PCB Design Software – Which One is Best?

Article Technical Rating: 7 out of 10

There are numerous software packages available for designing printed circuit boards (PCBs), too many in fact.

That being said, there are three PCB design packages that are the most popular: Altium, Eagle, and OrCad.

For a struggling hardware entrepreneur developing a new electronic product or even for a freelance engineer just getting started, all three of these packages are probably prohibitively expensive. Launching a new product is already rather expensive without also spending thousands of dollars on just design design software.

NOTE: Avoid fatal mistakes on your PCB design by downloading your free cheat sheet - 7 Fatal Errors to Avoid on Your PCB Design.

Altium Designer is considered the Ferrari of PCB design packages and starts at over $7,000!  No that is not a typo.  It’s good software, but that’s pretty crazy.

Altium is the most popular PCB design package among those with a company’s budget behind them.  Because of that it’s also the package that many new freelance engineers are most familiar.  A good amount of freelancers splurge on Altium because it’s what they already know.

Most people developing PCBs independently, like entrepreneurs, hackers, and freelance designers, usually can’t afford to shell out that kind of cash on software.

Although significantly cheaper than Altium, neither Eagle or OrCad can really be considered affordable.  OrCad has a price tag of $2,580.  Eagle is a little more affordable at $1,640.

They are all also difficult to use.  Plan on spending at least several days, but more likely weeks, learning how to use any of them (especially Eagle!).

A cheaper, easier to use option is a software package called DipTrace, which is what I personally recommend, especially for new designers. Although Diptrace is a fantastic option for new designers, it’s also powerful enough to handle the most complicated designs.

One of my favorite things about DipTrace, other than its low price, is that it offers several upgrade levels starting from only $75.  The top package is $895 and allows designs of unlimited size. Each level increases the maximum number of pins and signal layers allowed.  You can start with the $75 Starter version and work your way up as needed.  You only pay the difference between each level.

PCB Design Software Pricing Comparison

PCB Design Software PackageLimitationsPrice
Diptrace FullNone$875
Eagle ProfessionalNone$1,640
Cadence OrCad PCB DesignerNone$2,580
Altium DesignerNone$7,245
Diptrace Starter300 pins, 2 signal layers$75
Diptrace Standard1,000 pins, 4 signal layers$345
Diptrace Extended2,000 pins, 6 signal layers$595
Eagle Standard99 sheets, 6 signal layers$820

So Who Exactly Needs PCB Design Software?

Let’s look at the types of people most likely to need a PCB design tool.  I’ll discuss four groups of people likely to use circuit design software, although I’m sure there are several more:

GROUP #1 – Corporate engineers – Most established companies can easily afford to spend thousands of dollars on software.  Altium is probably the right choice for you.

GROUP #2 – Independent freelance engineers – If you already know how to use Altium from a previous corporate job, and you can afford it, then Altium may be your best choice.  If not, then then DipTrace is probably your best choice, unless you need to collaborate with other engineers.  If you collaborating with other engineers is critical then you’ll probably be better off with one of the more popular packages.

GROUP #3 – Engineer entrepreneurs – If you have prior experience designing electronics (or wish to learn how) then you may be better off designing your product yourself.  Or at least as much as possible.  DipTrace is definitely the way to go for you!

GROUP #4 – Electronic hobbyists and hackers – Whether you’re developing a circuit for fun or for profit, DipTrace is easily the best design package for you.

The Most Important Criteria for PCB Design Software

For me, as well as most entrepreneurs and a majority of freelance engineers, there are five primary criteria that matter most when selecting a circuit design software package:

CRITERIA #1 – Must be intuitive to use – DipTrace is the clear winner when it comes to being intuitive to use.  Using DipTrace you’ll be able to begin designing your circuit almost immediately with a very minimal learning curve.  No need to waste hours reading a boring manual with DipTrace,

Eagle is the clear loser in regards to being intuitive to use.  It has the worst user interface of just about any design package I’ve ever used.  Eagle is utterly frustrating to learn and you’ll waste days or weeks trying to learn it.  In fact, it will probably be many weeks before you are actually comfortable with it, if ever.

CRITERIA #2 Must be reasonably priced – DipTrace is easily the most affordable PCB design package.  It is only half the price of Eagle, or only an eighth the price of Altium.  DipTrace also has a low barrier to entry because you can begin with their low-cost Starter version and upgrade your way up as needed.

CRITERIA #3 Needs to have all of the features you’ll ever need, but not every feature you could ever imagine – There is no clear winner here, and it really depends on your needs.  That being said, DipTrace has had every feature I’ve ever needed.

CRITERIA #4 Ideally it should be a “standard” and in widespread use.  Altium is the clear winner for this criteria, with Eagle in second, OrCad in third place, and DipTrace coming in last.

CRITERIA #5 Large libraries of components available.  All four packages come with huge libraries of components.  Large libraries are critical because creating new components can introduce errors that won’t be captured by any of the verification tools.  That being said, regardless of the package, you’ll eventually need to create some custom components yourself.

Because they are so popular, Altium and Eagle are probably the winners for this criteria because component manufacturers are more likely to provide a component library for one of these two packages.  This has never really been an issue for me and I’ve found DipTrace’s libraries to be quite extensive.

The Ultimate Cost of Complicated Software

While designing microchips for Texas Instruments (TI) we used a package from Cadence (makers of OrCad) which cost TI probably millions in licensing fees.

Honestly, it was horrible software that was very confusing and difficult to use.  So it also cost an incredible amount in lost design time from engineers.  In general, it took new designers several months to get really efficient in its use.

Not so with DipTrace.  If you’ve ever done any circuit design or PCB layout you can sit down with DipTrace and be producing quality designs within a few hours.  At the other extreme is Eagle which will cost you weeks of lost design time.  Can you tell I really don’t like Eagle?

Some Details About DipTrace

DipTrace consists of four separate modules.  One for schematic entry, one for PCB layout, one for creating new components, and one for creating new PCB landing patterns.

DiptraceMainMenuDipTrace Opening Menu

The DipTrace schematic capture module is an advanced circuit design tool that supports multi-sheet and multi-level hierarchical schematics.  Circuits can be easily converted to PCB and back annotated. Verification and Spice export for simulation allow for full project analysis.

ScreenHunter_310 Jul. 13 12.37DipTrace’s Schematic capture module

The DipTrace PCB layout module offers smart manual routing, shape-based autorouting, advanced verification, and 3D previewing.

Design rules can be defined by net classes, class-to-class rules, and detailed settings by object types for each class or layer. DipTrace features a design process with real-time DRC, which reports errors on the fly before actually making them.

The board can be previewed in 3D and exported  for mechanical CAD modeling. Design Rule Check (DRC) with in-depth detailing, net connectivity verification, and comparing to source schematic ensure maximum quality of the final design.

ScreenHunter_311 Jul. 13 12.41DipTrace’s PCB layout module

The DipTrace component editor is for creating schematic symbols for any components not included in DipTrace’s library of components.

The DipTrace pattern editor is for the creating PCB landing patterns for these new components.

The main negative I’ve found with Diptrace is that’s not as standard as Altium, Eagle, or OrCAD which can be an issue if you ever want to work with other engineers on a project.

For example, you may want to design the schematic circuit, but have someone else do the PCB layout for you.  This becomes challenging with DipTrace.  Most PCB layout engineers use Altium, Eagle, or OrCad and it’s very problematic to switch between software packages on a project.

You can design the schematic in DipTrace, but if you wish to outsource the PCB layout the schematic will probably need to be exported to a PDF file, then manually redrawn in the new software package by the PCB layout engineer.  Of course, there are plenty of engineers that do use DipTrace (like myself), so this isn’t always necessary.

DipTrace can import schematics and PCB layouts from Eagle and OrCad (but not Altium); however, it can’t export to these formats.  Each PCB software package tries to make it difficult for you to export to another package because they don’t want to lose you as a customer.

What About Free PCB Design Software?

Free PCB design packages do exist but I don’t generally recommend them. Some PCB suppliers offer their own proprietary PCB design tools. These tools are free but they usually only work with that specific PCB supplier.

So if you start a design using one of these free supplier-specific tools then you are usually “stuck” using that supplier.  Limiting your supplier options to a single company is not generally a good idea. By using these free tools you are boxing yourself in a corner that may be hard to break from later.

That being said, DipTrace, Eagle, and OrCad all offer free versions of their software. The free versions are severely limited in how complex of a design you can create, but they allow you to test them out before forking over the cash for their paid versions. Altium offers a limited-time free trial of its software.

So if you have any doubts which package is right for you, then I highly recommend that you download and test their free versions first. Most likely you won’t be able to create your entire design, unless it is unusually simple, but it will let you decide which package is best for you.

Conclusion

I think you will find that DipTrace is the only software that is intuitive enough to allow you to create your design immediately without spending hours reading the manual. Most likely, unless you read the manuals, you will get very frustrated trying to use Eagle, OrCad, or Altium.  Although I’ve found Eagle to be the most frustrating to use.

So to summarize, if you’re looking for something easy to use and affordable then go with DipTrace.  If you need to work with other engineers on the same project then Altium is probably the best choice.

NOTE: DipTrace is what I use so I’ll admit I’m rather biased. Also there are numerous PCB design programs available, many of which I’ve not used, so I don’t discuss every option available.
 

NOTE: Avoid fatal mistakes on your PCB design by downloading your free cheat sheet - 7 Fatal Errors to Avoid on Your PCB Design.

For another review of various PCB software packages see the comparison by San Francisco Circuits.

If you would like to learn all of the details to developing a new electronic product be sure to check out my Ultimate Guide – How to Develop a New Electronic Product.

If you have any questions or feedback please be sure to post in the comment section below. Or, if preferred, feel free to contact me directly with any questions. I love helping entrepreneurs and I always reply to questions.

Also, if you found this article helpful please share it across your social media networks. You’ll find share buttons below. I really appreciate shares!

Leave a Reply 23 comments

Brian Silverman - March 21, 2017 Reply

Thanks for this article. I’m going to give DipTrace a try.

I’m a long time embedded software design that has done just a handful of hardware designs, always in EagleCAD. EagleCAD is the worst UI design of any GUI software I’ve ever used. This is rarely mentioned in reviews – most reviews simply compare feature lists.

But, the interface is critically important if you are concerned with engineering design time and design errors. EagleCAD somehow poorly reinvented every GUI design idea that had been solved more than 30 years ago. Just moving a component requires an arcane sequence of clicks and right-clicks.

So, thanks for the recommendation, and thanks for actually mentioning that Eagle’s UI is broken!

    John Teel - March 21, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for the feedback Brian! I couldn’t agree more:) From an UI standpoint DipTrace is the exact opposite of Eagle, and when I first tried DipTrace a few years ago I was able to immediately begin producing designs because it’s so intuitive to use.

    Best wishes,
    John

Ruud de Vreugd - January 17, 2017 Reply

Great overview of popular EDA software. I too love Diptrace. I use easyEDA for spice simulation, but don’t like the interface for PCB design. Yes that is a personal preference, i know 🙂 Further more I do like the kombi of QCad which is free and diptrace for component and footprint creation. Highly intuitive.
If you like easyEDA for its PCB manufacturing you simply send the gerberfiles from diptrace. No problem.
One thing I like to mention is diptrace can be free for 300 pins and 2 layers. Just send them a message and a statement you won’t use it on a commercial basis and you have a non commercial license in a day or so. Highly recommended for hobbyist and alike.

    John Teel - January 17, 2017 Reply

    Hey Ruud,

    Thanks for the helpful comment!

    Best wishes,
    John Teel

Omar - January 13, 2017 Reply

Hello John,
Thank you very much for the article. I was just trying to find a good software to design my electronic products as an entrepreneur and, since the time is very short, trying to learn 2, 3 or 4 softwares (or even more) and then have to quit them would be a problem.
But after this article, I’m able to do a try with better precision.
Thanks.

    John Teel - January 13, 2017 Reply

    Thanks Omar and I’m happy you found the article helpful. There are so many PCB design packages out there it can be overwhelming to make a choice. For beginners and for advanced users I’ve found Diptrace to be great and it really is so intuitive to use.

    Best of luck,
    John Teel

Julian Phillips - November 16, 2016 Reply

I actually use(d) 4 packages- Altium in my day job, Autotrax DEX (not to be confused with Protel Autotrax) at my home job, Designspark PCB and Eagle (when I have to).

Altium is great, but is a real sledgehammer for straightforward designs and expensive.
Autotrax DEX is not free, but less than $100. 3D capable and actually fun to use. I’ve found it quite powerful and it’s now my preferred package.
Designspark, works fine but misses a few features I use such as array placement. Have not found it easy to create new component libraries, and the existing ones are mainly plain rectangles with pins.
Eagle, only when I really have to to support a 3rd party design.

There is also a psychological element- the way the software approaches the design problem should match the user. And different people think differently.

    John Teel - November 17, 2016 Reply

    Thanks Julian for sharing your experiences. It never ceases to amaze me how many electronic design software packages there are out there. Your comments on Altium and Eagle seem similar to my experiences. I’ve never used Autotrax DEX or Designspark PCB so thanks for your thoughts on those two packages.

cengineer123 - September 8, 2016 Reply

I used the circuits-cloud
http://circuits-cloud.com/

Igor - August 5, 2016 Reply

I’m compelled reading this article to defend Eagle. I don’t want to be regarded hostile of offensive with my comment but I think that this article is superficial in the ECAD subject. It sounds like commercial for the DipTrace. I studied most used ECAD softwares and wrote final papers on the subject, unfortunately now I work as ICT System Engineer and not as designer but I use CAD just for fun and for my professional pleasure to keep me in shape. I made few prototypes of functional devices and for academic purposes I used all student available ECAD softwares, free, demo etc. DipTrace was most easy to learn but it was incompatible with any standard softwares that set those standards like Eagle which is not hard to learn for educated professional but it is for the amateur. Article is not fer and conclusive in the matter of other softwares especially KiCad which is one of the best that came from the Open Source Community and free. I must remind that Arduinos (DUE) are made in Eagle and have the best autorouter and net functions. Eagle is somewhat sterile due to its origin and culture that made it. They respect functionality over aesthetics. Everybody who used Eagle knows that has everything to get a job done.

    John Teel - August 5, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for your feedback! I happen to use DipTrace for all of my designs so no doubt about it I’m biased. Also much of what I write is for amateurs so I feel it is one of the best options for those just getting started.

Cobra17 - June 10, 2016 Reply

Hello, got a question.

PCB Design Software – Which One is Best?
The photo used under the heading of this article.
What software was used in this photo?

Lenard Hirshman - May 24, 2016 Reply

I have been using Orcad Layout, which is obsolete but still runs in Windows7. The supported Cadence layout tool is Allegro, which is very complicated to learn. Allegro does do controlled impedance traces for HF and VHF and beyond. Does DipTrace do controlled impedance?

Benjamin Jordan - May 23, 2016 Reply

Hi guys,

First John, thanks for a great article. However I feel compelled to add that DipTrace is not the only solution for those on a budget.

Firstly, anyone intending to use a pro-level tool that’s compatible with others (eg. Altium Designer, OrCAD, EAGLE) and yet free for open source hardware projects, definitely should try CircuitMaker. It’s essentially Altium Designer but free for Open Source. That even means that you are allowed to do commercial projects as long as they are open source, unlike free EAGLE which is limited in board size and layer count, and only free for non-commercial use.

We did also introduce another product which is a kind of “Altium Designer Lite” version called CircuitStudio, which is available only through element14/Farnell/Newark called CircuitStudio. It’s the same as CircuitMaker in the user interface, but works with local, private libraries and design files. This is much lower cost as well, but for private designs. (Watch this space… changes are ahead).

All these packages use the same Schematic and PCB engine as Altium Designer, with the same schematic file format. The PCB files are upwardly compatible, and Protel, OrCAD, PADS, and EAGLE files and libraries can be imported into each as well.

I agree with the comment by Mark that the primary important thing is learning about PCB design itself, and the CAD tool – well, my personal phylosophy (not representing Altium) is that designers should make themselves familiar with the two or three most popular. Afterall, you never know when you would need to walk into a new design job using a different tool. And as engineers and technicians, we’re all committed to a life of learning, right?

Marc England - March 17, 2016 Reply

The main software used by professionals and companies are as stated earlier on, in the replies.
I wouldn’t call Altium the Ferrari of PCB CAD its more off a Lada with a fancy paint job….
And here in lies the crux of the problem, people have to make their own decisions on which package is best for them, depending on their experience and the type and complexity of boards they are going to be working on…. If you are going to do contract work you need to use the same package as your customers.
In my view actually learning how to do PCB design is the complex task, playing about with the CAD systems is secondary…..

Adebo Paul - March 16, 2016 Reply

Great Piece. Thanks for throwing more lights on this Mr. Teel.

    John Teel - March 16, 2016 Reply

    Thanks Adebo! I really do love DipTrace. It’s by far the best tool for anyone on a budget. FYI, I’m also planning to create some DipTrace tutorial videos soon.

      Prakash - April 29, 2016 Reply

      Great article! Checked out Diptrace and am totally hooked. Really looking forward to your tutorial videos. Thanks

        John Teel - April 29, 2016 Reply

        Great to hear! Yeah I really love DipTrace and everything is so intuitive with it.

Sherry - January 14, 2016 Reply

Nice article. There is another PCB design software called EasyEDA you has not discussed. But I think it is the best circuit design tool for me, free, zero-install, easy to use and brings you easier EDA experience. It integrates powerful schematic capture, mixed-mode circuit simulation and PCB layout. One of the advantages is certainly that you can edit the schematics wherever an Internet connection and a current browser is available. I use it and then loving to use it.
It can import Schematics and PCB Files form Eagle, Altium Designer, Kicad, LTspice.
It provides SVG source to preview Schematic, PCB Layout and Gerber file
It provides rich spice models to make simulation .
It provivdes simulation viewform viewer .
It provides easy PCB order which saves your time to make sample PCB .
Every project you create on https://easyeda.com/ can be private, shared, or public.private, shared, or public.

EdTN - August 17, 2015 Reply

Hi,

Your list of EDA software is very thin.
You forgot for Mentor Graphics, Cadstar, CircuitMaker/studio, Sprint-Layout,…….. KiCAD,…
Choose of right EDA is not easy question. Is fully depends on designer requirements and finance budged of course.

About “CRITERIA #5 – Large libraries of components available” – for me – absolute NO!
I need my own uniformity components with my customized parameters and each components must be checked and correct ( I making library for many years).

    John Teel - August 17, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the feedback! No doubt there are many other PCB design tools I could have included. However, I think it would have made the article too much to digest if I included every package available. To my knowledge there are a couple dozen PCB design tools available.

    Also your comment about not wanting a large library of components I don’t think holds true for most designers, especially anyone just getting started. I’ve found that’s where mistakes happen when I have to create a new component, and I prefer using components that are already available and verified. I too have libraries of my own components that I’ve built up over the years, but I still like having large libraries of standard components to be included.

    Thanks again for the comment!

Craig Wolverton - July 28, 2015 Reply

Thanks for this useful and pretty objective article. You were up-front
about your biases—rare these days!

Leave a Reply: