Altium Designer (Student)

Hi - this might be directed mostly @ChrisGammell - I know CE focuses on KiCAD and for the target audience that is by far the correct choice and I am very happy with KiCAD.

I wonder though, since CE is clearly educational, and we are all students here if it could be arranged for CE subscribers to have access to Altium Designer Student License? Perhaps it can require (like the AD2 bundle) a minimum subscription length, or even, since Altium is really aimed at the professional require Journeyman or Master level - but given the industry, it might allow many people to move from KiCAD up to Altium and have exposure before moving into the industry?


I have no plans to reach out to Altium. I believe KiCad is a sufficient tool for professional work. If you are planning on doing contract layout work that must be in a tool like Altium or Mentor, I would recommend learning the basics of layout using KiCad, and doing a trial run with their software to learn about the specifics of their tool (quirks with UI and usability that is part of every layout program)

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Great answer!!! :+1:

As a long-time Altium user, I would encourage anyone that expects to make a career out of PCB work in “the industry” to look at Altium earlier than later to gain familiarity, because that does give you the edge on being immediately hire-able.

HOWEVER, the fundamental education about making PCBs is not about the specific tools, and the important lessons to be learned will be about how you think about the board – not the mechanics of how you get there.

Someone once made the observation that they’d like to have their kids learn about sex in school – with the focus on sex education, not sex training. I think that statement makes a good (if a bit off-color) point.

There’s time later to be trained for the specifics of where you’ll end up. Focus on the education first.

p.s. I agree that KiCAD is sufficient for professional work – while “the industry” may use certain well-established tools, that doesn’t mean other tools are not good enough. If CERN can build world-ending-singularity-wormhole-generators, err, high-energy particle accelerators in KiCAD, you can probably take on less ambitious projects with it, too.

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Yes, no doubt that having Altium on your resume will make you hire-able.


  1. That’s not the goal of Contextual Electronics; we’re here to teach you electronics, first and foremost. KiCad is the tool that is bringing us to that goal, with the lowest cost possible. Hence my decision not to pursue the Altium route. I highly recommend Robert Ferenec’s program for Altium specific training:
  2. I believe that the assertion that Altium (or PADS or whatever) is a backwards looking statement. As Joseph alluded to, KiCad is increasingly capable and adopted by large institutions. It’s my belief this trend will continue.

I just got my CID certification recently and there was a design engineer who was doing RF design in KiCAD, I think it’s already happening!

About 5 years ago I upgraded from Eagle to Altium, and KiCad was missing most of the features I’d need to consider it.

That is no longer the case - if I was running again, I’d probably have used KiCad. My tech-debt is too high to switch for now to KiCad, but for anyone starting I probably would evaluate them carefully.

There will be some features where Altium is still more useful & productive I’m sure, but the $8K cost of Altium isn’t such a clear winner (even with a fairly high hourly rate to count your savings against) as it used to be.

If you’re trying to consult however - this tech-debt problem is going to be around for a while, so I imagine many companies will be using Altium. On the plus side of KiCad, is that if someone hires you for a design and they don’t already have a solution, you don’t have to tell them that they’ll need an $8K package to do further work/edits themselves.

As someone on the hiring side as well - if you get a client with Altium and it’s serious enough to be worthwhile, consider adding in some “training budget” to your proposal that you cover yourself (say like 20-30 hours). This wouldn’t be time spent on their design, but shows some commitment such they won’t worry they are paying you to learn Altium itself. I’d echo the comments that the most difficult/intensive time will be spent understanding PCB design, and almost any client who is specifying the design package would understand this I’d think.

I’ve been doing a little thinking about this subject. Most PCB designers lock themselves into one tool and use it exclusively. There are reasons for this as you might build up reusable libraries, develop tooling to integrate with inventory systems, etc. Thinking about the software development industry, what would happen if a programmer insisted in writing everything in one programming language? Or what would have happened if all programming languages were still commercial, proprietary products? Today, we know that is absurd – we reach for the tool that best fits the job. Most developers are fluent in at least a couple programming languages. We use C/C++ on microcontrollers/U-boot/Linux, Go for cloud and embedded Linux applications, Javascript and Elm in the frontend, etc. We build up libraries in multiple languages. Many projects require multiple languages to build the entire stack. The availability of free, low friction tooling is one of the great contributing factors in the explosion of open source software. There are plenty of companies innovating on top of these programming languages and providing additional tooling. However, almost no one (with the exception of several MCU tool vendors) is selling a C++ compiler (does anyone remember Borland?). Most C/C++ development today is done using GCC or Clang. Would Linux have ever happened if the GCC compiler would not have been available? I doubt it. Access to open tools are a critical ingredient in open ecosystems.

KiCad is at an inflection point as of version 5.1 – it now has the basic features needed for many PCB designs and development seems to be accelerating. Just as GCC was one of the key ingredients for kick-starting the open source software movement, KiCad may fulfill a similar role in the open hardware movement. Although a few vendors in the highly fragmented eCad market will surely disappear in the next few years, this loss (though difficult for those involved) will be negligible compared to the opportunities in an expanding market enabled by open tooling. As the open hardware movement expands, re-using open hardware designs will start to become the norm. With its open database formats, KiCad will likely be a critical ingredient in this. Today, no one thinks of using Borland C++ for a project, not because it was not a good product, but because the pieces you depend on (Linux, libraries, etc) all use GCC.

Most low level tooling is destined to become open source. It has already happened in the software industry, and it is now happening in the hardware and chip design industries. I have witnessed Microsoft fighting this for most of my 30 year career and only recently have they finally embraced OSS. Hardware tooling vendors will eventually do the same. In the end, it will not be a loss because the overall market will expand and there will be more opportunity. Smart tool companies will move up the stack and embrace open projects to solve the lower level pieces.

Altium will certainly have its place for a number of years for implementing large high speed designs. But instead of looking at KiCad as stepping tool to Altium, it might be better to view KiCad as just another tool in your toolbox that will increasingly become more and more relevant in the open hardware ecosystem. For simpler PCB designs that you plan to maintain for 5-10 years, is a proprietary tool really a good choice? In 10 years, KiCad will likely still be around and going strong. I’m not so sure about Altium.

I’ve been eyeing KiCAD (and before that, the gEDA collection) and Eagle off and on for much of my professional life, always wondering if I can effectively jump off the expensive proprietary path. (Ironically, Eagle took themselves out of that consideration from the license cost standpoint.) I agree with you that KiCAD has many “GCC” traits, and I expect that Altium will have to concede a big chunk of their popularity over time.

I expect that Altium will be around for quite some time as the established “pro” tool, but will have to eventually open themselves up to interoperate with KiCAD because their customers will start to ask for that. Part of that may come from creating a more open exchange format. But they will stay strong in the pro segment as long as Altium can successfully court large commercial accounts.

This is not without parallels in the embedded software space. where GCC is widely used as the free solution, but proprietary compilers and tools are still with us today. IAR/Keil comes to mind as the most popular among them. Many others promise superior performance and code size for specific targets.

In a sense, GCC and Altium (nee Protel) have been around for much of the same time period (well, nearly three decades, each) – there’s been a lot more love and attention put in to compilers and libraries over that time. Now with growing interest in hardware, there is now a lot more attention to hardware tools, too. And that certainly explains why KiCAD is now taking off.

I think the software world is far more likely to improve its own tools than the hardware world. While KiCAD is certainly accelerating, I think the driving force behind GCC is at a scale far different than those behind KiCAD. A better comparison, I suspect, would be to MCAD software (FreeCAD) and office productivity software (OpenOffice).

I’m still using Eagle myself, it has its flaws and so on, i’ve tried Kicad it just seems to suffer the same fate of a lot of OSS that the UI isn’t that great, just as every other tool has its flaws but i’ve gotten used to it, i do try others and i’ve used altium and before that protel 99. I still do some work in Pulsonix because i like some of the track features. DipTrace i liked for its gerber work, same for Altium Its easier to RE gerbers in Altium.

In my experience programmers seem to be more willing to give up free time than some other fields, UI design/artists (not always, it isn’t binary, there is always nuance and exceptions). You can often shame a programmer for not making their project OSS but if you do it to say an artist, you’d be a CB.

Another factor is for me is that often, and it has been my experience with KiCAD is that the support environment becomes toxic. Like even writing this post stresses me out, so much so i’ve often written a response( elsewhere) and just chosen to stay quiet, i’ll only know at the end of the post if i’d actually post it.

If for instance as i am now doing, saying i prefer eagle over kicad i’d often get a lot of toxic responses and dismissals even though eagle used to be the darling of the maker/hackerspaces until Autodesk took over. If i post responses in other places helping other eagle users, and which 90%+ of the other answers will be switch to kicad and usually for only money reasons, not if its better/more usable. You get drowned out in the negative responses so sometimes you don’t want to help publicly.

I recently made a keyboard (using it now) that was mostly because of an internet forum comment saying it couldn’t be done. It’s way overkill and doesn’t make a lot of sense for a lot of people. Most of the comments about it were, you should give out the designs , you probably used existing firmware so share( i didn’t since no existing keyboard firmware works the way this one does) and very few people actually made comments, or the you are dumb, about the design etc. It was mostly just give it to me, regardless of anyone making it

Plus I really do like Fusion 360 its so much cheaper than some of the alternatives and if they can get the Eagle integration polished and better than it is now, it’ll be much more useful that it is now.

Same thing goes for GCC, GCC ARM used to be so bad that ARM themselves were ashamed of just how bad it was and paid for the development of it to make it better, but at the time if you said anything about it at the time, you’d be drowned in responses.

I use Windows, Visual Studio, IAR, Keil, Eagle, I often use MFC (one of the most used/tested UI classes in existence) since 99% of my current professional work is in Windows. So you can probably imagine the levels of toxicity you’d get. But they often all just are easier to work with, I do believe in using the right tool for the right job and being open to change, I don’t believe in OS wars or compiler wars. I’ve used GCC extensively, even maintained an internal Nintendo branch for a long time. I just sometimes wish that it’d be more merit based and that there was less splintering.

I understand that money is important and its a factor. I’ve done consultancy work very recently where the original engineer used Altium to design the PCB and then Arduino to write the software, and only supplied PDFs and gerbers, I reversed them all back to Eagle and taught them how to make the basic changes in Eagle as well as aware of other tools and how to deal with external contractors, even when they have a contract that says the client owns everything.

I’ve always been in involved in open source, since before it was open source, freeware, shareware, giveaways, or just when no one ever distributed binaries only source code, so i’m not opposed to it at all, but it just seems like the support communities around it become so toxic, there is a lot of gate keeping and its hard to walk that line, especially if you are cheering for the underdog its hard to be visible without seeming fandom.

Perhaps its because you’ll end up with a lot of people who aren’t developers as such and they become spokespeople or wards of the software, but then take it into the personal realms, or that people get upset about subscriptions or before than even paying for software, they’ll pay way over for hardware though, see the aforementioned mechanical keyboards

It’s a shame really, I wish it weren’t like and the tribalism wasn’t there. That we’d all help each other out regardless of software choices. If people are interested in learning that is so great, encourage them to explore.

There are so many splinters. programmers especially seem to suffer excessively from the NIH or the last person sucked mentality and we end up with so many things that are almost OK. Like GCC, we have llvm now which is great, but now we also have so many programming languages based from llvm. Practically every place i go now uses a different language and they’re often just in house, or the only users. I just started to work with a place that uses an llvm language that they beyond a few people playing around where the sole users, so much so they hired the dev who wrote it.

We’re also often guilty of lacking the nuances needed to make objective decisions , that not every project is a 16 layer analog routing nightmare and you’d don’t need super fancy. you know like the mass of programmers who use Vim.

It’s all pretty interesting to me, the various ways the computer world has changed. I still occasionally try kicad and other tools to see if they are more usable than they were, but at the moment the two way fusion integration is really useful to me, as well as the project sharing especially at the moment.

anyway apologies for the out of place, rambling first coffee of the day post, hopefully i haven’t butchered my thoughts too much. hope you all have a great day.

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I am normally using Altium or Pads (Pads is crap). Altium is great

I just tried Kicad out. Quite easy to go from first schematics to layout. A little funny how the footprint selection is done. But I guess I will get used to it

I am missing the Autorouter though. Isn’t there one?



Excellent point – we should develop strong convictions for why we do the things we do, share them, but be careful we don’t force them on others.

Can also recommend Robert - he has some great YouTube videos; check him out on Udemy for courses as well :wink:

I just realised it had been 14 days since I had visited the forum! but i must say catching up on the posts was quite an enjoyable read and a lot of viewpoints/experiences I had never considered before. from that aspect I am glad to have kickstarted the conversation but thankful for the input from everyone.

I will only add in that I support and understand the use of KiCAD here and why Chris chose it - in my professional life I come across Altium quite a lot - and whilst im not a designer professionally at the moment it does help to know a bit about Altium. I also understand Altium as an expensive option, however the student version is free - renewable every 6 months - and so the question was if CE students could gain some exposure for free - it was never seen as a replacement for KiCAD for CE.