Designing your own hardware has never been more fun. Ever since a couple of guys making computers in their garages went on to found Apple and Microsoft, who dominate the home computing world market today, boys and girls around the world have been inspired to try making their own hardware.
Given how advanced the computers we interact with on a daily basis today are, most people assume that they are incredibly complex devices. In fact, hardware design and manufacture is much more accessible than you might think. Check out this video of a phone teardown which shows the innards of a modern smartphone. Note that the device is relatively simple and, at the heart of it, is an ordinary circuit board, known as a motherboard.
There is now plenty of software out there for designing your own circuit boards, and even producing them using a CAD/CAM setup. Here is a list of the best software options for open-source hardware design.
Altium is among the best software for PCB design on the market. Not only does Altium come preloaded with all the features you need for your schematic designs, it also allows you to add a variety of plugins that further enhance functionality. It can be difficult trying to keep up with all the latest industry developments; having an up to date software package is essential for staying on top and Altium receives regular updates.
Eagle is perhaps the most popular software package for designing open-source hardware. Like Altium, this is premium software, so you will have to pay for it. However, because this is the software that most of the open-source hardware community is using, you will find most of the files shared will be optimised for Eagle. There is a freeware version you can try, and this still gives you plenty of features to play with.
KiCad is a rising star in the world of open-source hardware development and is available on all major platforms. Not only that, the interface is as intuitive as Eagle, ‘borrowing’ many of its best elements but also adding a few creative twists of its own. KiCad is preferred by some designers, partly because it is open-source in its entirety, but also because it comes with some really cool modules. For example, you can view your PCB design in 3D within KiCad.
KiCad is backed by CERN, which is a pretty ringing endorsement of what it offers. CERN have also pledged to help develop KiCad further.
Upverter is an online software as a service (SaaS) PCB designing suite. All you need to do is create a free account, there’s nothing to install on your computer. Once you’re in, you have access to a clean, sleek and intuitive interface. It’s very different to Eagle, and it doesn’t have quite the same functionality. However, it is a constantly evolving service with new tools and modules appearing fairly regularly.
The right software option for you will depend on your individual circumstances. If in doubt, try Eagle’s free version to get a feel for the industry standard. Other packages like Altium might be able to offer more specific modules that other packages lack. Look for in depth reviews that cover the respective toolsets of each when you’re choosing the right one for you.