Printed circuit board (PCB) design requires specialized software tools to lay out connectivity and translate circuit schematics into physical board fabrication. Many solutions are available for PCB designers. This article outlines the top 8 PCB design software options based on popularity and capabilities.
Overview of PCB Design Software
PCB design software provides features such as:
- Schematic capture – draw circuit diagrams
- Board layout – arrange components and routing
- Autorouting – automated trace routing
- Design rule checks – validate manufacturability
- 3D modeling – visualize board and enclosure
- Analysis tools – signal, thermal, power integrity
- Library management – component footprints
- Manufacturing outputs – Gerber, drill files, BOM
Choosing software with capabilities matching the application requirements and designer skills ensures efficient and successful development.
Top 8 PCB Design Software
Here are the most widely used PCB design software tools for professional engineers:
1. Altium Designer
Altium Designer is one of the most fully featured and commonly used PCB design solutions. Key features:
- Unified environment for schematic and PCB design
- Sophisticated routing with timing-aware topology
- Extensive component database and 3D modeling
- Scripting and programming for automation
- Variants and version control
- Manufacturing-ready outputs and documentation
Altium provides advanced capabilities for high-speed, high-complexity board design. But it also has a significant learning curve.
2. Cadence Allegro
Allegro from Cadence is another leading professional PCB design suite. It includes:
- Full schematic and layout environment
- Constraint-driven routing and editing
- Integrated cross-probing between schematic and PCB
- RF design features
- Analysis tools for signal and power integrity
- PCB librarian for footprint management
- Back annotation and ECO changes
Allegro excels at large team-based designs but also has a steep learning curve.
3. Mentor Graphics Xpedition
- Unified schematic, layout, routing flow
- DFM design rule checks and visualization
- Automated routing with manufacturability awareness
- Multi-channel length matching
- Integrated thermal analysis
- Design data management and workflow
Xpedition balances powerful performance with reasonable ease of use.
4. CadSoft Eagle
Eagle from CadSoft (Autodesk) is very popular for smaller design teams and prototyping:
- More affordable cost
- Available in free version with limited capability
- Easy to learn and intuitive UX
- Large component library
- Routing autorouter included
- Good for open-source community designs
Eagle is ideal for smaller boards but has limitations in advanced functionality.
KiCad is a capable open-source PCB design tool suitable for many applications. Benefits include:
- Free and community supported
- Good feature set for the price
- Flexible customization and extensibility
- Part library spanning many footprints
- Capable PCB editor and visualization
KiCad lacks some polish and documentation compared to commercial tools but is under active development.
From Cadence, OrCAD provides a more affordable PCB design solution:
- Lower cost than Cadence Allegro
- Easy-to-use schematic capture
- Integrated library tools with thousands of parts
- Blind and buried via support
- Revision control and annotation
- rulers provide manufacturing dimension feedback
OrCAD delivers a solid schematic/layout tool for a reasonable price point.
7. Pads from Mentor Graphics
For entry-level users, Mentor Graphics offers Pads for layout and routing. Benefits:
- Affordable for individual engineers
- Straightforward layout tools
- Drag and drop placement
- Includes autorouter
- Validation against design rules
- Simple cloud-based license
Pads provides an easy to adopt design environment without advanced features.
8. Zuken CR-8000
- Focus on signal and power integrity
- Timing-driven routing optimization
- Extensive analysis features
- Multi-board system connectivity
- Manufacturability-aware design rule checks
- Parametric part creation
The CR-8000 excels at SI-centric and constraint-driven PCB development.
Comparing Top PCB Design Software
|Advanced unified design environment
|High-speed digital, embedded
|Full lifecycle design management
|Large team, enterprise
|Ease of adoption, analysis integration
|Affordable, maker community
|Free and open source
|Small business, open hardware
|Lower cost, ease of use
|Medium complexity boards
|Entry level features
|Individuals, basic layout
|Signal integrity focused
|High-speed digital, RF
Selecting among these top options depends on specific project needs and team experience.
Important PCB Software Considerations
Beyond core schematic and layout capabilities, key considerations when choosing PCB design software include:
Cost – How the pricing fits within your budget. Perpetual license, subscription, free?
Learning curve – Match software complexity with team experience level.
EDA environment – Integration with other tools like simulation for a unified workflow.
Libraries – Availability of extensive component libraries frees designers from creating footprints.
Scalability – The ability to handle everything from DIY to enterprise-level designs.
Output generation – Does it support manufacturing requirements like Gerber, IPC netlists, BOM?
Matching software strengths to the organization and application maximizes the benefit.
Integrated PCB Design Software Environments
Many EDA vendors offer integrated design environments spanning simulation, PCB layout, and physical verification:
Cadence Allegro + OrCAD + PSpice
- Tight integration for schematic-based simulation and PCB design
- Covers range from entry level to advanced tools
Mentor Xpedition + PADs + HyperLynx
- Unified PCB design workflow with analysis under one interface
- Scales individual to enterprise-wide needs
Altium + Altium Designer
- Single solution from schematic through manufacturing
- Additional tools for FPGA and embedded development
Using tools from one vendor improves design workflow and data exchange while providing a convenient single vendor support point. But beware of vendor lock-in limiting future options.
Cloud-Based PCB Design
Many EDA software companies now offer cloud-hosted options:
- Reduced IT infrastructure needs
- Usage-based pricing model
- Automatic updates
- Access designs from anywhere
- Requires reliable high-speed internet
- Potential for latency during editing
- Information security concerns
- Vendor dependent
Cloud-based tools facilitate collaboration but may not suit every design scenario.
Open Source PCB Design Software
In addition to KiCad, open source PCB design software options include:
- gEDA – Full suite of EDA tools focused on open collaboration
- HorizonEDA – Web-based schematic and layout tool
- PCBWeb – Browser-based editor for simple boards
- Fritzing – Emphasis on DIY and maker community
Open source provides free access but typically lacks vendor support and advanced capabilities. The open approach facilitates customization and community development.
Evaluating PCB Design Software
When selecting a PCB design solution:
- Review product brochures and feature lists
- Compare pricing tiers and availability of educational licenses
- Join online user forums to research experiences
- Download trial versions to experiment firsthand
- Seek feedback from colleagues
- Contact vendor sales teams
Taking time to thoroughly evaluate software against requirements ensures the optimal choice long-term.
Extensive training resources are available for most leading PCB software:
- Built-in tutorials – Interactive step-by-step guidance
- Videos – Recorded demonstrations of workflows
- Webinars – Live deep dives into capabilities
- Documentation – Manuals and help files
- Forums/FAQs – Q&A databases
- Training courses – Formal virtual or on-site classes
Leverage training to ramp designers up effectively on chosen solutions.
PCB Software Trends
Emerging trends shaping PCB design software include:
- Increasing automation – More tasks automated by optimization algorithms like routing. Reduces manual work.
- Simulation integration – Tighter coupling with analysis tools like thermal and SI.
- Virtual prototyping – Interactive 3D visualization replacing physical prototyping.
- Cloud adoption – Web-based tools facilitating collaboration.
- Artificial intelligence – Limited use of AI for tasks like design rule checking.
- User experience – Simplification and intuitive interactions.
Software will continue adapting to leverage new technologies while serving designer needs.
Key takeaways on PCB design software:
- Many capable software options exist from open source to advanced commercial tools
- Match software capabilities with organization size, experience level, and application complexity
- Leading solutions include Altium, Cadence, Mentor, Eagle, KiCad, Zuken
- Integrated environments improve workflow and collaboration
- Cloud-based access aids collaboration while introducing potential risks
- Open source provides free access with community-driven development
- Thoroughly evaluate options against needs and leverage training resources
Choosing the optimal software maximizes the efficiency, capabilities, and ease-of-use for any PCB development effort.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is most important when comparing PCB software?
The core layout and routing capabilities are essential, but also consider learning curve, integration, output generation, and other productivity factors.
Which is better – perpetual license or subscription model?
Subscriptions allow flexible scaling and updating but require ongoing payments. Perpetual licenses require large upfront costs and additional purchases for upgrades. Evaluate total long term cost.
Is cloud-based PCB software more efficient for teams?
Cloud tools facilitate real-time collaboration, but designers must be comfortable with cloud security policies and inevitable internet dependencies.
Should I use the built-in autorouter?
Built-in autorouters provide a starting point but generally can’t match the quality of manual routing for complex designs. Use judiciously.
Can students or hobbyists access professional tools cost-effectively?
Many leading vendors offer free or discounted educational licenses, sometimes limited in capabilities. Student versions can provide advanced tools for learning prior to entering industry.