The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Schematic and PCB Software

I have recently been using Diptrace for schematic capture and have just hit the 300 pin limit so I am looking at my options including alternative packages. Why am I looking at options? Having read numerous forums and reviews, based on other peoples experience it would appear that Diptrace is an improvement over Eagle and other low end solutions, I have tried Eagle In the past and I would have to agree, but Diptrace far from perfect, in fact its so poor in some areas I am now thinking about sinking time into evaluating other applications. Perhaps the EDA/CAD world has lower expectations that I do but even Diptrace which would appear to be the more intuitive of the bunch, the user interface, and more specifically the usability really sucks, it could be Sooooooooo much better.

Diptrace Screenshot

First of all, Mac OSX support. They claim it runs on Windows and OSX which is true. But on OSX its actually running the Windows version of the software under a windows emulator called WINE. Worse than that, WINE runs under Quarts X11 which is yet another layer of abstraction before it hits the actual screen. Trust me, the thing is crappy, actually bad enough that I want to use it in Windows instead, which is tearing me away from my beloved MAC. Integration into the Mac is non-existent, files and folder structures are ten folders deep as the WINE emulator creates a Windows-like folder structure. Novram should be ashamed of their claims of OSX support, its really terrible. The software also randomly hangs which causes work to be lost, the UI is slow and cumbersome and the keyboard shortcuts sometimes stop working so you are restricted to right-mouse context menus for cut/copy/paste delete until they magically come back from time to time. So if you are going to use Diptrace, use it on Windows not a MAC. If you have a Mac, install Oracle’s virtual box, run a copy of Windows 7 and use it as a native Windows app (I am going to give DipTrace one more try under Windows to see how I go).

In terms of the hanging, they have actually added a menu option called “Recover Schematic” which mostly gets back your last changes. They have added this at some point I imagine to deal with the fact that the software is buggy and can crash/hang. It would have been better to improve the software so it never needed an option to “recover” anything…

Now onto the features of software. I have to say at this point, I don’t much like CAD software, it all seems to have “its own way” of working, seemingly much of this is a hangover from Autocad which was made before a mouse was even commonplace, so lots of strange keyboard shortcuts etc. DT reacts strangely to the mouse mostly so while people seem to think its intuitive I can only imagine other packages must really be bad. If you are used to using Windows or Mac UI’s and you have not had any CAD experience then DT will feel alien and it has a long learning curve to get you past that. I have used it (schematic capture) to create a project and it does work once you get to understand its oddities. Being a software guy I know how easy it would be to make considerable usability improvements with little effort which makes it all the more frustrating – I first came across DT about four years ago and I have to say its not really moved on from then, and that is even more frustrating. The lack of development progress and the poor usability does not say a great deal for Novram.

Here are my top 10 specific bugbears…

1. No control over what component elements get displayed or printed. For example, on screen I see the pin names (B,C E) for the Discrete/NPN item, or A/B on the RES item, I don’t want to see them but I can’t turn them off without also turning off the pin numbers for IC parts which I do want to see. Any electronics engineer knows which pin is the emitter of a transistor, displaying E is ridiculous. Control of this should be a properly of the part not a global view property, although you might want that too.

2. Netports appear in the BOM, I have to manually remove them from the BOM after the export to a file, there would appear to be no way to control this. It would appear that NetPorts are just another 1-pin component which is why this happens, perhaps a simple attribute on the component property called “Exclude from BOM” might help.

3. The sheet connectors are stupid, Place one and it defaults to place a bus, try to place a wire and it sort of works but the wire does not align correctly. Strange behaviour….So don’t use “Sheet Connectors” to connect your circuits across sheets, use NetPorts instead – obvious really – NOT!

4. The library selectors on the toolbar are a little odd, the names are untidy, just a lack of attention to detail. Why call something that will be displayed in the UI Con_Sch, thats the sort of name you would expect to see in code, not presented to a user. Once you select a library you get the components down the left-hand side to select from – scroll up and down this enough selecting items (as you do when you are finding your way around the libraries) and you will get it to hang the whole program. Clicking an item puts you into place mode meaning you have to press escape if you were just browsing. Right click also cancels it but you also get a right click context menu. The little drop down on the library bar drops down a scroll bar so you can scroll through the library buttons – this compensates for a poor UI design making it even more unusual. The software could do with a decent library browser and some better organisation for the actual libraries. Trying to manage parts, copying between libraries etc, all very confusing and counter intuitive.

5. Create multiple sheets which is great, but then you want to change the oder of the sheets to more logically represent the flow of your project. Tough, you just can’t do that – at least I have not found a way so far.

6. A “Save All” button would be nice….instead of having to go to each sheet and save it separately.

7. There is a need for much better schematic annotation. Single line text is really not good enough. Ideally multi-line post-it style boxes would be good.

8. When drawing a schematic with a large IC you need to be able to re-organise the pins on the component to suit the schematic you are drawing – there is no option to do this apart from create your own library, copy the part into it and re-organise it for your specific schematic….rubbish….

9. Ever hear of smooth drawing using anti-alias? No! – neither have Novram – you could argue this is not needed but I would say if you are going to stare the the thing for hours on end you want it to be easy/soft on the eye – you could argue that it will make things slower – all true but I would still like to see my creation looking nicer.

10. Float the mouse over a connection and see the net highlight – nice – what about across sheets? Nothing doing, leaving you to manually check the net names to make sure your schematic has integrity across sheets. I thought computers were meant to make less work – not more (Microsoft, please take note of this point too..)

All in all it does work and its alright I suppose but after serious use I am left with a compelling desire to find an alternative – why is that, I don’t have the same feeling after using my e-mail program or my word processor. All of the pro’s seem to favour Altium designer http://www.altium.com/ but I can not bring myself to spend $3000+ for a piece of software that is really overkill for my limited use…I would love to evaluate it one day though – not sure Altium would want me to 🙂

I am about to try AutoTRAX DEX, you can find it here http://kov.com/. I bought this about four years ago and Oh-my-god, it was the most buggy and terrible piece of software I could ever imagine. It was cheap enough though that I did not loose any sleep over it when I just chalked it up to experience and uninstalled it. The author was defensive and it was pretty clear things were not going to get addressed and it was even more abundantly clear with the very regular, sometimes daily releases that there was absolutely no quality control, one new fix and another things broken etc, I gave up after a couple of weeks. At the time the guy developing it was focused on this next generation written in .NET and an all new design, this is now 4 years in the making and I recently had another go with it. On the back of a 20 minute play around I went and paid $49 and renewed the licence I already had.

I will evaluate AutoTRAX and write a detailed review with what I find. At a glance I can say is that a lot of attention to detail when it comes to look and feel, the schematics look really nice, they print well and the component libraries appear to be reasonably comprehensive. If it works well I think it could be a good contender for Diptrace, its a lot cheaper too, $99 for totally unlimited pins, layers etc…has 3D rendering and so on….

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26 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Schematic and PCB Software

  1. Just installed the AutoTrax demo. Buggy piece of crap still. Try, for instance, changing the width of the line traces in the autorouter from .010 to .020. Then rip up the traces on the mega project and run the autorouter again. If you have the same results as I do you’ll find that the traces have not changed in width – they are still .010.

    This is what I call french whorehouse programming. It’s pretty but when you get up close you see it’s just makeup on top of something that smells like it should be given away for free.

    There has been entirely too much attention paid to the “look and feel” and not enough to how it actually works. Ugly crap.

  2. I am with you there John, I like the analogy – very apt. I really like the design intentions behind AutoTRAX, specifically the one composite design document with the nets directly tied to both schematic and PCB but in terms of quality of implementation its a 1 out of 10 from me. Oh and its all .NET so crappy performance on my MAC as I need to use a virtiual Windows machine.

    I am still using Diptrace which is far from perfect but in relation to AutoTRAX there is no comparison, Diptrace actually works and you can produce schematics and boards with it with some degree of confidence. Usability is still far from perfect and its really odd in some places. As it turns out though, the schematic editor is actually a lot worse than the PCB editor which is really not that bad – its clear this started life as a PCB tool and evolved into a schematic editor – at least thats what it feels like. I us a MAC mostly and Diptrace claim to support MAC, which they do not (not properly anyways), so I run it in a virtual windows box and so far its been pretty reliable.

  3. Hello,

    I read your blog posting “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Schematic and PCB Software” (I’d certainly never heard of DEX before).

    I assume that you’ve had the opportunity to work with (the new .NET – based) DEX since last June… how do you like it? Any significant features lacking, program crashes, memory leaks, etc.?

    Thanks, and BTW, good blog!

    • I have tried the .NET version and first impressions from an appearance point of view are great. However, using it is another matter, I found it confusing and difficult and things just don’t work how you expect them to or just don’t work. The UI is cluttered and complicated. My friend and I both tried using it, I even bought a copy of it but neither of us could get on with it. That being said I know the software is changing all the time and that was months ago so it could be better. I have decided not to consider DEX any further because its written in .NET, I tend to use a MAC more than windows so if I am to move away from Diptrace it will be to something that I can run on the Mac native.

      Gerry

      • Hi Gerry,
        DipTrace is currently moving to make native Mac application based on Delphi XE3 Firemonkey technology. It’s not easy, so it will take some time. Also I’m interested in your comments about makign good EDA package, some of them seems already has been addressed, some in plans, but other – not. I have added your blog to favorites and will read more while making plans for DipTrace improvement. You also said DipTrace was not moved ahead for 4 year – there were many improvements in additional features, but not UI which were only polished.

        Regards,
        Stanilslav
        Head of DipTrace Team

        • Hi Stanilslav,

          I moved your comments from the About page to this more relevant article on the blog – hope you don’t mind.

          I have been frustrated for many years with poor EDA CAD software. The so called enterprise-class software (Altium for example) is outrageously expensive and is not really that fantastic from the best I can tell either – although I accept that what you are buying is the organisation and the support it can provide you and not just the software. After that there is the mid-range products which are far more realistically priced but are just poorly implemented. I have been in the software business for 20+ years and I know what is possible, so when I use something regularly I tend to judge the software based on what I know is possible. From a usability point of view, if you want an example of how to write great usable and user friendly CAD software – get onto a mac and install OmniGraffle Pro and use it, and compare your user experience to using DipTrace and then you will understand what I mean.

          Don’t get me wrong, I am a licensed user of DipTrace and of all the packages I have tried I get on best with DipTrace, in fact I was laying out a board for about 15 hours straight just yesterday using DipTrace. I got the job done so thats good, but its painful at times. My comments about DT not moving on for four years is my perception as a DT user. I don’t see any obvious changes. Why that perception? Well the features seem to be the same, the software still has all the same annoying usability issues and bugs. Subjective I know, but the software seems old and clunky in appearance and that carries through when you are trying to use it. There are some really nice features in DT and some of it works really well, but mostly thats not the case. The PCB editor is much better than the schematic editor, I am guessing DT started as a PCB layout tool. I look forward to seeing the native OSX version in the future, that would be nice. Interesting choice of platform though, FireMonkey, I guess that DT is written in Delphi. The DEX product is developed in .NET which with the many off the shelf UI components available means the first impressions are actually very good – its a shame the software is IMHO unusable.

          I stared work last on a project to create some EDA software that above all is native on Windows/Linux/Mac and I am using C++/Qt as the platform. My aim is to create something quite different to what is available in the mid-market today. Thats a long-term project though, there will not be anything any time soon because of other more pressing commitments.

          Thanks for your interest in my views, I do my best to be objective with these things and if that helps drive improvements for DT and its user community in some small way thats great.

          Gerry

    • Yes I have, you can see it here: http://gerrysweeney.com/fully-programmable-modular-bench-power-supply-part-10/ Diptrace works OK – I cannot compare to Altium because I have not used it. I would have liked to try and possibly buy Altium designer but to software is way too expensive IMHO. I am frustrated with DipTrace it could be so much better than it is, but as I said before its the best of a bad bunch! The PCB designer in DipTrace is actually better than the schematic editor. The whole library interface really *sucks* in DipTrace but at the end of the day its workable and for the money one cannot really complain.

  4. Hi there,

    Just read your comments on DipTrace – interesting – especially since I haven’t heard of it before. I’ve been a professional electronics engineer for 30 years now, and for the last 15 have used macs. I really like my mac, but for a professional PCB layout package, (and it pains me to say this), you have to run windows. The mainstream products are from Cadence, Mentor & Altium, and none of them are remotely interested in macs. I have good old DesignWorks from Capliano on my mac for many years, but is its only schematic capture and it is looking decidedly creaky. I was forced to get Altium for a new client, and yes, it is expensive, and yes, it is a massive product which you will spend the rest of your life learning, and yes, it does cost a lot to maintain, but, you have instant support, there are continually updated libraries, and there is more than one other user on the planet. Also, you can develop and program PLDs, FPGAs, etc from inside the product. Ever tried doing that on a mac. I don’t like doing this as macs are so much nicer, but if you are a serious electronics engineer, you’ll need windows, on one form or another. Sorry.

    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for your comments. Well I use DipTrace running on Windows 7 in a VirtualBox on my Mac and its not too bad a compromise, it works pretty well mostly. I would not consider Altium because my needs simply do not justify it. I have no doubt their support will be first class as will their library production, thats surely allot of what you are paying for. If I ever have the time I will resume a small project I started to create mac-friendly schematic capture – the list keeps getting bigger 🙂

      Gerry

  5. Well, if you ever want a beta tester, just let me know. I started to write a SPICE package a few years ago, but it stalled after a bit.

    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks, I will keep it in mind. I still need to put a lot of up front effort in to get the basic design right, not sure how much time I can commit because of considerable work commitments at the moment.

      Gerry

  6. I run Win Diptrace 32bit on a iMac, in WinXP Pro sp3, under VMware Fusion for OSX. Works a treat and the 3d rendering and motion is fine. I didn’t bother with Diptrace’s Mac package because VMware are the big boys in this field, very stable software, their 24/7 tech support is free and second to none, also it’s cheap, fifty something euros.

    Hth.

    • Hi, thanks for the info. I am running it in DipTrace under Oracle VirtualBox and it works very well too, I now have the 3D mode working when in OpenGL although it behaves slightly strangely. When I get some time I will give Fusion a go. Gerry

      • Had a look at the Oracle VB site and was somewhat confused by the absence of any direct route to tech support outside a user forum. There is, of course, the usual no free lunch with Larry on the Oracle pay to play support route from their main site.

        VMware support is somewhat different in that you deal directly with a techie, who will if the situation warrants phone you back, and deal with your problem, without you having to open your wallet any further than the initial package outlay price. That’s the kind of attitude I appreciate.

  7. Thanks for this article. I’m having the exact same experience as you. All the PCB design software out there is atrocious with respect to the user interface. You’d think it would be as simple as drag-and-drop into a schematic with a basic point-and-click to insert properties and footprints. But noooo, that’s not retarded enough, so let’s just make everything buggy and counterintutive because we hate shallow learning curves.

    I agree that DipTrace is so far the best software out there. It’s buggy and sloppy at times, but at least I could hop right in and start placing components/footprints without any migraines.

    • HI James, glad I am not alone, I could not agree more, for some reason people who make CAD software seem to do it somehow without ever having used Windows or a Mac..the mind boggles. Gerry

  8. Background matters a lot methinks; for instance, in real life I’m a programmer, sysadmin and hardcore Linux user (haven’t had that other PC operating system on my machines for more than 10 years now…) and I find the open source gEDA suite quite easy to use (adheres to UNIX principles, etc.), and the darling of many open source enthusiasts, Kicad, mostly unusable (I have to design my own symbols and footprints for _everything_? SRSLY?)

    however, I tried Eagle once, and Kicad is stellar compared to it; I could understand… bloody nothing (it also had no symbols / footprints AFAIR), and it looked absolutely terrible; Kicad is at least pretty as EDA tools go, and reasonably intuitive to use, you can make things work if the lack of a standard library doesn’t bother you… I’ve never tried diptrace, mind you, but I have a free unlimited open source thing that does most of the things I want (and if something really bugs me I can actually dust off my C skills, get under the hood and fix it, and then provide a patch for everyone else), so I’m unlikely to try a package that’s closed source and is crippled for commercial reasons.

    What I’m getting at is, have a look at the open source alternatives, no matter what the heavyweights say (“ooh, get Altium, it will only cost you the price of a car, or a kidney if you’re a student, your time is worth far more than that…”); Kicad is relatively usable on a Mac AFAIK [1], and gEDA is said to be stable[2]. I’d say the learning experience is quite valuable in itself 😉 (I think Kicad might have better docs, all the tutorials I can find for gEDA look like they are 10 years old, and the thing evolved a lot in the mean while)

    Cheers 🙂

    [1] http://kicad-pcb.org/display/KICAD/Mac+OS+X
    [2] http://wiki.geda-project.org/geda:installation#mac_osx_distributions

    • Hi thanks for posting. I have about once a year on average tried KiCad and while its probably getting better I found it very unintuitive. I wish that was not the case as many people seem to get on with it but for my own use I have yet to find unity with it. I cannot be specific here so I may well be being unfair here, but I found KiCad erratic and all over the place from a user perspective, nothing worked like I would have expected. Diptrace has been the best I have found that suites me because they developers have tried to make the experience more like a natural windows experience, where as most of the other EDA tools I have tried seem to want to emulate or “be like” Eagle which I find awful. I do software for a living and like to think I have a good sense of what is easy to use, but I am also cursed with knowing how easy it would be to make ten-fold improvements which I would then find frustrating and I think the numerous times I look at KiCad and thats what I have come away thinking. I would love to contribute to the project and put my money where my mouth is but time is not permitting.

      I would love to see PCB and Schematic programs a reality in a browser one day, its getting closer all the time, HTML5 and SVG are the foundations and there are already some early attempts, its only a matter of time before there is a jQuery library for PCB layout 😉

      Gerry

  9. Thanks for the article.

    I use Ares Lite by Labcenter and looking to upgrade, I didn’t like the new trial version so decided to ‘hunt around’ for an alternative, the only snag for me with Ares Lite is does not do power planes, copper fil / copper pour.

    There are many ‘laughable’ limitations on many of them from board size to number of components, many of them are far too expensive for the hobbyist, I mean hands up how would use more than two layers?

    From playing around I usually find the free ones are usually buggy or have their own little quirks… don’t mention Design Spark, I find it far too heavy and way over the top and 3D viewing unnecessary, I do feel these are gimmicks and wasn’t used very long.

    I feel I’m just going round in circles looking for an alternative, strange how Labcenter never reaches the reviews or rarely mentioned in forums, seems every vender is after hitting the jackpot with manufacturers rather then the home user.

    • Hi Dave,
      I have to say I agree with you, I guess the vendors just cant make money targeting home users. DipTrace has served me well, you have to pay for it and it has its quirks for sure but its been a valuable tool for me at least
      Gerry

  10. Yes, software companies need to make their profits, don’t get me wrong I ‘m not after ‘free dinners so to speak’, I’ve learned one very important lesson…..

    those companies that don’t give or show their prices outright, meaning you have to request their prices are usually the most extortionate in very big capitol letters, from now on I stay well clear off those that don’t list their prices, I’m not going to name them.

    Buying PCB cad is not like buying groceries every week, I’m sure their sales are far, far less, very patchy and sporadic the sales from Home Users may well prove me wrong.

    • Hi David,

      Interesting observation, and from a home user perspective I can see exactly what you are saying, I am much the same, if I don’t see prices I assume it will be expensive. Funny enough, I am in the enterprise software business in my day job and there are many reasons for price absence on software thats typically sold to businesses, you would as a home user be horrified by the real cost of selling for enterprise sales, you are not just paying for the software but for the activity of the actual selling which is generally consultative, can involve many site meetings, travel, proof-of-concept delivery etc, and then lets not forget the cost of finding customers in the first place, also a very costly exercise to create awareness of credibility etc…thats why software business geared up to sell to the enterprise (as most PCB software vendors are) does not price well for small business or home users, not only is their business model and the cost of selling prohibitive but in order to justify the cost to their target buyers the product has to maintain a certain value, and thats why you see products with those horrific artificial limitations – the company is protecting their products value to their target buyers.

      Gerry

  11. I use diptrace a lot now. I find it very amusing that they don’t have a simple ldr component, surely , that is a basic thing . the other thing I really hate about the free version anyway is how the connects the components, for no apparent reason , instead of a straight route it will give you a divet in the wire, which you have to straighten up when cleaning up the look quality of the schematic.

    • Bill,
      Yeah it certainly has its oddities but it works for me most of the time so its hard to knock too much. It could be so much better with not much effort I would have thought but the infrequent releases shows its not aggressively developed unfortunately – no doubt something else will come along and surpass it at some point.
      Gerry

  12. Have you tried Osmond PCB (Free for < 700 pins, $85 unlimited !)
    – very 'mac like'
    – just PCB
    – will take netlists
    – uses Lua scripting language
    – all data in ascii files.

    I am experimenting with LTspice (Free) as a schematic front end, but may fall back to DesignWorks/LogicWorks.

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