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Which PCB design software is best?

Types of PCB Design Software

PCB design software falls into a few main categories:

Desktop PCB Design Tools

These are the traditional, installable applications that run natively on Windows, Mac, or Linux PCs. They usually offer the most power, flexibility, and control over the design process. Examples include:

  • Autodesk EAGLE
  • Altium Designer
  • KiCad
  • Cadence OrCAD/Allegro
  • Mentor Graphics PADS

Cloud/Browser-Based Tools

A newer breed of PCB design tools runs in a web browser and stores design files in the cloud. These are generally more streamlined and aim to simplify the PCB design workflow, sometimes at the expense of advanced features. Popular cloud-based PCB tools include:

  • EasyEDA
  • Upverter
  • CircuitMaker

Maker/Hobbyist-Focused Software

Some free or low-cost PCB tools target the maker, hobbyist, and educational market. They may have limited functionality compared to pro tools but can be a great way to get started with PCB design. Examples are:

  • Fritzing
  • ExpressPCB
  • DipTrace

Key Features to Look For

When evaluating PCB design software, consider the following key capabilities:

Schematic Capture

The first step in PCB design is creating a schematic diagram of the circuit. The software should have an intuitive interface for placing components and wiring them together. It should include an extensive library of schematic symbols and let you create custom library parts.

PCB Layout

Once the schematic is complete, you need to lay out the physical PCB, positioning components and routing traces to connect them. More advanced PCB Software will include features like:

  • Multi-layer board support
  • Design rule checking (DRC)
  • Automatic and interactive routing
  • 3D visualization of the board
  • Manufacturing file export (e.g. Gerber, drill files)

ECAD/MCAD Integration

For many products, the electronics must fit within a mechanical enclosure or integrate with other hardware. The PCB design therefore has mechanical constraints that need to be considered. High-end PCB tools can import CAD models and check clearances in 3D to ensure proper fit.

Simulation Capabilities

Some PCB design packages include circuit simulation to validate designs before manufacturing. This can involve analog/mixed-signal simulation (SPICE), power integrity analysis, signal integrity and EMI analysis, etc. Simulation requires additional expertise but can help optimize designs and avoid costly hardware revisions.

Library Management

A good library of component data is critical to PCB design efficiency. The software should include an extensive library and make it easy to create/import new components. Look for features like:

  • Integrated component search (e.g. Octopart, SamacSys)
  • Support for corporate library management and distribution
  • 3D model support for component mechanical data

Comparing Popular PCB Software

To help narrow down your options, here is a comparison of some of the most widely used PCB design tools:

Software Supplier Operating System Schematic Layout Simulation Approx. Price
EAGLE Autodesk Windows, Mac, Linux Yes Yes No $100 – $1000
Altium Designer Altium Windows Yes Yes Yes $3000+
KiCad KiCad Services Windows, Mac, Linux Yes Yes Yes Free
OrCAD Cadence Windows Yes No Yes $1000+
PADS Mentor Graphics Windows Yes Yes Some $5000+
Fritzing Friends-of-Fritzing Windows, Mac, Linux Yes Yes No Free – $10

As you can see, there is a wide range in cost and capabilities among these tools. Here are a few recommendations based on different use cases and budgets:

Best Overall: Altium Designer

For professional engineers who demand the most powerful, full-featured toolset, Altium Designer is hard to beat. It has a modern, cohesive user interface and includes advanced capabilities like multi-board design, MCAD integration, and signal integrity analysis. However, it also comes with a hefty price tag.

Best Free Software: KiCad

KiCad is a remarkably capable PCB design suite given its $0 price. It was started as an open-source project and has matured significantly thanks to an active developer community. For custom designs that prioritize low cost, KiCad is an excellent choice.

Best for Beginners: Fritzing or EAGLE

Fritzing has an intuitive interface that lets you experiment with breadboard-style layouts and transition to a PCB. It’s great for rapidly prototyping simple circuits as you’re getting started with electronics.

EAGLE is another affordable tool ($100 for non-commercial use) that has been popular with students, makers and startups for years. It can create professional boards but has an easier learning curve compared to the high-end packages.

Best Cloud-Based Software: EasyEDA

While limited compared to desktop software, EasyEDA packs an impressive amount of functionality into a web-based tool, including schematic capture, PCB layout, and simple circuit simulation. The free tier is great for open source hardware projects and is accessible anywhere you have a web browser.


What is the best free PCB design software?

KiCad is probably the most capable, professional-grade PCB design tool that is completely free and open source. For simpler circuits and getting started quickly, tools like Fritzing and EasyEDA are also good options at no cost.

Is it better to use cloud or desktop-based PCB software?

Cloud tools are convenient in that you can access them from any computer without needing to install software. However, desktop applications generally offer higher performance, more features, and the ability to work offline. Professional PCB designers typically prefer locally-installed software.

How much does professional PCB design software cost?

High-end PCB design software targeted at professional engineers can cost several thousand dollars per license (e.g. Altium Designer, OrCAD, PADS). However, capable software is available at lower price points (under $1000), and there are even powerful tools like KiCad that are completely free to use.

Can I design multi-layer PCBs with free software?

Yes, KiCad and some other free tools support multi-layer PCB designs with 4, 6 or more copper layers. However, more advanced packages may be necessary for very complex multi-layer boards with tight space constraints or high layer counts.

What PCB software has the best component libraries?

Altium Designer is known for its high-quality, data-rich component libraries thanks to partnerships with many parts vendors. Other pro tools like OrCAD and PADS also have extensive libraries.

For free tools, KiCad has a good default library and makes it relatively easy to create custom components. Cloud-based EasyEDA has a large, crowd-sourced component library that is constantly growing.


Choosing PCB design software is an important decision that can have a big impact on your productivity and the quality of your designs. Consider your budget, the types of designs you’ll be creating, and how much you value ease-of-use vs. advanced features.

If you’re just getting started, a free tool like KiCad, Fritzing or EasyEDA is a great way to learn the basics. For professional work, investing in a paid, high-powered package will often pay for itself in time savings and more optimized designs.

Ultimately, the “best” software is the one that helps you efficiently design circuit boards that meet your project’s requirements. Don’t be afraid to try a few different packages to see what fits your needs and workflow. With the right PCB design tools in hand, you’ll be well on your way to creating custom electronics that can power your ideas and innovations.