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Deciding on PCB design tool as a young engineer

If you are studying at university, working for a small company or own a start-up, chances are that you can’t afford expensive software for PCB design. As a young engineer myself, I literally scream if I find free tools that offer a good functionality. DesignSpark PCB software is probably one of the best in the market that satisfies the majority of my needs. However, if you are willing to pay for extra features, I have compiled a list of tools ranging from £60 to £800 with a goal of helping you decide on software that matches YOUR needs.

Diptrace is the most affordable PCB design tool on my list. There is a free version available with limited capability of designing only for 300 pins and 2 layers. Student versions can be purchased with a generous discount. Some of the key features of Diptrace include:

  • Multi-level and multi-sheet hierarchical schematics design, Electrical Rule Check (ERC), import/export capabilities from/to other PCB design tools.
  • The standard library of 140,000 components and 15,200 patterns, but the software comes with a Component and Pattern Editor for customizing components based on dimensions, shape, etc. Free 7500 3D models.
  • Direct schematics-to-board conversion and back annotation, high speed and differential signalling, shape-based auto-routing.

Eagle from Autodesk is on the higher end in terms of the price, but it is still not in the “professional use” section. The large database of users makes it easier to find help among members of forums and communities. There are plenty of tutorials available on Autodesk’s Youtube channel. It offers great features such as:

  • In-built SPICE simulator, reusable design blocks, real-time design synchronization.
  • Advanced routing methods (interactive push and shove routing, obstacle avoidance routing, etc), intuitive alignment tools.
  • The ability to manage to create and manage libraries as a team in full (“premium”) version.

Circuit Studio is an affordable software from Altium that comes with some of the features of Designer software such as Altium Vault of library parts. I could not find many people reviewing this software, so I hope it does not mean there are not many who use it in the first place. The initial browsing on the website left a good impression on me. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of good quality video content they have along with full documentation with clear navigation. Let’s have a closer look at the software features:

  • Interactive and intelligent routing, collaboration with MCAD tools, built-in analogue, and digital simulation
  • Hierarchical schematic design, constraint-driven PCB layout design, Altium Designer and Eagle compatibility
  • 350,000 components in CircuitStudio Content Library

I almost forgot to mention that there is even a discount if you switch from Eagle.

Easy PC, as its name suggests, is an easy and intuitive tool for PCB design that has been in the electronics industry for more than 20 years. It is fully configurable to suit the needs of professional users as well as hobbyists.

The cost of the software is kept very affordable, but the users can purchase add-on tools and libraries separately. For example, high-performance shape-based PCB router costs from £327.

Most of the features that you expect in software at this price are included in Easy PC, but let’s see what is interesting in there:

  • Ability to save design technology files, library management/creation wizard, instant cross probing of designs
  • “Top-down” and “top-bottom” hierarchical design, SPICE netlist export for 10 different interfaces, Electrical Rule Check (ERC), forward and back annotation between schematic and PCB designs
  • Design reuse, integrity checking, Traceroute autorouter, shape-based copper pour, customized BOM generator

DesignSpark PCB Pro has been recently released for professional use, but at a fraction of the cost of the software at the high-end range. It comes with an unlimited number of pins and layers as it was for a free version of the software, but there are more interesting features inside that were not previously available:

  • Hierarchical design, schematic DRC, auto-filling shapes, design notes
  • Panelized Gerber plots, variant manager, three types of via (blind, buried, through-hole), expanded PCB DRC with sign off
  • Advanced routing modes, cross-hatch copper pours, teardrops, bullet, and asymmetric pad shapes, automatic track necking between pads and to SMD pads

The software comes with an evaluation version that comes with all the functionality except for saving design files and Gerber output files. The software interface is very intuitive and easy to learn by following the user guide.

The following tables summarize the main technical features of software tools discussed above.

 

Cost and license type

 

License

Free trial

Cost*

Starter

Standard

Full version

DipTrace

Perpetual

Yes

"Starter": £61 for 300 pins and 2 layers; "Lite": £118 for 500 pins and 2 layers

"Standard": £322 for 1000 pins and 4 layers, "Extended": £566 for 2000 pins and 6 layers

"Full": £811 for unlimited pins and layers 

Eagle

Monthly
/Annual

Yes

   -      

£12/month or £114/per year for 99 schematic sheets, 4 layers, 160cm2 board area

£78/month or £600/per year for 999 schematic sheets, 16 layers, unlimited board area

Circuit Studio

Perpetual

Yes

-

-

£380

Easy PC

Perpetual

Yes

£297 for 1000 pins

£397 for 2000 pins

£497 for unlimited pins

DS PCB Pro

Perpetual

Yes

-

-

£375

The prices do not include VAT.

The exchange rate of 1$=0.81£ has been applied for tools that are sold in US dollars. 

Schematic and PCB design

 

Hierarchical design

Panel editor

3D View

Variant Manager

Library editor/ creator

DipTrace

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Eagle

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Circuit Studio

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Easy PC

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

DS PCB Pro

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

Collaboration with other software

 

Importing from other software

Integration with CAD tools

Exporting to simulation software

DipTrace

Eagle, Altium, P-CAD, PADS, and OrCAD

Export in STEP or VRML 2.0 format

Spice Netlist Export: LT-Spice

Eagle

P-CAD, Altium, Protel

Export in STEP file format

Embedded SPICE simulator

Circuit Studio

PADS, P-CAD, OrCAD, Protel, Eagle

Import/export in IDF and STEP file formats

Integrated SPICE engine supporting Pspice, SPICE 3F5, and XSPICE models

Easy PC

Eagle, OrCAD, Ultiboard Multisim, Boardmaker

Import/export from DXF file format

Spice Netlist Exports: B2 Spice, IsSpice, LT Spice, MicroCap, Pspice, SiMetrix, Spice3, Tina, TopSpice.

DS PCB Pro

Eagle, OrCAD

Export in IDF file format

Import in DXF file format

Spice Netlist Exports: SPICE, LT-Spice, Tina

 

This last table is based on my personal user experience as someone, who is new to PCB design and needs a considerable amount of guidance and support.

User journey

 

Easy to use

Support

Tutorials

Navigation on the website

DipTrace

Yes

Good

Normal

Good

Eagle

Yes

Good

Very good

Good

Circuit Studio

Normal

Good

Normal

Good

Easy PC

Normal

Very good

Good

Normal

DS PCB Pro

Yes

Good

Normal

Good

 

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this article helps you to narrow your search of ultimate PCB design software. I have linked some of the other comparison articles below. However, at the end of the day, some people must download and test the software out for themselves, which I totally recommend you do since most software have free trial versions. Please comment below your favourite design tool and why you like it.

More resources

Free PCB design tool from DesignSpark

New DesignSpark PCB Pro

Top five PCB CAD Programs

 

 

Hi, there! I am a Super Seed Intern with DesignSpark.

2 Oct 2019, 10:54

Comments

October 18, 2019 14:58

It’s also worth to keep in mind that there is an inherent issue with the DSPCB which makes it unacceptable for many people. It’s the fact that it require connection to the RS server to work. If RS ever decide to stop supporting it, that will render all the design files inaccessible. Seems that it’s the same with the Pro version, even that it’s not free! The other issue is the DSPCB development, it’s limited by the developer who also have a commercial version of the PCB design software, so it’s unlikely to add too many features over time and create a free competition to its paid for version. I guess that’s the main reason we are not going to see any of the most requested features soon. That’s where KiCAD is far superior and I’d wish RS invested in it instead.

0 Votes

October 15, 2019 14:54

KiCad now equals Altium in capability and features for all basic needs. I just completed a project re-engineering an embedded industrial controller using KiCad and there would have been no advantage to using a proprietary CAE product (and we easily shared development).

0 Votes

October 15, 2019 07:31

After trying most of the free or low cost programs, I ended up using KiCad. It works best for me. No restrictions and a large library of parts.

0 Votes

October 15, 2019 07:33

I've been using PCB cad for nearly 30 years on and off, and the one system I have used that was not over complicated was PROTEUS, have a look at it, you might find it suits your requirements.

0 Votes

October 8, 2019 07:39

Keep in mind that the standard DesignSpark PCB program (vs the new Pro variant) can still be used for commercial projects. It is full-featured enough for many design needs, and is free. It doesn't have limits on number of pins or components in a design, and outputs standard files. If you later find yourself needing additional capabilities like blind vias, panelization, etc., you can upgrade to the DS PCB Pro, which can read your existing DS PCB designs.

[Comment was deleted]

October 8, 2019 09:25

@BradLevy thank you for your comment. Yes, indeed. I am quite happy with free version of DesignSpark PCB software.

Sue

October 8, 2019 07:40

Other PCB layout software worth looking at:

Vutrax: This is the system I started with in the mid '80s running on the then newly released IBM PC-AT. It had 4MB of Extended Memory and a 20MB hard drive!
http://www.vutrax.co.uk/

KiCad: Definitely worth looking at, particularly for anyone who was using WorkView or Mentor Graphics software in the past.
http://www.kicad-pcb.org/

October 8, 2019 09:25

@Sue thanks for your recommendations!