When it comes to PCB design tools, you have a lot of different options to choose from. First, there are the high-end, professional software suites. They put everything you need right at your fingertips and make design easy. Unfortunately, they’re a little out of your price range. Then there are the lower cost PCB tools, that provide a lot of the same basic functionality as the high-end models, but in a simpler form, without the bells and whistles, so they won’t break the bank. Finally, there are the free, downloadable tools that you find online. Some of these tools can be quite useful and provide a fair amount of functionality. Unfortunately, you may also find that you get what you pay for. Some of them don’t work very well, or provide you with the features and capabilities that you really need to do quality PCB design.
So which option is best for you? Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent free and low cost PCB tools on the market and examine their pros and cons.
Free and Open Source PCB Tools
KiCad – KiCad is an open source software, which means it’s maintained by its community of users. This gives it a large and diverse library of components, designs, and other resources, contributed by others—all at your fingertips, for free. Unfortunately, many find that the user interface leaves something to be desired. Although the software can be little buggy sometimes, it is backed by a strong community of hobbyists and professionals and is quickly gaining popularity, especially in the open source hardware community.
DesignSpark – DesignSpark is a much better received software suite, which some argue is as good as many of the paid software options. Many free software options are limited in their functionality, but as long as you register with the site, DesignSpark gives you the full range of capabilities, from part wizards and schematic libraries to 3D modeling to tutorials and learning materials. The software does come with ads, though, which must be actively acknowledged before you’re able to proceed with your work.
CADSTAR and CADSTAR Express – The first thing you see on the CADSTAR website is a banner saying, “Free PCB Design Software.” If you look closer, though, you’ll see links prompting you to talk to a sales representative, along with special offers and other paid services. What’s free is CADSTAR Express, along with a few other basic tools, including a design viewer. For free, you get a truncated version of the full, paid CADSTAR program. You’re limited to 300 pins and 50 components. You can also view a limited version of the extensive CADSTAR Online Library, and download another small portion. Basically, the free version is just a taste, to get the user to pay for the full version of CADSTAR.
EasyEDA – Rather than a download, EasyEDA is a web and cloud-based tool, which provides not only free PCB design, but also circuit design and simulation. Its cloud-based format allows you to access your work from any device, and it works on Mac, Linux, Windows, and Android, so you don’t have to worry about compatibility issues. Designed for beginners, its main appeal is its easy interface and design tools that are simple to use. More experienced designers may want something a little more complex, that provides greater design flexibility.
123D Circuits – While EasyEDA is designed for beginners, 123D Circuits is designed to accommodate all different experience levels. It has basic electronics and programming tutorials, which build up to full-fledged PCB design. It even allows you to import designs from Eagle, one of the most prominent low cost PCB tools on the market (which we’ll discuss later). Then when you’ve finished your design, you can order the completed, physical board and have it sent to you. It’s great for prototyping and testing electronics, and even has a gallery on their site of cool designs made by some of their other users. Cloud-based programs do have their drawbacks, however. While they can be accessed from anywhere, how well they work depends on the quality of your Internet connection. A slower connection, particularly with such a complex and intricate program, can cause problems and take up a lot of extra time.
Fritzing – Another open source program, Fritzing is constantly working to improve itself, both in terms of what it offers and how it works. It has an extensive parts library, and it’s easy to integrate parts directly from the library into your project. It goes a step beyond EasyEDA in terms of experience level and flexibility, but it’s still not quite up to the level of professional designers and engineers. It’s an excellent program for hobbyists, though, and makes it easy to share your designs with the Fritzing community.
gEDA – gEDA’s software package includes a set of design applications for a variety of functions, from design automation to integrated circuit design. Released under GNU General Public License, users have the freedom to run, share, or modify the software in any way they wish. It’s generally easy to use, with easy-to-access resources that are continually maintained and updated by a team of programmers. It’s designed mainly for Linux, but will also work with Unix and, to some degree, Macs. Windows compatibility isn’t provided by gEDA itself, but there are hooks available from other sources that will allow some of the applications to be compatible with Windows in a pinch.
Low Cost PCB Tools
Upverter – Upverter’s PCB tools have several different price levels, beginning with a free Starter package. At that level, you get a number of basic features, such as custom parts creation and a personal library. However, it also only allows you two private projects. For unlimited projects, you need the Professional version, which also includes a wider selection of parts, as well as 3D previews and API/Scripting. All-in-all, Upverter’s Professional version is a comprehensive and worthwhile option. On the other hand, when it comes to low cost PCB tools, it’s also one of the more expensive ones, at $125 per month. You can reduce the cost to $100 per month if you pay the entire year up front.
Eagle – The biggest pro of Eagle’s PCB tools is that they can run on Windows, Mac, or Linux, so you can use the software no matter what your preferred OS is. Another pro is that Eagle’s tools are priced annually, rather than monthly, leading to some relatively low cost options at the lower end. Packages begin at $69 for the basic, “Business Lite” version. From there, it moves up to Standard and Professional versions, whose prices vary depending on how many users you have and which types of editors you want to include. For one user to use just the Layout or Schematic editor, it’s $315 per license for the Standard version or $625 for the Professional version. However, if you want the Schematic, Layout, and Autorouter editors, those prices go up to $820 and $1,640, respectively. Different editors have different features, so if you want a lower price, you need to pick and choose which capabilities are most important to you, and which ones are worth sacrificing. Additionally, there’s no unlimited version. The Standard version limits you to 99 schematic sheets and 6 signal layers, while the Professional version limits you to 999 schematic sheets and 16 signal layers.
DipTrace – DipTrace is the low cost PCB tool on our list that offers a perpetual license, rather than monthly or annual payments. These prices range from $75 for the Starter package, to $1,195 for the Full package. It should be noted, though, that if you want unlimited pins, or unlimited signal layers, you need to shell out the full $1,195. All other versions give you a limited number. Also, periodic software upgrades cost money – 25% of the package cost, if you want the latest version.
Quadcept – At $99 per month, Quadcept is one of the more reasonably priced PCB tools—especially considering that support, maintenance, and upgrades are all included in that price. You can also pay an annual fee of $1,089 instead of the monthly fee, which essentially nets you one free month per year. They also provide a free component library of over 250,000 parts, and a variety of other features, from angled trace to automatic test pad generation and more.
CircuitStudio – This is by far the cheapest low cost PCB tool, at $995 for a perpetual license. It also has one of the most comprehensive sets of features. CircuitStudio’s component library features over 350,000 parts, as well as live, integrated supply chain management, to help you keep track of what parts you need and which parts are available. It’s easy to use and gives you what you need to design quality PCBs quickly.
To see for yourself just what CircuitStudio has to offer, click here for a free trial.
|Company Name||Cost||Interoperability||Unlimited Layers?||Unlimited Components?|
|KiCad||Free||Windows, OS X, Linux||Yes||Yes|
|EasyEDA||Free||Web Based, Windows, OS X, Linux||Yes||Yes|
|123D Circuits||Free||Web Based||No||Yes|
|Fritzing||Free||Windows, OS X, Linux||No||Yes|
|gEDA||Free||Windows compatibility if you use a hook, OS X, Linux, Unix||Yes||Yes|
|Upverter||Free – $125 per month ($1200 per year)||Windows, OS X, Linux||Yes||Yes|
|Eagle||One time license fee: Business Lite (up to 2 layers): $69; Business Standard (up to 6 layers): $315 – $820;Business Professional (up to 16 layers): $625 – $1640||Windows, OS X, Linux||No||Yes|
|DipTrace||One time license fee: $75 – $1195||Windows||Only the highest price||Only the highest price|
|Quadcept||$99 per month ($1089 per year)||Web based, Windows||Yes||Yes|
|CircuitStudio||One time license fee: $995||Windows||Yes||Yes|
There are plenty of free and low cost PCB tool options out there, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. In the end, it all comes down to which tool can do what you need it to, at a price you can afford. Do your homework and see exactly what each of these PCB tools offers, and which one best suits your needs.