Sunday, 7 August 2011

DIPTrace to replace ExpressPCB?

To date, our preferred PCB layout software of choice has been ExpressPCB.
It's a brilliant bit of kit, easy to use, simple to build your own components, and best of all - FREE! For through-hole work it's really easy to use - draw everything you want on the top (red) layer and print straight onto your press-n-peel. Admittedly getting a usable output for SMT is a bit fiddly at first (install CutePDF then print your boards to a PDF file, load into Inkscape, mirror/flip horizontall and THEN print) but it's nothing that takes more than a minute or two to sort out.

Since we discovered Quick-Teck we've had to give serious consideration to gerber files. Until now, we've never bothered with them - and as a result had no need to learn how to use the, frankly, clunky Eagle interface. But after getting a quote from quick-teck.co.uk for PCB manufacture, and a second one for sourcing the components and assembling the board, we're seriously considering getting our boards supplied ready-assembled.
The problem with this approach is that while PDF schematics and layouts are fine for making your own boards via toner-transfer, and for using to get a quote for a job, they're not really acceptable for making the circuit boards from. Most PCB manufacturers prefer gerber files and Quick-Teck are no different. Which means we're probably going to have to get friendly with Eagle.....

... or does it?
In our recent trials of different PCB software, we gave RS Component's DesignSpark (PCB design and layout software) a go. Like many companies keen to get in on the maker scene (think Farnell/element14, AutoDesk etc) RS are giving away free software to lower the barriers to get the community involved. The problem we found with DesignSpark is that it was too much like Eagle - complicated and clunky. One thing we did like, however, was that when drawing a schematic, clicking between two sets of pins drew a nice connecting line, with 90 degree bends automatically drawn in the appropriate places: drawing schematics like this is quite nice.

With an inherent dislike of Eagle, and having dismissed DesignSpark, we went looking for alternative software and stumbled upon DipTrace.

DipTrace is a really nice, simple, intuitive PCB design and layout application. It does the nice "semi-auto-complete" drawing on schematics- and then extends this to the PCB layout application too. It has full component auto-place AND trace auto-routing (we haven't used either of these for our projects, but it's nice to know it's there) AND includes helpful auto-drawing when placing traces by hand.

In short, we think DipTrace is an excellent bit of kit.
It's as simple to understand as ExpressPCB, making your own components and layout patterns is a doddle and it has all the fancy export options you'd expect to find (including dxf and gerber). Hobby users haven't been forgotten either - from the print preview screen you can mirror the output (for toner transfer/press-n-peel users) and it even has a "outline the traces for CNC output" option for anyone who wants to rout the traces out from copper clad board on a CNC routing machine.

It took us just a few hours of playing about tonight to not only create a library of our most commonly used components (amended to include big fat pads for easy soldering) but also to draw an intermediate-level schematic and layout the PCB for it. In less than three hours we had a board printed and ready for etching. After three hours with Eagle we were still trying to work out how to move more than two components without screwing up the entire design!

Look out for future posts detailing how to use DipTrace.
We'll be using it a lot in future and hope to convert a lot of our earlier projects using it - starting with our current miniature guitar project.

With a free non-commercial licence (2-sided board, up to 500 pins) you'd have to be a pretty hardcore user to need to upgrade - by which time you shouldn't mind paying the relatively modest licence fee for the full package!