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Which one is the best PCB design software?

There are many PCB design software available in the market, also named EDA software (Electronic Design Automation). Choosing one or another can depend on the printed circuit board design necessities the designer has and the price he can or want to spend. The election can also depend if the designer is working as a hobbyist, a freelance or if he is involved in a big company. In the last case, sometimes the designer has not any  alternative since the software he has to use is the one used by all the members of the company. 

The next statements below are provided mainly for freelance designers, for companies that are starting to deal with printed circuit board design software or for these companies that want to improve their design/manufacturing capabilities by improving the software they are using at this moment or that want to save money with respect the current alternative they are using nowadays.

On the other hand, it has to be considered that once people are familiarized with the use of a software, it is complicated to see another alternative is better due to the curve of learning they have with the current software they are using. Only when they need further capabilities, they do not have in the current software they can really look for a change, but when you are using a powerful tool is complicated to change to a new one since you know how to work with your current tool and the required effort you will need to change to a new one is complicated to assimilate.

The design software tools that are going to be analysed and compared are Altium Designer, Autodesk Eagle, KiCad, Mentor Graphics Pads, Cadence OrCad and DipTrace. Also an online tool like Easy EDA is analysed at the end like other alternative. There are too much more alternatives in the market but, the selected ones cover the simplest ones than they are even free and the most powerful ones used by big companies.

In first place, a short comparison of all the described PCB design software is shown in order to have a quick look of all the tools. Late a description of each PCB software design is performed and finally a conclusion is done.

 

PCB Design Software Comparison

Below a table with the most important characteristics of each described EDA software is shown:

Software
Diptrace
KiCad
Autodesk Eagle
Cadence Orcad
Mentor Graphics Pads
Altium Designer
Easy Eda
Indicated for users
Hobbyists
Hobbyists Hobbyists Professionals Professionals Professionals Hobbyists
Price
Free to low
Free
Free to low
Low to medium
Medium
High
Free
Easy to use
Intuitive
Easy
Normal 
Normal
Hard Hard
Normal
Easy
Support and tutorials
Good
Good
Very good
Normal
Good Good Good
User interface
Good
Normal
Normal
Bad
Bad Very good Good
Personalization options Bad Very good Good Bad
Good
Good
Normal
Placing and editing components
Good
Normal
Good
Good
Normal
Very good
Good
Schematic editor
Normal
Good
Normal
Good
Good
Good
Good
Adding pins and components shape
Good
Very good
Good
Good
Good
Very good
Good
Integration with PCB footprint and PCB library
Good
Normal
Normal
Good Good Very good Good
Adding simulations
N/A
Bad
N/A
Good Very good Bad Good
Schematic library editor Good
Normal
Normal
Normal
Normal
Very good
Normal
Defining and placing pads
Good Good
Normal
Good Good Very good Good
Custom irregular traces
Normal
Normal
Normal
Normal
Good
Normal
Normal
3D visualization Very good Good Bad
Normal
Bad Very good
Normal
Define other layers around a footprint
Good
Normal
Normal
Very good Good Very good Good
PCB layout editor Good
Normal
Normal
Good Good Very good Good
Database management Bad Good Bad Good
Normal
Good Good
PCB routing
Good Very good
Normal
Normal
Normal
Good Good
Error debugging Good Very good
Normal
Good Good Very good Good
RF design
Bad
Normal
Bad Good Good
Normal
Normal
FPGA design
Bad Bad Bad
Normal
Very good
Normal
Normal

 

PCB Design Software Description

A full description of each PCB design software is done showing the main features and main advantages and drawbacks.

 

DipTrace (https://diptrace.com)

DipTrace is a printed circuit board design software in which the main thing is that it is very easy to use and very intuitive for simple designs and it is very cheap, even with free versions available. Then, it is ideal for people that do not need complex designs, designers of simple PCBs or people that would use it for their hobbies like amateur radio operators. But, for main PCB design professionals, this software does not have the capabilities to do the optimized designs.

It can also be very interesting for university purposes in which the professors can teach to the students how to design their first PCBs and what are the basic rules when designing PCBs. This software is very intuitive and the main options are very easy to follow.

The main features are 2 to 4 layer boards with through holes and footprints of surface mount components. It is very easy to learn all the required steps but the final schematic/layout you can finally obtain is very limited in comparison with other PCB design software alternatives.

Screenshot of DipTrace. Source: https://www.diptrace.com
Screenshot of DipTrace.
Source: https://www.diptrace.com

It has different versions, one of them is completely free, but only available for 2 layers boards, and with limited connection pins, very good to start and decide if it is required to purchase the unlimited version (in which there is a price to pay) to be able to work with multilayer boards and unlimited pins or if you require a more complete and powerful software for your purposes.

Below the main features of DipTrace are shown:

  • It has a capture of the schematic with components that are linked to a library. This library by default has some components, including their footprints, but new components can be added.
  • Different kind of formats can be imported and exported to be able to interact with other EDA programs.
  • An electrical rule check is included to be able to check there are not failures in the design and to reduce the options to have to re-manufacture the PCB due to failures in the design.
  • It has a PCB layout also linked to the library and the schematic that includes and auto-router to interconnect easily all the components. It is possible to generate the layout from the schematic or create the layout directly from the library in the PCB layout editor.
  • It has good support and some tutorials are available to learn how to use and how to learn new things. Also, forums are available where you can check previous questions/answers of other people and where you can place your own questions.

Advantages

The main advantages are that is very easy to use and to learn all the features it has and also the price, even with free versions.

Drawbacks

The main drawback is that is oriented for simple PCBs design and if you need more complex PCBs this software will not be enough.

 

KiCad (http://kicad-pcb.org/)

KiCad is another Printed Circuit Board design software very useful for beginners, for people do not need complex PCB designs or for people which their hobby is the design and manufacture of PCBs.

The best thing of this software is that it is completely free and it is maintained by volunteers, and users and contributors that donate money to maintain by foot this project. This is very useful for very small companies that require to design and manufacture not very complicated PCBs since they do not have to spend any money for this software.

Screenshot of KiCad. Source: http://kicad-pcb.org/
Screenshot of KiCad.
Source: http://kicad-pcb.org/

Despite is a free software it is continuously in development to improve its characteristics and offer good solutions. Other very interesting thing is that there are existing versions for different platforms not only for Windows as many of the available PCB design software but also for Linux or Mac OS.

It is very used by people coming from other more expensive options with a similar environment (like Eagle due to some similitudes in the interface).

The main features of this PCB design software are stated below:

  • It has a schematic and layout in which the user can place the components and these components can be easily moved from schematic to layout and viceversa.
  • A rule check is available to verify the design is OK and to check all the rules the manufacturer of the PCBs will require are successfully satisfied.
  • There is an available extensive library created by the users with components and their footprints, symbols and 3D models. It is continuously under development adding new components and improving the ones already created.
  • It has many hotkeys, also configurable, that allows the user a very quick and optimized design once the user is familiarized with the software although a bit complicated at the beginning.

Advantages

The main advantages are that this software is completely free and it is continuously evolving to improve its features.

Drawbacks

The main drawback of this software is despite it can be used by beginners due to the 0 cost, the use of it, it is not very intuitive and the required time to learn how to use it and how to obtain all power of the software will need a big effort. For this reason, some people prefer other no cost options. 

 

Autodesk Eagle (https://www.autodesk.com/education/free-software/eagle)

Eagle is a more complete PCB design software than previous ones, but also more expensive. In any case is a low-cost solution in comparison with other options in the market. Eagle also provides an easy way to design your PCBs and it is one of the most popular EDA software available in the market.

Screenshot of Autodesk Eagle. Source: https://www.autodesk.com
Screenshot of Autodesk Eagle.
Source: https://www.autodesk.com

Main features are described below:

  • Like other CAD programs it consists on schematic and layout editors in which you can add components, footprints, etc to build your design.
  • In the schematic editor you will be able to select all the components from the existing library and it has an electrical rule check to verify all the connections are OK. Easily you can generate the layout from the designed schematic and also check your design satisfy the electrical rules you need to provide to the PCB manufacturer company.
  • The schematic and layout are correctly synced so if you change something in the schematic/layout, the same changes will be performed in the layout/schematic.
  • The schematic can be correctly organized thanks to the hierarchization the software allows.
  • The layout editor allows the user to export the files in different possible formats depending on the company you will manufacture your PCBs (gerber, dxf, etc).
  • It has forums and online communities in which discuss or ask about how to solve your problems. Also, some video tutorials can be found in Youtube.
  • It has many existing libraries so you can use it without the necessity to create the component, for example, they have all the required libraries for Arduino, Raspberry pi or BeagleBone.
  • If the components are not already created, you can use the editor to create your components and corresponding footprints.
  • In comparison with other CAD software the interface is not so good. 
  • It is based in a core program with different options, you can pay the minimum cost for the core program and add the options you will need with extra costs. The good thing is that you will pay for the tools you will need and even if you pay for all the options the total cost is low in comparison with other software available in the market and with similar capabilities.
  • Due to its capabilities and price, it can be considered as an intermediate tool between those ones that are free and/or easy to use like DipTrace or KiCad and those ones more powerful and expensive like Orcad, Mentor Graphics Pads or Altium Designer.

Advantages

It has a very good relationship price/capabilities.

Drawbacks

A drawback of this software is the learning curve is very low since this software is not too much intuitive and the interface is not too good in comparison to other alternatives.

 

Cadence OrCAD (https://www.orcad.com/)

OrCAD has also different versions depending on the available options you need. The Lite version is free and it allows the user to work with the software with some of the features. This is very interesting for amateur people, starters or for people that wants to experience with CAD software before buying the product. Besides, once you have installed the Lite version is very easy to upgrade to versions with more powerful options and capabilities.

Screenshot of Cadence OrCAD. Source: https://www.orcad.com/
Screenshot of Cadence OrCAD.
Source: https://www.orcad.com/

Main features are stated below.

  • As the previous described PCB design software, it has schematic and layout editors very well related between both of them and in which the components can be easily selected from a library that includes many components with their corresponding footprints and if not, they can be easily created by the user.
  • Additionally, it has an advantage with respect previous described software that is the PSpice add-ons that allow the user to run circuit simulations, so you can perform, both simulations and circuit design with the same CAD program. These simulations are very focused for DC and digital hardware but very limited for RF frequency.
  • It is more complicated to learn than other previous PCB design software but the capabilities are higher.
  • There are enough tutorials in the webpage and in Youtube, forums and even courses to how to use this software.
  • It has a very good auto-routing software tool (SPECCTRA) to do a quick layout from the schematic, but always you have to take in mind you will have to review everything and that you will no obtain the optimized layout with this kind of tool.

Advantages

It is one of the most powerful options in the market at a relative cheap cost in comparison with its competitors. 

It has the possibility to run circuit simulations to check not only your PCB has a well designed layout than also when you assembly your PCB the results will be according your expectations

Drawbacks

One drawback of this PCB design software is that each feature is split in different applications, it is not everything integrated like in other CAD software and, in this case, it is more complex to learn how to optimize the processes, even when working with simple boards.

 

Mentor Graphics Pads (https://www.mentor.com/pcb/pads)

Mentor Graphics Pads has different version depending on the options you will need, and the Standard version has enough capabilities to do typical boards and even complex ones. In any case, it has more capabilities than previous software and also the cost is more expensive, even for the most standard version.

Screenshot of Mentor Graphics Pads. Source: https://www.mentor.com
Screenshot of Mentor Graphics Pads.
Source: https://www.mentor.com

Main features of this PCB design software are:

  • It contains schematic and layout editors that allows to do the design of the PCB in both of them by adding components existing in a library. Also, these components can be created with the corresponding editors. Both, schematic and layout, are related in case the user modifies anything in one of them it is also modified in the other one. 
  • Design check rules are, of course, integrated to verify everything in the design is correct.
  • It has the possibility to import or export files in different formats to send the layout to PCB manufacturers or to interchange files with other CAD software like OrCAD or Altium. This is very important for the users or companies if they were using in the past any other software. In this way, they can import old projects in Pads.
  • It has the possibility to import and export STEP files. This is very useful to exchange information with 3D mechanic software like Solidworks or Autocad when it is very important not only 2D files but also 3D ones to see if everything will fit the boxes in which the final manufactured and assembled PCB will be placed.
  • Like OrCad it has RF and microwave simulations tools but more powerful than the PSpice of OrCad.
  • It is possible to place vias automatically, in a quicker way than in other CAD software, helping you to save time in your designs and it has the possibility to import different strange shapes of traces, more typical for RF designs than DC/Digital PCB designs. 
  • All the previous features are integrated in the Standard version.
  • There are other versions with more options like the Standard Plus Edition and the Professional Edition which include any other features for differential designs (when working with coupled lines instead of single lines), advanced RF simulations tools, FPGA design capabilities, etc.
  • There are tutorials in the webpage and also you can find many video tutorials in Youtube.

Advantages

It is a very powerful tool and has integrated a very good electrical circuit simulations, the best one of all the analysed programs, not only for DC or digital designs but also for RF designs.

Drawbacks

The main drawback of this software with respect other PCB design software is the cost is higher and also the learning curve is much slower and the required time to know how to correctly use the program is much higher.

 

Altium Designer (https://www.altium.com)

Altium Designer can be considered at this moment the most popular PCB design software for professionals and in the industry, even although maybe is not the most powerful program since, for example, circuit simulations tools or FPGA design features are not so good as other CAD software, but on the other hand, inside the powerful CAD software is maybe the most friendly for the user and the learning curve is faster than others. The layout editor is considered the best, with difference, and this optimize the effort to do the final layout required to manufacture the PCB. Saving this time implies a save of money for the company.

Screenshot of Altium Designer. Source: https://www.altium.com
Screenshot of Altium Designer.
Source: https://www.altium.com

Main features of this software are stated below

  • It has a schematic editor very similar to other CAD software and a layout editor that can be considered the best of all the printed circuit board design software.
  • It has the possibility to have different versions of each project with documents for each version for both schematic and layout editors which makes easier the project management of complex projects and allows the user to know what are the changes from version to version.
  • It has a big library with components and corresponding footprints and, if the components are not already created, it is easy to create them from existing components and only modifying what it is necessary.
  • It is possible to have floating licenses and the library in a server so all the users of the company can access to this library to select the corresponding components and to add new ones to the existing library so all the users can use them.
  • It is easy to find very fast the components you are looking for with the included filtering options and easy to replace or remove these components.
  • It is very easy to create new design rules to your design to verify your design is valid for the PCB manufacturers.
  • It has the options to generate or import different file formats for manufacturing or exchange information with other 2D CAD software like OrCAD or Pads or with 3D CAD software like Solidworks or Autocad.
  • Multiple hot-keys can be used to optimize the time for the design.
  • As other CAD software they have an autorouter that will help you to save time, but will not give you the optimized layout
  • It is in constant development to improve the design features.
  • There are tutorials in the webpage and also you can find many video tutorials in Youtube.

Advantages

At this moment, since it is a very used software, it is constantly evolving and improving. It has the best layout editor in the marked, and the best 3D visualization options, very useful to see how will fit your PCB inside the final place it will be integrated. Compared with other powerful PCB design software it is the most user friendly, with the best learning curve and very intuitive.

Drawbacks

A drawback is that it is more focused in DC, Digital or low frequency RF PCBs but not so much for high frequency RF PCBs. In this case, if your company is focused on RF designs you will need other CAD software for RF like ADS or Microwave Office and use the layout editor for these layouts or use Mentor Graphic Pads that has better capabilities for RF design.

Another drawback of this software with respect previous ones is the cost, but considering the user friendly of its layout, with time it is possible to give back this money with the saved time for the company.

 

Easy EDA (https://easyeda.com)

Easy EDA is an online PCB design software completely free that allows the user to create printed circuit board designs in the Cloud. This is a very good option for hobbyists and starters since it is free, easy to use and you do not have to install any software in your PC.

Screenshot of EasyEDA. Source: https://easyeda.com
Screenshot of EasyEDA.
Source: https://easyeda.com

Main features of Easy EDA are shown:

  • It has a cool schematic capture to draw your PCB from the available online library that it is constantly updating.
  • You can draw your layout online with different quantity of layers.
  • It has integrated PSpice like OrCad with which you can simulate both DC, digital and low frequency RF design.
  • It is an open-source project constantly evolving, both for the software and for the hardware components included.
  • It is possible to import/export projects from/to Eagle, Altium or Kicad, so you can use previous projects developed in these software or you can migrate to these software if finally you decided to purchase them.
  • There is a big community to help the user to learn.
  • Everything is stored in the Cloud.
  • Since it is online, you can use it in different platforms like Windows, Mac OS or Linux.

Advantages

It is free and easy to use. It has a big community behind making evolve the product. You will have everything in the Cloud so if you have any problem with your PC you will not lose your data.

Drawbacks

It is not so powerful like Altium, OrCAD or PADS so it is not so good for complex tasks.

 

Conclusions

As commented before the selection of one or other PCB design software is not easy and it will depend on the type of PCB that will be designed, or the use the designer/s will give to the program.

For hobbyists or professionals that do simple PCBs free or cheap versions would be the preferred. For these people Easy EDA is a good option since it is free and easy to use, KiCAD would be a free alternative but more complex to use. Finally, Eagle or DipTrace can give you more functionalities at low cost.

For professionals with a large use of the software or for companies, OrCAD, PADs and Altium should be selected. At this moment, Altium is the preferred one due to the very good capabilities of its layout editor and the intuitive and easy to use interface in comparison with the other options, despite is more expensive.

Finally, follow these links if you want to know what is a BoM and a CPL file.

 Roberto
 2019-02-21 09:02
 Help    Engineering   
What is a CPL file and how to generate it
What is a BoM file and how to generate it
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