Free PCB ECAD: The Ultimate list

-April 07, 2016

The world of PCB CAD software has been very active in recent years – so much so that it's easy to lose track of all the players and products.

The lower end in particular offers many new options, including many FREE ones, so let's take a look. You'll see that free no longer means toy.

The approaches to these ECAD (electronic computer-aided design) systems are varied, ranging from open-source, to proprietary (some with upgradeability to more capable paid versions), to cloud-based, work-anywhere systems that run in a Web-browser window. Read on to learn about the products in each category. Which will you try for your next project?

We start our survey with the open-source systems:


gEDA on OS X, showing a PCB from Evil Mad Scientist Labs


KiCad with a 3d rendering of the HackRF One





OS support

W, OSX, Linux

Linux, OSX

Limitations (L=layers, P=pins, C=components)



Upgradable to paid




Auto-assist, diff-pairs, trace length



Y, hierarchical






Open-source, Python scriptable


Of the two systems, KiCad does seem more popular, and has even drawn some involvement from CERN. Yeah, that CERN. gEDA on the other hand seems more a philosophy than a package, and though the main code has not seen a new stable release for 2.5 years, the sub-packages that comprise it have been active.

I wonder if it would be more sensible for developers working on gEDA programs to throw their support behind KiCad instead. I'd rather have one good open-source ECAD system than two less-good ones.

That said, gEDA's ecosystem is pretty impressive. From the FAQ:

The gEDA suite is the collection of all the various tools that are part of, associated with, or just plain work with the gEDA project’s software. Currently the gEDA suite includes:

    Tools for schematic capture and netlisting:



    Tools for digital and analog simulation:

        spice – netlister for SPICE simulation

        ngspice – SPICE simulation

        gnucap – modern “post-spice” (and SPICE) analog and mixed signal circuit simulator

        Icarus Verilog – Verilog simulator

        covered – Verilog Code Coverage Analyzer

        gspiceui – GUI front end for ngspice/gnucap


    Tools for pcb layout and manufacturing:

        pcb – PCB layout

        gerbv – Gerber viewer

        wcalc – Transmission line and electromagnetic structure analysis

        mcalc – Microstrip Analysis/Synthesis Calculator


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