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Carol Cameron

Altium and OrCAD are two popular PCB design and layout tools, each offering similar functions and capabilities — but they do have some major differences. In this comparison guide, we examine the two from every angle and provide a list of pros and cons, plus tips for choosing the right software for your next project.

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The first step is to determine the design requirements of your project. Is this a high-tech PCB that requires impedance control, high-speed signals, complex circuits, or fine pitch design? If so, you want to opt for a higher-tech software, which offers more built-in tools and features that allow for a faster and more accurate design. Simpler designs require less complex software capabilities.

The right software will provide you with the features and capabilities you need to complete your project on time and on budget.

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Altium
OrCAD
Pricing Altium offers two subscription plans — standard and pro.

Altium Designer starts at $325/month (for one seat) with a 15-day free trial. An annual license costs $3,850 per seat for the standard plan or $4,845 (per seat per year) for the pro plan.

Altium CircuitMaker is a free PCB design tool.

The cost of a new, perpetual license for OrCAD PCB Designer Standard is $2,630. A new 1-year lease for the same software is $1,300.

The OrCAD PCB Designer Pro ranges from $2,300 to $7,140 depending on the license term and method.

A free trial is also available.

 

Customer Service Every subscription level comes with Altium Support, which includes support tickets, a chat function, documentation center, access to Altium community forums, and more. OrCAD’s customer service includes 24/7 online support, software downloads, online access to articles and documentation, and more.

 

Ease of Use Easy to use. Includes a lot of built-in wizards and helpful functions. The library creation process is faster and more intuitive. Visually intuitive UI. Easily configurable but not necessarily beginner-friendly.

 

Component Libraries Component libraries are not cross-compatible between Altium and Allegro (OrCAD) tools. There are methods of converting them, but it takes some manual process to do so.
Ease of Setup Both programs are similar in terms of setup and include the purchase of a license and installation of software. For more information:
User Interface Both software programs have an easily configurable UI in which you can rearrange panels to your preference.
Inputting Design Rules Organizes rules into a hierarchical folder structure, which makes it easy to see your design rules at a glance. Spreadsheet-style format. Very powerful, but you have to know what you’re looking for.

 

Controls and Key Bindings Controls and keybinds are  similar to most software programs on the market. Controls and keybinds are completely different from other software programs.
Part Creation Intuitive — a more visual process within the same window and workflow.

 

Component creation is more modular/procedural; there are more steps but more opportunities to reuse constituent parts of land patterns (like pads) for other components.
Importing Schematic into Layout File 

(Netlisting Design)

You can look through each individual change and decide which ones to apply to the file. Will generate a report at the end detailing all changes. You point the schematic toward a layout file and add the parts and connections. Will generate a report at the end detailing all changes.

 

Error Checking Supports real-time design rule checking (DRC), as well as batch DRC.
Compatibility With Other Software Many automatic functions and add-ons are available that make it easier to convert layouts. There are utilities that can convert layouts between Altium and Allegro, but they may require review to ensure they convert fully and correctly. You can easily move from OrCAD to Allegro. You may not be able to move from Allegro to OrCAD if you are trying to open an Allegro design that uses additional license features that aren’t supported in OrCAD. OrCAD supports a standard set of cross-compatible files.

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Altium, a global software company that provides PCB design tools and resources, bills itself as “a global market leader with the #1 PCB software tool in use today.”

Altium Designer provides the capability to solve complex engineering problems and create new electronic devices. The software combines schematics, ECAD libraries, rules and constraints, BoM, supply chain management, ECO processes, and world-class PCB layout tools.

Altium’s most popular product is Altium Designer, but other Altium products include:

  • ​​Altium Concord Pro
  • Altium 365
  • Altium NEXUS
  • CircuitMaker
  • CircuitStudio
  • Octopart
  • TASKING

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As detailed on Altium’s website, the software program has a variety of features and capabilities, including:

  • Schematic capture
  • Unified library management
  • Board layout
  • Interactive routing
  • High-speed and high-density design
  • Data management
  • Mixed simulation
  • MCAD collaboration
  • Fabrication drawings
  • Manufacturing outputs

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Pros
Cons
  • Easy to learn and visually intuitive UI
  • Includes many built-in wizards and helpful functions
  • Library creation process is faster and more intuitive than other programs
  • Includes Draftsman — a mechanical drawing drafting tool
  • Integrates natively with version control such as git and subversion
  • 3D view for rendering entire board built into software with the ability to export STEP 3D models of the PCB/assembly
  • Includes helpful features for planning and visualizing rigid-flex designs
  • Altium adds new features and refines existing ones in new major versions of the software that are released yearly.
  • Full-featured Altium designer license is expensive.
  • Very large and dense designs require more system resources, and can run more slowly
  • Some features are not compatible between major versions of Altium, i.e. NEXUS vs AD22 vs AD21
  • New features may take a few versions before they operate reliably

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At the end of the day, it comes down to preference, which software ecosystem you want to invest in, and which workflow/UI you prefer. Both Altium and OrCAD software packages are very capable for any complexity of design.

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OrCAD is manufactured by Cadence, which also produces Allegro, another popular PCB software. It does have a bigger learning curve in addition to a high price tag, but OrCAD offers promotions and discounts, which can alleviate the cost.

Users can try out OrCAD with a free trial. The OrCAD Academic Program allows students to receive free OrCAD software with a valid academic email address.

OrCAD PCB Designer “is a tiered, scalable PCB design solution that delivers advanced capabilities and highly integrated flows.” Another program, OrCAD Capture, is a popular schematic design tool. OrCAD capabilities include:

  • Schematic capture
  • Librarian tools
  • PCB editing and routing
  • Constraint Manager
  • Signal integrity
  • Autorouting
  • Mixed-signal circuit simulation (optional)

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One of the main differences between these two software programs is that OrCAD has different functions broken up into separate applications. It does come with a large library of applications, and since it runs lighter on system resources, the software program doesn’t use as much RAM. As detailed on OrCAD’s website, features and capabilities include:

  • Customizable workflow
  • Real-time feedback
  • Unified parts search and libraries
  • Design reuse
  • Hierarchical design
  • DFM rules wizard

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Pros
Cons
  • Cost-effective
  • OrCAD has lower system requirements than Altium
  • Powerful and extensive design rules engine
  • Good handling of copper shapes/pours
  • High configurable and automatable with scripts and hotkeys
  • Maintains good performance even on very large designs
  • Tiered license system allows users to only pay for as many features as they need
  • Steeper learning curve
  • Many standard layout tasks take more steps or clicks to accomplish in Allegro vs other software
  • Interface is less visually intuitive
  • Requires the user to learn Allegro’s own nomenclature for standard layout objects and tasks
  • Lacks 3D views for visualizing PCB assembly
  • Higher-tech layout features (HDI, microvias) are paywalled behind more expensive licenses
  • Allegro is updated infrequently and major versions may drastically change UI and UX elements, making it difficult for users to move between versions.

 

 

 

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You typically see Allegro used more as enterprise software at larger companies and by people who are already versed in the Allegro ecosystem. Altium CircuitMaker is probably still better for new designers and small, simple boards. Allegro products are good for people who want highly configurable software and prefer the Allegro workflow.

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If you’re looking for more information about Altium or OrCAD — or you have general questions about the PCB layout process — don’t hesitate to contact us. Our principal engineers have extensive experience developing layouts with numerous software platforms, and we’d be happy to answer your questions.

written by
Carol Cameron
Senior Layout Manager

As the Senior Layout Manager, Carol Cameron is responsible for all aspects of PCB layout design, including providing quotes, interfacing directly with customers and engineers on requirements, and executing project management. Having worked in the electronics industry for more than 30 years, Carol has embraced the opportunity to grow and broaden her PCB layout skills and industry knowledge from expert engineers. She has witnessed firsthand the evolution of PCB technology, and she understands the nuances and intricacies that come with precise layout and fabrication. She currently resides in New England.

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