There is a new kid on the block to compete with existing free PCB design software such as Eagle , KiCAD, gEDA, and DesignSpark.
Altium recently opened a public beta of their new free PCB design tool, CircuitMaker. CircuitMaker is a free to use tool that incorporates many of the features of their several thousand dollar professional PCB design software, Altium Designer. Some of the things that set CicruitMaker apart from other free options are:
- No board limits – Unlike Eagle, there are no limits on board layer count, board size, or quantity of pads and signals (except for likely performance issues past a certain point of complexity)
- Advanced PCB routing features – CircuitMaker has many of the same interactive routing features as the full Altium Designer software, which let you more easily route signals around obstacles, route differential pair signals, and many other features. See this video for some examples.
- 3D view – CircuitMaker has a nice 3D preview and the ability to export 3D models as STEP files for use in other 3D CAD software.
- Community features – CircuitMaker stores your designs in the cloud and allows for collaboration and version control of projects. The parts library is also a shared resource and leveragees existing data from a third party parts database, Ciiva
So, what’s the catch?
- Windows only – There are no Linux or Mac versions of CircuitMaker
- Time – Like all software, CircuitMaker requires some learning curve. If you don’t have prior experience with Altium Designer (like me) it takes some reading to get familiar with the workflow and menue locations for creating schematics, netlists, and boards. That being said, I was able to pretty easily work through a quick test project. On the other hand if you do have lots of previous Altium Designer experience, you might get frustrated with some of the differences between hotkey layouts, menue locations, and other user interface differences between Designer and CircuitMaker.
- Internet Required – A good, active connection to the Internet is required to even USE the software due to the cloud and community features. This means that there is no ability to work offline.
- The community features – CircuitMaker lets you store 2 projects in a private sandbox and publicly shares the rest of your work in the CircuitMaker online community. This could be an issue if you don’t want to share your work publicly.
- Cloud Storage – CircuitMaker stores your projects on Altium’s servers. And only on Altium’s servers. There is no way to make a local copy of your work. If at some point Altium decides to stop providing this free software and service you may lose any work you’ve done with CircuitMaker with no way to use if in the future.
CircuitMaker can be a big step up from other free tools. I’d recommend giving it a shot and evaluating whether any of the negative factors are a deal breaker for you. If the software allowed for local storage and backup, CircuitMaker would almost be a no-brainer. Hopefully Altium will offer a free or low cost way to do so to reduce the massive risk of losing all of your work if Altium decides to stop supporting CircuitMaker and its storage cloud.