In the past, designing a PCB board meant that you would have to purchase expensive CAD tools from a single company that could cost thousands of dollars for an annual subscription. However, as the industry has grown over the last decade, multiple options are available to engineers and hobbyists alike. Nowadays, some people recommend Altium – whereas others prefer Kicad – but it can be challenging to know which one is best for you and your needs.
The good news is that both programs are entirely free to use. Kicad offers a 100% open-source design platform that allows you to use any brand of components in your projects. On the other hand, Altium is entirely proprietary and tightly controlled by its parent company. They do not allow you to use open-source components or share your designs with others. These programs are available for Windows and Mac computers. They get frequent updates (sometimes on different schedules).
So, the first thing to consider when choosing a design program is whether you need a schematic editor or a PCB layout program. Schematics are the blueprints of your electronics and cover voltage, current, and other measurements. However, they are also helpful. They allow you to connect components like resistors, transistors, diodes, and integrated circuits into a circuit board. PCB layouts specifically refer to the physical layout of a PCB board. Each of these programs has its strength in schematics or PCB layouts.
To help you decide which one is best for you, it is essential to know what each program can do.
Introduction to PCB Design Software
Before we begin, it’s essential to keep in mind that PCB design is a particular field that requires expertise and knowledge. While these are for beginners, they contain valuable information on easing into the process.
Kicad has been around for several years before Altium. It was initially created in 2003 by Jean-Pierre Charras and is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac. Back then, the company’s main goal was to provide a user-friendly interface for hobbyists who wanted to design a board without paying thousands of dollars for a single program.
Both Kicad and Altium depend on the open-source community to help improve programs and provide support when there are issues. Therefore, upon initial installation, you must install several other programs for Kicad to function properly. The installation process can take anywhere from three to six hours, depending on your system.
However, it’s well worth the time because it has many powerful features. They include customizable drill sizes for different board materials. These materials are very helpful when dealing with small-scale PCB design tasks. Furthermore, this tool is open-source, so it’s free for private and commercial use.
It’s important to note that all the following criteria depend on a scale of 1 to 5. One is the worst, and five is the best. There is no single “best” program out there. It varies from user to user, depending on your requirements.
As far as usability goes, PCB design – especially for beginners- is worth noting. It can be challenging because it requires patience and practice to become adept at using the tools. Therefore, it’s essential to keep this in mind and make sure that you understand the process before making any significant decisions.
Kicad has a very straight forward layout that’s easy to understand and even includes “preview” mode. It allows you to see how a design will look once you print it. However, it is essential to note that several people have said some errors in the PCB design process due to Kicad being open source.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that Kicad is incompatible with Windows 10. Therefore, if you have upgraded from Windows 7 or 8.1 to Microsoft’s latest operating system, then you will have to run an older version of Windows for the program to run correctly.
Pros & Cons:
- Easy to use graphic design software
- Short learning curve
- Completely open-source (as long as the download depends on GPL)
- Can generate Gerbers, solder mask layers, and preference files (Paper tape)
- Numerous pre-made designs are available for download (up to 18k)
- Unlimited post-processing capabilities
- Use of vias against traces to aid in panelization
- Multiple version control options for owner/developers to track changes in build processes
- Includes 3D viewer for viewing PCB assembly
- Offers design for manufacturing
- Numerous components are available (more than 55,000)
- Can automatically create a netlist based on the design in Eagle.
Poor documentation, although we expect this since it is open-source software and “user-specific.” It cannot align nets like other PCB design programs. It uses a BSD license, so it cannot create commercial designs that use the original code. Limited Gerber viewer – cannot view traces, pads, drill holes, etc. Can export files in DXF format (Altium does not offer this option)
We should purchase programs like Kicad for the experience of using a complete open-source apparatus. In other words, you purchase the tool and become the owner/developer of it instead of purchasing a service from a giant company that has adequate training but does not make you an active part of its community.
What do Kicad and Altium Offer?
Both Altium and Kicad are pieces of software that allow you to create PCB boards. With both programs, you can easily lay out your circuit design and flow it from your schematic to the printed board itself with little trouble.
But the benefits of Kicad tend to be more focused on its open-source nature. You can use anything compatible with Eagle, such as Altium brand electronics and sensors.
On the other hand, Altium also offers a suite of machine components compatible with Eagle right out of the box. However, these ‘generic’ parts tend to be more expensive than their Altium counterparts.
Kicad rigid flex
Companies often tout Kicad rigid flex PCB design as a cost-effective method to produce your PCB. This is because, if you are only designing prototypes and small batches of products, using Kicad rigid flex and hand assembly can be very convenient and inexpensive in the short term. However, Kicad rigid flex PCB is not without its disadvantages. One of the main drawbacks of this design method is that you cannot use the software to generate Gerber files and print your board. If you want to create boards using Kicad flex PCB, you must obtain a PCB maker to manufacture your prototype boards professionally. Fortunately, it is possible to purchase Kicad rigid flex Arduino shields to access all the features included with their paid version.
Manufacturing PCBs using Kicad flexible PCB is also time-consuming, challenging for the impatient. On average, it will take you around two to eight hours to complete a design using Kicad rigid flex – depending on how familiar you are with the software. Using this method also requires patience when uploading designs to your computer. You may need to wait anywhere between fifteen minutes and six hours for the board files to finish uploading before you can test them.
Altium’s Basic Package
As far as the basic ‘package’ goes, Altium offers three different options for new users. However, it’s important to note that each package has varying costs attached. The most basic package costs $200 per year – and they can only create a handful of boards. On top of this, most Altium users will find that they don’t need to purchase the newest parts in the package – but that their designs will still be available in their library.
For a nominal annual fee ($120), you can use all Altium’s tools and parts. However, this option comes with a decreasing amount of content for each board. For instance, the number of parts and files diminishes.
The next package up is the Professional package. This cost is $500 per year but comes with over 90 components included in the design library. Additionally, one can easily make each board work on multiple rigid flex PCB altium thicknesses – medium and thick.
Finally, the most expensive package is Altium Designer. This costs $600 per year. It contains over 600 parts and access to all the latest components from Altium. It also comes with a fully-featured editor, which makes it possible to modify designs and layouts continually – if you so choose.
Flex And Rigid-Flex Design Challenges
It is possible to design both rigid and flexible PCBs using Kicad’s rigid flex method. However, even though you might create a circuit using the rigid flex method, you may find that they are difficult to solder and assemble.
On the other hand, it can be challenging to get anything to stick together when creating PCB boards with Altium flex rigid toolset. The parts and connectors tend to be a bit too tight together when manually laying out your designs. This can make it difficult for components to align and the board to fit in properly.
Kicad’s rigid flex, on the other hand, is one of the easiest ways to get started with PCB prototyping, whether you are a CAD user or not. Since all electronics and components integrate into one software platform, you can ensure that your designs will work.
On the other hand, Altium’s rigid-flex toolset does not have the consistent functionality that we find with Kicad. In addition to this, it is difficult for you to lay out the board yourself – since you will need to purchase a PCB maker to produce your boards.
Altium Designer vs. Kicad
Altium Designer is the most expensive, professional-level package. Kicad offers a simple installation process and easy usage of its system. We can send each design directly to the manufacturer for fabrication online – without any interaction from your end. So, Kicad’s installation process is a little bit trickier than Altium’s.
Additionally, while small, Kicad’s community is still an excellent resource for new users to learn more about their software. Because Kicad is open-source and free to use, its forums are always full of eager learners. Altium’s forums, on the other hand, haven’t received updates very often in recent months – which can be a bit of a challenge for new users.
In this sense, the main difference between Altium and Kicad lies in the community behind them.
Advantages of using Kicad
1. One of the most significant advantages of using Kicad is that all parts and components integrate into their system. This means that it’s very easy for anyone to start creating a PCB design without purchasing any expensive tools or machines.
2. Kicad is also user-friendly, so new users will have no problems getting started with their designs. In this sense, it’s easier to learn how to use Kicad than Altium designer.
3. Kicad also offers many parts – from essential components like resistors, capacitors, and transistors to more sophisticated ICs and sensors. This makes it very easy for engineers to fabricate prototypes using the latest technologies in electronics.
4. Kicad also has a very affordable cost structure for users looking to start circuit boards quickly.
5. Finally, you can use Kicad online to create your designs without the need for a computer. This allows you to create your PCB designs and upload them directly to their manufacturer for fabrication.
Disadvantages of using Kicad
1. It is somewhat difficult to lay out the design on the screen in a way that accurately represents what your final product will look like when you manufacture it on a board.
2. Some Altium users have complained that they find it challenging to use Kicad online, particularly when multiple designers are working on one project simultaneously.
3. In addition to this, it is challenging to add components and parts to your designs in a way that will look aesthetically pleasing. This can be tricky for new users who are still learning to work with their designs and layouts.
4. Finally, it isn’t easy to get a circuit diagram to look as clean using Kicad as it does in Altium designer. However, both Altium and Kicad offer users the ability to test-run their designs before sending them for fabrication. It is a true advantage for engineers who are not very experienced with PCB design software.
Advantages of Altium
1. Altium is a high-quality, professional-level PCB design software that comes with all the bells and whistles you would expect from a top-of-the-line program.
2. We can use Altium to create everything from nothing with their circuit maker to more complex designs using the freely available library of components. This makes the toolset very versatile and accessible for many electronics engineers.
3. Altium also offers an array of tutorials and other documentation that will help you improve your design. This means that it is easy for even the most novice users to learn how to use the software and get started with their designs.
4. Its online community is also beneficial for new users, who can ask questions about the software if they need assistance. Since it centers around the same principles as other microcontroller programming languages like Arduino, it is easier for new users to study and understand how the program works.
5. Finally, Altium rigid flex toolset is one of the most advanced software platforms on the market today. The flexible board used to build circuits is easy to assemble and solder. It makes it a perfect choice for engineers who are just getting started with PCB design tools.
Disadvantages of using Altium
1. Altium can be expensive for new users, especially since it does not have a free trial version because Altium offers so many features that their license fees are higher than Kicad’s.
2. We can also use online like Kicad – which means that users will need a computer to learn how to use the toolset properly.
3. However, we offset this by the availability of additional documentation and help within their community forums and reports on the toolset.
4. It may be more difficult for new users to use Altium without the available training materials. Especially for those still learning about the programs and the structure of rigid flex PCB altium design software in general.
How to use Kicad to create rigid flex
You should know that there are two ways to create a circuit – rigid and flexible. Rigid flex PCBs have the rigidity of a typical PC board, and we can manufacture it using any fabrication process. Flexible PCBs have the flexibility of a wire, and companies manufacture them using selective metal stamping processes that use metal powder as a mold rather than inkjet printing. This process allows you to easily design your circuit with readily available blank PCBs in plastic or FR-4 material.
This process includes:
1. To start creating a PCB using Kicad, you must first sign up for a free account. Then, you need to download the Kicad software.
2. Once you have downloaded the software, you will want to open the starter kit. This is the file included with your copy of the program when you purchase it online.
3. The starter kit file will contain all the necessary parts to create your PCB. However, you will still want to download your free Kicad library. This file contains all the parts and components that you can use when designing a PCB.
4. Once you have downloaded your free components and parts, open up Kicad and create a new blank project.
5. Then, you need to select the correct hardware for your design by navigating to the customize tab and clicking on the board types button located on the left-hand side of the program.
6. A new window will appear, allowing you to select the type of hardware you would like to use for your project.
7. After selecting the right board type, you will want to navigate back to the “customize” tab and click on “library.” This will give you access to your new library and the components and parts included with it.
8. You can then start designing your circuit by attaching several components according to how you want your design to function. After finishing with your design, you can save it and then save it as a PDF file.
9. Finally, you can then upload it to one of the dedicated fabrication sites that are available online. This will allow for a quick turnaround time for your finished PCBs in high-quality PCB material.
How to use Altium Designer to create rigid flex
Altium Designer is one of the most widely used PCB design software programs on the market today. The program is perfect for electronics engineers and hobbyists who are just getting started with the industry.
1. To start creating a PCB using Altium Designer, you will first want to download the application.
2. Next, it will take you to the software – which will look like a web browser – and allow you to create a new project in seconds.
3. Once you have created a new project, you can customize the board by selecting the correct hardware and components.
4. You can then add a variety of components to your circuit – including resistors, capacitors, transistors, and more.
5. Once you have finished designing your circuit using Altium Designer, you will use the “fabrication” tab to generate the final design file that you need to manufacture your PCBs in a professional facility.
6. After you have finished this step, you can review your design and ensure it is correct before sending it off to the fabrication facility of your choice.
7. After producing and manufacturing, you will receive it in a matter of days. It means that Altium Designer is one of the best choices for anyone who wants to create a flexible PCB at home quickly and easily.
The Future Of PCB Design Software
The future of PCB design software is trying to utilize all the latest technology, mainly in simple operation. Therefore companies like Altium, Kicad, KiCad, and many others are trying to develop something that could be a game-changer. These programs are already something they call “one-click PCB,” where you can design a circuit in one click.
This software is getting more and more user-friendly with the help of big companies. If this trend continues, it is evident that we need future generations to design their circuits at home. These latest developments will allow practical 3D circuit simulation, a more intuitive way to design schematics and other options to make circuit design easy.
These are just some tips that you can use to create your flex PCB. It may seem like these programs can do everything on their own – which is why so many people have started using them in recent years.
The truth is that as we move forward in time and technology, there will be more and more ways for us to design our circuit boards. It is truly amazing how far developments have come. If you plan to create circuit boards at home shortly, you should already be familiar with creating PCBs using these programs.
Both Altium and Kicad are excellent choices for any PCB designer that needs a professional solution. Altium is straightforward to use if you’re looking to recreate a design or plan it out from scratch. They also offer plenty of content in their design library – as well as a wide selection of parts and electronics on their website.
Kicad, on the other hand, is a little bit more complicated. However, they offer so much freedom to their users when modifying their designs. All of Kicad’s changes are open-source and available for everyone to view. If you’re not afraid of coding, then you’ll enjoy using this software. You can rest assured that your designs will always be compatible with the community.