Which Free PCB Design Program is the Best?

Boards were once reserved for professionals and those who are comfortable with complicated lithography. Millions of people, both beginners and professionals, have created their own high-quality printed circuit boards (PCBs) using easy-to-use software. They can be made at home using simple 3D printing solutions or batch production services, turning finished products around in days.

PCB design and manufacturing can open new doors for hobbyists and small-scale businesses. The many complex projects to get off a breadboard will find solutions in PCBs. They are more reliable, compact, and robust. For those who are more creative, the PCBs do not have to be limited to just rectangular shapes. You can make them any shape, color, transparent or flexible. This gives you nearly limitless possibilities to create unique PCB art and innovative “badge life” conference badges.

This article will explain how free PCB design software can help you create the information needed to make a physical PCB. We will also discuss the different requirements of users, from novice to expert, and the functionality provided by free design tools. This includes the availability of training materials, online support, and community forums.

Circuit Design & Schematic Capture

This step is for the capture of the circuit design (or circuit diagram) and includes the following activities:

  • To connect all the components, create a schematic or circuit diagram
  • Optional: Validating the design with simulations or “rule checks.”
  • Optional: Creating lists of components for a Bill of Material.

This stage is where industry-standard netlist files are created. They describe the circuit. This functionality can be implemented as a separate module in some cases. It may be integrated with the next step.

PCB Design

This step converts a circuit diagram (also called a schematic) into an actual PCB design. It involves the following:

  • Designing the physical layout, considering the footprint of all components and connectors.
  • Routing electrical tracks between components (on one or more layers).
  • Designing the board’s shape, locations, and sizes for holes, solder masks/stencils, silk screens, and artwork.
  • Optional: Visualizing the final design in 2D and 3D.

A completed PCB design is stored in a set of Gerber files - an industry standard that all manufacturers use - along with additional information, such as the location and size of drill holes.

Component Libraries

The libraries PCB design software supports and simplifies both of these steps by providing critical information on the many components (passive parts and ICs) found on a computer board:

  • Information about how components should be represented on circuit diagrams, their electrical and connecting characteristics, physical footprint, and appearance are just a few of the many things that can be included.
  • You have access to pre-populated information about the components and sometimes the ability to manually add or modify them to improve the quality and speediness of your design.
  • To simplify manufacturing, PCBs may be optionally produced by large suppliers or independent third parties.

PCB design software often has additional functionality that allows designers to collaborate, integrate with mechanical designs, and manage commercial production.

Professional-grade software is not cheap. There are robust solutions that can be used by hobbyists, small business owners, and designers with more advanced skills.

Selecting a Program

In recent years, the market has seen a lot of change, with EasyEDA and KiCad dominating the small- and hobbyist business space. There are many free tools available, from open-source software to professional software. Altium also offers free software. These options should not be considered the only ones to use, as many other options can be used.

Below are the top three PCB design tools that will be free in 2023. None of the tools we recommend are challenging to use. All of our choices require that you take the time to get to know a bit more about PCBs and how to put together a circuit.

Depending on the software's platform, deciding which one is best will depend on many factors. It can be PC, Mac, Linux, or browser-based, so it is accessible on various devices. It is essential to consider the PCB's intended use and the level of experience with PCBs and electronics. Based on the program’s functionality, we recommend one or more of these levels for each featured program:

  • Newbies: Those new to electronics and PCB design value an intuitive user interface (UI), quick availability, simple training materials, friendly support forums, and easy-to-understand examples.
  • Students and educators: To be used in education, it is essential to have the right level of basic functionality. Students at university may be willing to learn more to gain valuable professional experience. There should also be training materials and support that is oriented towards learning and teaching.
  • Advanced Designers: Experienced designers look for tools that can handle more complicated designs, simulate circuits, and allow them to share their designs with others. It is essential to have access to knowledgeable online communities and more advanced exams. An extensive library may be a benefit.
  • Professionals: Pro users require more advanced design support, advanced PCB modeling (for heat and RF interference), more vital collaboration, functionality that helps manage design versions, and the ability to integrate production supply chains (such as material management).

Software engineering is a common interest for designers. They may find it interesting to be able to create new functionality or software plug-ins. The level of support for specific applications, such as RF solutions or PCB art, is another factor that could impact tool choice.

One final point: experienced PCB designers often use multiple tools depending on the task. The first one is easy to master, and the rest are relatively simple. Don’t worry about the decision; pick a program that suits your needs, and then have some fun.

1. KiCad

KiCad is one of the most popular free electronic and PCB design software. It was created nearly 30 years ago. Version 6 is now available. The editor and UI have been greatly improved, as well as new design management tools and plug-in support. KiCad is supported by prominent organizations such as the Raspberry Pi Foundation and ;Arduino. It also hosts a well-attended annual conference.

A screenshot of a PCB designer using KiCad software

Open-source software offers a wide range of features that beginners and experts can use. KiCad supports the standard circuit schematic design, PCB layout tools, and 3D visualization. It also integrates circuit simulation (Nugspice), supports git version control, and links with FreeCAD to create other generic 3D designs. A growing number of plug-ins offer extension possibilities, from RF design to computer-generated art using Python.

This new version responds to criticisms that it was “not intuitive” and has received high praise. KiCad has a large user base, active in online forums, and offers a variety of tutorials online, from simple to advanced.

The library approach of KiCad, which was somewhat outdated in the past, has been updated. It can now compete with other offerings, and there are multiple third-party libraries.

  • Levels: Students, Teachers, and Beginners. Advanced Designers
  • Type: Offline, with unlimited functionality
  • Operating systems: Windows, MacOS, Linux
  • Developer: KiCad Developers Team

2. EasyEDA

EasyEDAwas a recent addition supported by one of China’s largest electronic component manufacturers. The original and the classic versions were created out of a desire to create software that does not use Windows. They can be accessed online by any device using an appropriate browser (where Chrome and Firefox are preferred).

A screenshot of a PCB designer using EasyEDA software

EasyEDA creates industry-standard files that are compatible with all PCB makers. The functionality includes simulation, schematic capture, PCB layout, visualization tools, and PCB layout. It’s cloud-based, so it can be used on the go and shared with others. It includes embedded library links to LCSC components and JLCPCB production services at competitive prices.

With over one million users, there is a large online community with plenty of support and training. EasyEDA’s standard version is still geared towards intermediate to simple projects. The online version can be challenging to use for larger projects or with poor internet connections. However, a client version is available.

The Enterprise and Professional versions of EasyEDA have a monthly cost, while the Enterprise version is currently free. EasyEDA is not open-source, and advertisements partially support the standard version. Enterprise versions remove ads and offer better team collaboration and higher levels of support.

  • Levels for Students, Teachers, and Beginners. Advanced Designers
  • Type: Online and offline with unlimited functionality (with an optional subscription).
  • Operating systems: Windows, MacOS, Linux
  • Developer: LCSC Electronics

3. Fritzing

Fritzing is a product of the open-source hardware movement. It was initially developed by the University of Applied Sciences, Potsdam. This approach is different from the free PCB design software. It makes electronics more accessible and encourages hands-on tinkering. This latest version features a beta version for circuit simulation and better multi-language support.

A screenshot of a PCB designer using Fritzing software

Fritzing is easy to use, supports simple circuits, and provides tools to convert designs onto solderless breadboards or soldered stripboards. It is a popular tool in schools and colleges. There are many educational resources, including material from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Users can easily make PCBs using the European manufacturer Aisler through its “Friends of Fritzing.”

Fritzing requested an optional donation for each download, which was initially free. The mandatory 8EUR fee has been added to the code, but it is still free. You can still compile the source code for your computer using the easy build instructions.

Fritzing offers firm support and a user forum. The unique and straightforward approach of Fritzing makes it an excellent choice for classroom projects or simple projects.

  • Levels for Students, Teachers, and Beginners
  • Type: Offline, with unlimited functionality
  • Operating systems: Windows, MacOS, Linux
  • Developers: Interaction Design Lab and IXDS