Best PCB Design Software List

In China, there is an ancient proverb that says, “To do a good job, an artisan must first sharpen their tools.” For circuit engineers, PCB design software serves as their tool. However, with numerous options available, it can be challenging to determine which software is best suited for one’s needs. Therefore, TechSparks recommends four commonly used layout editors:

  • ExpressPCB
  • Altium
  • PADS
  • Osmond PCB

ExpressPCB

Express PCB official website

ExpressPCB is a robust platform that offers top-notch manufacturing services alongside free PCB layout design tools. However, it is important to note that the free tool, ExpressPCB Classic, does have certain limitations in terms of flexibility. For instance, it lacks the ability to design multi-layer circuits. In such cases, it is advisable to upgrade to the Plus version, which unlocks more advanced features.

For hobbyists, the free tool is typically sufficient to complete DIY projects. For commercial activities, the upgrade cost is relatively insignificant, and it is recommended to engage in detailed design discussions with ExpressPCB engineers to ensure optimal results.

Start with ExpressPCB

  1. Open the ExpressPCB software and create a new PCB layout project.
  2. If you need to work on a 4-layer PCB layout project, select the 4-layer option from the Design menu bar.
  3. In the main window of the PCB editor, use the yellow rectangular box to set the boundaries of the board. Adjust the dimensions of the board by dragging three of the four corners, or double-click on the corners to enter specific coordinates.
  4. Choose the default size. Sometimes, when you route a trace through a plated through hole in ExpressPCB, the trace may vary between the upper and lower layers. You can ensure these pads are always visible by setting the default properties in the software’s dialog box.
  5. If you want to obtain a schematic using ExpressSCH, use the “Link PCB Schematic” command under the “File” menu to connect the schematic file to your board layout.
  6. After completing the above steps, save the file you just created using the save button in the software.

ExpressPCB Software Skills

Display

When you launch ExpressPCB, you will be greeted with a main window that features two toolbars (top and left). At the bottom of the interface, you’ll find the status bar displaying relevant information. The status bar includes the XY axis position in inches, which is indicated in the coordinate display panel located in the upper left corner of the layout editor. The Snap list box, positioned in the middle of the status bar, allows you to configure snap-to-grid properties. Enabling the snap-to-grid feature automatically aligns board components and traces to the grid. Additionally, when connecting components, pay attention to the fields on the right side of the display panel, as they indicate circuit board component abbreviations (e.g., No. 11 connected to U4).

Units and Coordinates

The coordinates in the Design Editor originate from the upper left corner of the panel, denoted as (0, 0). This origin setting aids designers in creating custom PCB traces. For enhanced accuracy in positioning individual pads where traces are placed, the origin can be adjusted to the center of the board assembly or pin 1. Units can be changed to inches or millimeters through the Options dialog, allowing for proper snap-to-grid spacing. It’s important to note that changing the origin position only affects coordinate display and does not impact the actual layout, providing flexibility for adjustments.

Grid

The main editor window displays a grid composed of white dots, which greatly assists in aligning components and traces during design. The grid acts as a visual aid and is not displayed on the final PCB. The grid size can be adjusted as desired, with a default value of 0.1 inches, which can be modified through the grid Options dialog box. Once the circuit design is complete, you have the option to hide the grid for a clearer view of the designed circuit. Notably, when dragging components, traces, and pads using the mouse, they will snap to the intersection points of the grid.

Traces and Corners

ExpressPCB allows for curved traces, which are represented by small squares at corners. By dragging, inserting, or deleting these corners, you can modify the path of the traces. It’s important to mention that the corners themselves are not displayed in the final PCB layout.

Internal Layer Connections

Via pads in the layout can be linked to power or ground in the internal planes. To establish a connection, right-click on the stand-alone pad, and select the desired power supply or inner layer option from the pop-up menu. A connection is depicted as a “+” symbol on a pad, while a connection to a flat surface is represented as a “a-” symbol.

Altium

Altium official website

Altium, also known as Altium Designer or AD, is a professional software widely used for PCB design. It offers a comprehensive solution for quickly and accurately completing large and complex circuit design projects. It is the preferred choice due to its unique capability as a complete board design tool. Altium offers educational programs ranging from secondary school to college, making it user-friendly and accessible to users at different levels. Additionally, it integrates embedded software development functionalities, enabling designers to streamline the entire electronic product development process, including design, integration, and programmable device design.

Further Reading: How to Design PCB in Altium

Designing a Schematic with Altium

Upper right corner: File——>new——>project——>PCBproject;

Right-click the project name: Save Poject as…—->Create a new folder;

Right-click the project name: Add new to project——>schematic——>PCB (add PCB and schematic)——>add to the newly created folder, rename, and save;

On the right: Librarise——>install——>find the corresponding library file and import it;

Operation skills: Double-click the device in the library file, the device will follow the mouse, press the Tab key, edit the properties, and use the space bar to rotate;

Make schematic diagram devices.

(1) Right-click the project name, add the schematic library, and make;

(2) Draw the shape: select from the drop-down menu of the upper triangle;

(3) Add pins: in English: pp, pay attention to connect the end with × to the outside;

(4) Click the upper left corner to save to the folder you just created, and then refer to the Library from the left;

(5) Done.

4 Practical Tips

Interactive multi-wire connection

To address the challenge of parallel wiring for multiple pins of chips or headers, this PCB layout software provides an interactive multi-wire connection function. This allows for the simultaneous layout of a group of traces, enabling fast wiring. Follow these steps:

  • Press and hold “S+L” until the “十” icon appears.
  • Hold down “Ctrl” and select multiple pins.

Silk screen adjustment

As the number of components increases in the later stages of circuit design, the overlap between components and the silk screen can become problematic. Adjusting characters on the silk screen layer accurately is essential. Follow these steps:

  • Press the “Y” key to open the control panel.
  • Enter “onsilkscreen” in the “Filter” option of the control panel.
  • The brightness of the silk screen layer increases, allowing for separate editing.

Automatic routing optimization

Complex multi-layer PCB structures often have chaotic routing. Altium 20 offers routing optimization functions to address this issue. Follow these steps:

  • Select the circuit routing that requires optimization.
  • Press the “Tab” key to select the corresponding network.
  • In the control panel, select “Routing” → “Optimize Selected Routing” command.
  • Press the shortcut key “Ctrl+Alt+G” to optimize the routing.

Differential pair routing

The reason why it is called the best PCB design software is because of the inclusion of differential pair routing tools in version 20. Before performing differential pair wiring, it is necessary to define a differential pair network, specifying which two signal lines require differential pair wiring. Follow these steps for adding a differential pair to the PCB:

  • Open the PCB file and click the PCB button in the lower right corner.
  • Select the PCB option in the control panel.
  • Choose the differential pair editing option in the upper list box.
  • Click the “Add” button.
  • In the “Differential Pair” dialog box, select the positive and negative networks for the differential pair.
  • Define the name of the differential pair.
  • Once the differential pair settings are complete, the differential pair on the edit page will appear grayed out, indicating it is in the screening state.

PADS

PADS design software official website

PADS is a renowned electronic PCB design software developed by Siemens AG, a global leader in the field of electronic and electrical engineering. With a history spanning over 160 years, Siemens has established itself as a provider of superior solutions and products to electronics manufacturing companies worldwide. The software, previously known as Mentor PADS® and later rebranded as Siemens PADS®, offers powerful design layout capabilities and is widely popular among designers.

Siemens AG provides customers with three printed circuit board design tools: Mentor EN, Mentor WG, and PADS. PADS, also known as PowerPCB, is a versatile EDA software that is highly regarded for its ability to quickly train design engineers. As a result, it has gained popularity among students and small companies, serving as their preferred choice for PCB design.

Why Consider PADS

Advantages

  • User-friendly interface that facilitates reliable design, making it an excellent choice for training electronic designers.
  • Well-suited for simple circuit structure design.
  • Simplicity and ease of use compared to other electronic circuit board design software like Protel.
  • Wide application in various fields including consumer electronics products, mobile phone PCB, and industrial equipment.
  • Seamless integration between schematic diagrams and PCB layouts.
  • Strong compatibility with the ability to connect with the latest tool. It also supports interfaces with CAM processing software and mechanical design software, enabling data conversion.

Disadvantages

  • Separate interfaces for main design and wiring design, requiring frequent switching between PADS-Layout and PADS-Router.
  • Limited support for complex designs, as the software is primarily suited for simpler circuits and may lack advanced features for complex circuitry.

How to install PADS (9.5) editor

Step 1: Install

Unzip the compressed file of PADS 9.5, the file PADS 9.5 mib.ex will appear after the decompression is completed, double-click to open the file. Ignore the dongle prompt that appears, and click the “Next” button. As shown below

Install PADS design software

If the prompt prompts that no authorization file has been detected, click “Skip” → “Agree” → click “Modify” → click “Product Selection” → select the tool → click “Target Path” → click “PADS Projects Path” → “Done” → select “at later time” → “Done”.

Authorized PADS design software

If there is an error message during the download of the PCB design software, choose to skip it when you are not sure why, and several shortcuts will appear on the desktop of the computer after the installation is completed, as shown in the figure below:

PADS design software download completed

Step 2: Start Harmony Journey

Copy the Crack.vbs, MentorKG.exe, and setx.exe files in the MentorKG folder to the PADS 9.5 installation directory and wait for the installation to complete. Save the file as LICENSE.TXT or LICENSE.DAT after LICENSE.TXT appears.

Step 3: Add environment variables -> system variables

The variable name is MGLS_LICENSE_FILE, and the variable value is LICENSE.TXT.

Osmond PCB - Flexible circuit board software design

Osmond PCB is a PCB design software tool for electronics engineers using a Mac. This PCB design tool provides users with powerful functions and flexibility, and removes artificial restrictions and restrictions, and can design circuit boards of any size and shape according to their needs.

Advantages of Osmond PCB

Types of Easy PCB Design Software

Powerful aside, designers use Osmond simply because it has no limits, and yes, who doesn’t love a no-holds-barred design software? When you use a variety of different design editors, you will find that these tools have limitations. For example, some tools are only suitable for simple circuits and cannot edit PCB layouts with more than 18 layers. You will fall in love with it when you use the Osmond editor, it can easily design any layer, change the spatial resolution at will, draw a trajectory at any angle, etc.

Flexible component editor

A single type of component assembly is no longer suitable for today’s complex electronics, so we need to install different types of components on the PCB, including: SMD components, DIP components, different sizes, and different shapes. Osmond provides an integrated component editor where you can quickly define any type of component or modify an existing one.

Support for multiple PCB layers

Different layers are designed on the circuit board, including: ground layer, signal layer, silk screen layer, solder mask layer and other auxiliary layers. These layers can be edited individually, providing a powerful Lua programming language and scripting.

Ability to review design documents

Design errors are common PCB problems, if design errors occur in high volume orders it will delay the delivery date. Osmond provides inspection tools through which design accuracy can be ensured. When the schematic is confirmed, you can directly use Osmond to export Gerber files and Excellon drill files. These files are standard, and PCBA service providers can better control the manufacturing process through these files.

Basic Operation

Change different PCB layers

Like other software, double-click the file to open the Osmond editor, click “Open” in the control panel to create a new layer. The following figure is a simple circuit diagram, as shown in the figure, it only has four resistors and two DIP components, and the red line indicates the connection path of the pad.

Change different PCB layers

When the file is opened, it is the first layer of the circuit board. If you need to switch to the second or third layer, you only need to press 2 or 3 on the keyboard, and so on. Each layer of the newly created file is similar. In addition, we can click the logo at the bottom of the panel to change different layers, as shown in the figure below:

first layer of the circuit board

Clearer circuit

There are different tool option bars on the top of the design editor. When you move the mouse over these icons, they will display the function of each button as shown in the figure below:

Clearer circuit

You can click on these tools for different functions. If you want to observe the circuit diagram more clearly, click the magnifying glass button to zoom in. It is worth noting that you need to pay attention to the “+” or “—” sign in the middle of the magnifying glass, they are the key to control zooming in and out.

Path connection

Open the file to see a grid that aligns your components with the traces. When designing the Osmond software, engineers added rules for pin connections in the tool, and you can view the rules by pressing the “N” key onthe keyboard. As shown below:

Path connection

As shown in the picture, these “round holes” are marked with different colors, which indicate the pins that need to be connected. The signal name is just below the tool options bar. Use the “N” key to view the next group of pins that need to be connected. If you need to watch a signal, press the “V” key on the keyboard. If there is no display after pressing the “N” and “V” keys, it means that the pins are all connected.

Select the connection tool from the function bar, as shown in the figure below:

Select the connection tool

Click on the pin of the component, the icon will turn blue, and other pins that need to be connected will turn red. When we have clicked on a pin, when the mouse is close to the component, a dotted line will be displayed, which means that the connection is allowed. After completing the connection, as shown below:

completing the connection

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