How much should you spend on PCB design software? Is free really a good deal? I recently needed to find a package on a budget for my personal work so I set out to see what was available. I’ve used packages like PADS, OrCAD, and Altium Designer for a long time but they were out of my price range. It was apparent after I went through many of my previous projects that most of the designs I’ve done only use a small portion of the features that those packages offered. In fact, I would guess that 90% of those designs could be done with a basic entry level tool so I decided to start there.
Here was my initial requirements list:
- Schematic and PCB design only. Sorry, but better tools are available for things like simulation and FPGA design than with what’s bundled with all in one PCB design packages.
- No autorouter. PCB packages spend too much effort on autorouters and they don’t work well. Well, I actually liked Specctra when I first started out but now I know to apply common sense first.
- Interactive autorouting. I’m not sure what the industry term is for this but I mean manually routing traces with the assistance of the routing rules so you can’t do things like violate clearance rules.
- Support for Net Classes and other trace constraints for things like high speed traces.
- Schematic hierarchy including multiple instance blocks.
- Assembly variants.
The first package I tried was Eagle. The complete professional version was a good price especially because there’s no maintenance fees and the licensing is really flexible. It also appealed to me because I want to do some open source projects and it seems to be the open source standard. The biggest complaint most people have about Eagle is the user interface but I didn’t think it was that bad. It could definitely do the designs I wanted to do but it was lacking too many features that I wanted, especially interactive autorouting and strong routing rules. Small things like not automatically deleting loops while rerouting traces and allowing me to route over other nets drove me crazy. I also found that most tasks took longer than they should have because of all the required intermediate steps. It was obvious that Eagle wasn’t going to work for me so I continued my search and added a free viewer requirement to support open source projects. It’s not ideal but it is better than just viewing a PDF file and to be honest I doubt anyone actually cares what package a design is done in as long as they can view the results.
The next package I tried was Diptrace which seems to be the recommendation for Eagle refugees and I really tried to like it. It was the first design package that I’ve tried where I felt completely lost and I quickly gave up on it. It’s ok for simple designs but it just isn’t productive for more complex ones.
I had tried Designspark last year and even did four posts about it here, here, here and here. It’s my favorite out of all of the packages I’ve mentioned so far, especially for the price (free). So that prompted me to its commercial variant Easy-PC to get access to some more advanced features. I found it to be comparable to other sub $1000 packages but I wanted better interactive routing and rules. But in general I did like the user interface and a big plus for me was being able to open multiple designs at the same time. Some other packages like Eagle require another instance of the program which isn’t cool.
The next package I tried was Proteus. It doesn’t seem to be very popular in the hobbiest community but a lot of companies are using it. Proteus has the best method for copper pours I’ve ever seen even when comparing it to much more expensive packages. The PCB interface was really well thought out and I found it very easy to use and for this price point you can actually get a usable interactive router. The schematic capture was good too. Unfortunately the rules were weak and couldn’t do things like differential pairs. I also had an annoying issue where my windows color scheme would be reset to defaults if I used OpenGL mode. The only reason I rejected it was because Proteus can export metric gerber files, but the drill file is always imperial. I talked to some Proteus representatives and their stance was that no one uses metric drill files anyway, especially board houses. But the board houses I talked to disagreed and stated that they could mix metric gerbers with imperial drills only if customers explicitly allowed it, Their preference was either all imperial or all metric which makes sense to me as well. I personally only design in metric these days so that was an issue for me.
The last package I tried was Pulsonix. It competes directly with Altium on features and price but Pulsonix has several licensing options to reduce the purchase costs for smaller projects. After installing the trial version I had some questions which the new Canadian sales representative was very helpful with. We also had a frank conversation about Pulsonix in comparison to other packages which was a nice change. Lots of low cost packages tend to hide their people behind forums and contact forms, but when I have a question I want to know that someone personally cares about it. Overall it was just like I expected; Easy-PC with the interactive autorouter features I wanted. It also has 3D models, import and export ability, etc which is typical of a mid range package. But what I really liked was that copper pours worked properly (unlike Altium), the user interface was straight forward and that I didn’t run into any weird random bugs.
So far I’ve avoided cost in my comparisons of the different packages and that’s was really important factor in my final decision. You really need to contact all the various companies for price quotes. In almost every case I was offered a discount on the posted price and in some cases the discounts were significant. That was especially true when I decided to get quotes on some higher featured tools like Pulsonix and Altium to compare with the tools I’ve already mentioned.
So what did I pick? I ended up buying Pulsonix because I felt it has the best features/cost ratio for me. Yes, cheaper packages are out there but I would rather save time than money. Pulsonix wasn’t much more than Proteus but the extras were substantial. It also has the same DesignSpark/Easy-PC interface that I liked. Pulsonix isn’t very popular in North America but my local sales representive has been doing a great job supporting me, unlike some other vendors Altium. Note that DesignSpark, Easy-PC and Pulsonix are all from the same company, just targeted at different markets.