Hi Adam -- this is tremendously useful stuff -- I can't wait to see your similar treatments of the other free PCB tools, including DesignSpark PCB and Eagle PCB -- this is going to help a lot of hobbyists and small companies make a decision.
Last time I did a PCB layout was with blue and red tape on mylar, ever since there has always been a CAD expert that I could sit down with to do the layout. I spec'd the trace and dielectric dimensions for impedance control, the PCB layout guru did the work. I inspected the layout files and asked for minor changes if needed. Between the both of us we got things done.
Now things have changed. A couple weeks ago I started to learn KiCAD, then after 2 days got sidetracked into a "more important" project, so saved all the files to my thumb drive to learn later. Today is a Texas Work-at-Home Ice Day, and to start I could not even get my saved files to work. With help from the local home IT guru (my stepson) we figured out that the files had to first be loaded into the Programs... folder.
Then I could not save the reworked schematic. No clues, no tips, no warnings, the only indication that the file was not saved was a peek into that folder that showed the file was still dated 20Nov2013. ARRGGHH!
Again the local IT guru stepson to the rescue. He figured out that I needed to open the KiCAD as administrator.
Why does this wonderful software not give one clues as to what is wrong when something does not work? It would have been a no-brainer for a popup to say something like "File not saved. You need to save as an administrator. To be an administrator go to ... etc"
And while on this rant, is there no way simple things like schematic capture cannot be standardized? It is one thing to "unlearn" previous habits, but when using things like LTspice (yes analogspiceman, spelled it right), then TinyCAD, and now KiCAD all the mouse clicks are totally different for each. It is no longer a simple "move the object", it has now become "remember what application you are using and choose from the applicable mouse click menu". Grrrrr!
KiCAD works for me, but my requirements are a little different to most.
First, I need software that can run off a USB stick, ie. a "Portable App". This allows me to use other people's machines, without loading their systems.
Second:when I'm at home, I have a Mac. I don't have a virtual machine (yet) so any software needs to have a Mac version. If I had a Windows PC, I would install the full Windows version of KiCAD, but until then...
With this combination, I've managed to do stuff at work (during lunch break) and at home. Nothing spectacular, just a PMOD compatible calculator keypad. Once I shrink it under 10cm wide I'll be getting boards made.
Thanks for the information on KiCAD. That is one that I am watching. In its current incarnation, it does not quite meet my 6 requirements that I outlined in my first story, but I have seen that there are some pretty major upgrades in the pipe.
I too am a big believer in programs making it easy for the user. Some complaing and call this bloat, but if I can do something in an hour in one program that in another would take me four, I really would not care if the first program were a gig larger install. Storage space is cheap these days. Even in tablets. Tomorrow I have a Dell Venue 8 Pro 64GB tablet coming. I am going to do a review of it from the perspective of using it as a mobile platform for coding and doing circuit design stuff.
I had been using Circuitmaker 2000, but finally outgrew it's capabilities. When it was time to graduate to a more capable CAD system, we evaluated half a dozen of them and Diptrace came out to be the clear winner for our needs. For the past four years I have used Diptrace almost every day. I find it to be intuitive and easy to learn. I had always been skeptical of autorouters, and in the past I tended to hand route all but the most complex boards, but the autorouter in Diptrace changed my mind. Yes- I still have to do a lot of cleanup after autorouting, but it has proven to be a tremendous timesaver.
Also, I'd like to mention that when I find a bug or have a problem with a feature, I can ask a question on their forum and often get a response (and resolution) from the authors of the software within hours.
Thanks for adding your experience to the comments. It is nice to hear that you ue the autorouter in a similar fashion as I do. What you say about their forum has also been nice. I have found a lot of the "hidden" features mentioned in the forum. Things like using F10 for moving text and such.
I've been using DipTrace for a few months. I've upgraded to their "Standard" version because I quickly ran into the pin limitations of the free version. I'm not sure that I completly agree with you about the intuitiveness of the interface but that may be because I'm migrating from another program with a different UI and I have to use an enterprise level program at work with yet a third UI. I do like the forums and have found answers to all my questions in there.
By the way, I've tried to import from PADS but the problem I have is that the version of PADS I have is so old that DipTrace doesn't recognize the libraries. I was able to import a very simple file that used standard library parts though...
I consider any program that I can get a sucessful result without having to read a bunch of manuals or watch a few youtube videos an intuitive program, though, I should probably throw out that I am the type of person that is willing to push a button just to see what it does. So I usually spend some time "breaking" in a new program. If it does not break, then it was successful ;)
The pin limitations could be a bigger problem for some people. The nice thing is that their upgrade plans are not too expensive.
Yes, they're upgrade plans are quite reasonable and I like that you can just pay the price difference to go to the next level. Also, you can use the free version as a viewer for designs that exceed the pin limitations. This was useful on a recent project where I needed to get feedback from someone off site. I could just email him the files and he could measure clearances and check part positions.
I am guessing your "runner-up" rating for KiCAD (from first blog) is due to the lack of a decent footprint wizard? Have not progressed to that stage yet, but already am finding the hunt through the footprint libraries tedious. And then to verify the dimensions of the library footprint one must go to the layout stage (even with schematic not yet completed) to analyze the chosen footprint dimensions to be sure it is really the one you want.
The only reason I chose KiCAD as my first PCB tool learning experience was because a colleague has used it, and might be able to assist me through the learning curve.
Your series on these PCB layout tools is going to be very educational. Thank you.
You are correct about why I have KiCAD in the runner up section. THough, it is something that I am following closely. I have been seeing signs that there is a major update in the works. With some of the things that they are looking to do, it could easily put it ahead of the feature offerings of the other systems.
Also thanks for taking the time to read and think about the articles. It is really appreciated. If there is something that you feel that I have missed, please let me know and I will go back and take a closer look.
IIRC, Sparkfun had a comment about PCB libraries: they always make their own, because they had been burned more than once by parts created by someone else that had wrong footprints.
Also, different people prefer different styles for the schematic part of the part.
One plus of my 3D approach at work (I design the PCB, our ME models it in SolidWorks using STEP/IGES models from the mfg -- note most components are connectors which have mfg models) is that it provides an independent check on my footprints.
I love SolidWorks. I usually though would just model the part up in SW as well and save it out to the DipTrace file format that they like. It is a useless file format, but people seem to like it because it is trendy on the web. STEP214 would be a much better choice as it is supported across almost all MCAD programs. STEP is harder to impliment as it supports much higher levels of complexity, but to me if you are going to charge almost $1000 for the paid version, at least that version should support this standard 3D file format.
"Unfortunately, DipTrace only supports an XML-based export file type. XML-based 3D geometry might be nice for the web, but is mostly useless in engineering."
As we working folks visit the vendor sites downloading the PDF device data and 3D parts we need, what we get is STEP203 not STEP214 and those that create the software are holding for STEP246 to finalize since the cost to add any level of STEP import/export is not trivial. We just converted 1GB of parts to XGL (Yes it is XML based) and it supports color without the external texture files and while it doesn't give you the 'life like' image of applied textures it works well for PCB layout. After fighting this problem for the last 20 years with no two companies willing to support any format that can make interchanging libraries less then a nightmare I have come to the conclusion that KISS is the best method to use: XGL for us PCB layout folks that could care less about lights, camera, texture and animation. Would it be nice to have photo-realistic 3D PCB views? Yes but the price: K5000 video card, 3D drawing program with the ability to export to our PCB software, PCB software with the ability to import 3D parts in color at scale with the proper orientation may be more then our services are worth since we are competing with people that are using copies of1999 PCB layout software. They don't need 3D, they just produce the PCB and show you!
FYI: Trendy? XGL has been around since 1990's and WRL with it's newer X3D and the U3D that Adobe uses aren't really trendy as they are attempts at finding a solution to everything. Everyone of those file formats started with a simple goal and have grown into APIs with endless enhancements. STEP is a prime example, over five releases and they are not done yet, more is scheduled to be included as the critter called feature creep consumes all.
@Cylon0: It has some minor negatives, like those mentioned; however, it gets the job done.
Great -- thanks for providing feedback -- a lot of folks read these articles and say to themselves "I agree with that" or "I don't agree with that" or "He/she should have mentoned..." but then they wander off and do something else without realizing that just saying "I agree" can be incredibly valuable to other readers...
This is so very true Max. It is interesting to read through the the reviews of a product on Amazon. There are times that you can tell that the people that are satisfied with the product have not come back to post about it, and all you are left with are reviews of not actually the product itself, but how the delivery man dumped it in a a bunch or water and despite this the part still worked. Yet they will still rank it 1 star.
I remember your original article- have you evaluated PCB Elegance?
Recently released to free use, it is loosely based on Mentor graphics and is actually quite good. Of course, all such tools have their idiosyncracies, but I've done some pretty impressive things with PCB Elegance.
Free- source code available as well. I hope it becomes an open source project.
I have not heard of that one. I did a very quick (a 30 second scan of a Google search) and I did not find a link to the site that is responsible for maintaining the code. I found a few places to download it. Can you point me towards the actual website of the group?
To beign a new project these free tools looks attractive. However, soon one gets entangled in limitations and very valuable time is lost. I had similar experience and I eventually got Eagle from element14 and it worked very good.
Just thought I'd give an update on my DipTrace experience now that I'm modifying the design that I previously did. I ran into the following problems in doing the update.
"sticky" net names when disconnecting and connecting "netports"
no options given (and NO warning) when merging nets.
For this change I had to create an isolated ground so I wanted some of the pins on the GND net to connect to the new ISOGND net. I disconnected the GND "netport" and connected up the new ISOGND "nteport" to find that the pins were still connected to GND. I finally had to delete the GND nets from the pins I wanted to change over and create new connections to ISOGND. In my opinion this was more of a pain than it needed to be.
The other thing that happened is that I removed a diode and connected the two nets. DipTrace didn't give me a choice as to what the new net name would be or any warning that I was connecting two named nets.
Both of these problems resulted in a net having a different name from the attached "netport" . I also rediscovered that you have to manually name the net even after you attach the "netport"...
Also, the trace editing capibility is not as good as I'd like. But then I'm used to a higher-end system...
I'm interested in finding out more about the other free/low-cost options.
Thanks for the update! I saw on their website that they have a beta release coming out that adds STEP/IGES functionality. I am sure that it has a few other things. I will take a look at it and see what comes of it.
I have also been playing with DesignSpark PCB. They too have a new version coming out that I will need to check out.