Important Features to Consider When You're Comparing PCB Design Software

Created: June 19, 2017
Updated: November 27, 2020

woman gesturing to stop at a shopping mall

 Anyone who knows me knows that I hate shopping. This is as true for lab equipment and software as it is for clothes and cars. At my lowest of lows I’ve had meltdowns in the mall, and had to call a cab while my friends were still going strong. Now when I shop, I like to get something as close to perfect for me as possible, so that I don’t have to repeat the experience for a long time. So, if I’m looking for ECAD software, what features and support are going to get me the closest to everything I want?

Integrated toolchains 

During a PCB design, you’ll have to manage inventory, BOMs, revisions, and designs, with each change rippling across all your documentation and planning. For an experience as frustrating as shopping, you can do each of those in separate programs, with information across Excel, emails, paper documents, and a series of sticky notes expanding across your walls. Every change requires time to sift through each place the documentation needs to be updated. It is not a good time. 

Mail and bills stacked on each other

Integrating tools like your BOM and supply chain management into your PCB design software can save a lot of agonies sorting through paper and electronic documentation in different locations. 

For a long time, I’d only heard of integrated toolchains being used in programming, even though there are so many places that they could improve logistics and design data management. ECAD tools are definitely one of the places where a well-designed toolchain makes a tremendous impact on your workflow. 

I most often need this integration when managing a bill of materials. Many ECAD programs will generate a BOM for you, but after you’ve got your CSV file, that’s it. If you want to export into different formats, you’ll need to buy extensions. Sometimes you can convert the output files, but I always worry about errors during the process and the resulting issues with manufacturing and sourcing parts. Which reminds me, you’ll also want to consider...

Supply chain integration

You want to maximize compatibility with your vendors and manufacturing partners, but how do they know what parts you need? Do you know what you have in-house, or what you need to order more of? 

Maintaining a database of approved suppliers and manufacturers, along with parts, pricing, and availability is a massive undertaking. I consider database administration about on-par with shopping as an unpleasant undertaking. Ideally, your ECAD software could do this for you, or at least integrate cleanly with another program that can. 

Button on a keyboard saying costs
Always consider the total cost of your license and add-ons to make sure they’re worth it!

Cost and support 

Some electronic CAD software has add-ons and powerful features available, but frequently require you to pay more for each plug-in or new feature that you want to use. By the time you have all the functions you need, the total cost can be quite a shock. Make sure you consider what the total cost of your license, add-ons, or additional packages so you aren’t caught by surprise at the final bill. 

Some programs also charge extra for support, or access to user communities. If you’re using a freemium program, you might be stuck getting help from comments on the Youtube tutorials you’ve been watching to learn the software. It’s much more helpful, if not always as entertaining, to have live access to trained support staff.

A ready solution

If you’ve had enough comparison shopping and you’re ready to make a decision, you should consider Altium. They’ve been working for years to eliminate the frustrations of multi-program toolchains, and their licenses come fully featured. They also offer Vault, which includes a Part Catalog service that allows you to manage your supply chain. You can see real-time inventory and pricing for approved vendors, so it basically shops for you! 

Vault also manages your revisions, including component definitions, models, and schematics. You can set your working environment parameters to keep everyone on a project (or in a company) working with the same design standards. 

It’s easy to get in touch for support: Altium offers live support with a free account on the appropriately name Altium Live. You can also get support via phone and email from contact information you can find on every page of their site. There’s a support community, too, with forums, technical documentation, FAQs, and video tutorials. 

Altium also provides extensive training options. In addition to live training events, they also offer a wide selection of videos and webinars. Plus, their website and documentation are available in English, Russian, Chinese, and German, with a Japanese version in the works. Once you’ve gotten your software installed, you don’t have to worry that you’ll be left floundering. 

Whether you’re ready to commit, or you have a few more questions you’d like answered, there’s an expert at Altium ready to help.

Start the journey to switch over to Altium Designer today.

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