Considering the number of PCB design software available in the market today, it is definitely tricky choosing the right one. Hence, here we have done an in-depth comparison between KiCad vs Altium Designer.
Perhaps the main difference in these two is that one is a free application, while the other is paid. Altium and KiCad both have been in the market for more than a decade and hence have gone through refinement and upgrades to become much better over time.
KiCad and Altium are two widely used software platforms for schematic capture and layout. These two are very different kinds of programs, but their essential features are the same. To understand the main features and differences, read our complete guide on comparison between KiCad EDA vs Altium Designer.
KiCad is one of the most promising EDA (Electronic Design Automation) programs currently. It is a free software suite with great features and performance. KiCad has been in the market for nearly three decades now, since its initial release in 1992.
It offers tools that can be used for schematics and layouts for circuits and PCB designing. Unlike lots of other free software, this provides some advanced tools such as BOM (Bill of Material) generation, artwork creation, Gerber format files and even 3D modeling and rendering.
Another great thing about KiCad is that it is a multi-platform suite. You can install and use it on Windows, macOS and Linux as well, free of cost. This package contains five main components:
- KiCad: (Project Management)
- Eeschema: (Schematic Capture and editor)
- Pcbnew: (PCB layout solution, with 3D capabilities)
- GerbView: (Gerber viewer)
- Bitmap2Component: (Image to PCB footprint conversion)
KiCad integrates all the above tools to provide the user a central design environment. Let’s take a look at the main features of this program.
The highlights and key features of KiCad are discussed here.
- Schematic Capture with Eeschema: KiCad provides an elegant and functional schematic capture solution, with all tools available as you may require. The interface is neat and functional, with a focus on essential tools. It also offers hierarchical conversion for complex designs, which simplifies multi-sheet schematics into sub sheets. All major export formats are supported: PDF, SVG, HPGL, Postscript.
- Electrical and Design Rule Check: KiCad also offers a powerful ERC and DRC system which checks for errors such as output pin conflicts, missing drivers and unconnected pins. The netlist export options allow designers to save their netlists in various formats such as Pspice, Cadstar, PcbNew, XML.
- Layout and Routing with PCBNew: PCBNew allows faster and more efficient routing. With features like push & shove routing, the software clears the obstacles by pushing forward traces. Alternately, the obstacles can be ignored, and the program can do rerouting. This system works with DRC compliance.
- 3D Viewer: With KiCad, users get 3D viewing capabilities, interactive viewing and even the option to view 3D models as two-dimensional drawings, for easier understanding and understanding part details.
- Open Source and Cross-Platform: KiCad is an open-source software program that allows users and developers to constantly debug and improve the platform, which means faster upgrades and improved features. This application also runs on Windows, macOS, and Linux systems as well.
- Simple User Interface: KiCad has an intuitive and easy-to-use interface which helps novice users learn designing and improve their skills quickly. The learning curve is also really simple, thanks to the tutorials provided with a focus on essential tools and speed of working.
- Library Import Feature: Although KC offers a large variety of pre-built components in its libraries, you still might have the need for some additional components. Now, to save you the time of having to build those parts yourself, KC allows you to import them from external sources.
- GerbView Functionality: The GerbView package of KC supports modern canvases such as OpenGL and Cairo. The new version also features a new measurement tool, along with support for loading Gerber X2 extensions and job files.
Why Choose KiCad? (PROS)
- The hotkey functionality, which allows users to define shortcuts for easy access to frequently used functions, is a great feature for productivity.
- Being a completely free program, the performance and variety of features is commendable.
- Eeschema with ngspice integration now provides SPICE simulation support.
- Symbols and nets can be moved between hierarchical sheets using the partial clipboard support function.
- Better navigation and preview tools with improvements such as cross probing with highlighting and a custom colour selection feature.
- To help users manage internal environment variable, KiCad now provides an environment variable editor.
- The library management features in KiCad need improvement and need to be centralized. There is limited part availability while working with newer or less common components.
- macOS users might face certain latency issues on some older KiCad versions.
- KiCad does not have autorouting or high-speed feature design support.
What is unique about KiCad?
KiCad provides a great set of features absolutely free of cost, with no additional payments or annual maintenance fees etc. It is the only program which provides such a wide range of features with great performance for free.
3D viewing, interactive routing, simulations and more; all of this can be run on the three major operating systems with a simple download and install process.
Who’s it for?
KiCad can be used by individuals and even by small to mid-size industries or businesses. As it is a free program, anyone willing to learn PCB designing or working on projects etc. can give it a try.
It’s easy to set-up and use, and can even handle complex designs.
- Windows 7, 8, 8.1, 10, Server (2012, 2016, 2019) Editions.
- Apple macOS 10.12, 10.13, 10.14.
- GNU/Linux: Ubuntu 16.04 onwards up to Ubuntu 20.04 (LTS).
- Fedora 29 – 32.
- Debian 9, 10.
The following are the minimum system requirements for running KiCad on your device.
- Supported Processor Architectures: Intel (or compatible) 32 and 64 bit | PowerPC 32 and 64 bit | ARM 32 and 64 bit | MIPS 64 bit
- 1GB RAM (2G RAM recommended)
- Up to 10GB available hard disk space
- Screen resolution of 1280×1024 works but 1920×1080 or higher is recommended, with at least 16K colors. At lower resolutions toolbar buttons may be hidden but corresponding commands should be reachable via menu.
- Graphics card with OpenGL 2.1 or greater that supports hardware shaders.
KiCad is a completely free of cost software suite, with no download or maintenance fees. Even the upgrades are free to install and use.
Is KiCad EDA worth a Try?
KiCad is certainly a capable EDA platform with some great features for schematic capture, layout and editing. With additional advanced features, it can even be used for complex projects by experienced users.
Since this is cross-platform software and free, it is easily accessible to designers of all types. This is a great place to start PCB designing and work further.
For about two decades now, Altium Designer has been a leader in the PCB design industry. Their latest version is the Altium Designer 20, with further improvements and performance upgrades.
One of the great things about this program is its simplicity and advanced technical abilities are integrated in one elegant package. The software provides a complete PCB design to fabrication solution within one central software suite.
Although this is priced on the higher side of the range, its tools cater to everyone. The usability allows even novice users to design and work on projects, while giving the expert users enough high-end solutions to help them work on more complex design tasks.
3-D viewing and rendering, a customizable UI, extensive format support and content libraries with thousands of prebuilt components ready for use; these are simply some of the many features you’ll find within this software.
Altium users also get cloud services, production-related part information, interactive and automatic routing and filtering & tuning features for designing high-speed features. Read on to learn more about Altium Designer 20.
The following are 8 main features offered in Altium Designer 20.
- Hierarchical Schematic Design: Schematic with complex designs, numerous sheets and multiple layers are easier to work with, thanks to Altium’s advanced hierarchical schematic solutions, which deconstruct and simplify complex designs onto a number of single sheets for easier understanding.
- Real-Time Rule Validation: With Altium Designer, designers can verify their circuits and routing in real time with the ERC and DRC features of Altium. This feature works by indicating any possible violations of electrical or design rules, and can even predict potential violations dynamically.
- PCB Documentation with Draftsman: Documentation is an important part of DFM and production, as well as for research and institutional purposes. PCB documentation involves details, part drawings, component numbers and more. With Altium, users can directly export their production drawings onto Draftsman documents.
- Cloud Working Platform: To help teams working on large projects, Altium has a cloud-based remote working facility. This allows the team members to work in real-time, online, and share information, work updates and access project-related information in a secure, encrypted environment.
- Communication Centre: Another great feature targeted at organizations and businesses, Altium users get an online communication center that allows them to interact and converse with instant messaging, file sharing and communication tracking. This is all done in a secure and convenient environment.
- Interactive Manual Routing and Auto-Routing: Routing becomes much easier, no matter how complex the design, as you get a new interactive routing engine that helps you define paths for node-to-node connection in each net. Route around obstacles, push & shove and hug & push, and get more such features with Altium Designer for efficient and fast routing.
- Vast Content Libraries: Get thousands of pre-built components, part details, information, links and more with the exclusive content libraries of Altium. Integrated within the software, they are easy to access and contain over 400k+ items ready to download and use.
- ActiveBOM Functionality: An elegant solution from Altium, ActiveBOM helps users generate Bill of Materials, edit and track it easily. It automatically takes part information from our design and helps you compile the document. The program can also obtain part info and supply-related details from suppliers in advance.
Why Choose Altium Designer? (PROS)
- Designing high-speed features become much easier with Altium’s hi-tech options to tune and filter.
- Supply chain management is optimized and can automatically provide production-related info right in the design phase to avoid hassles later on.
- The UI is customizable as per the designer’s preferences, providing better navigation and shortcuts.
- The ability to check enclosure fitting with the PBC through ECAD and MCAD integration is a great option.
- Altium has an easier learning curve as compared to most programs in its price range.
- Only runs on 64-bit Windows-based systems, macOS, or Linux versions are not available.
- The license costs are very high. Moreover, licenses are sold as pre-made bundles instead of need-based customized packages.
What is unique about Altium Designer?
Altium Designer provides functions for users with all levels of experience and requirements. The program contains a range of production related functions and tools.
If a certain design related part is not available, Altium will automatically search for other compatible parts that can be used in your project.
Another unique thing is the amount of customization and hotkey editing it allows, which makes using the software much easier.
Who’s it for?
Ideally, Altium is best suited for research related work, industries with DFM (Design for Manufacturing) or production requirements, team projects which require remote working, or even individuals who want to work on higher-level projects and designs. But it can be used by others also, virtually any designer who can afford this will find it easy and efficient to use.
- Windows Server 2016 Standard Edition, 2012 R2 Edition (64-bit)
- Windows 8, 10 Editions (64-bit)
The following are the minimum system requirements necessary to install and run Altium Designer 20 and use all its functions.
- Intel Core i5 processor or equivalent
- 1600×1200 or better screen resolution
- 4GB RAM
- 3 GB DDR4/DDR5 Video Memory
- 12GB storage space
- Internet Connection (512Kbps minimum recommended)
- Microsoft Excel required for BOM
- Microsoft Access required for DbLibs
- Altium offers a free trial with all the features, for a 15-day valid period.
- Academic trial versions are available for a 6-month period for free, to eligible institutions and students after registration on their website.
- Altium Designer 20 (Base version) starts at $7245.00 for a perpetual license, which can be paid in 12 monthly installments. Additional features cost extra.
- There is no free version of Altium Designer.
Is Altium Designer worth it?
Altium Designer 20 is a software suite developed based on user feedback, so it can be said that this program has features built for the users. Whatever your circuit and board designing requirements may be, Altium will have tools to help you get your work done.
For the price tag, the performance and features do prove their worth. In addition to this, the simplicity of using this program is great, and even beginners will find it smooth and hassle-free to design PCBs. And even the most experienced users can efficiently work with Altium for their projects without feeling a lack of functionality or tools.
Main Differences Between KiCad Vs Altium Designer
Below we have highlighted the 8 main differences between Altium Designer and KiCad EDA.
- The first and foremost difference is that while KiCad EDA is free of cost, and Altium license will cost you a minimum of $7000.
- Altium can only be run on Windows x64 systems, while KiCad can work on most of the major operating systems on both x32 and x64 devices.
- Altium has highly advanced auto-routing features, with inbuilt interactive features for efficient routing.
- For remote-working purposes, Altium has a cloud-based center for real-time work updates and a communication center for file sharing and conversations. KiCad does not have such features for remote working.
- Although KC has 3D viewing capabilities, Altium has improved rendering and even MCAD support, which combines ECAD with mechanical designs.
- Altium Designer provides advanced DFM and production related features that are not available in KiCad, although KiCad has a basic BOM generation tool.
- Designers find Altium’s customizable UI to be helpful in reducing navigation time and getting their work done faster. KiCad does not have a customizable UI, it has shortcuts however.
- Altium includes tools for working on complex projects that involve high-speed features and multi-sheet schematics.
Which Software Is Best For PCB Designing, KiCad Vs. Altium Designer
To talk purely in terms of PCB designing, the answer will be Altium Designer. Given its powerful performance and high-tech tools, it can help you work on practically any design. Its user interface can be customized according to your preferences, and the library content Altium contains is vast and easily accessible.
If the user is looking for a cheaper alternative, or in this case, a free solution, KiCad is a great option. This suite offers all the essential designing functions and some additional features as well, which, when combined with its cross-platform functionality, makes it a winner in its own category.
KiCad EDA Vs Altium Designer: Who’s the Winner?
Overall, with all factors considered, the winner depends on the specific preferences of each individual user.
Between Altium vs KiCad, deciding a winner is not practical, given that one is an industry-leading, high quality program which costs more than $7k, while the other option is a free design application.
So, naturally the features and solutions they offer will differ greatly. Even so, in our comparison between KiCad and Altium, we have highlighted the main differences, pros and cons of both programs.
So, Which One Should You Pick?
The PCB designing platform that’s best for you depends on your individual design requirements, budget, and other factors.
If you require high-end complex designs, production, team-based working and more functions for such work, then Altium Designer will be your choice. It costs a lot, but the cost is justified for its performance and usability.
However, if the above requirements aren’t in sync with what you need, and your work is in a different direction, or you’re a student/individual working on more basic to intermediate projects, KiCad can be the solution you need.
So between KiCad vs Altium Designer, the one you should pick is the one which helps you accomplish your PCB designing tasks successfully.