This is a difficult question and is often best answered based on the type, complexity, and requirements of the designed PCB. Free PCB software programs are best suited for more simple designs and students and hobbyists. These include Eagle, KiCad, and TinyPCB. There are also paid-for programs that are much more robust and can handle more complex designs, such as Altium Designer, Pads, and Allegro. Here we discuss ten PCB software tools available today in no particular order.
1. Altium Designer
Altium Designer is a PCB and electronic design automation software package for printed circuit boards. Australian software company Altium Limited developed it.
Altium Designer suite includes two main packages:
- Altium Designer SE
Altium Designer System Engineering (SE) is a robust schematic editor. This program provides a collaboration service that allows multiple engineers and PCB designers to work together throughout the process. Schematic capture tools include a schematic creator and editor, schematic documentation, and simulation.
- Altium Designer
Altium Designer is the tool used for the PCB design. It allows PCB designers to share 3D models for mechanical verification. It has an interactive router that enables the designer to route traces using various methods and techniques. It also provides a space to collaborate with engineers, PCB designers, and manufacturing facilities.
Altium Designer is one of 911EDA's preferred PCB design packages. 911EDA is an Official Altium PCB Design Firm.
PADs PowerPCB is a design software package developed by Mentor Graphics, now owned by Siemens. There are several packages available:
- PADs Professional
PADs professional provides collaboration between engineers, designers, and project managers. The software claims to accurately autoroute up to 80% of the netlist, although we cannot confirm this. PADs can handle flex and rigid-flex boards. Built-in HyperLynx allows the user to analyze signal integrity.
- PADs Standard and PADs Standard Plus
PADs is more of an economic tool, and PADs Standard Plus adds some advanced design capabilities and simulation and signal integrity analysis. The schematic editor includes complete hierarchical support and rules and attributes management. The placement and routing tools are easy to use and can tackle technologies such as RF, analog, digital, and high speed. PADs Standard Plus includes HyperLynx integration as well.
One of 911EDA's preferred packages is PADs PCB design.
Allegro by Cadence is a potent yet easy to PCB software tool. This constraint-driven tool allows engineers and designers to input design rules, requirements, and constraints and receive real-time visual feedback.
Allegro allows the user to quickly analyze the design to identify signal integrity issues and fix them to reduce respins. A system utilizing algorithms makes it an easy tool for both simple and even the most complex designs. The collaboration environment allows two or more designers to work on different board sections simultaneously. Real-time checks for design for manufacturability also help reduce respins.
OrCAD PCB Designer, also from Cadence, is a scalable tiered system allowing the purchase of only some of the available features or all of them. OrCAD provides PCB layout software for schematic capture and editing, PCB design, a constraint manager, signal integrity analysis, and an autorouter.
OrCAD is one of 911EDA's preferred PCB design tools.
Xpedition Enterprise, also from Siemens, is one of the more high-end powerful tools. Xpedition's main selling point is its multi-discipline integration that provides a collaborative environment between RF, harness, IC packaging, and mechanical. Multiple engineers and designers can work simultaneously, reducing the total design time. Xpedition also has an autorouter.
BoardStation is powered by AutoActive Technology to integrate the design flow. This combines an autorouter with interactive design editing, allowing the user to utilize only one tool. Switching between the autorouter and the interactive router is simple. This increases productivity and reduces design time.
Eagle is a schematic editor and PCB design tool from AutoDesk. The schematic editor includes Spice simulation to test and validate signal integrity. Modular design blocks allow the engineer to save and reuse schematic blocks over multiple projects. It also has an electronic rule checker to ensure all requirements are met.
The PCB editor synchronizes the design and schematic in real-time. Alignment tools are used to arrange and order different design objects. The interactive router provides the ability to "push and shove" traces, making the design process easy. It also has a design rule checker to ensure all requirements are met.
KiCad is a free, open-source schematic editor, PCB editor, and 3D Viewer. Despite being free, it is a very robust tool. The schematic editor includes an official schematic symbol library and a built-in symbol editor. Large designs are broken down into hierarchical sheets, eliminating restrictions on the complexity of the design and the tool's capabilities.
The interactive router has three separate modes. When traces interfere with other traces, the Collision Highlight mode shows the intersection. The user can push traces and vias, so they do not interfere with the traces being routed. Walkaround uses the mouse cursor to draw traces while working around obstacles.
The 3D Viewer allows the user to view and move the rendering around. This allows the user to inspect the board much more powerfully than viewing a 2D model.
ExpressPCB is a free software package with minimal capabilities. There are two options - Classic and Plus.
The Classic package is limited to designs with 2-4 layers and only allows silkscreen on the top layer. It does have a link between the schematic and design and integrated design for manufacturability.
The Plus package will handle designs from 2-to 6 layers and allows silkscreen and both sides (top and bottom). It also has a link between the schematic and design and integrated design for manufacturability. The Plus package adds the integration of SnapEDA to download symbols and footprints. The Plus package also will validate the schematic and layout.
DesignSpark PCB is another free software package from RS Components. Users can download specific tool sets or the entire package. There are no limitations on the number of schematic sheets or PCB layers. It has an integrated library to download symbols and footprints, or the PCB designer can use the editor to create them manually. There are no restrictions on manufacturing files or BOM formats.