Engineers play an important role in all aspects of life. They use their knowledge and tools to solve problems in various industries, including health, transportation, construction, manufacturing, and space exploration, among many others. However, for them to successfully do their work, they need the right tools, including software. This also applies to those engineers responsible for creating printed circuit boards (PCB).
This article presents some of the best PCB design software tools available in the market today. I hope that by the time you get to the end of this piece, you will feel more confident about what PCB design software is the best option for your needs before you commit to a partnership with a specific tool.
I will start by indicating the criteria I use when evaluating the software I present in this piece. I will also look at the specific features you need to pay attention to when choosing the software that best matches your requirements. After presenting the best PCB design software tools, I will end the article by answering some frequently asked questions.
These are the ten tools that made it into my best PCB design software list:
PCB Design Software Tools Comparison Criteria
When I evaluate PCB design software, I try to be as objective as possible. However, this is not a definitive list because different tasks and workflows have different needs. With this being said, I hope that the list will provide you with an idea of the essential features to consider when selecting the best software for your needs.
Here is my evaluation criteria:
- User Interface (UI) Design: When I look for PCB software, one of the initial elements I pay attention to is how easy it is to navigate the tool. I consider the visual elements that I interact with when using the software. An intuitive UI design ensures that you can start designing your circuit immediately without spending much time learning or referring to a manual.
- Popularity: When more people use a software tool, it’s because it has some great features. For instance, I look at how easy the tool is to master and whether its developers offer excellent support through training and easy-to-understand tutorials.
- Integrations: For PCB software to be truly automated and save time, it needs to integrate with other software tools that you are already using. Therefore, it is important that the PCB software you choose can integrate with project management or other PCB design tools.
- Cost: Most PCB design software tools are pretty expensive. This is why I often compare tools based on their features and their cost. While I accept that tools will have different prices because they have different features, I still want to ensure that a tool’s value to my business and its benefits justify the price tag.
Key Features of PCB Design Software Tools
For a PCB tool to meet various important requirements, it needs to have certain basic features. However, it’s crucial to note that the features that may be great for one person may not be relevant for the next.
When I look for the best PCB design software, these are the main features I concentrate on:
- Simulation: Provides an opportunity for you to check the PCB layout and circuit diagrams.
- Number of layers: This is an essential feature that you should find even in free software. The tool with a higher number of layers can manage a higher number of components with more complex PCB requirements.
- 3D modeling: This allows you to get an idea of what the PCB design will look like upon completion.
- Complexity and speed: PCB software tools handle different levels of complexity and speed. More expensive tools are usually able to handle more complicated design tasks. These tools often provide faster speeds.
- Libraries: The tool must have a library where you can access some standard components. This means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time when manufacturing a new component.
- Web and operating system compatibility: Check whether the software requires to be downloaded to your computer or if you need to use it as a SaaS. Also, determine if the software will work with your device’s operating system.
Overview of the 10 Best PCB Design Software Tools
Below, I provide a summary of each PCB design software tool. My description focuses on the best use case and the tool’s leading features.
- PCBWeb Designer – Best free PCB design software
PCBWeb Designer is a full-service electronic hardware design and manufacturing tool. One of the reasons behind its popularity is that it is free. This means that there are no restrictions regarding the number of components to be used on a board. The software also presents no restrictions on your board size.
This software is on my list of top PCB design software because it’s free but loaded with some great features. PCBWeb Designer’s easy-to-use wiring tool makes it possible to design multi-sheet schematics. Added to this, the software allows for routing multi-layered boards with DRC checking and support for copper pours. You also have access to an Arrow Parts Catalog with Bill of Materials Manager.
This tool’s designers make their revenue from value-added manufacturing services.
- ZenitPCB – Best for PCB design beginners
One of the reasons ZenitPCB appears on almost every list of the best PCB design software tools is because the tool is intuitive and very easy to learn. This makes it an excellent program for teams that want to get on with the job without spending too much time trying to understand how things work.
Because this is a simple program, you will notice that it’s used mainly by high school or university students and their teachers when learning how to make printed circuits that look professional. However, the main weakness of this software is that it doesn’t have convenient features like an auto-router or auto-placement.
If you are using this program for personal or semi-professional use, it is fully free, with an 800-pin limit.
- TinyCAD – Best for standard and custom libraries
TinyCAD is an open-source program designed for drawing circuit diagrams (schematics). It supports both standard and custom libraries for components. The tool also supports several PCB netlists and can produce SPICE simulations.
Even though it’s relatively easy to create libraries of circuits in TinyCAD, the process is time-consuming. However, as an open-source program, it allows users with symbols they believe could benefit others to upload them to the program so that other users can download them.
On the TinyCAD website, you can access tutorials and other support materials, and you can also create and download your custom library. In case you encounter some issues, you have a place where you can report them and receive help.
TinyCAD is a free tool.
- Osmond PCB – Best PCB design software for Macintosh
The designers of Osmond PCB promise flexible features. To live up to this promise, they have created software that allows users to use either Metric or Imperial units. Both units can also be used in the same design. The tool’s integrated Parts Editor makes it easy to alter existing parts or define new types of parts.
Osmond PCB is an excellent program because it doesn’t come with any restrictions. This means that you can design boards of any size and with whatever number of layers you want. Once you are done with the design, Osmond provides the tools to help you check whether the finished product meets all specified design rules.
Osmond PCB can be used free of charge. However, donations are accepted to assist with meeting the costs of ongoing support and development.
- BSch3V – Best PCB design software for Windows
The abbreviation BSch stands for “Basic Schematic.” The designers of BSch3V define it as a schematic capture program for Windows. Because its functions are basic, BSch3V is primarily suitable for PCB designers whose projects are not very complicated.
BSch3V’s leading features include a component library editor, netlist generator, and parts list generator.
BSch3V can be used free of charge.
- ExpressPCB – Best PCB design software for reducing lead times
ExpressPCB has been in the market for over two decades. Therefore, it doesn’t surprise that this is the go-to software for PCB design teams that want to reduce the time taken from initiating an idea to the delivery of a finished product. Added to this, the software has been progressively improving over the years, ensuring that it is suitable for both professionals and beginners.
You can get ExpressPCB in two versions: ExpressPCB Classic and ExpressPCB Plus. The Classic version is more suitable for teams that require ease of use. Its Schematic Link makes routing easier, while its quick setup means that you can start working as fast as possible. The Plus version is designed for teams working on more complex designs that require flexibility.
You can use ExpressPCB free of charge.
- KiCad – Best for inspecting PSB designs in 3D
KiCad is open-source software for EDA (Electronics Design Automation) with schematics, PCB layout, and GERBER file output for PCB fabrication. The tool comes with all the standard features you would expect to find in good PCB design software, like an official library of schematic symbols and a built-in schematic symbol editor.
KiCad’s latest release, Version 5.1.10, comes with enhanced features like critical bug fixes. It also has improved 3D model libraries, footprints, symbols, and documentation.
KiCad is free software made available by sponsorships from several foundations and organizations, including the University of Grenoble in France.
- Fritzing – Best for PCB design amateurs and hobbyists
Fritzing is an open-source hardware initiative that looks up to Processing and Arduino platforms to allow users to process circuits for rapid prototype development, share prototype documents, and design custom-made PCBs. The tool was designed at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam to assist PCB amateurs and hobbyists.
The latest Fritzing release, Version 0.9.6, allows the automatic update of parts library through the online database. It also facilitates critical bug fixes, High DPI display support, and easier handling of self-created and custom parts.
As an open-source initiative, Fritzing is a free tool.
- DesignSpark PCB – Best for schematic capturing and layout improvement
DesignSpark PCB is an excellent free software that is soaring in popularity. One of the primary elements you will enjoy about this software is its intuitiveness, making the program easy to use whether you are a beginner or an experienced professional. The tool facilitates designing PCB boards and layouts, schematic capturing, and making layout improvements.
One element that places DesignSpark PCB on my list of the best PCB design software tools is the tool’s seamless integration into many tools that PCB designers are already using.
DesignSpark PCB is a free tool.
- gEDA – Best for printed circuit board design
gEDA is a suite that gives you several open-source software packages in one. It can produce other file types, like .ps or .png. With an auto-router and many other features, this software is both robust and efficient. It is best used with the gEDA schematic editor.
This tool is oriented chiefly toward printed circuit board design (as opposed to integrated circuit design), which is used for electronic design released under the General Public License (GPL). As a consequence of the project’s openness, schematic symbols, footprints, and utility scripts are freely created and shared among the members of the gEDA community at a spin-off website (gedasymbols.org)
gEDA offers a rich library and a professional support community at no extra charge. It is a collection of open-source electronic design tools that can be installed individually.
gEDA is free to use.
Other PCB Design Software Tools
If you can’t find the PCB software that meets all your needs among the tools I presented above, here are a few more to consider.
- FreePCB: A free, open-source PCB design editor for Microsoft Windows, designed to be easy to learn and use yet capable of professional-quality work.
- Eagle: The Easily Applicable Graphical Layout Editor (EAGLE) is mainly used by professionals who often prefer its simple user interface and great schematic function.
- Altium: This is a reliable PCB design software that will help you create stunning PCBs for multiple real-world applications. It is incredibly powerful and requires Windows OS to run.
- DipTrace: Saves time by efficiently and quickly creating designs. Ideal for beginners or time-crunched individuals, DipTrace allows you to develop other schematics and convert them to any format, such as PCB.
- Pulsonix: This is an easy-to-use, complete professional package with an excellent (optional) auto-router. The software combines schematic entry and PCB layout in one program.
- Sprint Layout: Has a logical and straightforward layout that makes this tool ideal for anyone, particularly if you’re in a hurry. With Gerber and Excel support, this is an excellent tool for professional manufacturing.
- EasyEDA: Has more than one million components in its library, and it also allows you to create or import your own common libraries.
- PCB Artist: Gives you access to a library with more than half a million parts, up to 28 layers, has a controlled auto-router, multi-page schematic, and native Eagle import.
- Ultiboard: Makes PCB design faster thanks to its automated functionality. The tool’s other features like spreadsheet view, toolbox, and design wizards make it easier to manage the board layout.
- SolidWorks PCB: Makes it easy to integrate electronic schematics into 3D models, saving you time by automating repetitive tasks.
PCB Design Software FAQs:
Here are answers to two of the most common questions I often get when discussing PCB design tools:
What is PCB design software?
PCB design software is the operating information or program used by a computer to assist electronic engineers when designing printed circuit board (PCB) layouts. Usually, the software consists of tools that make it possible for users to collaborate on projects, access libraries of previously created components, and determine the accuracy of their circuit schematic designs, among other tasks.
Why do you need PCB design software?
PCB design software is vital for PCB designers because it allows for the automation of processes that would otherwise take ages to accomplish. The software also allows for collaboration, making it possible to bring all the information required to execute a project into a single repository where all stakeholders can see changes in real time. PCB design software is also crucial for managing quality because it can determine if all the project specifications have been met.