Cloud-based Electronic-Design Tools Gain Traction

Lay out circuitry in the cloud with Upverter

Suppose you want to create an electronic circuit and a corresponding printed-circuit board for it. What software will you use? Unless you already have a favorite, it might be hard to decide: There’s a dizzying array of options, ranging from free software typically targeted at students and hobbyists to multithousand-dollar packages used by professionals. The possibilities have grown even wider recently with the addition of Web-based tools that allow you to edit schematic diagrams and lay out printed-circuit boards in a browser, without downloading and installing any software at all.

If you weren’t aware of these cloud-based electronic-design aids, your reaction might be similar to what mine was initially: incredulity. The disadvantages of using software that runs in the cloud are obvious enough. For one, you need to have a good Internet connection to get any work done. Of more concern, though, is the danger of being locked into a single software-as-a-service provider, especially if it experiences a prolonged outage, or worse, just ceases to exist.

What then are the advantages? The main benefit is that these services promise to do for open-source hardware design what GitHub and the like have done for open-source software development: provide convenient central hubs for collaboration among strangers. And they offer the possibility of communal generation of Wikipedia-like electronic-component libraries, which would ease the burden of electronic design substantially.

With such thoughts in mind, I examined four of these services: EasyEDA, PCBWeb, 123D Circuits, and Upverter.

EasyEDA offers some pleasingly familiar part libraries—including ones from Sparkfun and Adafruit—which seemed attractive at first. But those libraries proved impossible to search. I couldn’t even figure out how to specify that a resistor I was adding to my circuit was a simple through-hole type. In desperation, I sought out a tutorial and found a few cryptic YouTube videos from EasyEDA with no narration at all. That was enough to steer me in other directions.

PCBWeb didn’t offer much in the way of tutorials either, and its part library contained just a small number of generic components. Perhaps the service is just so intuitive, I thought in hopeful anticipation, that there’s no real need for tutorials. Sad to say, that wasn’t the case. And to the extent I could operate its schematic and PC-board editors, I found them to be really slow—an irritating reminder that the software was on some distant and rather pokey server.

123D Circuits (formerly Circuits.io, before it was purchased by Autodesk) works much better. Indeed, for my simple needs, its PC-board layout editor would probably do just fine. 123D Circuits’ schematic editor was, however, a disappointment. After you specify a connection, the editor draws the corresponding line where it decides the line should go, and often its choices are just plain ugly. So I can’t see how someone could create even a modestly pleasing schematic with it.

After such experiences, it came as a great relief to discover Toronto-based Upverter, a start-up that garnered support from the seed accelerator YCombinator in 2011. Upverter offers nice tutorials describing how to use its application, certainly enough to get somebody going. Its part library is ample, if a little rough in terms of the quality of the information it contains at the moment. In any event, Upverter makes it very easy to jump to a given part’s data sheet to figure out the ground truth—and it also allows you to quickly find vendors and to check the availability and prices of components.

Another pleasant discovery was that Upverter includes more than 500 open-source circuits from Sparkfun. There’s no easy way yet to search this set for the particular circuit you’re interested in. Still, this collection is a big plus for Upverter if you’re a Sparkfun fan.

I especially liked Upverter’s board-layout editor, which I found both intuitive and surprisingly responsive. Only rarely did I feel that I had to wait because of delays with Upverter’s servers. That’s not to say that the software is perfect by any means, but I suspect all layout editors have their quirks. And Upverter’s price-value proposition is certainly good. The service is free for open-source circuits and boards, following the business model of places like GitHub, which charge only those who want to keep their work private. (The other Web-based electronic-design services generally do the same.)

Upverter also has integrated printed-circuit-board manufacturing, but I suspect this offering was slapped on as an experiment, because little information is provided to potential customers about the boards they’d be getting, and the prices aren’t at all competitive. Upverter makes it easy enough, though, to export the needed files if you want to use another PC-board manufacturer, so this shortcoming isn’t a significant drawback.

As a test, I designed a small board for an overlay display system for a first-person video project I’m working on. I exported the manufacturing files, and (after adjusting file names to accommodate the different naming conventions) had it fabricated through OSH Park. And I was delighted to see that the three boards I received 12 days later for US $7 each came out just fine.

Having said so many positive things about Upverter, I should also admit that I’m probably not ready to use it for more than an occasional experiment at this point. The worry that this start-up could suddenly disappear looms too large in my mind. But that concern would evaporate if there were an easy way to convert an Upverter project into a form that traditional electronic-design software like EAGLE or KiCad could import.

Upverter does provide open-source code that can translate schematic diagrams in this way, but translating board layouts so that they can be read and modified by other layout editors is not yet possible. Perhaps the programmers at Upverter—or other open-source developers—will tackle that job sometime soon. If so, I suspect many more people will start designing electronic circuitry using nothing more than a browser and a little help from their online friends.

This article originally appeared in print as “Circuit Design Comes to the Cloud.”

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