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.
However, I prefer a less well-known PCB design packaged called DipTrace.
I always strive to be honest and upfront. This article is not intended to be an unbiased review of every PCB/schematic software package available. There are many, many packages not discussed in this article because I’ve never personally used them.
Instead, I wrote this article to share my own experiences. No doubt about it, I’m a biased fan of DipTrace. Although as you’ll learn it’s not the best option for everyone.
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 software.
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 $2,300. Eagle recently changed their payment structure to a recurring fee of $65 per month ($780 annually), or you can save a bit by paying annually at $500/year. Nonetheless most will find the requirement to pay a recurring fee indefinitely to be a big negative for Eagle.
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 powerful, but cheaper and easier to use PCB design package is 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 $995 and allows designs of unlimited size.
However, most projects won’t require the top package, and you can get by with one of the lower level packages costing only $495 to $695. You can start with the $75 Starter version and work your way up as needed. You only pay the difference between each level.
What about the various free PCB design tools available? Normally, I don’t recommend any of them because they force you to use their PCB production services. That may be okay for a hobby project but not if you plan to ever mass produce your product. These free tools usually lack the ability to output the PCB layout as Gerber files which is necessary if you want the flexibility to manufacture your boards via any vendor.
One exception is EasyEDA which is an online PCB design tool that not only includes schematic and PCB layout design, but also circuit simulation capabilities. EasyEDA is very intuitive to use, features Gerber file output, and best of all is totally free.
PCB Design Software Pricing Comparison
|DipTrace Full||No limits||$995|
|Eagle||No limits||$65/month, $500/year|
|Cadence OrCad PCB Designer||No limits||$2,300|
|Altium Designer||No limits||$7,245|
|DipTrace Lite||500 pins, 2 signal layers||$145|
|DipTrace Starter||300 pins, 2 signal layers||$75|
|DipTrace Standard||1,000 pins, 4 signal layers||$395|
|DipTrace Extended||2,000 pins, 6 signal layers||$695|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.