Printed Circuit Design Software for Beginners

I’ve been doing some research on schematic and PCB CAD software to pick out which package would be the best to use with my students here at BCIT. I’d like to share my observations and request some feedback or suggestions from the CD community which, I am sure, has opinions on such matters. I do, however, have some specific criteria in mind.

**The Students:**Are adults, studying to become high school technology education teachers. Many have previous education or experience in trades or technologies, but few have electronics experience and, as mechanically minded people find the theoretical and troubleshooting aspects of electronics a new and challenging experience. They are keen to learn more about electronics and teach it to their future students, so I want to keep it as fun and painless as possible.

**The Software:**Should be free, so that they can learn here and take the software with them in to any classroom or shop in the province.
Should have an easy-to-use, easy-to-learn interface.
Should produce printouts of single sided circuit boards suitable for production using a toner transfer or photographic process.
Should link the schematic diagram to the circuit board.
Does not need auto-placing or auto-routing, but it’s nice if it is there.
Does not need to produce multi-sided, large, or complex boards. This is for teaching high school projects, not commercial production or research.

**The parts libraries:**Basic components such as through-hole resistors, diodes, LEDs and transistors should be easy to find.
A few common IC’s including PIC microcontrollers should be available.

Right now the “best” package I have found based on these criteria seems to be Diptrace Lite. It has common components fairly easily accessible in its library, is reasonably decent at creating schematics and links the schematic to the PCB. The autoplace and autoroute functions can be set to run on just one side of the board and seem to do a decent job. I’ve only played with it for a while, but I get the feeling that its learn curve is “less steep” than some of the other packages.

Some of the other software packages I have looked at include:

Eagle: I’ve used this quite a bit in the past, including with high school students. It doesn’t have the easiest UI to learn, and sometimes it is difficult to find basic parts. For hard core electronics junkies, that isn’t a big deal, and it is fairly powerful and widely used, but unless I were to custom build a library of common parts, it would be frustrating for a beginning student to find what they need. And even then it would require students to do a custom install of the “easy” library. It has good support for autorouting, however, and is a fairly standard package it seems.

PCB123: This has a really nice user interface, links its parts library to digikey’s database to make ordering easy and seems to work quite nicely. The knock against it is that the parts library is SO extensive that it also makes it hard to find a simple 1/4 watt through-hole resistor or 5mm LED. Sure I can find them… but I have to look… that will be a bit frustrating for a student who doesn’t need 1,000+ different types of resistor to design their board. The other catch is that the licensing agreement limits you to only using data generated from their software to produce boards with their service bureau. Technically, printing and producing our own boards may be a violation of the license agreement. Yeah, I know they’d never know, but I do try to respect IP rights. But it is probably my number two pick of the full-featured packages otherwise.

ExpressPCB: I’ve actually used this a fair bit, but where other packages are too “high end”, this one seems to lack some of the functionality that makes using them rally easy. My main beef with it is that while you can link a schematic to a board, you need to manually populate the board with components and name the components identically to the schematic. Even then it doesn’t do autorouting, which isn’t that big of a deal. The parts libraries aren’t bad for a beginner, though, and ExpressSCH, the schematic software makes it quick and easy to knock off a simple diagram.

And the outlier… the up and comer… the one that is really really cool, but not quite ready to do everything that I need is:

Fritzing: I love the breadboard CAD aspect of fritzing almost as much as I hate the fact that it takes me 15 mintues with graphics software to “bend” the leads of the components so I can fit them on the virtual breadboard the way I’d fit them on a “real” breadboard. Still, it is very cool that it links a breadboard, schematic diagram, AND PCB together. The parts library is simple, but sufficient for most high school projects, particularly if you can be a bit creative in what you select, or if you use arduinos, which are really well supported. This is still a beta project, however, and occasionally crashes on me, but shows enough potential that I am excited about it despite the fact that it is still under development.

There are other packages out there… is one, but I don’t have time to play with them all. Does anyone have any suggestions as to a package that I should be considering in more detail?



P.S. Yeah, I know… Altium is free to FRC teams. As great as it is, however, it is most definitely not free if you aren’t an FRC team and, like some of the packages above, might be more complex than needed for a high school setting.

P.P.S. If you should happen to know anyone who writes this software… why not suggest they add a “beginner mode” button that limits the libraries and simplifies the options so that it is easy for beginners to sit down and generate their first board. Once they are hooked on the software, they can switch to intermediate and pro mode, taking advantage of the features as their skills increase, but sticking with the package they learned on.

Jason -

It isn’t typically free, but Altium is included in the FRC kit of parts. I would highly recommend speaking to your local sales rep before dismissing it - they have been very generous in the past.

It is easily the best EECAD package I have used to date, and I have used a fair number of them. Relevant to your interests, it has a relatively shallow learning curve - no hidden features that can only be activated with secret key combinations. It also has some jaw dropping features, especially design management and 3D modeling.

Ultiboard by National Instruments is another item to add to your list*. It also has a nice shallow learning curve, and does a great job with educational board development. You may wish to speak with your NI reps about this product. I haven’t used it since I was in college, but it was a good fit for the types of boards I was creating at the time.

For what it is worth, I use autoroute extremely rarely.

  • In the spirit of full disclosure, I work for NI.

I use EESchema from KiCAD for schematic capture and have always used FreePCB for PCB layout, though for my next project I’m going to try again using the PCBnew from the KiCAD suite. I didn’t like PCBnew before because of issues with doing zone fills, but I think it’s gotten better (but not excellent) in that area. I also use the free version of ViewMate to check my gerber files. I’ve also heard that TinyCAD works pretty well with FreePCB but I didn’t like it as much as EESchema. One more note is that the KiCAD suite is cross-platform (Linux, Windows, and Mac I believe) if that is important to you.

Another note is that the author of FreePCB seems to have a background in FIRST. I don’t know what team or if he’s still active, though.

I’ve produced at least a dozen or so different boards with this combination, and while I’m sure it’s not anywhere near as nice as a package like Altium, it does the job. I’ve had all my PCBs professionally made, but you can always just print out the gerbers 1:1 on a laser for toner transfer.

I’d go with Eagle.

It does have a bit of a learning curve, but it shouldn’t be too dramatic. It’s simple, light-weight, cross-platform, and there’s the freeware version available. (I assume you aren’t going to be designing any huge PCBs)

The libraries can be a bit tough to work with. Although it might help to just delete some of the libraries that you’ll never use, you might want to check out the Sparkfun part library

It is a bit disorganized, since it isn’t broken up into categories, but there’s less chaff to sift through. You shouldn’t have to worry about accidentally using a resistor/capacitor/etc footprint that is too narrow.

Additionally, Eagle seems to be the standard among recent open-source hardware projects. I don’t know how important this is to you, but it means there are plenty of example projects to play around with.

I don’t know how valuable this is to you, but another plus for Eagle is that Sparkfun has some awesome tutorials for it.

Do tell us what you decide on though. I’ve only used Eagle so far, and while it gets the job done, I haven’t been blown away by it. I’m still keeping my ears open.

I put in a vote for Eagle as well. That’s what I use. Nothing ‘good’ is going to be simple to learn.

EZ-PC is a product from the UK, but it is costware. It has an easier UI than Eagle, but not by a lot. The autorouter is an add-on.

I second the EAGLE vote, it is relatively inexpensive but powerful. It is however, as stated, a learning curve. Creating a new part being the steepest part of that curve. Another thing about EAGLE that is strange is the UI. When you want to copy and paste something you actually have to cut it first. This takes some getting used to, that and the creepy eyeball. In spite of all of the weirdness the support is fantastic. It is one of the only software companies that you can actually call and get a human on the phone for support. When I first started using EAGLE I was on the phone with support getting clarification on the whole custom part thing, in my frustration I asked why is this program so counterintuitive in some ways but sensible in so many other ways. There was a short pause and then the tech replied “…because it’s German”(in a fake German accent). This statement has become my answer for pretty much everything now.

Once you learn EAGLE using a different type of CAD software such as Solid Works becomes weird. I often find myself trying to do things that can be done in EAGLE but cannot be done in solid works and vice versa.

Remember when we used a Sharpie “etch resist pen” to make our PC boards? :slight_smile:

ok, I’ll be quiet now

Thanks, everyone. For now I have installed DipTrace and Eagle (with the sparkfun libraries) in the lab, as well as Fritzing. Fritzing isn’t quite ready to do everything I want, but I like how it ties breadboarding in to the process.

So I haven’t really made a final decision yet. I’m going to stay away from Altium, or any of the commercial packages, as I do want a package that my students can take away with them and then install in their lab and share with their students in a couple of years when they are teaching in a high school.

And as Jim points out, pens also work great! We actually start our students out by using masking tape and xacto knives to mask the board, then we move on to pens. This semester we’re moving on to toner transfer, but will also look at other methods for producing boards.

I hope to take a look at some of the other packages mentioned here over the holidays. There just doesn’t seem to be a “perfect” package out there… yet… for introducing people to schematics and PCB production, but with some careful tweaking of libraries it should be possible to get one that will be “good enough”.



OOOOOOhhhhhh…Ferric Chloride.

Altium is a great choice and is free with the Kit of Parts.

All you need to do is fill out the registration form here, and they will send you a link to download the software.

Ferric chloride does stain. There is still a spot on our counter top from my circuit board learning experience 5 years ago. My wife still reminds me of my transgression. Don’t etch your boards in the kitchen. Oh, and while I’m on the topic of the kitchen and robot projects, don’t bake your composite layups in the family oven. I’m still reminded of that. Though our head mentor did get away with heat soaking our polycarbonate battery box in his families oven this year. He seemed to get away with it.

Don’t forget to try photo-sensitive boards (pre-coated or coat-yourself. This method has been most successful for me. I laser-print onto plain vellum (not clear plastic) and use that as my negative, which works just fine.

Also consider at least demonstrating the silkscreen method. I used this for a production run several years ago, and it worked great. Let me know if I can send you some raw boards for show & tell.

Lastly, don’t forget the printed circuit board handbook. I have the 2nd edition; they’re up to 4th now. Tremendously useful.

Thanks, Don! We’ve got a silkscreen unit, which does work great particularly for “mass production” board runs and, of course, the photographic techniques work well too. We’ve even got access to CNC equipment so we could look in to just cutting out the traces with a nice fine bit, as well.

We’ve found that for the mass runs that we would have traditionally silk screened that it is now almost as cheap to contract that work out to a service provider. It certainly saves a lot of time for the teacher and makes doing two sided boards much less of a hassle.

One of the catches I face, however, is time. As our students are also learning how to teach power mechanics, wood, metal, and drafting, everything I add in to the curriculum means that something else has to come out. And unlike in high school where it is easy to cover some extra material after school, many of our students have committments to car pools, child care and other issues that don’t usually affect high school students. We work them hard during the day, and load them up with homework, but do face some hard limits on cramming a huge amount of learning in to a two-year program.

But I think I might have convinced a few of them to come down to Seattle to check out the FRC event there on their spring break.