EDA or Electronic Design Automation is steadily growing in importance, as the world moves towards an unprecedented level of technological dependence and automation.
Designing PCBs and circuits are becoming more challenging as designers and engineers try to meet the rapid advancements in technology. In such a scenario, picking the right PCB design software is vital for any design engineer.
Hence, today we are looking at two free PCB design solutions, from two reputed developers. In this article, we have done a comparison between Altium CircuitMaker Vs KiCad EDA. To help you pick the one which is right for you, read on.
 Major Differences Between KiCad Vs CircuitMaker
KiCad and CircuitMaker have seen many changes over the years, and they have now developed into powerful PCB design solutions that can compete even with some paid programs.
To help you decide which one to pick, we have compared them on the basis of major technical differences, user experience, simplicity of use, and platform compatibility.
Below we have described the 9 main differences between KiCad vs CircuitMaker in detail.
 Software Type
Before selecting any software program, you should first check what type of package you are getting. Some are available as local clients that you can download and use on a computer, or they can be SaaS, which refers to software as a service.
KiCad is available for you to download, install and use on your computer. It is a cross-platform application that you can run on Windows, Mac OS and Linux systems. The installer is available on the KiCad website, and can be downloaded and used for free. KiCad is also open-source, and the developers have made the source code available to everyone through platforms such as Github.
The CircuitMaker program is a web-based service. There is a small setup process involved. You can need an active internet connection to use the platform for all your PCB design tasks. Altium develops CircuitMaker and has made it free to use for everyone. CircuitMaker is also open-source.
CircuitMaker lets you work on projects with up to 16 signal and 16 plane layers, with no limitations on the dimensions of the PCB. The free version doesn’t have a non-commercial clause, so you can even monetize your designs. However, CircuitMaker only works on Windows 32-bit and 64-bit OS devices.
 Schematic Editing
Schematics are the essence of designing a PCB, and will one of the very first steps in your project. The schematic tools in the program should be suitably located, functional and the software should ideally support multi-sheet schematics, otherwise your projects will be limited to basic designs.
CircuitMaker provides you with a well designed and tested schematic editor; in fact, it’s the characteristic Altium design. It’s intuitive, easy to use, and has a modern and elegant look. You also get features like multi-sheet schematic editing and hierarchical design blocks with conversion that simplifies complex schematics.
A wide range of export formats is also supported, in addition to the SmartPDF functionality.
In KiCad, you get a module called Eeschema for handling all your schematic capture and editing tasks. The design of the UI is clean and simplistic, and the tools can actually be arranged as you require. The toolkits can be un-docked and placed where you need them for easier access.
KiCad also provides features to work with hierarchical schematics, to simplify complex designs with multiple sheets by displaying them as single sheets in an arranged manner. You can also export your files in a variety of formats such as PDF, Postscript, HPGL, SVG and more.
 Layout and Routing
The routing and layout module in KiCad is called PCBNew. It has been designed for an efficient and productive routing experience with integrated rule checks for improved accuracy.
It supports both manual and automatic routing. For manual routing, you get interactive features such as push and shove routing and obstacle avoidance routing. Using this, the system can obtain alternative routes around obstacles.
This system works in accordance with the design and electrical rules. You can also perform differential pair routing, tune trace lengths interactively and create layouts with up to 32 Copper layers.
With CircuitMaker as well, there are some great routing features available. Altium has provided a set of interactive routing features that include: obstacle avoidance and obstacle ignore, hug, hug and push, and push and shove.
Additionally, you also get differential pair routing; and to work with nets that require extra length for signal delays, you can use the ‘add accordion’ option.
For better autorouting, CircuitMaker also provides a topological autorouter.
The Situs topological autorouter works in accordance with the DRC to improve your routing speed and efficiency. Some of the advanced features included are: BGA and SMT (surface mount) fanout routing, via optimisation, hug, and parallel memory. It can also be used for routing multi or single nets.
 Library Content
Libraries contain parts and components that you can use for your design, either directly or after some modifications. This saves you the effort of having to create parts from scratch. It’s even better if the software contains catalogs or part information.
KiCad offers two methods that you can use for parts. The first is through the libraries. They contain thousands of components that are ready to use. And if for some reason, the library doesn’t have the part you need, you can import them from external sources and other applications as well.
CircuitMaker has an active online community, with a vast library. You can find components, part details, and even complete projects made by other users, which you can download for studying or editing etc. CircuitMaker is open-source and its users get all the benefits of this.
The library is supported by the Octopart database. This also makes it really easy to place components in your designs as all you need to do is search for the part from within the workspace. You also get the option to add mechanical components or custom parts created by you in the program.
 3D Viewing
CircuitMaker uses the Native 3D technology which is available in all Altium products. This is a smooth and efficient system to generate complete 3D models for the PCB layout with just the touch of a button.
This system also checks the model for any clearance violations and shows you the overlap dimensions and distances. This helps you make the model more accurate for ensuring a precise fit with the enclosure.
With KiCad, you get a 3D viewer which can be used to generate quick 3D models from your 2D drawings. It allows you to check your design through an interactive canvas where you can pan, rotate, zoom and orient the model in different views.
This helps in inspecting certain details about the model that are difficult in a 2D view. There are additional settings for rendering the model to change its appearance, and settings for which features to hide and which to show.
 Import and Export
A lot of free programs in the market limit or restrict your import/export options or require you to pay a small fee for certain formats. This is not the case with CircuitMaker and KiCad. They both offer a range of formats, although they have some differences here too.
With CircuitMaker, you get industry standard outputs which are DRC and DFM (design for manufacturing) validated. You can set for the project to be exported as a Gerber file, NC Drill file, ODB++ file or in multiple formats.
CircuitMaker will also compile and generate PCB documentation and reports such as the IPC test point reports and more. The file is also finally checked for design and electrical rules, as well as DFM and DFA rules to ensure a smooth production process.
CircuitMaker allows you to import both PCB and schematic documents, with a range of importers, which include OrCAD, PCAD, PADS, EAGLE, Protel and more.
In KiCad, as mentioned earlier, you can import files from external applications and save them in the libraries. Additionally, users get a GerbView tool. This allows you to load Gerber X2 files and job files. It also supports canvases such as Cairo and OpenGL.
 User Interface
The UI is the main workspace that you will be using the most, and so it is important that the UI be designed well and in such a way so as to enhance productivity.
The CircuitMaker platform is largely based on the standard Altium user interface, which is a design they have tested and improved over many years. It looks modern and neat, with options to customize the icon sizing, text size and other such options.
In KiCad, the UI is well designed, and the tools have been placed such that they are easily accessible. You can even personalize the workspace by re-arranging the toolkits and editing the appearance settings.
 Additional Features
This section describes some innovative and useful features available in CircuitMaker and KiCad to help users work better. Although you may not need them in daily designing, these can come in handy for special tasks; or even to help you with regular design work.
Team Collaboration in CircuitMaker
With CircuitMaker, an added advantage that can be used to work on large projects is the team collaboration feature. You can share your project with other CircuitMaker users and all designers who are part of the team can work simultaneously to get the project done faster.
Single Tap Manufacturing
After completing the design, when you are looking to manufacture your PCB, there is no need to look everywhere. Altium has partnered with a number of PCB manufacturers.
You can simply click a button to send the board to any of these partners and receive quotes and details for a board prototype or even a complete fabrication and assembly.
Alternatively, you can also publish a Gerber file and upload it manually to your preferred manufacturer, or share your designs with the community.
KiCad offers an innovative feature known as Bitmap2Component, which helps you easily convert an image to a PCB footprint. You can import any image file in all major formats, define some parameters and import settings, and a footprint will be created from the image.
Performing a Simulation
This is an important method for validation of your design. A simulation is used to test the PCB under different conditions and it gives you an idea of the behaviour and performance of the circuit.
So if you are looking to get the board manufactured, a simulation is a good idea before sending the design for fabrication.
KiCad offers a SPICE based simulation engine. This allows you to perform analog, digital as well as mixed-signal circuit simulations of various kinds. SPICE is an acronym which stands for Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis.
With KiCad, simulations are done in the ngspice program. You can import the design into the ngspice workspace, define some settings and analysis parameters, and run the simulation.
Altium CircuitMaker does not yet have a simulation module, and hence you cannot use it for circuit analysis. But since it is open-source, there are a lot of requests on the online forums to add simulation features to the program.
Which Software Is Best For PCB Designing, KiCad Vs CircuitMaker
There is no easy answer to the question of deciding which one is better, as they are both quite capable software programs. And they are both free as well. In terms of design tools and features, CircuitMaker is the better option. You get a better range of features and possibilities with CircuitMaker, without the restrictions.
KiCad on the other hand, has a simple UI, and is one of the best PCB design software apps for beginners. It can be used for a quick and precise design, and you can even validate the circuit performance through its SPICE simulation module.
Another great thing about KiCad is that all main tasks are handled by three different modules. This makes it easier to keep track of different design sections with better clarity, although it limits the amount of integration and increases your navigation time slightly.
Altium CircuitMaker Vs KiCad EDA: Who’s the Winner?
This answer would depend on a couple of individual factors. While CircuitMaker only runs on Windows, KiCad can be used on Windows, Mac OS and Linux devices as well. Another factor is your requirements. Altium CircuitMaker has features for team design and one-click manufacturing.
If production is your main aim, then we suggest CircuitMaker as a better option. For other users, who are starting out in PCB designing, or those who don’t have much experience can go for KiCad. It is pretty easy to use and also offers some advanced design features to help you work on complex designs.
So to pick a winner between CircuitMaker vs KiCad is a tricky one, since both are suited to different users.
So, Which One Should You Pick?
Both KiCad and CircuitMaker are few of the best free PCB design software in the market. Both are open-source and have an active online community with regular bug-fixes and updates. They are easy to setup and the installers are less than or around 1GB, depending on the platform you are installing it on.
The comparison between KiCad vs CircuitMaker is mainly a matter of preference and specific requirements that you may have from the program, as mentioned above. Overall, KiCad is powerful and also really simple to use, and even beginners can learn it quickly; so KiCad has a slight edge over CircuitMaker.
Hopefully, you have found this KiCad v CircuitMaker comparison guide worthwhile and it has helped you to make an informed choice about these two PCB Design Software.