PCB design tools – Selecting the you’re going to curse!

It’s a common question when meeting a group of PCB designers  – “What tool do you use?” There then follows a line of conversation of justifying the choice of tool, maybe highlighting the fact that it wasn’t your choice then after a short discussion on what you’ve managed to achieve. After this is the inevitable list of things that every designer does not like about their design tool, the things that have brought them to such frustration that they’ve been pulling their hair out.

Every PCB designer has something to curse about the PCB design tool that they use. It never, ever runs as smoothly as the designer wants it to all the time. So that begs the question – is the wrong design tool being chosen or does the ‘perfect’ solution not exist?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first – there is no silver bullet in PCB design tools, every single on one of them has their strengths and weaknesses. So the trick (is if the chance arises) to choose the PCB design tool that’s going to suit your needs best.

I’ve been fortunate enough to get some thoughts on this from Jim Patterson, Electronics Group Leader at Evonetix:

So… how to choose an EDA tool? Well, who are you? Start-up with small aspirations where you can rely on contractors? Or do you have big growth plans and a desire to keep control of your design data entry? Are you a medium to large company looking to re-evaluate how effectively you manage your PCB development process? No doubt there are many more situations. I also don’t think there is a one-to-one mapping between your corporate situation and PCB EDA tool. I genuinely believe the most effective approach is to commit to a tool and get on with getting good at it and putting in appropriate procedures to ensure quality design data goes out the door.
Another thing that might influence your choice is the availability of contractors/design-houses who can use your tool of choice. You don’t want to pay to train them as well as do your design.
Enterprise vs Independent: if your business has no plan to make PCB design an important part of the company’s ability to create revenue then there is little point going for the big guns – they require more IT maintenance, more training and more money (eventually). On that last point – it is common to for a start-up to be offered the enterprise tools for free while the get set up. If you go for that be sure you are either financially ready for a big hit around the corner or are well prepared to drop the tool and switch to the competition at short notice.
Thoughts on individual tools…
Altium Designer: most bang-for-buck. Huge number of features backed up by being pretty intuitive to use. I don’t like how “infinitely” configurable it is. Maybe if they focused more on a single usage model it would operate more consistently and lead to fewer utterances of “OH FOR GOD SAKE ALTIUM”. I get the feeling it probably doesn’t scale as well to enterprise level PCB design (i.e. PLM, multi-site design entry, multi-person editing, advanced DFM analysis).
Cadence OrCAD: awesome layout tool, meh schematic entry, relatively open pricing, cheap. I really like the layout tool (PCB Designer) and you can get it very cheap (£549 for a 1y rental, £5500 for top-end options & perpetual license: http://www.parallel-systems.co.uk/pcb/). Should scale up to Allegro enterprise tool relatively easily if you need to.
Mentor PADS: Recently split into 3 types which means it now spreads across the Altium price/features range. Hints at $5k – $18k cost across the option range (http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1326450). Not used it myself, but the top option now offers a lot of the high-end (xpedition) features. Should scale up to Xpedition enterprise tool relatively easily if you need to.
Honourable mentions…
Pulsonix (http://www.pulsonix.com/), Easy-PC (http://www.numberone.com/) and Design Spark (https://www.rs-online.com/designspark/pcb-software) are all flavours of the same tool. I’ve enjoyed using Design Spark for uni/PhD projects.
I’ve read good things about DipTrace (http://www.diptrace.com/) – very good value for money.

My Own Search

With this in mind a few years ago I was part of a discussion deciding what PCB design tool the company was to use in future. The current tool had failed and it was felt that it was time to move on.
My role in this was to bring the PCB tool options to the group so that the options could be discussed, looking back the summary of what we decided was interesting in many ways. Having had different experiences of the tools and had some demonstrations and quotes this is what was decided:
1) Mentor Pads:
Some of the engineer’s had experience in using Pads, so it was not an unknown. While the tool was felt to be capable it was costly, especially if extra options for 3D visualisation were required. As this was felt to be important and that any ‘extra’s were going to be costly, it was decided that this wasn’t the right way to go.
2) Orcad
There was minimal team experience with Orcad, it was also seen to be a very
Mentor-esque option as only the year before having upgraded to the latest version I was told that a library manager would cost extra. That was as far as Orcad got.
3) Cadstar:
No experience in the team whatsoever with Cadstar, to the point that it wasn’t even discussed as an option.
4) Pulsonix
Pulsonix had been trialed earlier in the year for it’s flex rigid capability, it was the only tool that would import designs and libraries from our current design tool  and came at a good price.
A demo left us feeling like it was a good option, but there were a lot of features that were ‘about to be released in the next version’. It would probably have done the job, but there was the feeling of the customers being guinea pigs for the product.
5) Altium
Altium’s success over recent years, the balance of cost against capability was very attractive. The vault was seen as a very effective tool for documentation control and the options for configuration were obviously huge. 3D integration and some mechanical and simulation capability was built into Altium as well as document release.

Which was best?

Even after deciding that Altium was the tool to use, there was the realisation that it was not going to be perfect. There were bugs, issues and it wasn’t perfect. We hadn’t found a silver bullet – BUT we knew that moving to Altium was going to be able to give us another level in our electronic design capability.
That is why PCB engineer’s tolerate the tools they use, if the tool has been chosen well if it fits into how the company runs it’s going to do the job it needs to do and do the job the electronic and PCB engineer’s demand. What suits one person or company doesn’t always suit another, the only thing that is certain is that at some point the design tool will be, for one reason or another – cursed!

PCB Mechanic
©CircuitMechanix 2018

2 thoughts on “PCB design tools – Selecting the you’re going to curse!”

  1. I think your comments on Pulsonix customers being guinea pigs for the product is very unfair and doesn’t represent the tool and company accurately. I’ve been using Pulsonix regulary since version 3, in 2004.
    I’ve never had cause to curse it, unlike many other packages which I’ve also used in over 24 years of PCB Design.
    I was introduced to Pulsonix by a contractor named Steve who was tasked with training me, which he did in a very short period of time: it took only a couple of days before I was fully up to speed and I was pleasently surprised to find that Pulsonix with its much lower price tag had more features and polish than the high end tool from a large well known developer, whom I shall refer to as “Cerebral Pictures”, that I’d been using previously.
    During this training we found a bug and reported it to the developers. I was very surprised to receive a new DLL file with a fix in just a few hours. “What did you expect?” Steve asked.
    In my previous experience, dealing with packages including Altium, Mentor Graphics, Cadence: a six month wait for a fix if it’s non-mission critical, and assuming that the developer decides the bug is important enough to assign resource to.
    Pulsonix was very different and I’ve found most bugs addressed and fixes delivered, usually within a day, sometimes two.
    I’ve found Pulsonix to be very flexible, powerful yet easy to use and to offer excellent support.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi James, I appreciate that the comment may seem unfair to you but you need to remember the context of this. This was the impression of a group of us after a sales pitch and demo with two of the apps/ sales guys that came to visit us.
      I agree totally that the big tool vendor’s are slow to turnaround changes but the testing they carry out is fairly extensive but this of course can’t cover the millions of variations they get. The fact that Pulsonix were able to turn around a bug suggests that while this might have worked the bug wasn’t properly tested and perhaps re-inforces the possibility that they do use the customer base to find bugs in a very similar way to Easy PC which is part of the same company.

      I have heard great things about Pulsonix and as a tool it’s very capable and does a good job. The point that I’m trying to make in this article is that the way that Pulsonix works and is managed is acceptable for some people / companies but not for others just as in the same way that big companies might be happy with enterprise tools from Mentor and Cadence because of the stability and cross working that it allows. In between there’s a mix of other stuff.
      It’s about choosing the tool that you’re going to use but no tool is perfect. No tool is. I have used a range of PCB design tool and I can praise and slate every single one of them. Pulsonix is no exception.
      I hope that explains the point of view better for you. 🙂


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