Back by popular demand is another round of free tools that engineers and do-it-yourselfers can use with their various projects. With the economy the way it is, ‘free’ is as good as gold and these tools are worth every penny you didn't spend on them.

We asked engineers to add to our original list. The result, which you'll see in 10 slides here, includes a compelling alternative to Excel now emerging called the R Project for Statistical Computing. Engineers say that its ability to handle large data sets and its more flexible graphing tools makes the steeper learning worth it. Engineers also give high marks to FreePCB, which trades off form for function and allows users to design and edit PCB schematics using a simple graphical interface.

Did we miss your favorite free tool? Tell us about it and why you love it in the comments section below.

Click the image below to see the slideshow of 10 free tools.

The R Project for Statistical Computing -- alternative to Excel.

First up is R&R’s (created by Robert Gentleman and Ross Ihaka) R Project, or simply ‘R’, which is a downloadable software environment used for statistical computing and graphics.

The software provides statistical and graphical techniques, including linear/non-linear modeling, time-series analysis and classical statistical tests among a host of others. The software is compatible with most OSs and will run on various UNIX platforms, Windows and MacOS-based PCs. R is also open-source software, enabling users to modify it at will to suit their needs without the fear of litigation.

More information:R Project The probability of users downloading this tool is roughly 70%.

@davemcguire Thanks for the insight on R. But isn't it true that many of us try to use Excel for something it's not equipped to do because we are not aware of a good alternative? Or too lazy to learn. :-) Would love to know more about your history with R, how you learned about it, what types of things you use it for, wow I think I am proposing you write up a blog on it! :-)

I use Excel or its Libre Office equivalent occasionally. It can be a terrific way to present certain kinds of information, and also do a quick analysis. It's also nice that you don't have to use it every day to maintain proficiency.

Some of my uses:

1. I used it to help design an FPGA-based Baud Rate Generator. Excel was a great way to calculate divisors and prescaling for standard Baud rates, and calculate the frequency error.

2. It's a great way to work up an FPGA pinout. Xilinx provides generic pinouts for their parts and you can add your own signal names and notes. Xilinx Excel files show which pins are dedicated to power, ground, and pre-defined functions so you can avoid them for user I/Os.

I use Excel for analysis all the time. If you are looking for an alternative to Excel, you might want to check out pyspread.

http://manns.github.io/pyspread/

I haven't tried it, because the team uses Excel and I'm not going to switch to something different, but I like the idea of using Python to program a spreadsheet rather than Vbasic.

I know there are many engineers who share your view on Excel. However I have made a bit of a career about writing about the use of Excel in Electronic Engineering.

It's a bit iffy to classify R as "an alternative to Excel". R is not a spreadsheet, it never has been and never will be...and Excel has nowhere near the data manipulation capabilities of R. There is very little overlap between their capabilities.

As a design engineer, I find Excel useful about once every three to four years, usually for things like BOMs, but I use R almost daily for REAL engineering work. R makes short work of anything that my trusty HP calculator can't easily handle. It was designed for statistical work (it traces its roots back to Bell Labs' 'S" language in the 1970s, and has seen a great deal of refinement over the years, but it's more properly presented (in my opinion) as a "mathematical Swiss Army knife".

While there are some great tools in this and the original list, I am left scratching my head as to why LTspice failed to make the list again. I use it very often and is at the top of my list of free tools.

Another nice tool is the free version of Mathcad. When you let the free 30 day trial lapse. You get a very stripped down version that is still quite useful as a math scratchpad that handles units. Very useful for free.

Finally, if you are going to included tools tied to vendor's parts like Cypress' PSoC Creator and TI's WEBENCH, you should included the free versions of Quartus from Altera and ISE WebPack from Xilinx.

You could add PARI/GP from France for advanced algebraic analyses, it's actively maintained, and also goes well beyond what I understand.

I have a question, though: in 2000, I was using a program that could fit a dataset to a function optimally ( least-squares, outlier reject etc.) by trying hundreds of algorithms, e.g. series, logs, ratios, trancentals, relations among them. Do you know the name of that program?

An alternative like this for excel is very good for the engineers. I always felt that engineers need more and should be able to upgrade it themsleves without calling any customer support or getting into copyright issues. I started using Ubuntu and in last three years it never crashed and so easy to operate and has so much flexibility.

January 2016 Cartoon Caption ContestBob's punishment for missing his deadline was to be tied to his chair tantalizingly close to a disconnected cable, with one hand superglued to his desk and another to his chin, while the pages from his wall calendar were slowly torn away.122 comments

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