Friday, September 2, 2011

Switching to Kicad

I've been using Eagle for a number of circuits, but recently switched to Kicad. I was never too fond of Eagle's free-until-your-board-gets-too-complicated thing, since I knew that was likely to compel me to shell out a decent chunk of change to get the real thing when my boards finally got big enough (and I had enough invested in them).  I also didn't like the way Eagle made me choose footprints during schematic capture, though that's really a nit.

It was this tutorial that finally got me to switch.  Highly recommended.  It walks you through the creation of a small power supply board, from schematic capture all the way through layout and routing.  I liked the way everything fit together, and so I decided to switch.

One wrinkle.  Kicad is unusable on the Mac as of "kicad_osx_v3056_DEV".  There's some display problem which causes part moves leave trails, requiring you to hit refresh all the time.  There was another problem which made parts disappear until you hit refresh.  In summary, not usable.

As it happens, Kicad works pretty well on Linux, and VMWare Fusion makes Linux (Ubuntu) work pretty well on my Mac, so now I've got a VM running Ubuntu running Kicad.  I don't even have to use GNOME -- I just ssh into the VM and remote-display Kicad back to the Mac's X server.  Coordinating files between the two machines is a bit of a pain, but I've started checking everything into Mercurial, so I use a master repository to coordinate between the two.  I'll certainly be happy if/when Kicad starts working properly on the Mac, but until then I've got a perfectly workable solution.

A couple of downsides, now that I've switched, and have spent some time working with Kicad:

  1. The documentation is spotty.  Not entirely surprising, but annoying just the same.  The documentation that does exist is fine, but there are lots of gaps.  I tried Kicad once before, back before I settle on Eagle, and had discarded it because the docs were so incomplete that I had a hard time getting my head around it.  Without the Teho Labs tutorial I mentioned above, I wouldn't have tried it again.
  2. The part libraries are nowhere near as extensive as those for Eagle.  Or perhaps they are, but they just don't contain what I want.  I found a site which has auto-conversions of Eagle parts, but they weren't really what I wanted either.  I've resigned myself to having to design the occasional symbol and many footprints.  This doesn't turn out to be as bad as I had at first thought, especially since I don't use that many parts.  The first schematic/board involves the design of several parts, but subsequent ones just reuse those created for the first.  This part generator, in particular, is very useful. 

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