The Best 5 Software Programs for the Development of Printed Circuit Boards

For the development of printed circuit boards there is a wide range of free or fee-based software programs, from prototyping to industrialization. How do you make the right choice from the range of products on offer, which ranges from freeware for DIY amateurs to complex tool packages?

Based on the preferences of Proto-Electronics’ customers, we have compiled a list of the top 10 CAD software.

1. EAGLE

EAGLE is a PCB design software of the German company CadSoft Computer GmbH, which was founded in 1988 by Rudolf Hofer and Klaus-Peter Schmidiger. The company was acquired by Farnell in 2009 and bought by Autodesk in 2016; it is an international heavyweight in the software world and generates over 2 billion dollars in sales. The letters of the acronym EAGLE mean Easily Applicable Graphical Layout Editor.

The software is available in 3 versions:

EAGLE Free: limited test version for DIY amateurs
EAGLE Standard: 99 schematic sheets, 4 signal layers and a 160 cm┬▓ space for circuit boards
EAGLE Premium: the professional version with 999 circuit diagram sheets, 16 signal layers and unlimited space for printed circuit boards

Functionalities and features

  • Circuit diagram editor (linked to the library, electrical rules, creation of a list of connections)
  • Notice of changes between circuit diagram and printed circuit board
  • Hierarchy of the circuit diagram
  • Installation plan with extended functionalities

EAGLE has the advantage of being one of the heavyweights among the software programs for PCB layout. At a reasonable rate of $500/year, EAGLE has a large community that posts numerous tutorials on the web. There is also an extensive component library. EAGLE also works on a Mac OS X or Linus environment.

John Teel, an expert in electronics design at the blog PredictableDesigns.com, criticizes EAGLE for its complex, less than intuitive graphical interface.

2. Altium

Founded in Australia in 1985 under the name Protel Systems, the company has been called Altium since 2001. Today, the American company is a leader in the market for PCB modeling software programs. The company adds 6000 new users each year and is aiming for a turnover of $200 million by 2020.

You can download a full trial version from the Altium website and try it for 15 days. Virtual workshops are also available.

Features and functionality

  • Layout environment with plans, placement/routing, documentation and simulation
  • Design for Manufacturing (DFM) to ensure that your PCB designs are functional, reliable and easy to manufacture
  • Easy data migration with powerful conversion tools
  • 3D rigid-flex design
  • Printed circuit board design
  • Layout of circuit diagrams
  • Source files for the production

Available from $7000, Altium’s software package is ideal for electronics engineers working for large industrial groups or on the Internet of Things. It is also widely used in universities and colleges. However, it requires a long learning curve that will deter DIY and DIY board amateurs.

Altium Designer only works on Windows as specified on the website.

3. Proteus

The Proteus electronic CAD solution was developed by Labcenter Electronics Ltd, a company founded in the UK by John Jameson in 1988. The widely used program is sold in over 50 countries.

Functionalities and features

This software package consists of two main software elements:

Proteus ISIS: Circuit diagram design and electrical simulation
Proteus ARES: PCB routing solution with automatic component placement

The other modules available for Proteus

  • Proteus VSM
  • Integrated complete workflow
  • Draft circuit diagram
  • Simulation
  • Measurement and analysis
  • Bug fixes
  • Diagnosis

Proteus PCB Design Software

  • PCB design for up to 16 copper layers
  • 14 million components in the library
  • Interactive manual routing
  • Proteus Visual Designer

In conjunction with Proteus VSM, this module provides a complete solution for flowchart output and a hardware gallery for an integrated development environment for Arduino and Raspberry Pi.

4. KiCad

KiCad is a free open source software package for printed circuit board design. It was developed in 1992 by Jean-Pierre Charras of the IUT Grenoble. This design software includes circuit diagram management, PCB routing and the possibility of 3D modelling for electronics engineers.

Functionalities and features

KiCad: Project manager
Eeschema: Circuit diagram editor
Pcbnew: PCB Editor
Cvpcb: Tool to select the physical footprints of the components used in the plan
Gerbview: Visualizer for Gerber files
Pcbcalculator: Design tool to calculate the value of resistors, track width, etc.

5. Cadence OrCAD PCB Designer

Cadence Design Systems, which was formed in 1988 from the merger of SDA Systems and ECAD, is now a leader in the market for electronic CAO software. The company, which is based in San Jose, California, is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange index and generates sales of approximately $2 billion.

Cadence publishes the software programs Allegro PCB Designer and OrCAD.

Functionalities and features

  • Circuit diagram, arrangement and routing
  • Interactive real-time routing with integration of the specifications
  • Automatic mould creation and modification
  • Automatic BGA assistance

PSpice simulation and analysis

  • Improve performance and reliability while optimizing costs
  • Automatic circuit board release
  • Mechanical and electrical simulation of the electronic circuit

OrCAD circuit diagram

  • Symbol Editor
  • Integrated electronic component search
  • Integrated design specifications