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Old 19th December 2001, 07:11 PM   #31
Geoff is offline Geoff  United Kingdom
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In view of the interest shown in this thread (and my experiences whilst converting Grey's Aleph board files) I decided to carry out a review of available software. My criteria and objectives for selecting the software were:

It must be free
It must be capable of directly providing a bitmap file
It must not have print or save disabled
There must be no limitation on board size
Ideally it should be capable of having custom components added
A gerber file output would be advantageous for those who have their pcbs manufactured.

After reading many webpages and spending a lot of time downloading software, the choice of program became limited to two. All the rest failed to meet the foregoing requirements to a greater or lesser extent. ExpressPCB has a very user-friendly interface but it is impossible to obtain a usable output without resorting to a lot of post processing. I have tried to find a way to circumvent this but without success so far. Eagle has a limited board size and so was not considered. Others will not save or will not output a bitmap file.

The two programs that do (nearly) meet the above specification are Circad and Ares Lite (part of the Proteus suite from Labcenter) so I looked at these in more detail.

Neither has a particularly user friendly interface, though personally I found Ares Lite easier to handle (Circad continually confused me but I suppose I would get used to it in time).

Though both will output bitmaps, Ares Lite has the advantage that it is easier to select what you want to output (eg just the bottom copper) and it also has a very useful 'overlay' output which prints (or saves to .bmp) the tracks in grey with the components overlayed in black.

Ares Lite has an autoroute facility that is not present in Circad. Against this, Circad will accept a netlist from the schematic editor whereas Ares will not accept the output from it's companion schematic editor (Isis Lite)

Ares Lite has a pin limit of 100 and 10 second 'nag' screens before print and save. Both of these are removed if the software is registered (at a cost of 20).

Circad has Gerber output disabled unless the full product is purchased. Gerber (and Excellon) output can be added to Ares Lite for an additional registration fee of 20.

On balance, of the free software available, I feel that Ares Lite offers the best compromise of ease of use, facilities etc., though I would be pleased to be proved wrong if someone can come up with a program that has the user interface of ExpressPCB along with the ability to produce usable prints and .bmp files.

Ares Lite: http://www.labcenter.co.uk/

Circad: http://www.holophase.com./

Geoff
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Old 19th December 2001, 08:02 PM   #32
mlloyd1 is offline mlloyd1  United States
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Geoff:

Excellent writeup; I wish I could do as well! I chose to use CIRCAD for the "plus" that you noted: integrated schematic capture and easy import. I plan to buy the full version when I get a ham license - there is a big discount for hams. For anyone interested in playing with CIRCAD, there is a CIRCAD group on Yahoo where they answer questions and share parts. The program authors participate occasionally as well.

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Old 19th December 2001, 10:39 PM   #33
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Geoff,
Two quick questions:
1) Will either of those programs export in formats other than BMP (i.e. JPG, etc.)? BMP is, I'm sure, sufficient unto the moment--just curious.
2) Can those two programs exchange data? This will devolve to a question of matching available Export vs. Import functions, I suppose. Since you and I share a fascination with class A operation, it would be useful if we could share board layouts directly, even should we choose different programs.
Many thanks for your homework...

Grey
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Old 20th December 2001, 12:49 AM   #34
Geoff is offline Geoff  United Kingdom
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Grey

The quick reply is no, neither will export GIF or JPG. However, this is immaterial. The ability to output variable resolution bitmap files is more important. GIF and JPG files are generally not suitable for producing a pcb. A high resolution bitmap, however, can be sent to another party and then printed at the correct size to create artwork for etching a pcb. A lower resolution bitmap can easily be converted to GIF or JPG for display on a website etc. The file conversion can be done in Paint or MS Photo Editor or any number of graphics programs. The best, and fastest (and it's free!), program I have found for graphics conversion is Irfanview ( http://www.irfanview.com ).

I assume from your second question that you are looking for the ability to modify a layout prepared in one program by using the other one. I don't know of any pcb software that will allow this since the program's file format differs between each. If there is a common format it appears to be Gerber, but the free versions of Circad and Ares Lite will not import or export this. I would suggest that this is not too important. If the pcb layout is to be used without modification then the transfer of a high resolution bitmap will be sufficient. If modifications are needed, then it is not too much of a problem to have both programs installed on one's pc (since they are free) and to use the one appropriate to the original layout for any required modifications.

As a final point, why am I doing this? I always hardwire my amps, or use Veroboard for low current circuitry, so have no need to produce a pcb layout.

Geoff
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Old 20th December 2001, 01:17 AM   #35
paulb is offline paulb  Canada
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Thanks, Geoff, for your considerable time in the investigation. Sounds like either suits my needs, and the registered version of Ares even fits my criteria for cheap. I'll try one sometime over the holidays, I have a couple weeks (although they're already overscheduled).
And as to why did you do this? I think it says something about your nature.
Cheers,
Paul
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Old 20th December 2001, 01:20 AM   #36
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My intent in asking about sharing between the two programs was to see how easily we could pass layouts amongst ourselves (while still allowing a certain lattitude in choice of programs for those who might have slightly different needs). I don't know how often we might need the capability (such as the 3-device output board Freddie edited down from the 6-device output board for the Aleph), but it would be nice to have it as painless as possible. Another possible application would be if someone needed to modify the ouput boards to accept a pinout other than GDS. Still, if the program is easy to use and will output a decent format fairly readily, I'm all for it.
I'll give it a try very soon...very soon indeed.

Grey
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Old 20th December 2001, 01:32 AM   #37
grataku is offline grataku  United States
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Was anyone able or tried to reproduce the results of the guy that posted on headwize using expressPCB? Paul has the link in the initial post of this thread.
It's not immediately clear to me how did he "capture the image into a pdf file". The method seems to give pretty hi-res images so that may be the way to go. I guess one would need adobe acrobat.

For the time being here is a silly-assed trick that I think anyone should be able to pull off using the micro$oft photo editor. Obvously it only works for a single layer pcb at a time and the resolution stinks, but it may yet be acceptable for pcb with large traces and for posting sample layouts etc.
I just tried this so there are probably many pitfalls to this idea.
Please test it out and let me know what you think.
Anyways, first make the pcb using expressPCB, try to display the full window on the screen and center the pcb using the appropriate button. Select the pcb with the cursor so the traces and(or) the silk layer turns into a uniform grey color. Next do alt-print screen and paste into photo editor.
Crop the picture and get rid of the window to obtain the pcb-only image. Use the negative command under the effects menu to turn the grey to black.
Save to a nice file format like tif or whatever. Done.
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Old 20th December 2001, 04:48 AM   #38
paulb is offline paulb  Canada
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grakatu,
Please see my post on the previous page, weeghel did answer me. He's got Adobe Acrobat, that looks like a print driver, so he just prints to it, then fiddles around a bit.
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Old 20th December 2001, 05:52 AM   #39
grataku is offline grataku  United States
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Sorry Paul,
probably someone else has already figured out the low-res way I just posted too!!
Actually after posting I looked in my own "junk box" that is my computer and I found acrobat and illustrator and I was able to do the deed. Actually it's quite simple in Illustrator you can turn each color in the picture into a 'layer' and simply make the layer of the little dots disappear. The resolution is fantastic indeed.
Once you figure the commands it's a 30 sec. operation, total.
Too bad you need the adobe software kit to do it, which kills the whole point of the exercise.
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Old 20th December 2001, 01:59 PM   #40
Geoff is offline Geoff  United Kingdom
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Grataku

I agree that the displayed image in ExpressPCB can be transferred to other programs via the clipboard, however this then requires post processing as I mentioned before, and this was something I was trying to avoid. The low resolution bitmap image produced by this method would not be suitable for etching boards, other than simple ones with large tracks and few pads. A further complication, particulary with larger boards, is ensuring that the scale remains 1:1. To fit a larger board on the screen in order to be able to copy it to the clipboard, the image size must be reduced. It then needs to be expanded during the post processing which causes further deterioration in the already poor resolution.

Capturing the print output is a better method, but I have been unable to do so with any of the free programs that I have managed to find. Acrobat obviously does work, but this costs money. The two virtual printer drivers that I have tried both caused ExpressPCB to crash. One claimed to convert the print output to a bitmap file, the other to pdf. They worked OK with the print output of other graphics programs I tried, but not with any of the pcb programs. I will continue my search for a free print output to bitmap converter that will work with ExpressPCB but I am not optimistic. Post processing will still be required and I think your estimate of 30 secs for this is a little unrealistic, even when one is familiar with process.

Geoff
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