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Choosing a CAD Tool? - by Matt Stevenson
To a PCB Designer, a CAD tool is like a Smartphone for the rest of us. We would all be lost (sometimes literally) without it. For a designer that spends considerable amounts of time with their designs, they often have their package customized with design rules, libraries, shortcuts, and design modules to help to keep their designs moving. These customizations can take months to years to develop.
What about the part-time designers? How are they supposed to be efficient when they may do one to two designs in a year, do not have a CAD software budget or a design team to learn from? Fifteen years ago this would potentially have kept a large number of these individuals from being able to create their PCB design. Today there are quite a few free (or almost free) to use PCB design tools available, empowering the student, entrepreneur, startup and hobbyist designers all over the world.
However, not all CAD tools are created equally, there are some very powerful free tools with lots of bells and whistles all the way to the very simple limited option tools. They all operate vary differently, some are far more intuitive to learn than others, some have a schematic capture, really nice part editors and parts libraries, some run on this O/S and some on that O/S, some have really great how-to videos and help available, and some even tie directly to a manufacturer (taking guesswork out of that process) but at the end of the day more than one will probably work for your design.
I would suggest researching online what is available and seeing which tools have limitations that will NOT work for you, common free limitations are number of layers, number of pins, minimum component pitch, trace and space and smallest via size. Of the tools remaining, download them and spend 15 minutes test driving it. You will quickly learn how intuitive the tool is or is not and move on to the next one. Find one that will work for your skill level, your PCB design, one you can grow with and fits your learning style. Once you have “the one” go ahead and start your design, have fun and make something.
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