30 Free Circuit Simulators Lightly Reviewed

We live in a time where great software is available with the click of a mouse, often for free or — at least — low cost. But there’s a problem: how do you select from so many alternatives? We were interested in [Lee Teschler]’s review earlier this year of 30 free circuit simulators. If you are selecting one or don’t like the one you are currently using, it is well worth the time to review.

There are several on the list that you’ve probably heard of before like GNUCap and LTspice. There are also some lesser-known products. Some of those are just trial or student versions of paid products. Some are branded versions of commercial products (like Tina) or were made free after selling for higher price tags (like MicroCap 12).

Old favorites like Falstad (which is apparently known as Circuit Sims) and TinkerCAD made the list. Many of the trial versions were very limited. For example, DCAClab only provides an NPN bipolar transistor model. Proteus doesn’t let you save or print unless you pay. While the list includes TI’s Tina, it doesn’t seem to mention that TI also provides a free version of PSpice which is a very popular professional product.

While the capsule descriptions are nice, you may want to dig in a little on the ones you are most interested in. For example, Falstad has a great mixed mode that can even include an AVR microprocessor. But there were a few on the list we had not heard of and maybe you’ll find something new there, too.

Photovoltaic Cells In LTSpice

We like to build things using real parts. But we do think the more you can model using tools like LTSpice, the less time you can spend going down dead ends. If you need to model a common component like a resistor or even an active device, most simulators have great models and you can tweak them to have realistic parasitic effects. But what if the component you want isn’t in the library or doesn’t have the fidelity you want? [FesZ] wanted to model photovoltaic cells and had to build his own model. The resulting two videos are well worth watching.

Building your own models in Spice isn’t necessarily very difficult. However, knowing exactly what to add to model different real-world effects can be challenging. The videos do a good job of showing how to mutate a simple diode into one that produces current when exposed to light.

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LTSpice Tips And A Long Tutorial

We always enjoy videos from [FesZ], so when we saw his latest about tips and tricks for LTSpice, we decided to put the 20 minutes in to watch it. But we noticed in the text that he has an entire series of video tutorials about LTSpice and that this is actually episode 30. So there’s plenty to watch.

Like any tips and tricks video, you might know some of them and you may not care about some of them — for example, the first one talks about setting the colors which is a highly personal preference.  But it is a good bet you’ll find something to like in the video.

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Class A Amplifiers, Virtually

If you didn’t know better, you might think the phrase “class A amplifier” was a marketing term to help sell amplifiers. But it is, of course, actually a technical description of an amplifier that doesn’t distort the input waveform because it doesn’t depend on multiple elements to handle different areas of the input waveform. Want to know more? [FesZ] has a new video covering the basics of class A amplifiers including some great simulations. You can see the video below.

A class A amplifier uses a transistor that is always biased on. It never saturates or switches off. This is good for linearity, but not always the best for efficiency so there are other classes of amplifiers, too. However, for many applications, class A is the most common configuration.

There are a number of trade-offs involved with each type of amplifier and [FesZ] covers them in detail. But the real interesting part is the simulations in Spice. Sure, you can build the circuits and look at everything with a meter or scope, but using Spice is much handier.

There is a second video upcoming. We hope he covers other amplifier types too, as you really do want to understand the differences when you need to design something. If you want more Spice stuff, check out some of our previous posts. If for some reason, you don’t like LTSpice, there’s always Micro-Cap 12.

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Custom Components In LTSpice

If you enjoy simulating circuits, you’ve probably used LTSpice. The program has a lot of powerful features we tend to not use, including the ability to make custom components that are quite complex. To illustrate how it works, [asa pro] builds a potentiometer component that is not only a good illustration but also a useful component.

The component is, of course, just two resistors. However, using parameters, the component gets two values, a total resistance and a percentage. Then the actual resistance values adjust themselves.

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Circuit Impedance Calculations Without Cumbersome Simulations

Using circuit simulating software like SPICE can be a powerful tool for modeling the behavior of a circuit in the real world. On the other hand, it’s not always necessary to have all of the features of SPICE available all the time, and these programs tend to be quite expensive as well. To that end, [Wes Hileman] noticed an opportunity for a specific, quick method for performing impedance calculations using python without bulky, expensive software and came up with a program which he calls fastZ.

The software works on any network of passive components (resistors, capacitors, and inductors) and the user can specify parallel and series connections using special operators. Not only can the program calculate the combined impedance but it can perform frequency analysis at a specified frequency or graph the frequency response over a wide range of frequencies. It’s also running in python which makes it as simple as importing any other python package, and is also easy to implement in any other python program compared to building a simulation and hoping for the best.

If you find yourself regularly drawing Bode plots or trying to cobble together a circuit simulation to work with your python code, this sort of solution is a great way to save a lot of headache. It is possible to get the a piece of software like SPICE to to work together with other python programs though, often with some pretty interesting results.

Circuit VR: Squaring With Schmitt Triggers

In the fantasy world of schematic diagrams, wires have no resistance and square waves have infinitely sharp rise times. The real world, of course, is much crueler. There are many things you can use to help tame the wild analog world into the digital realm. Switches need debouncing, signals need limiting, and you might even need a filter. One of the basic elements you might use is a Schmitt trigger. In

In this installment of Circuit VR, I’m looking inside practical circuits by building Schmitt triggers in the Falstad circuit simulator. You can click the links and get to a live simulation of the circuit so you can do your own experiments and virtual measurements.

Why Schmitt Triggers?

You usually use a Schmitt trigger to convert a noisy signal into a clean square digital logic level. Any sort of logic gate has a threshold. For a 5V part, the threshold might be that anything under 2.5V is a zero and at 2.5V or above, the signal counts as a one. Some logic families define other thresholds and may have areas where the signal is undefined, possibly causing unpredictable outputs.

There are myriad problems with the threshold, of course. Two parts might not have exactly the same threshold. The threshold might vary a bit for temperature or other factors. For parts with no forbidden zone, what happens if the voltage is right at the edge of the threshold?

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