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KiCAD vs. Commercial PCB design: Chalk and Cheese?
KiCAD V6 is due for release soon. Having used some expensive commercial software here i’s my opinion on how they compare. Jumping the to conclusion first - KiCAD for most people will be good enough, expensive software will become more niche and relegated to legacy support.

National Instruments MultiSim/Ultiboard
In the 1990s there was a company called Ultimate Technology with the first integrated simulation/schematic capture/PCB design package. Electronics Workbench software was targeted at hobbyists to begin with. My first involvement was the 2001 version, which was the first to integrate schematic drawing as MultiSim. Previous versions had a separate simulator and used UltiCap for circuit drawing.

MultiSim/UltiBoard 2001 was a step away from the prior V5 release for various technical and political reasons. They dropped the Specctra autorouter and UltiBoard became more like a general purpose drawing package. The 2001 version had many rough edges. The software (on Windows XP) was fully featured but many features were ‘hidden’. The main problem is it crashed regularly losing work. V8 was released in about 2008 and fixed many of the user interface flaws.

By 2011 the package was up to V11 (yearly release) and ran on Windows 7. While many crashes were fixed, there was little progress in feature set or supplied library. Notoriously the 7805 footprint (a standard part for 20+ years) was wrong. Most of the effort went into MultiSim to provide the truly integrated design package that was the concept from the start.

In 2012 National Instruments purchased them. The package price and support options climbed to £3850 with £800 a year support. More importantly the software barely changed since 2008 to present.

MultiSim/UltiBoard is an intuitive package but schematic capture and layout is not so good as KiCAD6. The basic software shows its age, being rooted in the 2001 era. There are graphical glitches in dialogue boxes. MultiSim drawing was always clunky. Most annoyingly the symbol and footprint search facilities are a joke in the age of Internet search engines. The software has changed little since the NI acquisition, but they had the sense to rename it from “Design Suite” back to MultiSim/UltiBoard.

Zuken CADStar
CADStar dates back to the pre-Windows 3.1 era and I first encountered it in 1995. It has separate schematic capture and layout programs, and a simulation package. There are lots of modules available including EMC simulation and interchange with mechanical CAD. Zuken have many software packages for PCB manufacturing (CR-8000), collaboration in companies and even pneumatics design.

CADStar is not the most intuitive software. It appears to be an exercise in flexibility and user-configuration, which can be a blessing but is generally a curse. The schematics tend to acquire lots of different font styles, which cannot be changed globally and are defined alongside symbols. The separate library manager is clunky and feels like an old UNIX port to Windows, which it is. As with Mutisim/Ultiboard there was little development of the package over the last 10 years.

While CADStar has some great advanced options, the basis of it just feels old an unintuitive. The PCB layout side is very unique and contains many helpful shortcuts. But it is not for beginners and definitely not something a hobbyist would use. There’s a separate free CADStar viewer so at least anyone can view the files produced. I hate the idea of “Colors” which is like superset of the concept of layers. Other packages have far easier ways to do the same thing, like Allegro with it’s 1-0 keys stepping through layers.

The basic CADStar schematics and layout starts at £5500. There is an online library of symbols and footprints, the quality of which is awful. Seriously is anyone going to design a new product with a Motorola 68000 CPU or a 22V10 PAL? Having used the package at home with a VPN and the library remote at the office, I can say it’s like wading through treacle. My connection is a 100mbps cable and it takes ~20s to get a symbol from the library.

Last year Zuken announced eCADStar which looks like the successor to CADStar. At the moment eCADStar doesn’t open CADStar files snd I have no active experience of using it. There are several advanced simulation modules for eCADStar and it looks like the collaboration and simulation aspects are the selling point. I just hope they have a root and branch redesign of the package alongside adding advanced niche features.

I have minimal experience of Allegro PCB layout but long experience of OrCAD schematic design. The package dates to the early 1990s, I used V2.5 at college in 1993 running on an IBM PS/2 in those days. OrCAD is now owned by CADence and they follow a similar path to Zuken. Various plug-in modules are available for simulation and EMC work.

OrCAD was divested by Cadence a few years ago and now sold under the EMA banner. I used Release 16 a few years ago and found it quite easy to draw with. The library management side is not easy to deal with but fortunately I did little of that. As with CADStar the software feels little changed since the 1990s which is generally a bad thing. The graphics are rather tiny and don’t scale well with modern displays.

The present cost of OrCAD and the associated layout package is not even listed on the EMA website. I previously worked for a large company and they were reluctant to update the software, so it will not be cheap, looking at the £6000 range. OrCAD has modules targeted to chip design and individual components and has lost focus on the schematic-PCB workflow.

KiCAD V5/6
I moved from a “grey” copy of MultiSim/Ultiboard to KiCAD a few years ago for home projects. KiCAD is supported by a large open-source effort and the Central European Ring Network (CERN) most famous for the large hadron collider and Higg’s boson discovery.

KiCAD 5 (now 5.1.9) lacks features like balanced signal routing, positional renumber or curved traces. Several operations like mapping schematics to layout are clunky and you have to select the footprints as an intermediate stage, which is rather quirky. The Mac OS version is behind the Windows version in functionality but does read all the file formats and is stable. On the surface, development of KiCAD has gone quiet but there’s something big on the horizon.

KiCAD6 will be released early 2021 and addresses many shortcomings of the old version. These interface is extensively overhauled and clearer than before, designed for modern high resolution displays. Swapping between schematic and layout is far better, though the need to link footprints as an intermediate stage is still there. Footprint linking is smoother due to the updated library having easier default selection.

I haven’t used the Linux version, but the Mac OS and Windows versions are now closer and feature comparable. The open licence and cross platform is a major plus for KiCAD, the commercial packages invariably are Windows only.

KiCAD6 as a schematic and layout tool is plainly designed by people who use it, rather than by programmers or managers. Most operations that are used hundreds of times during layout are to hand and not hidden in menus or macros. If the final release is soon and bug-free it will deliver on the promise of being a razor like tool for turning out medium complexity electronics designs.

Perhaps I’m in the mindset of a small design company, but paying £4000+ for PCB CAD software seems passé with KiCAD6 available. Certainly CADStar is not better than KiCAD6 for the designer of medium complexity PCBs. I define medium complexity as 4 layers, with perhaps 100 parts and EMC/productionisation factors thrown in. The KiCAD library is better than CADStar, with a lot of modern parts, despite it including lots of legacy ones.

The commercial packages I have experience of feel old and clunky compared to KiCAD6. The most popular comparable CAD package is
Altium which has a lower cost version in CircuitStudio at about £500. Not having used it I cannot comment, but £500 is a lot compared with zero.

With KiCAD6 I can turn out circuits and layouts with an ease that was unheard of 10 years ago, and supported by cheap/fast PCB turnaround the days of expensive software is surely numbered. Big companies with deep pockets are welcome to spend their money - I would rather spend the extra minutes to do in KiCAD what their software would save me.

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