After struggling to lay out my aquarium controller on a “permanent” prototype board I decided to see if there were some software design packages which could make the job a little easier. It’s much faster to move virtual wires and parts than it is to do it by hand, after all!
It turns out there are a lot of PCB design packages out there.
Some are free, or offer limited free/non-profit versions. I tried both kicad, which runs under Unix, and DipTrace, which runs under Windows (they may offer versions for other platforms).
kicad has all the basic features — a schematic editor, a printed circuit board editor and a means of creating or modifying parts. It also has a nifty 3D board renderer, although I didn’t get to the point where I could try it out. That’s because I found its user interface a bit counter-intuitive. I suspect, though, that if I spent enough time with it I’d get pretty proficient with it.
DipTrace turned out to be a very cool program, or rather set of programs. I found it intuitive to use, probably in part due to its being designed for the Windows user interface. The individual programs work well together, although not automatically (e.g., if you edit a component, your edits don’t transfer to your schematic or PCB layout unless you do an explicit update). That makes tweaking things a little tedious. On the other hand, having to explicitly update your work avoids problems that can creep in as a result of implicit or automatic updates.
Definitely recommended. I can’t wait to get my first computer-designed circuit board built!
DipTrace comes in many versions, with pricing based on the maximum number of board layers and the maximum number of pins used in a design. The free version — two layers and 300 pins — worked fine for my aquarium project. The non-profit version ($125) expands that to 1,000 pins and four layers.