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Top 10 Popular PCB Layout Software Tools Widely Used (2023)

A high interconnect PCB

In the realm of electronics, the journey from conceptual design to a tangible, functional device is filled with intricacies and decisions. Central to this journey is the process of PCB (Printed Circuit Board) design and layout, a meticulous task that bridges the theoretical world of electronic schematics to the tangible realm of electronic devices.

Whether you’re an enthusiast tinkering in your garage or a professional crafting intricate electronic systems, choosing the right PCB editor and layout software can be as crucial as the design itself.

This article delves into the popular PCB layout tools, spanning from those suitable for beginners taking their first steps into the world of electronics, to advanced tools employed by professionals in cutting-edge projects. As we navigate through each tool, we’ll explore its core features, strengths, and potential applications, guiding you towards the perfect software for your needs.

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1. KiCad: Best For Open Source PCB Design & Layout

Kicad is an open-source electronics design automation suite. Its versatility allows for both simple and complex PCB designs. It offers a range of integrated tools, such as schematic capture and PCB layout editor. Over the years, its community has grown significantly, and it’s been adopted for both hobbyist and professional projects.

KiCad PCB

Budget: Free (Open-source).

Project Complexity: Suitable for both simple and complex projects.

Platform: Windows, macOS, Linux.

Pros: Open-source, multi-platform (Windows, macOS, Linux), continuously improving, and suitable for complex designs.

Cons: Might have a steeper learning curve for some users.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing
KiCad××

While KiCad is an open-source tool, its interface is intuitive and offers a comprehensive set of features for both beginners and experienced designers. The interface is modular, meaning different tasks like schematic capture and PCB layout have separate windows. The community around KiCad is vibrant, offering numerous tutorials, forums, and additional libraries. For those used to commercial products, there might be an adjustment period, but the software’s capabilities and support make the transition smoother.



2. EAGLE: Best For Hobbyists & Startups

Originally developed by the German company CadSoft, EAGLE (an acronym for Easily Applicable Graphical Layout Editor) was acquired by Autodesk. It’s popular among hobbyists, makers, and professionals. It offers schematic capture, PCB layout, and an extensive component library. Its integration with Autodesk’s Fusion 360 provides added 3D modeling capabilities.

EAGLE

Budget: Free version with limitations; Paid versions available.

Project Complexity: Hobbyist to intermediate.

Platform: Windows, macOS, Linux.

Pros: Widely used in the hobbyist community, extensive library support, integrates with Fusion 360 for mechanical design.

Cons: It was free with certain limitations, but after its acquisition by Autodesk, the licensing model changed, potentially limiting its accessibility for some users.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

EAGLE

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EAGLE, being one of the older PCB design tools, has a user interface that might feel a bit dated to new users. However, its standard-driven approach ensures a reliable design process. Autodesk’s acquisition has led to some integration with other Autodesk tools, enhancing its GUI capabilities. There’s also a significant amount of online resources, tutorials, and a large user community that can help new users navigate the software.



3. Altium Designer: Best For Comprehensive PCB Design Solutions

A high-end, comprehensive tool for PCB design. Altium Designer caters to professionals and enterprises that require advanced features and capabilities. It offers everything from schematic capture to PCB layout and even FPGA design. Its 3D visualization of the PCB assembly is particularly notable.

Altium Designer

Budget: Expensive (Professional-grade).

Project Complexity: Suitable for complex projects.

Platform: Windows.

Pros: Professional-grade software used by many companies, powerful features, and strong support/community.

Cons: Expensive, may be overkill for smaller projects or hobbyists.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

Altium Designer

Altium Designer is a premium PCB design software with a modern, unified user interface. It seamlessly integrates schematic design, PCB layout, and other modules, ensuring fluid transitions between tasks. For beginners, there might be a steeper learning curve given its vast array of features, but the software is well-documented with numerous tutorials and a strong user community to assist.



4. Orcad/Allegro:Best For Scalable Design Workflows

Part of the Cadence Design Systems suite, Orcad is a widely-used toolset for circuit design, simulation, and PCB layout. When you require more advanced capabilities, you’d typically move to Allegro, Cadence’s high-end PCB layout tool.

Orcad

Budget: Expensive (Professional-grade).

Project Complexity: Suitable for complex projects.

Platform: Windows.

Pros: Another professional-grade software, part of Cadence Design Systems. Used widely in industry.

Cons: Expensive, and might be complex for beginners.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

Orcad/Allegro

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Orcad and Allegro, under the Cadence umbrella, have a professional-grade interface that’s tailored for complex PCB designs. While the interface might feel overwhelming to beginners, its structured workflow ensures efficiency once familiar. The software is backed by detailed documentation, and there’s a significant emphasis on design standards and integrity.



5. EasyEDA: Best For Online PCB Design & Simulation

A cloud-based tool, EasyEDA allows for PCB design right in your web browser. It’s user-friendly and great for beginners and intermediate designers. Its collaborative features are a highlight, allowing multiple users to work on the same design simultaneously.

EasyEDA

Budget: Free (with premium features available).

Project Complexity: Beginner to intermediate.

Platform: Web-based.

Pros: Web-based, easy to use, and suitable for beginners. Allows for online collaboration.

Cons: Being web-based might not appeal to those who prefer offline tools. Limited advanced features compared to professional tools.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

EasyEDA

Being web-based, EasyEDA offers a more streamlined and accessible interface. It’s designed for both beginners and those who want quick prototyping. Its online nature allows for real-time collaboration and easy sharing of designs. The toolset is simpler compared to heavyweight applications, making it user-friendly, but it might lack some advanced features.



6. Fritzing: Best For Beginners & Educational Use

Geared towards hobbyists and educators, Fritzing is a simple tool that helps users move from a breadboard prototype to a PCB design. It’s known for its intuitive and visual interface, which is beginner-friendly.

Fritzing

Budget: Free.

Project Complexity: Suitable for basic projects and prototyping.

Platform: Windows, macOS, Linux.

Pros: Very beginner-friendly, often used for basic projects and prototyping.

Cons: Not suitable for complex or professional-grade projects.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

Fritzing

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Fritzing is geared towards hobbyists and beginners with its unique breadboard view, which allows users to transition from physical prototyping to PCB design easily. Its interface is more graphical and less intimidating for those new to electronics. However, for complex projects, it might not offer the depth required.



7. DipTrace: Best For Intuitive Schematic & PCB Design Layout

With a user-friendly interface, DipTrace is suitable for both beginners and advanced users. It covers schematic capture, PCB layout, and 3D visualization of the assembled board.

DipTrace

Budget: Free version with limitations; Paid versions available.

Project Complexity: Beginner to intermediate.

Platform: Windows, macOS.

Pros: Intuitive and user-friendly interface. It comes with a good set of features for both beginners and intermediate users.

Cons: Might lack some of the advanced features found in high-end software.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

DipTrace

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DipTrace offers a balanced user experience with an intuitive interface that doesn’t compromise on professional features. The learning curve is moderate, with an organized workflow. The software comes with tutorials and a decent community to help guide newcomers.



8. Mentor Graphics PADS: Best For Enterprise-Level PCB Design

PADS (Personal Automated Design System) is a robust, professional PCB design software from Mentor Graphics (now a Siemens business). It’s used by enterprises and professionals for complex PCB designs.

Mentor

Budget: Expensive (Professional-grade).

Project Complexity: Suitable for complex projects.

Platform: Windows.

Pros: Professional software with a suite of tools for complex designs.

Cons: Expensive and has a steep learning curve.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

Mentor Graphics PADS

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PADS, being an enterprise-level tool, offers a detailed and structured interface suitable for complex PCB designs. Its focus on standards and design integrity might make it seem intricate, but it ensures reliability. Proper training might be required for complete proficiency, but the software is well-supported with documentation.



9. TINA-TI: Best For SPICE Simulation & Analysis

This is a simulation and design tool provided by Texas Instruments. Besides being a circuit simulator, it also offers PCB layout capabilities, especially tailored for designs involving TI components.

TINA-TI

Budget: Free.

Project Complexity: Suitable for basic to intermediate projects.

Platform: Windows.

Pros: A product from Texas Instruments, it includes schematic capture, PCB layout, and simulation.

Cons: More limited than dedicated layout tools.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

TINA-TI

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Primarily a simulation tool, TINA-TI has an interface focused on circuit analysis and testing. While it has PCB design capabilities, its strength lies in the detailed simulation features. It might require some familiarization for users new to circuit simulation but is well-documented.



10. DesignSpark: Best For Rapid Prototyping & Small Projects

Offered by RS Components, DesignSpark PCB is a free tool that provides comprehensive features. It’s particularly popular among hobbyists and SMEs, and its intuitive interface makes it accessible to beginners.

DesignSpark PCB

Budget: Free.

Project Complexity: Beginner to intermediate.

Platform: Windows.

Pros: Free and user-friendly with no limitations on design size.

Cons: Doesn’t have all the advanced features of professional software.

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic Routing

DesignSpark PCB

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DesignSpark PCB offers an intuitive interface aimed at both beginners and intermediate users. It’s straightforward, with clear workflows, making it easy to pick up. The software is supported by a community and various online resources, making the learning process smoother.



10 PCB Layout Software Features Comparison

FeatureComprehensive DRCComponent LibrarySimulation CapabilitiesCollaboration FeaturesAutomatic RoutingPlatform
KiCad××Windows, macOS, Linux
EAGLE×Windows, macOS, Linux
Altium DesignerWindows
Orcad/Allegro×Windows
EasyEDAWeb-based
Fritzing××Windows, macOS, Linux
DipTrace××Windows, macOS
Mentor Graphics PADS×Windows
TINA-TI××Windows
DesignSpark PCB××Windows

Choose Advice

  1. For Beginners: If you’re just starting, consider using Fritzing for prototyping and transitioning to KiCad or EasyEDA as you become more familiar with PCB design. DesignSpark PCB is also a great choice for beginners due to its intuitive interface.
  2. For Intermediate Users: EAGLE is a favorite among many due to its balance between functionality and usability. DipTrace is also recommended for its user-friendly interface combined with a decent feature set.
  3. For Professionals: If you’re working on complex, industrial-grade projects, or if you’re part of a design team in a company, Altium Designer, Orcad/Allegro, and Mentor Graphics PADS are the top choices due to their advanced capabilities. They come at a higher cost but offer features that are invaluable for intricate designs.
  4. For Collaboration: If you want to collaborate with others in real-time or prefer an online solution, EasyEDA is an excellent choice.

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