PCB CAD Software comes in a wide variety of technologies, level of control and cost. A printed circuit board (PCB) designer will be in a position, at one time or another, in their career where they have to make a decision on the PCB CAD software for use at work. The designer will need to know their budget and level of technology needed to perform 90% of the work.
This white paper compares printed circuit board (PCB) design packages in hopes of providing a clear path for designers in need of software. Selecting the right software is based on a combination of design needs, level of technology needed to perform the job, and financial constraints.
CAD Pkg 1: Cadence
Cadence is a CAD design environment that allows a designer to pick and choose the tool sets according to specific needs. Cadence is incredibly versatile and technologically advanced with schematic, simulation, and layout. Cadence caters to PCB designs, as well as IC design.
Pros: Ideal for maximum control of all aspects of PCB design – from design features such as via characteristics to impedance matching and differential pair layout rules. Cadence has a wide variety of options priced to meet many different budgets.
Cons: The design environment has a longer learning curve. It can be extremely difficult to use for the beginner PCB designer, and quite expensive. Not recommended for the hobbyist.
CAD Pkg 2: Allegro
Allegro, also from Cadence, is scalable and offered with different levels of technology and cost depending on the design needs. Allegro is a constraint-based design solution that is one of several offered by Cadence. Cadence has a multitude of CAD packages for all levels of technology and Allegro is one of the most advanced CAD packages on the market to date.
Pros: This software can be used to control all aspects of PCB design, down to the very minute design features such as via characteristics to impedance matching and diff-pair layout rules.
Cons: Allegro can require a long learning curve and may be extremely difficult to use for the beginner PCB designer. Like Cadence, it is not recommended for hobbyists.
CAD Pkg 3: Altium Designer
Altium Designer has been growing in power, ease of use, and market popularity over the last several years. Altium Designer is approaching the same level of control provided by Cadence Allegro PCB Layout and Cadence Virtuoso Schematic Capture.
Pros: This is a mid-level tool, ideal for professionals who have the money available and need to take advantage of the latest in PCB technology. However, it is possible for a hobbyist to learn this tool in a reasonable time frame.
Cons: The cost for Altium Designer can be significant and, while easier to understand than the Cadence-based tools, it still has a relatively steep learning curve.
CAD Pkg 4: Eagle
Eagle is a scalable PCB design tool that offers different levels of technology with different costs. However, Eagle CAD has a wider range of user-defined macros and designs available to the hobbyist that aren’t prevalent with the larger, more professional-focused CAD packages.
Pros: Eagle CAD is easy for hobbyist just starting out with printed circuit CAD designs and includes free options for limited versions of the tool.
Cons: This software is not mainstream with corporate businesses that have internal PCB designers. Also, to use this tool for higher technology boards requires more manual calculations and routing compared to the higher-end CAD tools.
For the more complicated, high-speed printed circuit board designs, tools such as Cadence and Altium are commonly used. However, for the majority of the hobbyists and home engineers, Eagle CAD and others like Eagle are extremely low cost, easy to use, and sufficiently powerful for most scenarios.
All these CAD packages are very good with their own pros and cons, but a CAD tool is like any other tool—it needs to fit the situation in both usability and cost.