How to Use Altium Designer Most Efficiently

October 15, 2019 Mark Harris

One of the things I really love about Altium Designer® is how many shortcuts there are, and how customisable they are. A while ago in my database library’s chat channel, there was a really good discussion about shortcuts and how each of us customises his or her menus to be able to draw schematics and layout boards as quickly and efficiently as possible. Many of us use and love similar shortcuts, but there were enough interesting use cases that I thought it would be worthwhile to share my favourite shortcuts and basic customisations, as well as a couple more from the community.

Mouse Binding

I use a Logitech M570 trackball mouse, which, despite being amazing for desks so crammed with projects that they lack any spare space to move a mouse, is very lacking in the ‘extra buttons’ department. One of the members of my community uses a Logitech G600 mouse, which has a multitude of configurable buttons targeted at gamers. There are also many similar devices with many buttons available for custom keybindings, depending on your preference of mouse style.

Logitech G600 mouse bindings

Logitech G600 mouse offers a variety of buttons which could be useful for designers.

He has his modes set such that red is for schematic editing, blue is for component placement, and green is for routing. All of his most commonly used shortcuts are within quick and easy reach of his thumb. Once you remember which button does what, it can allow you to draw out a schematic very quickly without taking your hand off the mouse.

3D Mouse

While my normal mouse is quite basic, I also have a 3D Connexion SpaceMouse Pro to the left of my keyboard. There are newer models available, but the SpaceMouse Pro is doing all I need for now, and you can pick them up used on Amazon or eBay quite cheaply. The 3D viewer in Altium Designer fully supports moving around with the mouse, which makes incredibly quick and precise motion possible. If you use a lot of varying 3D software packages (e.g., SolidWorks, Fusion 360, 3ds Max) then having a 3D mouse gives you a consistent interface for moving objects around in 3D space. You can grab the mouse and it’s like you have grabbed the part in software, so lifting up moves the circuit board up, pushing away moves the circuit board away in Altium Designer, and so on. The 3D mouse makes getting an exact angle or framing of a PCB in the 3D viewer possible in seconds compared to the inbuilt positioning ball. If you use screen recording software, you can easily create flyovers and rotating views of your circuit board for a client, as the control precision is so smooth it makes it easy to create smooth movements in the viewer.

3D mouse devices are not just useful in 3D board views however, they have lots of buttons and come bundled with software to configure them. 

3D Connexion SpaceMouse Pro button settings for Altium Designer

3D Connexion offers dedicated features for 3D software design packages as well as Altium Designer.

The 3D Connexion mouse software can neither fully integrate with Altium Designer to understand the context of the current view (i.e., schematic view, pcb view, documents), nor determine as many macros automatically from the software as it would with software like SolidWorks or Fusion 360. Even so, being able to create your own macros, which can be comprise of any number of keyboard or mouse presses, is very powerful when almost everything in Altium Designer can be reached by some combination of key presses.

3D Connexion macro editor window

3D Connexion even allows the usage of efficient macros.

One more neat feature of the 3D Connexion SpaceMouse Pro is the ability to use the buttons to generate radial menus, which you can use very rapidly for gestures such as you might see in SolidWorks.

3D Connexion radial menu settings

3D Connexion radial menu settings.

This means you can keep your left hand on your 3D mouse and right hand on your regular mouse, and work very efficiently without ever touching the keyboard. The knob on the 3D mouse pans and zooms your view in 2D mode allowing rapid navigation of your circuit board.

3D Connexion SpaceMouse Pro radial menu

Radial menu configurations allow for faster navigation of PCB layouts

Accessing Menus With the Keyboard

If you want to get away from your mouse, you can use Altium’s software almost without touching a mouse if you wish. This is much more practical for schematic editing than for PCB layout, as the schematic grid and size of parts are much more sensible to use without the fine control of a mouse compared to PCB layout.

Standard Windows software design practice allows you to pull down menus in the application by holding the ALT key and pressing the underlined letter of a menu, such as ALT+P for showing the Place menu. Altium Designer takes this a little further! Did you know you can skip pressing ALT and simply press P to have the Place menu (or any other) appear where your mouse is?

Altium Designer right-click menu

Simply pressing the P key will open the Place menu. You can press P twice in succession to place a pad.

If you have both hands on your keyboard, you can press the key for any underlined letter in an open menu to select that option. So pressing P then V on your keyboard will start placing a Via. You can also hold ALT, press P, then V, then release ALT to reach the same option.

Once you learn the menu shortcuts for common tasks, you can very rapidly switch between tools in Altium Designer.

I mentioned that you can skip the mouse altogether when working on a schematic, you can simply use the arrow keys on your keyboard to move around a schematic grid (or PCB grid for that matter), switching tools as shown above. I can press P then W to place a wire, use my arrow keys to a pin, press enter, and then use the arrow keys to move the crosshairs to the next point for the net wire. Pressing the M key on your keyboard brings up the Move menu (from Edit -> Move) allowing you to quickly access the Move and Drag tools which can be used in a similar way. I would then move the crosshairs over the object I want to move or drag, and press the Enter key to start shifting things around.

Customising Menus

Now that you know how quick and easy accessing menu items is, you might be wondering how to access a menu item that doesn’t have an underlined menu option, or perhaps add a function that doesn’t exist on a menu.

For me, a common feature I want to access is to place a power port. Using Place -> Power Port starts placing the last active port type, which requires additional key presses to change to a VIN, 3V3 or GND port.

Altium Designer 18 moved away from the usual toolbars, such as the Wiring toolbar which had separate GND and VCC power port icons, in favor of the mini toolbar at the top of the editor which allows you to hold your mouse button down on the ports window to access common options. Just like the old toolbar, however, this isn’t accessible by keyboard, and may be slower for you than clicking the icon on the toolbar to switch between port types. You can re-enable the Wiring toolbar or any other that you find yourself missing by right-clicking in the Altium Designer window frame above the document editor tabs, and turning on Wiring.

Altium Designer wiring toolbar

Reenabling the Altium Designer wiring toolbar

Personally, I don’t use this very often, but it does allow me to demonstrate another feature of Altium Designer for customization. If you hold CTRL while clicking on the VCC or GND port, or any other button, you can see the magic behind the curtain that happens when you click that button.

Altium Designer edit command window

Altium Designer offers a very customizable design experience.

This would allow you to add a keyboard shortcut to this button, or edit how it works. What I’m most interested in here is the Parameters section, which reads “Orientation=1|S=VCC|Style=2|Repeat=True” and defines what is passed along to the Place Power Port button function in Altium Designer, and we can see that the choice of whether to place VCC or GND is just another parameter.

Armed with this knowledge, I can add custom power ports to the Place menu. Simply right-click on any menu or toolbar and choose Customize.

This will display the Customizing Sch Editor window.

Sch Editor window customize interface

If you scroll down the Commands list, you will find Place. You can find all the other top level menus here too. If you click on Power Port, then click Duplicate, you will create a custom command you can setup how you like. In this case, I'm going to set up a GND power port using the parameter string from the ground port on the wiring toolbar. 

If you click Edit on the duplicate Power Port command, it will bring up the same edit command window seen earlier, allowing you to input parameters and change the menu item’s name.

Place Power Port edit command window

You can duplicate commands and edit them to provide shortcut keys, and alternative shortcut keys as well.

By placing an & before a letter in the caption, you can select which letter will access that menu item. I’m also adding a keyboard shortcut of ALT + G to draw a ground port, because this way I can just press ALT + G without accessing any menus to place one. When choosing a shortcut, keep in mind these are global, no matter what the context is in Altium Designer. If you assign ALT + G to the action of placing a ground port in your schematic, you won’t be able to use ALT + G to perform a command when in the PCB editor. If there is a conflict with another command, it will show up in the ‘Currently in use by’ drop down. It’s best to avoid replacing a shortcut already in use where possible.

I now have a custom command, but it isn’t in the Place menu as I wish. However, adding it is easy, just drag it from the commands list, over to the Altium window, and into the Place menu where you want it.

Go Fast!

Altium Designer is already incredibly powerful software that makes complex design tasks relatively easy, saving you a lot of time compared to many other software options. If you’re not making full use of shortcuts and basic customization of Altium Designer to your preferences, you will be surprised at how much time you spend each day just moving your mouse to a menu, down it, and back to the editor windows. 

By forcing yourself to memorize even just the most basic placement and editor commands, you will quickly find these actions become muscle-memory. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what some shortcuts actually are, but when using Altium Designer, when I need to place a trace, string, or anything else, my fingers seem to hit the right keys to do what I’m thinking without any thought.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium and upskill yourself on the advanced circuit schematic software available in Altium Designer.

About the Author

Mark Harris

Mark Harris is an engineer's engineer, with over 12 years of diverse experience within the electronics industry, varying from aerospace and defense contracts to small product startups, hobbies and everything in between. Before moving to the United Kingdom, Mark was employed by one of the largest research organizations in Canada; every day brought a different project or challenge involving electronics, mechanics, and software. He also publishes the most extensive open source database library of components for Altium Designer called the Celestial Database Library. Mark has an affinity for open-source hardware and software and the innovative problem-solving required for the day-to-day challenges such projects offer. Electronics are passion; watching a product go from an idea to reality and start interacting with the world is a never-ending source of enjoyment.

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