PCB Design Software: The First Step to a New PC Board

This is not intended to be a tutorial on every piece of PCB software available. It is more a verbose listing of available software. This PCB design software is generally Windows compatible, and has been tested in XP, Win7, and in an XP VM under Linux.

PCB Design Software: The First Step to a New PC Board

"Captive" Design Software

This is software that is intended to augment a PCB fabricator's value by providing software which facilitates direct ordering from the vendor and discourages ordering from other sources, or making the PC boards at home. The vendors I am familiar with are ExpressPCB, Sunstone, Advanced Circuits, and Pad2Pad. There are many others.

ExpressSCH and ExpressPCB

To be fair, I have to say that occasionally use ExpressSCH and ExpressPCB design software for four reasons:

  • It is fast and easy to design and layout small boards.
  • The ExpressPCB file format is accepted at several PCB fabricators.
  • I use Express PCB's shop to make the PC boards when I'm in a hurry and need high quality.
  • Push button ordering gets boards or an instant quote.

Mixing metric and English units is a little bothersome. Although the libraries do not meet my requirements well (few do), it is very easy to make a new component in both ExpressSCH and ExpressPCB. I also use ExpressSCH for schematics on another website. [more...]

PCB123 (Sunstone)

PCB123 is a generally easy piece of software with a large library of components. A little "slicker" than Express PCB, maybe. It has the ability to print any layer 1:1 and either normal or reversed. I have played with the PCB software, but I have never purchased boards through it, or from Sunstone otherwise. It also supports pushbutton ordering, and instant quotes.

Pad2Pad (Pad2Pad)

Probably as easy to use as the ExpressPCB software, it has the same basic layout. It does allow you to switch between metric and English while in the working view. It snaps to the grid, lines, and angles. It has a nudge feature that you would like to use to get that trace on the 0.8mm pins. Unfortunately, the snap and nudge share the same setting, so it is pretty useless. If you could snap to it you wouldn't need to nudge it. It isn't a shortcoming - it is just a moot feature. You can find it at Pad2Pad.

Pad2Pad provides some things missing from ExpressPCB - autorouting, netlist import, and BOM integration with Digikey. You can also rotate and snap to angle, which is a big advantage in my book. Instant quotes and online ordering are of course included.

PCB Artist (Advanced Circuits)

It has a nice little autorouter. The library user interface could use some 1) bug fixes, and 2) a complete redesign. If it leaves the odd part on the board here and there, just scroll the board off the view area and back and it will be gone. It can order boards for you. You can 1:1 print any layer mirrored, rotated, and with holes filled or not. I have never purchased boards through Advanced Circuits. (See DesignSpark below)

"Open" PCB Design Software

This PCB software is available to anyone to use, and outputs industry standard data formats, compatible with most, if not all, PCB fabricators and home PCB makers. One program, Free PCB, is open source.

Free PCB

FreePCB design software is easy to use, is compatible with FreeRoute and outputs Gerber and drill files. It can't print anything worthwhile, so you'll need to convert the Gerber files to PostScript and print them, if you want to build your own printed circuit board.


DesignSpark PCB software is free, but you have to register it. It is essentially the same product as the Advanced Circuits PCB Artist, but it outputs plot files for Gerber, printer, plotter, PDF, whatever, depending on the type of data. [more...]

PCB Wizard 3

Nice, but the UI is difficult. It takes a bit of running around to figure PCB Wizard 3 out. There are lots of 3D views, pictures of what the board looks like stuffed, etc. As for the basics of creating a design and PC board, it is difficult to tell because the demo is crippleware. It is an interesting program, and worth driving the PCB Wizard demo around to see for yourself.

"Proprietary" PCB Design Software

This is PCB software that is made by a third party as a standalone product and outputs industry standard data formats. It differs from the "open" PCB design software in that it must compete with others in it's class for sales to support it's development. These are the powerful, and expensive, programs.

Cadsoft Eagle

This software is more generally accepted, free for 30 days, and outputs "normal" Gerber and drill files which should be good at any PCB fabricator. Eagle has a steeper learning curve, but is much more powerful than either PCB123 or Express PCB software. There is a "light" version, that only supports two layers and one schematic sheet, for $69.00, and a non-commercial one for $169.00. As the others do, it goes up from there.


It has a free version with a 300 pin / 2 layer limit, for non-commercial use. The same version for commercial use is $75.00. For $145.00 you get 500 pins / 2 layers, and I think it might be worth it. It goes up for more pins/layers. This is a very sophisticated PCB design package, and though it is complex, the user interface is friendly. And you can print 1:1, reverse, negative or positive, either layer. The printer output can be calibrated! It imports and exports a multitude of formats. There is a Mac OSX version, although I didn't try it.

Proteus Isis & Ares

At $249.00 to $1999.00 Proteus is sort of a top of the line "middle class" product. It does schematic capture and PC board design, and has a lot of the bells and whistles you would expect To me it is out of the realm of "my life would be easier if I had it", because my life would never be $2000 better for having it. If I were to always have a design in the works that I was getting paid for, this would be the one I would get.

High End Applications


Protel PCB is the legacy version of Altium's premium PCB design software. Although it is very comprehensive, it has been superseded by Altium Designer, which lists for around $5k, and won't be looked at here. It is actually a "design definition" application, which includes everything and PCB design. They do have an ancient DOS version that you can download for free.


DxDesigner is another comprehensive design definition application, and integrates with PadsPCB. It is way beyond the reach of any hobbyists I am familiar with.


If you could get all of these people in the same room for a few days you could have some perfect PCB design software, or what I consider to be perfect, anyway. Until then, I like DipTrace as an all around favorite, at least for homemade boards. I still use ExpressSCH and ExpressPCB for store-bought PC boards, although I will try the Chinese PC board house with DipTrace one day.