by Jamie Dalzell
Are you drawing up a schematic? Prototyping a design? Or perhaps looking to take an idea from concept through to final product? No matter the specifics of where and how you’re planning on placing the many components of a PCB, the number of design packages available for your next project is pretty vast.
In fact, it’s almost too vast.
Once the playground of a select few, nowadays PCB design software is a dime a dozen. That’s why today we’re highlighting 13 of the best PCB circuit board and design software for your next project. From free to paid, basic to broad, there’s an option here to suit almost any budget, operating system or project you have in mind.
Feature rich, well-supported and ubiquitous within the electronic design community, Altium’s undeniable strength comes at a cost. Literally. It’s one of – if not the most – expensive options on this list. At times, prohibitively so.
At the very least, you get what you pay for. Its modern, easy-to-use UI is highly customisable – with shortcut keys galore – and Its widespread adoption within the industry makes it easy to jump into and even easier to create with. Which will come as no surprise given the wealth of tutorials, guides and technical documents available across the web.
The feature list doesn’t end there. Altium boasts the ability to import and export 3D Step files, as well as view your boards and designs in 3D so you can check them against other hardware components well before you go ahead and bring your project to life.
Bonus! Altium’s Supplier Link makes it easy to drag-and-drop vital information such as manufacturer name, part numbers and other identifiers onto your components.
A favourite among the open source hardware community, EagleCAD is an affordable option which boasts an extensive component and footprint library. Though that’s not to say it isn’t without its critics: EagleCAD isn’t for beginners.
How so? It’s widely regarded as both difficult to pick up and learn, hampered by a dated UI and usability issues reminiscent of 90’s PC software. The result? A steep learning curve, even for those willing to put in the time to learn its archaic ways.
You do get something in return for the hassle. Namely, better support for pre-built components than its competitor – Altium – and a much more enticing price tag of ‘Free!’. If, that is, you can live with its 2 layer, 80mm x 100mm limitations. Anything more than that, and you’ll need to hand over some cash.
Note! EagleCAD features an auto-router which takes the hassle out of manually routing signals.
With a short learning curve and a modern interface, DipTrace is one of the easiest applications to get started with. It’s so easy, in fact, that you can go from install to designing and creating circuits on your first day.
A Windows based application, it boasts a decent library of components – not to mention the ability to add your own – and makes a great option for beginners and mid-level designers alike. Better still, its freeware version is surprisingly generous.
Free, Open Source (GPL) and easy to use, KiCAD has wide-ranging support within the open source hardware community. While it’s far from perfect – there are numerous issues surrounding the converting of schematics to PCB – KiCAD is constantly updated, and regularly receives more prominent features usually reserved for its pricier, well-known competitors.
Free for open source and non-commercial use, UpVerter is the only browser-based option on the list. The benefits of which are hard to deny. First? It’s platform agnostic, as with nothing to download or install it’ll work across all operating systems. While its cloud-based design means your data is available wherever you’re logging in from.
While it may skip some of the advanced features of other packages, its ‘multiplayer’ functionality means multiple users can work on the same project at the one time. Nice!
Fritzing is a package best suited for hobbyists and smaller projects, built with the aim of supporting artists, designers and hobbyists and their ability to work creatively within the electronic design space. Its major drawcard? A massive component library featuring numerous footprints and 3D images.
Circuitmaker is Altium’s free, simpler, though no less useful little brother. But don’t be fooled: this is more than just a poor-man’s Altium. In fact, it’s a very capable, easy to use design tool in its own right. It also draws from the Octopart database, so you’ll never have to go looking for another component again.
The go-to tool for creating professional PCB Boards, ZenitPCB is a great layout and design tool. Flexible and easy to use, it can be used to create PCBs based on existing schematics, or layouts of your own. Better yet? ZenitPCB is completely free for personal or semi-personal use, up to a maximum of 800 pins.
As the name suggests, FreePCB is a free, open source Windows application designed from the ground up to be easy to learn and use, and boasts a feature set that’s perfect for creating professional-quality products.
Those features? They’re numerous. 1-16 copper layers, board sizes of up to 60 x 60 inches, as well as support for the import and export of PADS-PCB netlists. To name just a few! While it doesn’t have built-in auto router support, you can simply hook into the FreeRoute web-based autorouter instead.
Complete with an extensive symbol library to kickstart your electronic design journey, TinyCAD is designed to help you draw intricate circuit diagrams. And once that design is complete? You can then use TinyCAD to publish these by copying and pasting into a Word .doc, or saving as a PNG Bitmap image which can then be uploaded and published to the web.
11. Osmond PCB
This list isn’t just reserved for Windows users. There are PCB design packages out there for MAC. Osmond PCB is one such example! It’s renowned amongst the design community for its flexibility. How so? Let me list the ways:
- A near unlimited board size.
- Create boards of any shape or size.
- A maximum resolution of up to 10 nanometers.
- Allows for the precision placement of parts anywhere on the board. At any angle, at any width, and on any path.
- If that’s not enough? There’s also added support for through-hole and surface mount parts. Phew!
12. DesignSpark PCB
DesignSpark PCB is revered by many as the most accessible electronics design software around. It’s only when you dive in and give it a go that you see why. Not only is it easy to use and learn, it’s specially designed to reduce the the time it takes to take a project from concept through to final design.
At the core of this unique approach is DesignSpark PCB’s powerful software engine that enables users to capture schematics, as well as design intricate PCB Boards and layouts. More than that, it boasts unlimited schematic sheets per project, and up to 1M squared of board size. With no limits on layers, either!
The gEDA project currently offers a range of mature, fully-featured applications for electronic design. Ranging from schematic capture and attribute management through to Bill of Materials (BOM) generation and analog and digital simulation. Better still? It’s Linux based, so non-Windows users have yet another option to choose from.