do recommend Altium to others daily – Altium being the best I can locate at the price. If I had a tip for Altium it would be to talk to professionals outside of electronic cad for 20% of their product management input for the next several years – Altium could learn a lot by not developing GUI functionality within an ecad industry historic framework.