Creating A PCB In Everything: Protel Autotrax

Protel Autotrax is a PCB design tool first released for DOS in the mid-80s. Consider this a look at the history of PCB design software. I’m not recommending anyone actually use Protel Autotrax —  better tools with better support exist. But it’s important to know where we came from to understand the EDA tools available now. I’m rolling up my sleeves (about 30 years worth of rolling) and building our standardized test PCB with the tool. Beyond this, I suggest viewing EEVblog #747, where [Dave] digs into one of his old project, Borland Pascal, and Protel Autotrax.

This is the continuation of a series of articles demonstrating how to Create A PCB In Everything. In this series, we take a standard reference circuit and PCB layout — a simple ATtiny85 board — and build it with different PCB design tools. We’ve already covered Eagle in this series. We learned Fritzing is a joke for PCB design, although it is quite good for making breadboard graphics of circuits. Each of these tutorials serves as a very quick introduction to a specific PCB design tool. Overall, this series provides for a comparison between different PCB design tools. Let’s dig into Protel Autotrax.

A short history of Protel, Altium, and Autotrax

The company we know as Altium today was, for the first fifteen years of its existence, known as Protel. Back in the day, PCB design on a computer required a dedicated workstation, a lot of hardware, light pens, and everything was extraordinarily expensive. Protel was a reaction to this and the first product, Autotrax, was a DOS-based program that brought PCB design to the PC. A freeware version of Autotrax is still available on the Altium website and can be run from inside a DOS virtual machine or DOSBox.

Interestingly, Protel Autotrax is not the only PCB design software named Autotrax. A company called DEX 2020 has also has a PCB design software called AutoTRAX. This is weird, confusing, and I can’t figure out how this doesn’t violate a trademark. If anyone has any insight to what the Protel / Altium legal department was doing a few decades ago, your wisdom is welcome in the comments.

Workflows Modern And Ancient

There are three major steps to creating a PCB in any piece of software. First, you create the schematic. This schematic is simply a collection of parts and symbols tied together with nets. Second, this schematic is turned into a board file, where parts and pads are placed, nets are turned into traces, and the mechanical definitions of the board are created. Third, this board is exported into something a plotter, laser printer, or OSH Park can understand. These three processes are found in every single PCB design tool to varying degrees.

Autotrax is ancient, and with that, we should expect some weirdness. Autotrax does not have a ‘schematic creation’ mode. Instead, schematics should be created in another CAD program (Protel Schematic would be the best for Autotrax), the netlist exported, and the board built from that. Alternatively, pen-and-paper DaveCAD will suffice.

If this tutorial were about designing a circuit board from scratch, this would be a very bad thing. The good news is we already know what the circuit is and what the board looks like. It’s a simple circuit in any event. Therefore, we can use most of the parts out of the standard Autotrax library, duplicate our board, and everything should work.

How To Autotrax

circuit1
The first few components placed. Here, you can see the ATtiny85, a decoupling cap, and a 1×4 pin headers found in the reference board for this series.

Autotrax is the digital equivalent of layers of mylar, tape, and an Xacto knife. To place a part, you place a package. This is highly unusual compared to modern PCB design tools, but with Autotrax, the onus of getting the circuit right is on the designer. In the above graphic, I’ve already placed the ATtiny85, the pin headers, and a decoupling cap. The next task is to place a few 0.3″ axial components for the resistors, a few packages for the diodes, a button, and a USB micro port.

pcPlacing the resistors for this circuit is as simple as using the Place Component hotkeys and looking through the library. Here, all the packages you would expect from a 1980s design tool can be found. PGAs were popular back then, and while SMD resistors can be found in the depths of the standard component library, it’s obvious through hole axial components are the rule.

resistorsAfter selecting the desired component, you need to select a component designator. This is the part name, usually numbered sequentially, and usually with a one-letter prefix (R for resistor, C for cap, U for a chip of some kind, L for an inductor, etc). Once the component designator is assigned, you give the part a comment — a value. I’m using 68Ω and 1.5kΩ resistors, so my comment for these resistors is ’68’ and ‘1k5’. In the interests of sanity and legibility, I’m going to remove these designators and comments from here on out.

Making a part

All of the posts in this series cover making a part from scratch. Usually, this means recreating the ATtiny in whatever software package I’m working with. Autotrax is weird, though, and I already have a DIP8 in the component library. Therefore, I’m going to create a package for the universal tact switch used in the reference design.

The ubiquitous tact switch. This is taken from the Apem Inc. MJTP-series datasheet
The ubiquitous tact switch. This is taken from the Apem Inc. MJTP-series datasheet

tactSaving the work I’ve done so far, I need to clear everything that’s currently in the Autotrax window. Then, it’s a simple matter of placing pads and top overlay (top silkscreen) tracks where they should go. I think I got it pretty close.

Turning this collection of pads and tracks into a part requires defining a new block, drawing a rectangle around the part, and creating a new library to store the new part. After that, I load up the PCB file I was working on and drop the part in:

withouttraces
I will not be adding the USB port to this board. That’s not to say I *can’t* add the USB port, I just don’t want to.

Since I won’t be adding a micro USB port to this board, I’m done placing the parts. All I need to do is draw traces between each part, and draw a board outline.

Routing

Like placing components, placing traces is an adventure in hotkey madness. Select Place, Trace, and draw the lines where they should go. Once that’s done, you can add fills for ground and power planes, and finally connect pads to those planes by editing individual pads.

gndpad

Conclusion

Although the title of this series of posts is, “Creating A PCB In Everything”, this specific post does not go over step by step how to create the reference circuit and PCB in Protel Autotrax. To be honest, I’ve completely ignored the USB port on the reference circuit, the circuit itself doesn’t work, and turning this design into a PCB requires a physical plotter or software I don’t have. This is by design. You shouldn’t use Autotrax for Real Work™ in the year 2016. Consider this post a benchmark of what PCB design was in 1988.

Protel Autotrax was one of the first pieces of software that brought PCB design to the masses. As such, the UX is the closest thing to tape, mylar, sharpies, sensitized copper clad board, and Xacto knives that DOS has to offer. This is the beginning of an entire industry. Over the last three decades, the state of the art in PCB design has improved enormously. Now, we have parts libraries that include parts, and not just packages. We have push and shove routing. We have mice with two buttons and displays with better than EGA resolution. Autotrax is where it started, though, and until I can find a source of Rubylith or those neat IC tape sticker things, this will remain the pre-history of how to Create A PCB In Everything.

30 thoughts on “Creating A PCB In Everything: Protel Autotrax

    1. Protel99 SE. Best ever. Anyone know if there is way to switch KiCAD to a Protel mode? Something that duplicates the Protel colors and style? For me, the most objectionable thing about Eagle is the reversal of the meanings of colors.

      1. Both, it is a prototype to product.

        The playlist shows how to:

        Make schematic parts
        Draw the schematic
        Make PCB foot prints
        Add 3D models to the design
        Layout the board
        Machine the enclosure

        You don’t have to watch it if you don’t want to. ;)

    1. same :( ;), except 1994 instead of 1988. We used it in school (no dongles so most likely pirated, nobody cared in 1994-98 Poland). Protel helped me realize pcbs was one of the things I dont want to do ever again. Since then it has been protobards, dead bug and occasional resist pen one offs drawn while looking at the schematic :/

  1. I routed so many boards in Autotrax… I loved the keyboard short-cuts, I could work with it really fast, not thing mouse-thingy… I hardly used netlists, highlighting a net and checking with the printed schematic was way faster than trying to import a partial netlist from orcad… When I “upgraded” to Eagle it felt like 3 steps backward… it is another way of working…. I still update the schematic with half-routed boards, back-annotation is really handy :)

  2. So if we’re going oldschool, are you going to track down a still-working Cadnetix workstation (good luck! in the 90’s we were scavenging parts from one box to another to keep a few running…) and do a layout on that?

    1. I really want to do this with the Radio Shack trace and pad stickers. The whole deal, too – laying out the board, drilling vias, putting those damn rivets in, etching, and maybe even some soldermask.

      If anyone can find me a source for some new old stock stickers, let me know. I’ll film it.

  3. I seem to remember other versions or modules called easytrax and traxedit.

    You can specify a HP postscript printer and then it will print to most modern printers. I used a laser.

    I liked how the libraries worked as you had to make your own parts most of the time.

    The internal file structure of the pcb files was very simple so if you could code then you could automate a lot.

    Watching the auto-rout flashing traces everywhere was a treat lol.

    1. On the rare occasions I still do any board layout, I still use trax here – now on dosemu under linux. I still like it for what it is, and it really screams on modern computers. I don’t want to have to get (pay for) component libraries for every single part in existance I might want to use, or have to spend full time becoming an expert, which pretty much takes all day every day, to use the new protel tools (not to mention…$$$). Just draw the darn thing. A 14 pin dip – or 8soic is what it is, I don’t need or want the extra steps of software demanding to know what’s in that part so it can verify from a schematic that took many times longer to input to a computer than it did to just draw on paper…
      I guess that qualifies me for the “get off my lawn/neckbeard” crowd, and if so, so be it. My modern color laser printer still works fine making transparencies off even the very oldest free version of this for those few times I need it.

      1. If you do feel like trying something new KiCAD’s PCB interface is not too far removed from Autotrax. You don’t have to draw a schematic; you can just drop footprints into the PCB. Commands are key-bound like they should be in an efficient cad program. It comes with most standard footprints (dip 14, soic 8, ssop, sot, etc), and will plot the results however you want. A lot of the complains are focused on how the library/netlisting/interface are “antiquated,” but many of those parts haven’t changed because they’re efficient.

  4. I was one of the beta testers back circa 1986/7 and for the companion product Schedit
    back in the days when a dongle hung off the serial port. Everything worked fine with only
    very minor user interface bugs, video incompatibilities, string size granularity, couldn’t
    do smooth part rotation or free form shaping r back annotation without some overhead
    but, fine all round for more than hobby stuff :-)
    Even though it was a low end Dos package it handled a large board with 30 IC’s, mechanicals
    Eg an integrated front panel for a commercial CNC for a 500 Tonne capacity press-brake for
    hydraulics, linear scale positioning with backgauging interfaces – 24 28 to 40 pin ICs, 100
    or so discretes, keypad foot prints. 2 layer PTH size 350mm x 300mm with small cutout for axes
    manual over-ride. Even on a basic PC-AT 286 it worked fine, hardly ever used auto-route but,
    yeah it was fun to watch. The ease of changing track/pad/arc sizes & positioning was a treat
    as the package had a good connection with the prior art of red/blue tape – negligible over
    head complexity where you *had* to tell the package things it didnt need, made the admin
    simple but, could have used an audit trail aspect re change log in corporate use.

    Runs fine as native on 32 bit Windows XP without any dos emulator, ie just set up the shortcut
    & properties for a command line to open up and its fine even without a compatible video card
    with an aftermarket Win 32 windows DPMI mode driver, which although an amateur write, is
    well done with only a minor niggle re a cursor overlay. I can use it fine on a 24″ 1920×1080
    and its damn fast with nil user interface delay, very smooth consistent mouse moves of large
    packages while dragging etc.

    Aftermarket XP drivers & coding for adding smooth rotation, arrays and few other tweaks
    can be found here with lots of nice info too:- http://airborn.com.au/layout/atxlinks.html

    With an appropriate emulation port & intercepting video calls, might be able to run it fine
    on a tablet or even a smart phone & much faster than initially on the venerable PC-XT

    1. Yes, it did run great under XP. I had a dual boot XP/Kubuntu laptop. When I ditched XP a while ago I found it ran even better in dosbox. Autotrax was really easy to use with keyboard short cuts and minimal mousing.

      I still have the original Autotrax printer-port dongle in a box here somewhere. After years of use the battery in the dongle went flat and it stopped working. The local agent gave me a copy of Autotrax that was de-dongled.

      One of the first big Autotrax designs we sent for pcb manufacture, a 6502 3U card, came back at 4x true size. They must have treated it like a 4x tape and pad design. I wish I still had one of those boards.

      1. Curious Paul, in what way it was “even better in dosbox”, as I’ve found that slower
        from running native under XP or dosbox even a bit slower than booting into dos
        straight off – well unless your dosbox exploited some memory/code optimisation
        as autotrax was 16 bit x86 under a 32 bit linux or was it even 64bit ?

        Incidentally did your dosbox implementation run windowed & thus allow autotrax
        thread to appear just like a conventional windowed app under linux ?

        1. Yes, I found it quicker in dosbox on 32-bit Kubuntu on Dell D620 laptop than in XP on the same laptop. It was a few years back I got it going; now in 14.04. I did tweak the dosbox settings and have just copied the dosbox config over on upgrades. XP also used to lock up at the worst times, but in Linux I can leave it running for days. When I ditched XP dual boot I went to a SSD and kept the old HDD in case I forgot something.

          It is appearing in a window on the screen and can ctrl-F10 to return mouse focus to Kubuntu. I’ve also run traxplot in dosbox; print to postscript and then convert postscript to pdf at the command line to send over the network to the printer. A bit complex and scaling is a bit tricky but it works.

          I have hundreds of .pcb files and use it just a few days ago to update a old tiny board. It’s quick and simple. There were originally many errors and traps in the libraries, like holes in smd pads, but I fixed those, created new parts and broke them out to 8 or so libraries many years ago.

  5. I started using Autotrax mid 80’s and used it for simple boards, 8-bit designs and large ARM + DRAM designs. It still runs great in dosbox on Kubuntu. Back then it took all night to do a design rule check on a simple board.

    Later on I recall a couple of more advanced programmes, Protel for Windows and something else (something like “circuit ?? 2000”). I experimented with the demo version of the other for a while. From memory it was much better than Autotrax, I think it was short cut compatible, a bit like Protel for Windows, but much cheaper. I decided to buy it but the creator/supplier discontinued it. I suspect it was a bit too good and cheap enough to hurt sales of the bigger product.

    Back in about 2003 I bought a low cost package to have a look at called “Rimu PCB and Schematic” (still have the CD here), but only had a quick look at it.

    I looked at the other Autotrax when it appeared some years ago and almost bought it. They were offering big discounts to get started.

  6. Searching around the web for any other Protel Autotrax (DOS) augmentation, I’ve found
    the Protel product name has been hijacked fairly recently but, is very different with mixed
    reports of usability messing with people’s heads & with a lot more fruit which makes requirements
    on operators but, has a neato 3D view mode, so has anyone tried this and managed to
    get on their (what seems to be) private forum ?
    http://www.dexpcb.com/

    Anyone know if getting this software grants direct subscription to the forum or are there
    any more than 2 forums – I think ?

  7. For really simple designs like breakout boards or simple carrier boards I have been using Copper Connection http://www.robotroom.com/CopperConnection/

    It is similar to this software in that it doesn’t have a circuit editor and you route everything by hand, but imo sometimes thats all you need. I’ve found that for most circuit board design suites, it is a pain in the butt to do something easy, but it isn’t too much harder to do something more complicated. I know there are too many pcb design suites to count but does anyone know of any other dead simple editors that don’t require such overhead?

    1. Ill have to give that CopperConnection a look there ricksl, does look like the dos autotrax,
      as for another free one that is dead simple to use but, has a couple of minor user interface
      oddities which take getting used to but, doesnt burden user with “requirements” is this
      https://www.expresspcb.com/

      Interested in your thoughts on the copperconnection compared to expresspcb ?

  8. I’m looking forward to the article that uses Blender for the designs.

    It’s not a joke. I’ve been doing some lighting in oddly shaped areas, and every designed for circuit layout tool I’ve used (Eagle, KiCAD, though I’m a master at neither) has sucked for anything that’s at all an odd shape, and especially with any rotation.

    Lay out the pads you need, and holes, set them up, and boolean them, then export to CAM software of choice (MeshCAM in my case) and a nice board is ready, and the oddly shaped outline milled out as well.

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