Introduction: Choosing PCB Layout Software

Picture of Choosing PCB Layout Software

When you finish the design and prototyping of your project and you want to make a PCB, you need to use some kind of PCB layout software. While there are a plethora of commercial products (most of them expensive - very expensive), there are relatively few that are low cost or free for the open source designer. This guide will look at the options and make recommendations based on the author's knowledge and preferences. I also have a more extensive comparison here.

Online PCB Software
Some commercial PCB fabricators offer their own free online software. While some of these products may be quite capable, they suffer from one huge drawback - you are locked into their services. If you want to have your PCB made elsewhere, you are out of luck. For that reason I don't give these programs a second look.

Eagle CAD
Eagle CAD is the favorite PCB layout software among open source hardware designers. For that reason there are a lot of extensive component and footprint libraries available for many of the parts used by hobbyists and the open source community. While it is a commercial program, the company offers a freeware version limited only by the PCB size.

Despite all these advantages, Eagle suffers from some major issues. I my opinion, they are show stopping issues. They are not bugs, nor are they limitations in its capabilities. The problem is its user interface. It seems like it is a relic from the DOS era. The user interface is all backwards from the normal mouse driven interface on all modern operating systems. The worst though is not only that it is different, but it is incredibly inefficient and really difficult to use. The learning curve is steep and once you learn how to use it, it still does not get any better. If you choose this package, be prepared to spend a lot of time using it.

KiCAD
This application is free and open source and has a lot to commend it. It is easy to use and very capable. It also has a smattering of support in the open hardware community. You won't go wrong using it.

However, it is difficult to convert a schematic to a PCB. If that was the only problem, it would be minor. However, I find it is equally difficult to do either forward or back-annotate any changes made to the schematic or the PCB. You have to go through a tedious multi-step process every time. This issue is a real show stopper for me. One can only hope the developers will eventually fix this problem.

DipTrace
While this is a Windows application, it is very well behaved under Wine, and I run it on Linux without any problem. Like KiCAD, it has a lot to commend it. It has a modern interface, short learning curve and is quick and easy to get things done.

While it is commercial software, it comes in a freeware version with generous limitations. Most open hardware projects will never run into them.

Recommendation
DipTrace is the software I recommend first, followed by KiCAD. If it weren't for KiCAD's poor forward/back annotation, it would get my recommendation. You can be designing circuits in DipTrace on day one. There is a decent component library, and it is easy to add your own components & footprints.

Comments

jessey (author)2017-01-10

Does anyone know of a free PCB design software that will print out the artwork so I can etch my own boards? I'm not doing anything fancy just single sided boards, hobby stuff. I need something that's easy for a beginner with no experience to use and definitely not eagle cad - definitely NOT!! Any help will be greatly appreciated...

jordanyte (author)2016-03-16

Try CircuitMaker - it's free but not limited to size or layers, much more modern user interface with proper windows integration. It's based on the high-end Altium tools so even has topological autorouter and diff pairs routing tools, and the library is the Octopart database (plus your own custom components) so you might never have to make a part again. Also has native 3D clearance checking.

Cecilla (author)jordanyte2016-12-27

EasyEDA is a free online PCB design software which runs on windows, mac, or android platform, as long as there is one browser on the OS and connecting to network. It is a great circuit simulator and fast PCB designer that helps you complete the design from schematics to the finished PCB in the easiest way.

Try it free at http://www.easyeda.com

In some small PCB projects, maybe you don’t need a schematic. EasyEDA allows you to layout the PCB directly from the PCB Editor. Start a new PCB, you can add footprints directly from the PCB Libs. With multiple layers, thousands of pads, you could still operate quickly and layout smoothly.

YousofJ (author)jordanyte2016-09-28

CircuitMaker is just Junk. it stores and shares your project online.

I like to have it on my machine and do not share my project.

jordanyte (author)YousofJ2016-09-28

Well then why don't you stop being a freeloader and buy some software. CircuitMaker is FREE. For OSHW. If you're NOT doing OSHW then obviously it's NOT for you.

YousofJ (author)jordanyte2016-09-30

I am not freeloader and it is NOT for me and yesterday after I wrote the comment, I uninstalled it.

TonesB (author)2016-08-11

I agree, it's now 4 years later since you first published this and Eagle has hardly improved. Eagle is unintuitive, clunky and over-rated. If you grew up with it, then fine but for the rest of us it's past its sell buy date.

PCBP (author)2016-05-05

Yes, I prefer to use KiCAD due to its simple usage, and view my project using zofzPCB (http://www.zofzpcb.com) , a free 3D viewer. For making PCB prototype, I would like choosing PCBWay( http://www.pcbway.com/cc ) in result of its low price and good service.

Phil_S (author)2016-01-05

Just to add my twopennuth.

Years ago, I used EasyPC by NumberOne Systems. This was running on an IMB XT with whatever version of DOS was about at the time. It worked well for me, produced Gerber and HPGL files for a Roland plotter and a Versatronics robotic arm to do the etch resist and drilling. The results were impressive when just a few boards were needed. In those days, with no Internet, getting boards done by a fabricator was a long drawn out business, so this was the best route. You occasionally see Versatronics on e-bay, absolutely solid kit.

NumberOne Systems are still around and might be worth a look, but most of their stuff was paid for, but it did work, was reliable and easy to learn

sepp1234 (author)2015-12-15

I have been using EAGLE CAD for quite some time and I am very happy. It's a bit complex to get started, but the good community and tutorials are a great help. You can get started by downloading the free version http://www.cadsoftusa.com/download-eagle/freeware/ .So you can see what the software is all about at no costs.

graham.tunnadine (author)2015-10-20

Have you any comment on 123d circuits, or Designspark pcb?

Do any have automatic layout and routing?

AlanFredrik (author)2015-10-06

I have been using EDWinXP 1.95 which is a very good software and also cheapest among all others. Now the are providing 68 percent discount too. I am very comfortable with it and also they provide life time license and services with out further payment.

SunniDaze (author)2015-07-11

I have played with most of these, but now I access to Altium Designer. Diptrace is the one I settled on before Altium came my way. Their license fees are so minimal, it didn't seem like much of an issue for a hobbyist.

Altium is releasing an online Schematic/PCB program called CircuitMaker. It is in beta at the time of this post (7/11/2015). We'll see how that goes.

Oldsirhippy (author)2015-06-25

Thank you for this review.

Entirely agree with you regarding Eagle - I used it a while back and needed to use it again recently. Eagle have now improved their library management slightly, but I have been tearing my hair out trying to remember Eagle's ways of doing even simple things. It is indeed a relic of the DOS days and was probably the bees knees then. It makes no use of the excellent visual interfaces we are all so used to and needs a complete user interface revamp. Any software today that needs a large manual to explain how even the basic operations work fails at the starting gate. Eagle's core engine woks brilliantly and is very stable so I am at a loss as to why they haven't brought their user interface into the 21st Century. It would be a game changing winner if it had a logical, intuitive and up to date user interface.

giovanni.bastianelli (author)2015-03-02

Nice article but i have to disagree. I'm new to the pcb cad software, i've tried many really from the start, but to me EaglePCB is not so hard to learn, once you've figure out how it works, it works like a sharm and despite all, is really more simple than KiCad, and i'm speaking about the library system, back annotation. I Eagle i've just difficult to understand "gorups" and a little of termial commands, but i've build the first pcb in one day of tring, where in KiCad, i'm still designing the missin parts and link together, schematics and part layout.

ronald.kirby.5 (author)2015-02-09

I have been using expess pcb for the last 5 years and it has been good for me as a bare bones schematic and pcb design software but i have decided I need to get my board made in china and this software has no gerber file export So i have spent the last week watching you tube and installing a few programs to try out nothing works until i download Fritzing , it is brilliant compared to kicad , hated designspark and watched so many laborious vids of many programs , Fritzing has everything i want so far , massive libraries with footprints and 3d image just pic it see its format and place it in your work either schematic or pcb directly also tried the DEX software and it hard work was going to go with it ,until i read about "fritzing" and it is magic .

cheers Ron

stevensarns (author)2014-12-09

THANK YOU! I have been struggling with Eagle for a couple of weeks. I did manage to get a circuit board completed, all the while cursing the un-Windows GUI and obscure, undocumented keyboard commands. Although I have searched, I had not stumbled upon DipTrace. WOW - Connecting parts is a breeze! Click on one node, click on the next - bam! Need a part - how about FIND in the EDIT menu? Easy. Very Windows. Imports Eagle schematics.

joshpit2003 (author)2014-07-14

Just purchased the cheap-seat for 75 bucks. I like the way they lay-out their prices too (able to upgrade at any time just by paying the difference in cost). The layout and GUI reminded me of PCB123, which I was using previously. Thanks for the write-up.

lightofcity (author)2014-05-12

For complex PCB. It would be better use the third party layout service.

samuri098 (author)2014-04-01

Wish there was a way to make a circuit that duplicated itself. that would be cool

dgfarny (author)2014-03-06

Been using Eagle for a while and took your advice, spent the last few hours in Diptrace and pretty happy with the way it functions. There is a bit of a learning curve but I will definitely be working with it.

I also tryed out Kicad and was not able to follow the flow process very well. just to many steps to get from schematic to board.

Thanks

boyanov (author)2013-11-17

I first started designing PCB's when Protel for DOS for pretty much the only one. Imagine how long ago that was. :))))

Just recently I found that there is web-based PCB designing software that in fact works. :) was little surprised.
First I played with the Upverter (at upverter.com) and then with the Circuits.io (at http://123d.circuits.io/).

With Circuits.io I designed a small PCB, downloaded ZIP with Gerber files, uploaded to another vendor (OSHPark at http://oshpark.com/) and received the boards just couple of weeks ago.

Although still needs improvement it is very easy to use.

pcooper2 (author)2013-10-23

If you've used a real mechanical CAD program like AutoCAD, you'll find all schematic capture and PCB layout programs a bit awkward and clunky.  The software seems to be designed by people who have little or no experience with their competitors' software and they tend to come up with idiosyncratic or inferior ways of doing things that limit creativity and efficiency.  Sometimes the solution is to use a mechanical CAD package to design the physical envelope, export it as DXF and then import it into the PCB design package.

youn_link (author)2012-08-02

what about proteus? I feel confortable with that one; have a huge library to simulate and you can make you own components to PCB and with a little of skills also to simulate

amorarun (author)youn_link2012-09-08

hey youn_link,
did you purchase the proteus software, I searched in their website and the demo version has limitations to save n print files. So I would like to know how you are using it. currently I'm using Eagle it works for me but I don't know to us it very well plus there are some limitation to the size of the board..

AndyTallack (author)2012-08-24

As a beginner I found DesignSpark's (www.designspark.com) interface the most intuitive to use. I downloaded the SparkFun libraries that had been converted from Eagle and away I went.

waldosan (author)2012-07-23

i found that a good PCB layout program is the Fritzing freeware, located here "fritzing.org"i'm a little biased since i haven't used any of the others but it's served me well. it has a nice grid function, a pcb view as well as a fully useable schematic view and a bread board view, each of which changes each other so if you make a connection in the bread board view then it makes a ratnest line connecting the two parts in pcb view or schematic view. it has a decent auto route function that i found useless after anything more than around 50 parts or connections. however since it's freeware it is being actively developed and is available for linux in a .tar ball.

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