Learn Advanced PCB Design for $200–Worth It?

[Helentronica] has been using Altium Designer to lay out PC boards since he was a student. Now as a freelancer, he felt like he didn’t quite know all that he wanted to know. Keep in mind he’d done multilayer boards with BGAs and LVDS routing, so he was no neophyte. He decided to spend about $200 on an advanced course from Fedevel Academy. In this day where everything is free on the Internet, is it worth paying $200 to watch some videos?

[Helentronica] probably weighed the same question. However, he was interested in the course project which is an open-source computer module with an i.MX6 processor, 1 GB of DDR3 SDRAM and lots of expansion options. In fact, the ad copy that sold him was:

You will be practicing on a real high-speed board with 1.2GHz CPU and DDR3, PCIE, SATA, HDMI, LVDS, 1Gb Ethernet and more

He completed the course. Was it worth it? We won’t spoil the story, but you should check out his post and find out. Even if you don’t want to drop $200 or you don’t use Altium, you will probably pick up some tips on PC board layout.

Despite the paid course videos, Fedevel Academy does have a lot of free content on YouTube, including the introduction to Altium, you can watch below. The whole channel is worth a look, though.

Altium is not as common in hacker circles as some of the open source tools. We did cover a comparison of Allegro and Altium a few years back, but we’d bet both product have changed a lot since then. If you want a survey of the more common hacker tools like Eagle, Protel, and KiCAD, [Brian’s] been posting about those for months.

47 thoughts on “Learn Advanced PCB Design for $200–Worth It?

  1. CircuitMaker has a lot of the core functionality of Altium Designer at least, unfortunately it doesn’t support Linux/mac and requires the cloud though but it’s still great imho for a free product.

      1. Altium itself has a ton of bugs and basically zero support (nearly all of my support tickets with them end with “yep, that’s broken.”)

        Despite that, it’s still the best mid-range I’ve used..

      2. “Just check the EEVBLOG forum threads on it”

        I’ve seen some of the things which pass for ‘informed discussion’ on the EEVBlog forums and they are far, far worse than anything our favorite semi-hysterical Aussie can manage.

        Sticking your testicles on a gas barbeque and lighting it would be a lot less painful and you would actually learn something from the experience. eg. Not to set fire to your testicles…

      3. A lot of the EEVblog forum posts seem to already have a decided opinion of circuitmaker before they even started due to Dave’s original video about it. They also were mostly centered around the early release of circuitmaker which was buggy as shit.

        Since it’s full launch I’ve had little to no problems with it. I actually prefer it’s library management over Altium designer’s library. It also has been super useful for collaborations. Circuitmaker feels like Altium tailored specifically for DIY hobbyists.

        The cloud thing is damn annoying. And the lack of linux support, although some people have had luck running it through wine.

  2. Considering that Altium Designer costs ~$3000 annual subscription and some ~$7200 for a perpetual license + maintenance fees (updates, libraries, etc), I think it is obvious why it isn’t very popular among hackers, unless they managed to get a free/student license in school or are using a pirated copy.

    It is a tool from a very different league than something like Kicad or Eagle.

      1. For this reason I would support KiCad. It is good enough to work with, but in my opinion it takes a lot more effort before you learn how to make the same things that seem to come more natural in others. It’s part because of the missing features (and workarounds), part because of poor quality documentation and part because some things are simply awkward. Once you learn it, it is powerful enough for even advanced work and plus, they are really working on improving it.

          1. I use DipTrace with free non-profit license. It’s the most intuitive CAD out there and I like it much more than KiCad or Eagle. I don’t do sophisticated designs, though.

          2. I started my PCB adventures a decade ago with ExpressPCB. After looking for something better, I spent a few weeks each trying to learn Eagle and then Kicad. When I couldn’t seem to get everything that everyone praised working the way I wanted, I scratched them and started working through Diptrace.
            It seems to have a lot more polish than Eagle and definitely Kicad. The only thing that it is lacking would be the vast component library, which isnt that big of a deal because you can import items or make your own, very easily.

            Honestly, If you spent the time to learn every trick, you can probably use any software to make the boards you need. In my case, I found Diptrace to be easier to “jump into” and work with. And the trial for the unlimited version is worth a try if you are interested.

          3. @Canuckfire You are right. Once you learn them, they are all sufficiently capable.
            But the frustration of learning Kicad is incomparable to other software. My favorite is how you have to change the graphics engine to be able to route wires. Totally intuitive.

          4. /me tried it with freerouting (https://github.com/nikropht/FreeRouting) and it gave good results.

            Diptrace works nice, part creating is easy, all the rest is so lala. But look at the developers activity…. you never know if it is already dead or will die suddenly. Otoh it comes as executable, so no fear if dev. dies or closes his shop.

          5. I’ve got a paid license for DipTrace, as it does a few things well that other cheap packages don’t (mainly polygon fill patterns). I like the part creation tool, easy to do pin associations from the keyboard. Schematic is just OK, I’d like it to rubber-band move a little smarter and keep things at 90* instead of letting them angle weirdly. Routing works fine, at least in manual mode but after using Kicad’s push-and-shove and follow-me modes, it feels pretty archaic.

          6. @Bogdan

            What are you talking about? No, seriously… I have no clue what you’re talking about. I do all my PCB work in KiCad these days, and I’m genuinely confused by what you mean. I use it on both Windows and OSX, and in both systems, you open Pcbnew, place your components, and connect your wires in ways not too different from Eagle CAD. What is this you mean about changing graphics engines?

            I’m genuinely curious about all the complaints about KiCad being non-intuitive. What is it people are trying to do that it can’t handle well? Maybe my designs are just too simple to run into the issues you’re all having.

          7. You don’t need to “change graphics engines to route wires”. The push-and-shove router is a *new* feature that’s only in the *new* OpenGL renderer, which is under heavy development and isn’t completely stable or feature-complete yet. The old engine has *perfectly usable* routing tools – they aren’t the ‘new hotness’, but they’re stable and work well. So both engines are present and you can flip between them with a keypress, which gives you the best of both worlds.

        1. I give KiCad a try about once a year, each time hoping that maybe this year it’s better. Each time it ends with me just rage quitting after a couple of evenings because of all the asinine oddities with that software. Contrast that with CircuitMaker that I gave a try a couple of weeks ago, in just a few minutes I was routing traces on a few random components. SO much nicer to use, just too bad about all that cloud stuff :/

          Eagle has been my goto for many years but CM might take its place since I only make PCBs very very rarely.

        2. take it from someone who has been using Altium for 7 years and KiCAD since august 2016. KiCAD is free altium and its fucking delicious, if you have a lot of experience in hardware, KiCAD is all you need to do anything.

          1. I haven’t found a good way to create net to net clearances that are different depending not only on net, but also type of feature.

            Specifically, doing a u.FL microstrip connection, the GND pads were closer than the 0.1″ clearance I wanted for the rest of the trace. Instead of setting pad to pad clearance to .020″ and trace to copper clearance to .1″ as I would with other CAD, I really needed to mess with the order of changing net rules around during placement and pour.

      2. I don’t want to defend Eagle or Autodesk. Everybody should use the right tool for them, and if Kicad is the one for you, I’m really happy for you.
        BUT! I have to say that if you only work seldomly in a project that requires the paid version of Eagle (say 1 month per year), why don’t you subscribe that month?
        I know, you might work one day per week for a whole year instead that 30 consecutive days, or you might find the one month subscription too expensive. As I said, use what’s best for you!

        1. The missing piece in this statement is the _future_. I regularly design and build product that has 10+ year life times that I have to be able to support. This month’s subscription cost is irrelevant compared to the enormous unknown and uncontrollable possibility of the software vendor doing something that prevents me from accessing and using my own creations in the future.
          ECAD isn’t like your typical word processor where any of a dozen different company’s offerings can open your document. It’s not even like mechanical CAD where there are standardized file formats to facilitate moving content from one to the another application. In ECAD my time and efforts of creation are locked into the tools that I used to create. If I don’t have control of my tools, I don’t own my creation.
          Yes, I can rent the software for a month, design a widget, produce the widget and never touch it again. In that scenario, I don’t need to control the tool. But what happens two years from now when a component goes obsolete and I need to change a footprint? Or a customer asks to add a feature? Is the subscription company still in business? Have they changed the license terms to something you cannot accept? Your design – something you created – is now being held hostage to a corporate entity. Even if you trust them to not hurt you today, what about the future? With different management? Or they sold the product to another company? Bankruptcies? Mergers? Acquisitions?

          No. Not only no, but hell no. Not now, not ever.

  3. Guy knows Altium pretty nice, but is voice/tone/speaking pacing are a bit annoying, considered to buy the cheaper 80$ course a couple times, but I dont think I will be able to watch the videos because for me is voice is irritating :(

    1. Playing the videos at higher speed helps a lot in these cases, obviously. The youtube HTML5 player only allows up to x1.5 but you can use MPlayer or VLC.
      What it’s not so obvious is that also usually I can withstand and understand much better their poor accent when I play videos at x2 with VLC.

    1. And the sour comment is here. I follow the youtube channel of Robert Feranec and it’s true that he only works in Altium but everyday he post a short video tips about hardware design.

      And even if this post is not useful for you, for me it was and I bet that for others too. Altium courses are expensive but this course is very well price and if you want to work as a hardware engineer you better know Altium. I was on the fence about getting the course to improve my skills, this post convince me to take it.

      1. So what you’re saying is the ad was successful. Gotcha. Maybe it wasn’t a paid ad but the article definitely is a filler piece. It sure reads like an ad, why would they mention the price of the courses 3 times?

        1. Because the price for other courses with the same information in it are far more expensive. But like many haters in here sure you know how to do all in a couple of minutes.

          Don’t like the post, don’t comment on it. Don’t like the site, why bother enter? It’s simple, any engineer could do the logic but some people are more focus on spit hate for everything.

  4. Did nobody else notice that the collection of highlighted traces in the thumbnail seen on the front page for this post seem to have a certain… low-brow artistic quality? Too good to be accidental.

  5. after taking this course, I feel like I had a much better grasp on the tool (altium) and some of the considerations in high speed design. Not an end-all be-all resource, but extremely valuable/worth it.

  6. The $200 isn’t worth getting locked into Altium.

    Check out easyeda.com. I’ve made a few designs with them and even had them produce a batch. The wait is longer but you get 10 PCBs for the price of 3 from oshpark…

  7. If you need to know PCB design NOW and have $200 and altium … yes
    if not than just get an older copy of eagle or kicad or something and just start making boards checking your DRC … no need to have them manufactured or even functional … just go nuts

    that’s how i learned

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