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Review: Altium Designer & the Nanoboard 3000

Altium Designer is software for designing PC boards, circuit diagrams, Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) projects and embedded software. It can work with the NanoBoard 3000 hardware platform and its supplied software libraries let you quickly develop, test and debug a device without the need for any hardware design or manufacturing.

By Mauro Grassi

Arguably the premier design package in Australia, Altium Designer has so many features that it’s impossible to cover them all in this review. Basically, it is a comprehensive electronics design package encompassing a PC board layout and circuit diagram editor, a Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM) manager, and an FPGA and embedded software Integrated Development Environment (IDE). Also included are simulation tools, version control, test instruments, software libraries and more.

This review refers to the features of the Summer 09 edition. We will cover the most important aspects of the software but will necessarily leave out others due to space constraints. If you require further information on these, take a look at Altium’s online resources at www.altium.com

Migrating from other software

Many readers will be familiar with the existing Electronic Computer Aided Design (ECAD) packages such as Autotrax, Easytrax, Protel 2.8, Protel 99SE, EAGLE and KiCad. Other packages include Allegro and OrCAD from Cadence and PADS from Mentor Graphics.

Altium Designer is an all-in-one package which can do what they can and more. Its import wizards allow existing Autotrax, Protel, Allegro, OrCAD and PADS files to be used.

As Altium was formerly known as Protel, it’s not surprising that Altium Designer retains some of the elements of Protel 99SE while adding new features and improving on old ones. If you’ve used Protel 99SE, migrating to Altium Designer will be relatively straightforward.

3D PC board editing

One of the great features of Altium Designer is its 3D visualisation package. This allows you to see what a PC board will look like in three dimensions while editing it without having to build it. The 3D rendering is fast enough to allow interactive use and you can even see the layers inside the PC board.

Click for larger image
Above: the NanoBoard 3000XN is a comprehensive hardware development platform based around a powerful FPGA. It's programmed via a USB cable from inside Altium Designer.

The 3D capabilities of Altium Design-
er are best explored with a Space­NavigatorTM, a joystick-like device from a company called 3DConnexion (www.3dconnexion.com). It enables you to change the viewing position and zoom distance in an intuitive way. Altium Designer supports such devices out of the box but you can also use a mouse if necessary.

While Protel 99SE could produce a 3D view of a PC board, Altium Designer has a much better engine that allows some basic board editing in 3D mode. For example, components can be moved or deleted and properties can be changed.

The 3D view can be used to check that the PC board fits inside its enclosure, for example. This is done by superimposing a transparent 3D model of the enclosure on the board. It is also useful for checking for electrical errors in the layout of the PC board and for checking that parts don’t physically interfere with each other. Copper tracks, vias and pads are rendered realistically, as well as any silk screen layers. This makes it easy to spot common errors, such as overlaying the silk screen on a pad or via.

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