As time has progressed, technology has become more accessible. PCB design tools used to be priced so high that only companies could afford them. Today many PCB tools are available to the home user. Each tool has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, though there are some really standout tools that are either free, open-source, or relatively low-cost. Many of the freeware programs are a subset of a commercial code.
Some may be skeptical about the usability and productivity of freeware, open-source, or low-cost programs. With regard to PCB tools, I have established a list of criteria that I find essential. Please note that freeware programs are often more polished than some open-source programs but will have limitations, such as number of components or pins allowed. Here is the minimum standard that I have set for PCB tools for my home use.
- Windows compatible: This is a must for me. Everyone has an opinion on this, but I find that I spend less time debugging programs in Windows than I do in any other operating system.
- Native schematic tool: Some programs require an external schematic editor. Even simple designs tend to change as you work through them. Some of the changes are as simple as changing an input pin on the microcontroller, but may also include adding circuitry to increase functionality. If the schematic editor is not tied to the rest of the software package, it is very easy for changes not to propagate into the final design.
- Footprint wizard: This is something that makes life much easier. PCB products without a footprint wizard have a tedious workflow. They direct you to find a product from the library that is somewhat similar and modify it. The problem with this workflow is that many new sensors are coming out with nonstandard footprints. Hacking something to fit your needs is tedious. It is much easier to start from scratch. With a good footprint wizard, you should be able to have a new part created in less than five minutes.
- Multilayer design capability: A two-layer board greatly simplifies routing, and most PCB prototyping houses offer this as their base option.
- 3D preview: Perhaps this is because of my mechanical background, but I find that this capability is underrated by many. With 3D preview, it is very easy to verify that all your parts will fit, and that you will have sufficient access to solder the parts. In my last project, I was able to use 3D preview to identify a problem very quickly with my connector spacing and correct it. This will serve as your final design check before manufacturing.
- Autorouter: Though many purists will argue that an autorouter is not desirable, I disagree. An autorouter helps find the best placement for components and can be used in an iterative method. I usually hand route any critical traces and then autoroute the remaining traces, followed by a final cleanup performed by hand. With care, an autorouter can be used to great advantage and can dramatically reduce the time spent in your design.
The following tools have a freeware version and meet the requirements outlined above.
The following tools can be had at low cost and meet the requirements outlined above.
This final group is a mix of freeware, open-source, and low-cost tools that are relegated to the honorable mention list because they are missing one or more of the required features.
In my efforts to find the best low-cost PCB tool available, I have started with DipTrace.
PCB layout for an automatic leveler performed using DipTrace.
It is my goal to learn several of these tools. As I do so, I will be documenting my experiences. I will pass along any insights I learn, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each program. If I have missed your favorite PCB tool in the lists above, please let me know. Help me understand why you think it should be on the list. Also, if you have a specific question about one of these tools, let me know, and I will see if I can answer it.