Embracing the allure of “free,” which allows access to powerful design tools without spending a dime, is particularly enticing for hobbyists and student groups. In this article, TechSparks introduces three exceptional free PCB design software options:
Fritzing stands out as an intriguing open-source project with a clear purpose: to assist PCB artists, designers, researchers, and hobby electronics enthusiasts in creatively working with interactive electronics and developing electronic projects. The software’s simplicity and elegance extend to its website, offering users an effortless experience when exploring design projects and seeking editing tips. Numerous electronics enthusiasts cite Fritzing as the best free software, and its excellence is due to its multifaceted functionality.
Start With Fritzing
Download and Open
When it comes to non-online PCB design software, the initial steps are standardized across different platforms. Unlike Excel and Word documents, electronic PCB design software doesn’t inherently offer time-saving functions. It’s crucial to adopt a proactive approach to safeguard your design work in case of crashes or potential setbacks that may necessitate starting from scratch. To mitigate such risks, it’s essential to develop a habit of saving your work in stages. The saving process typically involves the following steps:
- Click on the “File” option in the toolbar.
- Navigate to “Save As” to access the saving functionality.
- Edit the file name as desired and choose the preferred save location.
- To begin your project in the Fritzing software, follow these steps:
- Start by dragging a suitable board into the program. This will serve as the foundation for your project.
- Repeat the process for other necessary components to build your complete circuit.
- Use the component menu bar to select electronic components and establish connections with the PCB. Connect the components to create your desired circuit layout.
- In case of any errors in the circuit, you can quickly rectify them by using the “Backspace” key, which functions as the delete shortcut key in the Fritzing.
- For power connections, click and drag the +5V connector of any other relevant components.
- Complete the connections between all required components using the same drag-and-drop method as mentioned above.
- To ensure proper connectivity, quickly locate the equipotential connectors by clicking on the specified connector.
- Finally, combine connecting lines by adjusting polyline points as needed to achieve a clean and organized circuit layout.
- You can view or edit your circuit in both the Schematic and PCB tabs of the software, which allows you to work seamlessly between different views for better project management and visualization.
Change property settings
- View the circuit components you want to know through the component inspector;
- Click on the component and change the name to prevent confusion of similar components;
- Change more properties.
- Select the electronic project view to be saved in the menu bar;
- Select the format to be saved.
Shortcut keys during use of Fritzing
- Zoom in and out: scroll the mouse wheel for a clearer view;
- Move the view interface up and down: Ctrl+mouse wheel/Alt+mouse wheel;
- Wheel shortcut editing: Edit→Parameter Settings→Change Properties;
- Straight line: Hold down the Shift key to connect the line.
Kicad is a powerful open-source software that allows users to create electronic schematics and printed circuit board artwork of up to 16 layers. Being a free circuit board design software, Kicad provides a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI), enabling users to perform nearly all operations with ease using their mouse. The software is compatible with both Windows and Linux operating systems, making it accessible to a wide range of users.
Despite being a free program, Kicad offers high-quality libraries that provide a wide variety of components for users to choose from. This ensures that designers can work efficiently without compromising on the reliability of the components they use in their projects.
Eeschema is a powerful tool in Kicad dedicated to schematic design, facilitating an efficient and organized creation process through a series of functions.
One of the key features that stands out is support for hierarchical schematics, meaning designers can break down complex designs into smaller, manageable sub-circuits, helping to navigate and understand circuits.
Another notable feature is the ability to create custom component symbols. This allows designers to define unique symbols for components that may not be readily available in standard libraries. Custom symbols enable greater flexibility and accuracy in representing specialized components in the schematic.
Importantly, Eeschema is ERC (Electrical Rule Checking) compliant, a feature that ensures that the designed schematic complies with electrical design rules, helping to identify potential errors and ensuring circuit integrity and functionality.
PCBnew is a powerful and precise drawing tool that is specifically designed for creating printed circuit board layouts. It offers high precision with measurements in nanometers (nm), allowing for extremely detailed and accurate PCB designs. The theoretical capability of drawing a PCB of up to 2.14 meters in size showcases its versatility and capacity for handling large-scale projects.
One of the notable strengths of PCBnew is its capability to handle complex designs with up to 32 copper layers. This multi-layer functionality enables the creation of intricate and sophisticated PCBs, making it suitable for advanced electronic projects and high-density circuitry.
In addition to copper layers, PCBnew also supports technical layers, further enhancing its versatility and accommodating specific design requirements. These technical layers allow for annotations, drawings, or other additional information to be included within the PCB layout, aiding in documentation and collaboration.
The 3D PCB viewing function is a game-changer in the field of Free PCB Layout Tool, as it empowers designers with a more interactive and realistic approach to visualizing their projects. This feature utilizes Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) models, enabling users to export their board models for seamless integration with Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software.
Moreover, the VRML export capability allows users to leverage their PCB models in other CAD tools seamlessly. This integration streamlines the design process, as users can continue working with their PCB models in their preferred CAD environment, benefiting from additional design tools and features.
KiCad VS Altium
Both KiCad and Altium Designer (AD) are powerful and free PCB design software options, each with its unique advantages. Let’s delve into the details of these two software packages:
- Data Storage and Version Control: KiCad stores data in the form of text, making it convenient for hosting on version control systems like GIT. This allows for easy collaboration, modification, and expansion of design projects by multiple team members.
- Cross-Platform Functionality: KiCad offers cross-platform capabilities, enabling users to open schematic diagrams and PCB layouts created in AD directly through KiCad. This seamless interoperability ensures flexibility in working with designs created in different software environments.
- Different File Storage for Packages: KiCad provides the advantage of different file storage methods for packages, making it more convenient for users to compare and manage various components used in their designs.
- Predictable Mechanical Layer: In AD, the mechanical layer can sometimes be unpredictable, which may lead to uncertainty and confusion for designers. This could be a potential drawback when considering mechanical aspects of the PCB layout.
- Automatic Differential Pair Generation: When performing differential wiring, KiCAD software can automatically generate differential pairs based on the network names, simplifying the design process and ensuring accurate and efficient differential signal routing.
- Batch Operations in Schematic Editing: KiCad allows for batch operations, such as package assignment, when editing schematic diagrams. This feature makes it easier for designers to find similar objects, perform multi-select actions, and apply unified operations to streamline their design workflows.
ZenitPCB is an impressive and versatile layout editing tool that harnesses the power of CAD. This free PCB layout design tool caters to a wide range of users, from amateurs to design companies, making it an excellent choice for both hobbyists and professionals.
Developed by experienced PCB designers, ZenitPCB takes into account the preferences and needs of designers, ensuring a seamless and intuitive experience. Its user-friendly features and functionalities set it apart from other software in the market.
Alternatives to ZenitPCB
- Altium: 35 years of innovation and development enable it to provide users with a unified design environment, which provides ZenitPCB with incomparable powerful functions such as: stack planning, anonymous sharing, data management, 3D visualization, multi-board assembly, documentation, output configuration, etc.
- Ultiboard: It can be seamlessly integrated with Multisim, and through its automation functions, various layouts can be easily completed to speed up your prototype PCB manufacturing. The fly in the ointment is that ZenitPCB is completely free, while Ultiboard needs 2816$.
- PCB Artist: This software is developed by Advanced Circuits, a well-known PCB manufacturing and assembly company. The company is the king of PCB manufacturers in the United States. If you choose to cooperate with their company to establish an electronic project, PCB Artist will be better than any other design software.
- DipTrace: Advanced circuit project tools, including a real-time DRC feature that alerts you of errors between generation and design software, like ZenitPCB, can be used to export for mechanical CAD modeling, which costs $75 per license for the software.
- Flux: At $7 per month, it’s worth it for a PCB manufacturer offering design services. Through this software, manufacturers can collaborate with customers in real time, making it easier to advance electronic projects. It is a more efficient PCB design software than ZenitPCB.
Start with ZenitPCB
Open the software and create a new ZenitPCB file in the “File” option above the menu bar to complete the design of the circuit schematic. Once opened, the file will appear in ZenitCapture as a black workspace with a green border.
Complete the circuit schematic by adding components in the blank workspace. Select and drag the components needed for the project to the workspace. After the components are placed, a “+” drop-down button will appear on the left toolbar, through which you can check all the added elements. Quickly connect components with the mouse.
After importing the finished schematic into the netlist you will find several menus to choose from including File, View, Select Element, Settings, Parts, Add and Help. After saving the file your netlist is ready to use in the layout.
Start your new PCB project with the ZenitPCB Layout tool. Tools at the top of the menu bar can be used to modify and resize the board. Next set up your component in the workspace. Select the netlist to use and place the components on the digital board. Modify the target component with the right mouse button.
Open the Gerber file we need to view through the ZenitPCB GerberView button. The program can open Gerber and NCDrill files and provide visualization according to ASCII format.
Designers can change the display and hiding of layer colors by modifying the visualization buttons. The physical layers and drill holes available in the Gerber file are shown in the toolbar on the left.