KiCAD as an alternative to Altium Designer?

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At times when I have to do a circuit or PCB design in my professional work I mostly use Altium Designer. I’m not a full-time hardware designer consultant, and do both hardware and software. So, I can’t justify paying several thousands of dollars per year, unless I would be involved in a year or longer hardware design only project. Also, clients usually provide a license seat for me anyways.

However, I needed to have a PCB design software for my products and projects. About 2-3 years ago I started a new hunt for it. I have used Eagle before, and have briefly looked at KiCAD. When compared to Altium it feels like 90s, especially KiCAD. I didn’t want to use these, and certainly was not going to pay for unlimited version of Eagle given how outdated it was. I was browsing for the alternatives, and found out that Altium started to offer CircuitStudio, which is basically much lighter version of Altium Designer, and costs couple of hundreds of dollars. They also started to offer CircuitMaker, which is a free cloud based version. These two seemed like the best candidates at the time.

CircuitMaker

CircuitMaker is targeted towards makers and there is also a community around it. It allows to have 2 private (sandbox) projects, all other projects are forced to be public. It is heavily dependent on the cloud infrastructure, and all projects and files are stored in the cloud. One must explicitly export projects for offline storage. The library management is awkward, and is also forcing you to use cloud based stuff. CircuitMaker is also noticeably slower than any PCB design software I have ever used.

The heavy cloud integration, however, does make it more simple to share, contribute and fork open-source projects. The projects become available on the CircuitMaker website, and collaboration in a team is easier. There does seem to be a lot of activity going on, but most of projects are garbage and aren’t useful, because people don’t finish them, or don’t document them. All the projects one starts in CircuitMaker are automatically published, unless one makes them sandboxed, and only 2 sandboxed projects are allowed. So, the project page is full of projects like “TEST1”, “TEST Copy (98)” and so on. If one looks, for example, at hackaday.io newest project page it looks more sensible.

After trying it out, with all the heavy cloud dependencies, it wasn’t a right tool for me. I needed to have a tool that I can use for work as well.

CircuitStudio

I went on with trying out CircuitStudio. It looked more attractive to me, because it is not cloud based. The schematics documents have the same format as Altium, so files from Altium can be opened in CircuitStudio and vice versa. The PCB document format is different though, and I’m pretty sure it was a business decision. While Altium can open CircuitStudio PCB documents, CircuitStudio can’t open all PCB documents from Altium. It is possible to save PCB documents in CircuitStudio compatible ASCII format in Altium, but then you need to have Altium in the first place. The default PCB document format is binary in Altium.

The above is also true for CircuitMaker, but then you have to upload a project to their cloud. Surprisingly, the library files are compatible between CircuitStudio and Altium, and can be used directly, which was a big plus. The interface and features were very similar to Altium, so two years ago I bought the license for it.

I have been happy with, because it did what I wanted it to do and the learning curve was fast. However, it seems that CircuitStudio went unmaintained, because the version 1.5 I bought, is the last one there is. Except for some small hot-fix over a year ago, there isn’t any development. It also seems that CircuitStudio didn’t get any traction in maker community.

KiCAD

I did notice that KiCAD gained more popularity and development recently, especially after the KiCAD 5 was released. There is also a tool to convert Altium files to KiCAD files maintained by thesourcerer8. So, I decided to try it once again and use it for the Tougher INA3221 Power Monitor project. For someone who has been using Altium-like software, it was a real pain first couple of hours. By the end I got more used to it, but it is definitely harder work compared to Altium/CircuitStudio. Often I couldn’t find a simple feature, like change width for selected tracks, or draw a keep-out line, or import graphics as a copper fill. Whenever I have googled for how to do something, I would find that this feature is on a list, and is not implemented yet. However, despite, I have finished both circuit and PCB design, and was even able to make ray-traced 3D renders!

It is easy to complain about KiCAD, but it is an open-source software which is supported by the community, and is free. So, I want to thank the contributors for making it possible to have a free PCB design tool!

Eagle

I haven’t got a chance to reevaluate Eagle yet. Eagle is subscription based only, but recently, also unobtainable on its own. You have to pay for a subscription for Fusion 360, which then includes Eagle as well. For the personal use however, Fusion 360 is free, and Eagle comes with the same limitation as before: 2 schematic sheets, 2 signal layers, and an 80cm2 board area. I have looked at the screenshots and release notes for Eagle 9, It does seems to now include more sophisticated features, like pushing traces, and interface starts to look a bit Altiumish, though still looks like 90s. The subscription cost at the time of writing this post is either $60 per month or 495$ per year (~$42 per month). I think it is a good value for both, but if I just want to have Eagle, then I think it is a bit too expensive for personal use.

Which one is it?

From now on, I’m determined to continue to use KiCAD for the products and project I intend to publish and/or sell, because I want to have them as open-source as possible. For the more professional, or consulting work, CircuitStudio is probably still the best choice, because of the direct full compatibility with Altium in the CircuitStudio to Altium direction. Altium does seem to be dominating the industry, at least in Sweden, so it a sensible choice for me. But also, today, I wouldn’t buy CircuitStudio, because I would see that it is basically abandoned.


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