PCB Layout software

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I took a look at loads of free and inexpensive PCB layout programs, including Eagle, ExpressPCB, PCB123, PCB, etc.

I chose to go with PCB123's solution because it had no limitations (unlike Eagle), and the board prices for prototypes seemed much cheaper than ExpressPCB (not to be confused with PCBExpress, which is more or less the same operation as PCB123). The "community" freeware (PC and Linux) solutions didn't seem to be all that well supported. On the other hand, PCB123 has excellent support... give them a call, send them your file, ask a question on their support forums, man those guys are great when it comes to helping you through a problem. I should also note that now that I'm nearly finished with my first board in PCB123 it functions very well (ratsnest, layer change on the fly, multilayer boards well supported, easy to edit or create new part footprints, relatively competent autorouter, good artwork generation, design rule checking, 3D rendered board viewing, etc.).

As for it being proprietary (filetype) to PCB123, they do offer to send you the gerber file along with your first prototype order for another $50. Not that bad, really.

Lest this sound like a purely marketing post, let me quickly point out the glaring weakness of the PCB123 solution - the schematic capture program that is bundled. Apparently PCB123 purchased the SC from another source (whereas they wrote the PCB layout software from the ground up) and it is no diamond. Navigating the part libraries are a pain, many of the footprints for the included libraries (which are admittedly fairly extensive) are incorrect, there are bugs that you have to be aware of and work around, the on screen "look" of the schematic is not my favorite, net naming is cumbersome, etc. It works, and I got through it, and it will be simpler the next time I design a board, but I would guess that the learning required for the schematic is 4X that required for the layout program, which IMO seems a bit out of whack when you already have a schematic sketched out.

The upside is that the layout program will import a netlist created by other programs. I think they natively support Protel stuff, but I could be wrong. I've never used that functionality, so I can't comment on how well it works.


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