Whether you’re ready to design your first printed circuit board or you have years of PCB experience under your belt, it’s important to use the right software for your project. The reality, however, is that there are quite a few programs on the market — with varying capabilities, tools, and price tags. In this guide, we’ve compiled a list of the best free and paid PCB design and layout software programs. Plus, learn how to choose to right one for your next project.
Before we get started, let’s explore the main differences between the free and paid versions: In general, free software provides fewer capabilities and is often a scaled-down version of paid software. Free software may not also be compatible with other programs and services, but it can be a good resource, especially for those looking to dabble and experiment in PCB design without the cost. There are many benefits, however, to using paid software. Let’s examine each software category.
These lists are in no particular order.
Free PCB Software
EAGLE (Easily Applicable Graphical Layout Editor)
EAGLE, which has been around for years, is an industry staple because it’s compatible with paid design software. If you download EAGLE for free, you will work with a limited version that includes two schematic sheets, two signal layers, and an 80 cm2 board area.
The free version of EasyEDA offers unlimited private projects and the ability to create unlimited personal libraries. The recycle bin retention period is 15 days as opposed to 30 days, or unlimited with paid versions. You will also have to contend with advertisements with the free version of this software.
This software boasts a 3D viewer so that you can review your design from multiple perspectives. The schematic editor doesn’t have any paywalls and the company explains that “every effort is made to hide the complexity of advanced design features so that KiCad remains approachable by new and inexperienced users.”
CircuitMaker provides you with up to 16 signals and 16 plane layers plus no restrictions to the PCB dimensions. The software also includes a non-commercial clauses and offers a library with hundreds of thousands of components.
According to the company, “Upverter designs have been used by thousands of software designers and educators in over 45 countries.” They also provide custom support should you need it and offer a live chat function for immediate assistance.
gEDA offers circuit design, schematic capture, simulation, protyping, and production.
This cross-platform software provides all-in-one project management and library, schematic, and board editors. Instead of choosing from a list of installed libraries, LibrePCB allows you to choose components from a range of categories.
Two versions are available, depending on your computer applications. Even though the software is free to download, donations are accepted.
DesignSpark PCB is a free PCB software option that’s best suited for students and beginners. There are no limits on your schematic size, and you can create your own libraries to use (or use DesignSpark’s free library). The company also offers a paid version.
This full-feature design tools offers no restrictions with “no limit the size of your board to the number of components in your design.” They also add: “Your data is never held ‘captive’ as we offer full gerber support.” The software supports all major versions of Windows.
This is a native Linux application, but a Windows version is also available. According to its website, “Gerbv is one of the utilities affiliated with the gEDA project, an umbrella organization dedicated to producing free software tools for electronic design.”
This software is intended for “personal or semi-professional use,” and users are limited to 1,000 pins.
This program, which has been on the market for more than two decades, is intended for Windows users. The website explains that users can also contribute to the TinyCAD project by updating documentation, helping other users, and contributing new source code.
Paid PCB Software
PADS is a top choice when it comes to PCB software. It’s in the realm of Altium Designer but has more functionality and is geared toward complex PCB designs.
Mentor PADS Xpedition
This high-end software offers a wide range of capabilities, including multi-discipline systems engineering, concurrent design, process automation, design data integrity, and design verification. The Xpedition resource library also provides product demos, webinars, white papers, and more.
Key features include real time constraints, high speed design, complex routing, miniaturization, the ability to design for manufacturability, and much more.
This is an affordable, scaled-down version of Pads Xpedition. Capabilities include electro-mechanical co-design, routing automatic, support for rigid-flex design, analog/mixed-signal simulation, signal integrity analysis, RF design, and more. Users can sign up for a free 90-day Connect for PADS Professional trial.
Although it may not be the most top-rated paid version on the market, Altium Designer gets the job done. Altium provides the designer with the capability to solve complex engineer programs and create new electronic devices. The software combines schematic, ECAD libraries, rules and constraints, BoM, supply chain management, ECO processes, and world-class PCB layout tools. It’s relatively easy to use. A standard Altium Designer 365 subscription costs $3,850 seat/year and a pro Altium Designer subscription costs $4,845 seat/year but promotions and discounts may be available.
Fusion 360 is a “cloud-based 3D modeling, CAD, CAM, CAE, and PCB software platform for product design and manufacturing.” Pricing options are $60/month, $495/year, or $1,335/paid every three years. A free trial is available to download.
This software is compatible with EAGLE, Altium, PADS, and other tools. Capabilities include schematic capture, PCB layout, smart component libraries, and 3D modeling. The cost for a perpetual license ranges, depending on the maximum pins and signal layers. The DipTrace Starter offers 300 pins and two signal layers for $75. The highest-priced package, the DipTrace Full, offers unlimited pins and signals rays for $995. There are three other options in between ranging from $145 to $695.
As we’ve mentioned, EAGLE has been around for a long time. The paid versions offer more capabilities with pricing options of $60/month, $495/year, or $1,335/every three years.
This is Allegro’s schematic capture program, which offers a variety of capabilities. It does have a bigger learning curve in addition to a high price tag — a perpetual host ID license is $2,630 and a time-based host ID license is $1,300 for one year. It does appear, however, that OrCAD offers promotions and discounts, which can alleviate the cost.
DesignSpark PCB Pro
This software is best for professional engineers. The price tag of $513.38 includes 3D view for PCB design, access to an extensive online library of manufacturer-approved models, advanced routing modes, the ability to apply custom paste mask shapes and patterns, an advanced auto router, barcode and bitmap replacement, enhanced bill of materials management, and more.
When it comes to price, the figures can certainly vary, but keep in mind that a good design software program can cost around $3,000. Some programs offer details or discounts for paying annually or every three years. You also need to be aware of whether the program will charge you for annual maintenance.
Each piece of software should also come equipped with component libraries, but it’s always important to verify this before purchasing.
Layout design, circuit design, and schematic capture are all important factors to take into consideration, including how a bill of material will be generated. You also want to look at interactive routing and routing for signals.
Lastly, it’s important to ask whether the software company offers any training for you and your employees, and if so, whether it’s included or an additional expense.
Many people use free resources when it comes to PCB design, but if you’re serious about your project, consider using a paid software and working with an industry partner like Cirexx. Here’s what you can expect:
At the PCB layout stage, we work with principal engineers and fellows to develop a layout with a software platform such as Mentor PADS, which shows you exactly how your board will look and where the components will be placed. Let our PCB team initiate the process of seamless integration as your project advances from layout all the way through fabrication and assembly — all under one roof in our state-of-the-art facility. Plus, if we’re involved throughout the entire process, your PCB will often hit the market faster than if you use separate vendors.