Diptrace is the tool I currently use for all my projects and some contract work. I’ve found it to be very effective and full of very powerful features that with a different CAD system would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. I paid around $250 for a fully unlocked student edition. With the student edition, you get unlimited layers, sheets, board space, differential routing, and more.
If you are looking to change ECAD software Diptrace provides a very powerful and reasonably priced option. Diptrace offers a one-month free trial with no commitment.
Eagle is great for beginners or professionals. It’s used by a vast majority of the open-source community. That means a ton of open-source schematic and PCB files are able to be downloaded, viewed, copied, or edited all in Eagle. This makes Eagle great for beginners or professionals working on quick prototype boards.
Most Sparkfun and Adafruit products have an EAGLE footprint or PCB design that is downloadable directly from their websites making it super convenient for one-off designs.
Eagle’s free version is plenty for anyone getting started in PCB design. Edit (8/21/2018): I have no idea what the pricing structure of Eagle is anymore. Looks like a yearly paid plan =/
Sparkfun also has a great getting started with EAGLE tutorial and a series of instructional tutorials.
Fritzing is another excellent tool for people just starting out in PCB design. I highly recommend it to anyone who has never made a PCB before and is trying to learn the basics. Even though I use
Eagle PADS most of the time, I still have made many PCBs from Fritzing just because it is so easy to use and produces great presentable images of the circuit (see below). The Coil Bot’s PCB was made with Fritzing!
Fritzing is completely free. They make money by giving you the option to order your PCBs directly from the software itself.
3D CAD Software:
– Free version for students that lasts up to 3 years.
– A massive suite of tools to aid in the design process. (Function based constraints, Gear creator, Stress analysis, Realistic renderings… etc.)
– Fast. (My lame little laptop can run Inventor without any lag or rendering delay.)
The only problem that I’ve heard from most people about Autodesk Inventor is that the learning curve is high and the GUI is clunky. For most of my class and me, it took about 48 hours to get used to the Autodesk environment. But after the first few hours, almost everyone could move around the software and create basic bits and pieces.
After using it for over 4 years, I feel like the software is perfect for a hobbyist or an engineer that occasionally needs to design mechanical assemblies.
Notepad++: Just get it. If you don’t know what notepad++ is, please take the bucket off your head.
Notepad++ is a very useful and light text editor that should replace the built-in Windows Notepad text editor.
Sublime Text: The text editor you’ll fall in love with
Sublime is awesome. It is a great text editor that has many sweet features and easy to install plugins. I use it as a replacement for the god-awful (but getting better) Arduino IDE using this plugin.
Sublime is free to use but will bug you with messages every now and then asking you to buy it. It costs only $70, which is not too much considering what you get, so go support the creator.