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Ask MAKE is a weekly column where we answer reader questions, like yours. Write them in to mattm@makezine.comor drop us a line on Twitter. We can’t wait to tackle your conundrums!

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Bjorn writes in:

I’m doing my 2nd Arduino project (and 2nd electronics project ever) and am trying to design some of the circuit stuff on computer instead of just wiring it up or scribbling some stuff on paper. I’m trying out Fritzing and am wondering if you have any other suggestions for software that can be used for breadboard, schematic and/or PCB design. I would like to maybe figure out/learn/teach myself enough about electronics to be able to design my own PCBs, so it’d be nice if I could do all the types of designing in one program. I downloaded Eagle but haven’t really tried that out yet and am not entirely sure what that’s used for, but I think it relates to PCBs.

You sound like you are off to a good start. The kind of programs you are looking for are referred to as Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools, and traditionally allow you to draw out a symbolic representation of a circuit using a schematic capture interface, (sometimes) simulate it with a circuit simulator, and then finally lay out the circuit on a printed circuit board (PCB). In the commercial world, many companies use tools designed by Synopsys, Cadence or Mentor graphics, but these are prohibitively expensive and overly complex for most hobbyist use. You are on the right track with Fritzing and Eagle. They are both good choices for documenting your circuits and designing PCBs, although they have been designed for somewhat different purposes.

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For people who don’t already have a strong background in electronics, Fritzing is a great place to start. Instead of forcing you to understand the circuit schematics for each piece, you can use it’s pictorial ‘breadboard’ mode to connect drawings that look like the actual pieces that you would place on your breadboard. It sounds kind of cutesy, but it is pretty powerful because it also generates a schematic view of your circuit. This way, you can learn what the symbols for all of your parts look like by just connecting them up and flipping between the two views. You can either leave it at that to document a project that you made on a breadboard, or try out the PCB mode to design a simple 1-layer board that you can then etch yourself. To get started, check out their tutorials.

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While Fritzing is a great way to get started with electronics, if you start to do more complex things, you will eventually need to turn to a more powerful tool. The second program that you mentioned, Eagle (Easily Applicable Graphical Layout Editor), is a good choice for this. It isn’t open source software, however they offer a freeware version that is powerful enough to build many useful circuits. It doesn’t have a breadboard mode, so you have to start by making your circuit as a schematic. Once you have a schematic drawn up and have checked to make sure everything is connected properly, you create a new PCB and lay the components out. To get started, check out this tutorial by the folks at Sparkfun.

There are a multitude of other free PCB design programs out there. For instance, ExpressPCB is a proprietary schematic capture/PCB layout program that is closely integrated with the companies PCB fabrication service. gEDA aims to be a comprehensive open source circuit simulation/design environment, but appears to be quite complex. FreePCB looks good for designing PCBs, however it doesn’t appear to include a schematic capture program.

My advice would be to stick with Fritzing and Eagle for a while, use them to design and build a few PCBs, and if you aren’t satisfied with them, try out one of the other tools to see if it works better for you. Good luck!

[photo by Flickr user Zach Hoeken]

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Comments

  1. dono1 says:

    Do not forget Kicad

    1. Nate says:

      I think the freebie version of EAGLE is too limiting on the PCB side (about 3 sq in, max).

      I’ve had NO problem at all with Kicad in the past year or so. The biggest issue, imo, is the sparse documentation, so it might not be the best idea for someone who is already overwhelmed with even basic circuit design.

      1. Bob D says:

        The freeware version of Eagle lets you make a board that is 12.8 square inches (4″ x 3.2″) which is pretty decent size. I think my version is 2x this size. The only limits I hit are the number of layers in the free version (2 vs 6 in my paid commercial version) and the number of schematic sheets (1 vs 99 in my paid version).

        $0 vs $600 without these limits, however there are other limits with the $600 version. These go away when you jump to about $1800!

        1. Anonymous says:

          These limits are not there if you choose Kicad as already mentioned

          1. Bob D says:

            I assure you, these limits are still here no matter what product you chose. Choosing another product will not change Eagle’s limits.

      2. Bob says:

        Another problem with KiCAD is the limited library of parts.

        Still, I’ve used it for my boards. I’m happy not being limited to the 12 sq in of free Eagle, not being limited to a single fabrication company like ExpressPCB, and it did an absolutly mind-boggling routing job for me via FreeRouter.

        1. Nate says:

          Ironically, there’s an Eagle plugin/script that will export an Eagle library into kicad format. It works with the free version of Eagle, too!

          I’ve got the SparkFun lib in kicad, now, and it works great :)

          (also, there are a few large repositories of kicad libs if you google for them; not at a computer with the bookmarks handy)

  2. Aaron says:

    I have tried eagle and was totally confused. I admit I haven’t put much time into it however. I will take a look at fritzing for sure and hope that helps me understand the schematic portions better THANKS!!!

  3. macemoneta.myopenid.com says:

    If you are familiar with Linux, you might also be interested in this:

    spins.fedoraproject.org/fel/

    “Fedora’s Electronic Laboratory empowers you with an advanced opensource electronic design and simulation platform for micro-nano electronics engineering. FEL is dedicated to support the innovation and development brought by opensource Electronic Design Automation (EDA) community.”

  4. Anonymous says:

    I just wish software authors didn’t just assume everyone had a Microsoft based computer.

    1. dl7und says:

      Many times I would agree with you, but here? All the software mentioned above is available on Linux, most also on OS X. Where is the problem?

  5. Justblair says:

    I would suggest diptrace. Again commercial software, but like eagle a free edition is available. Diptrace limit you to 250 pads. Plenty in my experience.

    The interface I find more intuitive over Eagle, and the libraries are reasonably diverse.

  6. Bob says:

    Try something really different. Lochmaster 3.0. Lets you lay out circuits on stripboard which is the fastest way to get a prototype up and running quickly. Easily changeable too. From Germany… I love it. Once a proto is done.. then I use Eagle.

  7. bill rowe says:

    for sheer ingenuity and visual appeal Fritzing is tops. It’s limited in capabilities at the moment but basically useable and there’s a new version due out shortly.

  8. Justin says:

    For anything I prefer using on iOS: iCircuit. For hobbyist it is damned good! On the Android side of things EveryCircuit is king. They are simple to use, fun, and above all very user friendly. For almost all intents & purposes can be solved/designed using any of the two mentioned. There is of course, Engineering Pad & Pencil for those a little more old-school in circuit design.