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PCB DESIGN PACKAGES How to choose the right printed circuit board design package

Author / Editor: Nigel Charig / Nicole Kareta

Many PCB design software packages are available, ranging from software that can be downloaded for free to high end tool suites costing tens of thousands of dollars. But which is best for your application? This article first looks at what is involved in PCB design, and then suggests some approaches you could use to find the right package for your project.

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Deciding which PCB design software package is best depends very much on your personal perspective: the complexity and size of your project, your budget, your expertise, and whether you are working alone or as part of a team are all factors.
Deciding which PCB design software package is best depends very much on your personal perspective: the complexity and size of your project, your budget, your expertise, and whether you are working alone or as part of a team are all factors.
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Any electronic product contains one or more printed circuit boards (PCBs) populated with the components needed to achieve its functionality. The PCB provides mounting and electrical interconnections for the components; it may also provide EMC shielding and thermal conduction paths for heat management.
The most basic PCBs have components and their interconnections – or ‘conductor pattern’ - mounted on one side of the board. These are known as ‘single-sided’ or ‘single-layer’ types. Because of their limited routing possibilities, they are only suitable for simple circuits. Most PCBs are at least double-sided, or more likely multilayer, with possibly many tens of layers. This is essential to cope with the ever more complex and densely packed component populations needed for today’s smaller yet more powerful products.

Converting your theoretical or prototype design into a manufactured PCB is a multistep process that can be performed with the help of a PCB design software package. Many different packages are available, for a very wide range of project sizes and complexities. Options vary from open-source products that can be downloaded for free, to high-end tool suites costing multiple thousands of dollars. Note that a higher price does not always guarantee a better product!