Should you switch from EaglePCB to KiCad?

So I’ve been using EaglePCB for a number of years. I’ve designed and created some open source projects like my SV650 ECU Decoder and TeensyDSC. While I had a cheap ($79) commercial license for a one off commercial project I did, most of my work was done using the $169 “Maker” version for non-commercial use.

Then mid-2016, Eagle was bought by AutoDesk. I’ve only used one AutoDesk product before: Fusion360 which I really like. Sure, it’s not as good as SolidWorks, but I’ve designed parts for both CNC and 3D printing and they’ve come out great. And to top it off, AutoDesk is very gracious in it’s licensing terms- allowing makers like me to use it for free.

But recently Autodesk announced that EaglePCB was moving from perpetual licensing to subscription based. Simply put, this was not well received.

Why did I care about this change?

  • Autodesk promised that they were going to stay with perpetual licensing model just 6 months before.
  • Nothing in Eagle 8 was worth upgrading over.
  • I’d end up paying about twice as much using the current pricing model. (Assuming prices don’t increase.)
  • If the subscription price goes up, I’m stuck paying even more.
  • If their subscription servers go down, I may not be able to use the software when I want to.
  • There is no Service Level Agreement governing the fact that Eagle is now effectively a “service”. If you can’t run Eagle because their license servers are down, too bad.
  • AutoDesk pretty much admits that non-commercial “makers” aren’t their target market anymore.
  • I didn’t want to worry about should I buy the yearly or monthly license. My usage of Eagle can best be described as “very sporadic” and so it was not clear which was a better deal.

As someone who designs PCB’s as a hobby and tries to keep his costs down, paying a subscription fee to use the PCB design software isn’t that appealing. In the end, I realized it was better to switch now, rather then design more boards in Eagle and be more “locked in” to a platform I wasn’t interested in staying with. Add the other problems and it was enough for me to start looking at other options:

  1. Altium
  2. Diptrace
  3. KiCad
  4. gEDA

So Altium is way way too expensive for me. I’ve used Diptrace before, but ended up originally going with Eagle because it’s not a native OSX application and uses the Wine emulator which caused stability and UI problems using the software. That left gEDA and KiCad. I ended up going with KiCad because it seemed the more actively developed of the two, is now backed by CERN and has an active forum and IRC channel full of people willing to help newbies. Seriously, the IRC channel is full of awesome more then happy to answer stupid questions from ex-Eagle users! :)

So I don’t think anyone would say that Eagle is “easy” or “obvious”. As best as I can tell, all EDA software is quirky. KiCad is no different. For example, it’s not obvious that to make a mounting hole you use the “1Pin” component. Thanks go Google and IRC, it’s only taken me a few minutes to learn how to do something in KiCad that wasn’t obvious. There are also a ton of Youtube videos on learning KiCad as well which is great.

That said, I have to admit that once I figured out the rather convoluted process of going from schematic to PCB design (I’ll admit it, Eagle does a better job of making this simple and straight forward), everything else was much easier then I feared. The reason KiCad’s workflow is more convoluted is because assigning footprints to components is a separate step. But there is a huge advantage of this too- it makes it much easier to create new components and encourages reuse of existing footprints. So even when KiCad does something that seems weird or convoluted to the Eagle user, they usually have a good reason for it.

One thing that I really like about KiCad is that it supports a lot more keyboard shortcuts then Eagle. Once I learned them, I found that I was much more efficient designing circuits and laying out my PCB in KiCad then I was in Eagle.

I’ve developed 4 boards since switching to KiCad and so far the results have been great! If anything, I’m more efficient in KiCad then I ever was with Eagle. That said, the OSX version of KiCad does seem a little bit more buggy then I’d like. You quickly learn that certain actions almost 100% guarantee it crashes. That said, I’ve never run into a bug which prevents me from doing what I want to do (most of the crashes were when I was just poking around in the UI to see what various things do). Of course Eagle isn’t 100% stable either, but honestly KiCad on OSX is arguably a little worse in my experience. The good news is that OshPark accepts kicad board design files natively, so I don’t even have to worry about converting to Gerber.

The other “negative” is that KiCad doesn’t have a built in auto-router. Of course Eagle’s auto-router isn’t that good and KiCad is free, supports up to 32 layers, unlimited schematic sheets and basically unlimited board sizes. Also, KiCad has some really nice routing features that Eagle doesn’t have (yet at least). The first board I had to hand route took me a few hours, but after a few boards I’ve gotten a lot better and IMHO I’m doing a better job routing traces with KiCad then I ever did with Eagle (where I was mostly relying on the auto-router).

So in the end, I have to ask myself if I’m happy making the switch from Eagle to KiCad? Honestly, I have to say I am. Simply put, Eagle isn’t $500/year (premium) or even $100/year (standard) better then KiCad. Both get the job done, but I no longer have to worry about making sure my board size will fit within the constraints that Eagle Maker (or Eagle Light) limited me to or deal with errors when I place a component outside of the board boundaries because KiCad isn’t worrying about enforcing arbitrary licence limitations on me. Now that I’ve switched to KiCad I’ll be able to design a fancy microprocessor controlled dew heater for my telescope- something I wasn’t able to do with Eagle because of the PCB size limits.

Also, when I have a problem or idea for a new feature, I can talk directly with the KiCad developers instead of talking to technical support at AutoDesk who can only forward my idea on to someone else who may or may not care. I tried talking to AutoDesk/Eagle support about concerns I had and got a mix of bad analogies (sorry, but EDA software is nothing like my cable TV service!) or just plain ignored. In comparison, the KiCad developers and community has been very helpful. Without them, I’m sure I would of had a lot more difficulty making the switch.

Actually, I’m so happy with KiCad that I plan on donating what I would be paying for Eagle to KiCad via CERN, because it is actually that good and I want to see it succeed.

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