Best Circuit/PCB Design CAD Software: Comparison & Reviews
Nowadays, it is common practice to use CADs for circuit/PCB design in the professional field.
In addition, with the emergence of inexpensive circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD with open source or subscription licenses, they are now being used for hobby electronic work and for educational purposes by students.
However, various vendors develop and sell circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD, and you may be confused about which one to choose.
In this article, we will introduce “Recommended Circuit Design CAD and PCB Design CAD” that can be used mainly in the professional design field.
What is Electrical CAD?
Types of CAD
- Electrical CAD
- Circuit Design CAD
- PCB Design CAD
- Electrical Control Design CAD
- Mechanical CAD
- Architectural CAD
- Civil Engineering CAD
CAD (computer-aided design) generally refers to software for design and drafting using a PC.
The use of CAD has improved the efficiency and accuracy of design and drafting work compared to handwriting.
There are various types of CAD, and the ones introduced in this article are “circuit design CAD” and “PCB design CAD.
The following are the main circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD price structures.
- Perpetual License + Maintenance Cost
- Fixed Term License
- Subscription License
- Free Trial License
- Freeware/Open Source Software
Perpetual License + Maintenance Cost
A perpetual license is a price structure adopted by most CAD vendor.
However, in the case of CAD, there will be periodic costs for maintenance, support, and version upgrade.
This confusing pricing makes it difficult for the user to understand the overall cost.
Fixed Term License
With a fixed term license, you pay a usage cost every certain period of time.
The price structure is easy to understand, but there may be restrictions such as term limits or optional cost for additional features.
A subscription license is the same as a fixed term license in that you pay a recurring cost, but it focuses more on user requests to improve the performance and functionality of CAD.
For example, with video streaming services such as Netflix, there are always new videos available to watch, so the quality of the product offered will increase despite the same monthly cost.
CAD for subscription license is also thoroughly user-first, with the ability to always use the latest version and easy contract and cancellation.
Free Trial License
A free trial license allows you to experience the software for free, with some restrictions on the paid license.
Restrictions include board size, number of layers, number of component pads, etc., and it cannot be used for commercial purposes.
Freeware/Open Source Software
Freeware/open source software CAD is essentially free to use.
Freeware basically does not disclose its source code. It is often provided as a personal hobby, or by PCB business companies or electronic component online shopping companies for sales promotion.
Open source software is based on the premise that “the source code is publicly available” and “redistribution is possible. Not only the originating developer, but also many people around the world can participate in the development.
There are four main types of license authentication methods for circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD.
|License Sharing||Out-of-company Use||Internet Connection||License Server|
USB dongle authentication is a USB terminal-type hardware with an activation key inside, which is connected to the PC to activate the CAD.
The license key can be managed physically, but it needs to be sent, so it takes several weeks before the license is available, and it is difficult to take it outside the company for security reasons.
Standalone authentication means that you can obtain a license from the official web site of the CAD vendor in advance and activate the license in an offline environment.
However, since a license is required for each PC used by the user, it is difficult to share the CAD.
Network authentication is to access the license server of the CAD manufacturer for activation.
It can be used anywhere as long as there is an Internet connection, and the license can be shared very easily.
Private server authentication involves setting up a license server in the company and then activating the license over a LAN.
This is sometimes called network authentication, but in this case, the license server is installed inside the company, making it almost impossible to use outside the company.
Features of Circuit Design CAD
Circuit design CAD is a software for creating circuit schematics. The created schematic data can be passed on to the PCB design CAD.
The main features of circuit design CAD are as follows.
- Improving the Efficiency of Design and Drafting Work
- Linking with Circuit Simulator
- BOM (Bill of Materials) and Netlist Output
Improving the Efficiency of Design and Drafting Work
By using circuit design CAD, you can improve the efficiency of your design and drafting work.
For example, schematic symbols can be called up from the parts library, and wiring between each component can be processed quickly and accurately compared to handwriting.
However, with the standard parts library provided by free circuit design CAD, there are few components that can be used, so in many cases you will have to create your own.
It takes a lot of time to create schematic symbols and footprints, and there is a possibility of making mistakes.
For commercial purposes, it is better to use a paid circuit design CAD, because if even one of the footprints is different from the actual component and you proceed to PCB manufacturing, you will have to rebuild everything.
Also, it can be freely edited and copied so that it can be used in the next time.
ERC (Electrical Rule Check)
After creating a schematic, you can perform an ERC (Electrical Rule Check) to confirm that there are no electrical errors in the wiring.
If there is a wiring error, the CAD will display the result as an error or warning, allowing you to correct the mistake early in the design process.
There are also circuit design CAD with DRC (Design Rule Check) functionality. It can check the layout to make the schematic easier to read.
The items to be checked for ERC/DRC can be selected at the user’s discretion in the circuit design CAD settings.
Linking with Circuit Simulator
Recently, there has been an increase in the number of circuit design CADs that can be liked with circuit simulators such as LTspice, PSpice, and HSPICE.
The circuit simulation can be performed directly from the schematic created by the circuit design CAD. Therefore, there is no need to create a schematic on the circuit simulator side.
BOM (Bill of Materials) and Netlist Output
Circuit design CAD can output BOM (Bill of Material) and netlist.
BOM output can be customized, so it is easy to create company-specified BOMs.
Netlist is “the connection data between components in a schematic”.
Usually, netlist output is available in a variety of third-party formats other than CAD vendors.
This allows you to deal with different CAD vendors when you outsource PCB design to your subcontractors.
In other cases, it can output a netlist for SPICE, which can be verified with circuit simulators such as LTspice, PSpice, and HSPICE.
Features of PCB Design CAD
PCB design CAD is software for pattern work by placing components on a PCB on data.
The created PCB layout data is used for PCB manufacturing and mounting. Usually, this is done by a PCB manufacturer.
The main features of PCB design CAD are as follows.
- Improving the Efficiency of PCB Layout
- Linking with Auto Routing Tool
- 3D Functions
- Gerber Data Output
- Linking with Analysis Software
Improving the Efficiency of PCB Layout
PCB design CAD can be used to improve the efficiency of PCB layout.
Rather, PCB design CAD is essential in PCB design because it is almost impossible to deal with multilayer boards by hand.
If the vendor is the same, you can have the circuit design CAD output data to the PCB design CAD for layout of the PCB.
Since the connection status is known, there is no wiring error in pattern work. It is also easy to modify and change the pattern work.
You can also handle schematics from other vendors as long as the netlist data is available.
Linking with Auto Routing Tool
For circuits that require many wiring points, such as CPUs and FPGAs, you can save time by linking an auto routing tool.
However, it does not take electrical characteristics into account, so power supply lines, analog lines, etc. must be wired manually in advance.
DRC (Design Rule Check) can be performed to check for violations of design rules for wiring, vias, etc.
Generally, DRC is performed after board layout is completed, but some PCB design CAD perform DRC in real time, allowing for error-free wiring work.
There are also PCB design CAD with MRC (Manufacturing Rule Check) functionality, which can be used to check for violations of manufacturing rules such as clearance between components and silk lettering angles.
The items to be checked for DRC/MRC can be selected at the user’s discretion in the circuit design CAD settings.
You can use the 3D viewer to view the designed PCB and check if the components are placed on the PCB as you imagined.
It can also be linked to a mechanical CAD to check the interference of PCBs and components in the case and to take thermal analysis.
Gerber Data Output
PCB design CAD can output gerber data (manufacturing files and drill files) for PCB manufacturing.
The “Gerber format” is almost a standard format in the PCB industry.
Linking with Analysis Software
PCB design CAD can be linked to analysis software such as SI/PI analysis and EMC to perform various simulations before PCB manufacturing.
Nowadays, electronic products are required to have lower voltage, higher signal speed, smaller size, and more functions, so these analyses are becoming more and more important.
How to Select Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD
The following is a summary of important points to consider when selecting a Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD.
Note that open-source CAD is inferior in terms of support, so it is basically recommended to choose from paid CAD.
Also, please refer to “Comparison of Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD” for a detailed comparison of the differences between each CAD.
- Cost Performance
- Usability/Product Performance
When introducing a Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD, aren’t you concerned about the “price”?
However, it is very important to consider “cost performance” rather than simply choosing free CAD.
For example, if the labor cost is \$50/hour and the price of CAD is \$1,000/month, it is worth implementing if it can save more than 20 hours/month of work compared to free CAD.
- Price of CAD: \$1,000/month
- Labor Costs: \$50/h
- Break-Even Point：\$1,000÷\$50＝20 hours/month
Therefore, it is necessary to select a CAD system that strikes a balance between “Usability/Product Performance” and “price”.
Naturally, the Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD to be introduced must have the performance required for design work?
Paid CAD meets the basic specifications and offers various functions such as parts library, auto routing, 3D functions, and linking with circuit simulators and various analysis software.
“Creating component data for schematic symbols and footprints” is a particularly time-consuming task, so having a component library available can significantly reduce design time.
However, the higher the performance, the higher the CAD price tends to be, so be careful not to purchase CAD that is over-specified beyond their design level in terms of cost-effectiveness.
In addition, since these Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD are designed for professionals, they tend to be packed with too many functions, making settings and operations more complicated. A good UI/UX is also important.
Recently, by linking an online electronic component company with a parts information database, some CADs can check the inventory and prices of parts used in circuits.
Basically, all paid CAD offer a free trial edition, so it is a good idea to actually use and compare them when selecting a CAD.
Paid Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD are well supported.
Recently, in addition to telephone and e-mail, some companies have also established Internet-based support systems, such as webinars, online manuals, and forums, which are becoming more convenient.
Even if some problems occur in the operation of the CAD, the company that sells the paid CAD is basically quicker to respond.
Free CAD, on the other hand, is basically unsupported because it is funded by the authors’ volunteer spirit and donations.
If a freeze or file crash occurs, it is the user’s own responsibility, and we do not know when stable version will be released.
Also, some people say that well-known free CAD is explained a lot in books and websites, but in reality, many people do not know how to use it only from those explanations.
It is a fatal disadvantage in the job to have design work stalled for days, so it is better to choose from a paid CAD system with a good support system.
Comparison of Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD
Here is a list of recommended circuit design CAD and PCB design CAD.
In some cases, a free trial edition is available, so you should definitely try it out for yourself.
|Ranking||No1||No2||No3||Out of Ranking||Out of Ranking||Out of Ranking||Out of Ranking||Out of Ranking||Out of Ranking|
|Circuit Design CAD||Quadcept Circuit Designer||Altium Designer||KiCad Schematic Editor||EAGLE Premium|
|OrCAD Capture||CR-8000 Design Gateway||PADS Standard||Designspark PCB Pro||Fritzing|
|PCB Design CAD||Quadcept PCB Designer||“||KiCad PCB Editor||“||OrCAD PCB Designer||CR-8000 Design Force||“||“||“|
Circuit Design CAD
+License Type Cost
|Perpetual License Cost|
|UNCLEAR||Perpetual License Cost|
PCB Design CAD
|“||Free||“||Perpetual License Cost|
|9.8 million yen|
|Perpetual License Cost|
|Other Purchase |
|Altium Designer SE|
|N/A||Paid every 3 years||1 Year License||N/A||Standard Plus|
|Free Trial Edition||AVAILABLE|
Limited to 4 layers and 100 pads *1
Free for 15 days
|UNCLEAR||Windows 10||Windows 8.1|
|N/A||License Key||USB Dongle|
online electronic component companies
Share(About 250k parts)
Altium Content Vault
Linking with LTspice
Altium SPICE simulator
Linking with Auto Routing tools
Altium Auto Route
Linking with Freerouting
Linking with 3D CADs
Linking with 3D CADs
Linking with 3D CADs
Cloud Simulation Service
Altium SI simulator
(No PI Analysis)
Linking with DEMITASNX
Linking with EMC tools
|Vendor||Quadcept Inc.||Altium Ltd.||CERN|
|Autodesk, Inc.||Cadence Design Systems, Inc.||ZUKEN Inc.||Siemens Industry Software Inc.||RS Group plc||Interaction Design Lab Potsdam|
|Main Features||Can be used anywhere in the cloud|
Simple and Inexpensive Subscription
|Simple Subscription||Open Source Software||Linking with|
|Used in over 85 countries||Largest company in Japan||Formerly known as|
“Mentor Graphics Corp.”
|Linking with RS||Open Source Software|
|Official Web Site||» Official Web Site||» Official Web Site||» Official Web Site||» Official Web Site||» Official Web Site||» Official Web Site||» Official Web Site||» Official Web Site||» Official Web Site|
*1: “Quadcept Community” is limited to non-commercial, 4 layers, 1000 pads.
Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD Ranking
Here is a ranking of circuit design CAD and PCB design CAD.
- Circuit Design CAD: Quadcept Circuit Designer
- PCB Design CAD: Quadcept PCB Designer
Quadcept is the world’s first cloud-based circuit/board design CAD system, so you can use it at work, at home, on business trips overseas, or anywhere else you have an Internet connection.
It offers a subscription service with no initial or maintenance fees. Circuit design CAD is available for \$39 and up, and PCB design CAD for \$99 and up.
In addition, there are many other attractive points for users, such as the short learning time of CAD through the support system and the reduction of design time through the 250,000 parts data.
However, Quadcept is just a software that is installed on a local PC, with the infrastructure of “license activation”, “parts library”, and “parts inventory and price database” in the cloud for business efficiency.
Therefore, you need to make sure that the PC you will use Quadcept on meets the system requirements, including the supported OS, in advance.
Free online manuals and free online seminars are available, but there is cost for training. If you need customized training for your company, you may want to consider it.
＼ Over 72,000 users! Also used by TOYOTA! ／
No2 Altium Designer
- Circuit Design CAD: Altium Designer/Altium Designer SE
- PCB Design CAD: Altium Designer
Altium Designer is a high-end circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD that is used all over the world, especially in the US and Europe.
It is relatively expensive at $325/month, but the fee structure is easy to understand, mainly based on subscription services.
Perpetual license ($3,850/year) is also available, which is more economical if you plan to use it for more than 3 years.
There is also a circuit design CAD-only edition, “Altium Designer SE”, and a 15-day free evaluation edition.
However, there is a cost for changing the license activation, and it is not possible to purchase PCB design CAD alone, which is not user-friendly.
- Circuit Design CAD: KiCad Schematic Editor
- PCB Design CAD: KiCad PCB Editor
KiCad is a circuit design/PCB design CAD of open source software, so anyone can use it for free.
What’s more, since CERN started supporting its development in 2013, it has come closer to professional-level CAD.
However, since it is only an open source software CAD, there is no support, so it may take some time to solve the problem.
In addition, these simulations cannot be performed prior to PCB manufacturing because they are not linked to analysis software such as SI/PI analysis and EMC.
Other Circuit Design CAD/PCB Design CAD
For your reference, here are some circuit design CADs and PCB design CADs that are not ranked.
- Circuit Design CAD: EAGLE Premium(Fusion 360)
- PCB Design CAD: EAGLE Premium(Fusion 360)
EAGLE Premium is a circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD that is included as a feature of Fusion360.
Autodesk, the developer and distributor of Fusion360, also offers AutoCAD and Inverntor as its main products, and EAGLE Premium has extensive functionality for integration with these mechanical design CAD (3D CAD).
Originally, EAGLE was often used as a hobby because a non-commercial free version (2 schematic sheets/2 layers/board size up to 80 cm2) was available and component libraries were relatively easy to obtain.
Also, there was an EAGLE Standard (4 layers/board size up to 160cm2) plan for commercial use.
But since EAGLE itself has been incorporated and integrated into Fusion360, the only option is now a Fusion360 subscription version (e.g. \$495/year).
- Circuit Design CAD: OrCAD Capture
- PCB Design CAD: OrCAD PCB Designer
OrCAD is a mid-range circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD that has been used in over 85 countries around the world.
A variety of options are available, including PSpice for circuit analysis, parts library creation service, and board analysis.
However, although it is affordable compared to high-end class CAD, the cost is high when you include the initial cost, maintenance cost, and option cost.
It is especially painful that auto routing tool and circuit simulator are treated as options.
- Circuit Design CAD: CR-8000 Design Gateway
- PCB Design CAD: CR-8000 Design Force
The CR-8000 series is a high-end class EDA tool developed and sold by ZUKEN Inc, the largest company in Japan.
The circuit design CAD is “Design Gateway” and the PCB design CAD is “Design Force”. Compared to other companies’ products, the CR-8000 series offers higher performance and reduces design time.
However, it is only a high-end class CAD, and the list price of the professional edition of “Design Force” is 9.8 million yen.
Therefore, the number of companies that can install CR-8000 will be limited because of the considerable amount of money involved.
In addition, “Board Viewer” that display PCB data designed with Design Force can be downloaded free of charge, but the free trial edition of Design Gateway/Design Force does not seem to exist on the official ZUKEN WEB site.
- Circuit Design CAD: PADS Standard
- PCB Design CAD: PADS Standard
PADS is a circuit design CAD/board design CAD originally developed and sold by Mentor Graphics. There are Standaard, Standaard Plus, and Professional by function.
(Currently, it has been acquired by Siemens and operates as Siemens EDA.)
The price of the CADs are not listed and you cannot download the free trial editon from the official website. If you want to know more details, you need to contact Siemens EDA.
Also, compared to network authentication via the Internet, setting up PADS license authentication is more complicated.
- Circuit Design CAD: DesignSpark PCB Pro
- PCB Design CAD: DesignSpark PCB Pro
Designspark PCB Pro is a circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD provided by “DesignSpark”. it is a community platform for developers operated by RS Components.
The price is a reasonable \$449/year, and there is also a free version, DesignSpark PCB, which has no restrictions and can be used for commercial purposes.
However, because of the low cost, including the PRO edition, the UI and support are not so excellent.
- Circuit Design CAD: Fritzing
- PCB Design CAD: Fritzing
Fritzing is a unique circuit design CAD/PCB design CAD that links physical wiring diagrams of breadboard, schematics, and board layouts.
Of course, the wiring and layout drawn in conjunction is difficult to see and needs to be corrected. However, since you can select Arduino boards as components, it is easy to use for Arduino circuits.
On the other hand, due to these characteristics, it is not suitable for commercial and complex circuit/PCB design. It is better to think of it as a hobby for electronic engineering.
Please note that since version 0.9.4 of Fritzing, a minimum donation of 8 euros is now required.
Although it is not recommended, Fritzing is open source software, so you can legally download the installer from GitHub for free.