A competitive PCB software market benefits end-users, but getting started picking software may be daunting. As with most things in the consumer world, users are saturated with choice. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it deters beginners or startup companies looking to prepare their designs for manufacturing. Professional PCB software licenses are not cheap. These design suites are packed with more tools and functions than even the most expert designer will use, along with many features that appeal to a wide range of users. Naturally, this leads to a PCB design software comparison to determine the best toolset for a particular user. All software offers some benefit, but numerous features can sometimes distract from the goal of providing users with insights based on their skill and comfort. With that in mind, we’ll examine the “how” instead of the “why” for those looking for discernment in selecting different PCB software packages.
PCB Design Software Comparison: Is There a Definitive Best Choice?
Designers often have little-to-no decisions on the software used for a particular board. The driving force will be the engineer’s choice for schematic software or especially the extant file format for a board revision. While translation functions exist, a maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will serve designers well. The more designs are kept to a single format, unless explicitly requested, the easier it is to compare and integrate with additional proprietary files within a brand’s ecosystem. Therefore, more ubiquitous tool sets may be beneficial as users continue to migrate from software tool sets with less frequent support. The name of the game is utility. Designers must be comfortable with the different toolsets and their specific strengths, weaknesses, and eccentricities. Moreover, confidence in a single tool is likely to extend to others after overcoming the initial challenge of navigating the software’s structure.
File Formatting: An Overlooked Dimension of Design Reliability
Components and component features (namely pads) will exist at the library level to encourage the reuse of work where appropriate and reduce errors in design and verification. The encoding of parts may take an entirely different approach between software, namely, how the land pattern and pad stack are stored in a combined file or separately. One advantage of a system with both pads and land patterns saved independently is that it allows for easier recycling of land pattern elements. This is because the method for reusing the pads is a built-in operation as opposed to a copy function performed by hand that could miss items on hidden layers.
|+ Easier and faster to locate
+ Reduces library bloat
– Difficult to search for reusable component features
|+ Increased design reusability
+ Faster checking during part/pad verification process
– Can be initially unwieldy
There are no features a simple copy-and-paste couldn’t handle in systems with integrated pads and land pattern files, but the separate file storage is slightly more error-proof. To further spool out the advantage of a system with separate pad and land pattern file storage, internal verification becomes much faster and less liable to mistakes. Externally saved pads need only be verified a single time and (much like components output from a parts wizard) can be checked by the IPC naming convention alone. While this is a small individual time-saver, its value grows expeditiously the longer the pads are part of the library.
Rules Systems Expedite Design By Restraint
The implementation of the rules system constrains the board to the technology of the fabricator and needs to be applied at its most basic level. However, it can provide far greater modularity in specific systems. Rules systems may offer some alternate methods to interface with the design:
- Direct: Modifying values directly, usually in a tabular or dropdown menu. The rules are provided and the user selects which are enabled/disabled and their precision.
- Indirect: The user defines some scope via a programming language or filter to determine rule applicability.
- Mixed: Default rules are provided, with the ability to expand the rules with user-defined instructions.
Of the three, a programmable rule set provides the greatest flexibility, but the highest learning curve (though it is unlikely to be anything beyond the capabilities of most designers). For unusual or exceptionally intricate designs, this offers some additional assurance during design that manufacturing concerns are being adhered to. For simpler designs and more novice designers, a more structured design rule format may prove beneficial by eliminating some of the “guesswork” during the layout planning stages.
Ease of Use Improves Efficiency
When it comes to layout, seasoned designers want a robust system of shortcuts to reduce the tedium when performing essential tasks hundreds or perhaps thousands of times on a single board. Designers typically enjoy having features grouped together around the same keystrokes, especially when these commands align in function. Another preferred characteristic is similar (or identical) commands having the same input across the different levels of the design. For example, a locate component function possessing the same keystrokes at the schematic and board level to reduce mental load during design. Increased integration among subsystems will untether designers when jumping between windows or panels in a design, scrambling at the keyboard to find the command they desperately need.
Though it may sound trivial, it is true that the devil is in the details – the better the functionality of the commands is mapped, the easier it is for the user to subconsciously drive the software. An additional layer of importance regarding ease of use is customizability and extensions, allowing the designer to build out their interface with commands that were overlooked by the developer or otherwise offer increased simplicity to the user. In all cases, a powerful tool is not enough because it must also be malleable enough in design to be accessible and intuitive to a large user base.
Your Contract Manufacturer Can Work With You, and Your Software
Contract manufacturers need to be prepared to work with all software – after all, customers come from a variety of backgrounds and the dominant software may be the result of decisions made decades ago. An experienced team is able to handle not just the dominant market trends, but also those on the fringe. Here at VSE, there is no need for PCB design software comparison. We’re a team of engineers committed to building electronics for our customers, no matter how that information is conveyed.