Not everyone gets a chance to dive in HARDCORE to multiple PCB programs and learn the idiosyncrasies of each. Frankly, I don’t think you SHOULD learn more than one if you have a choice. Pick a tool that you don’t expect to outgrow, master it, and don’t look back. The same could be same for marriage. There are commandments prohibiting the coveting of the neighbor’s PCB software. A month ago, my boss told me he wanted a circuit done in Orcad. Okay. I dove in. Unfortunately, I never really felt like I hit bottom.
A Little Backstory
I’m still quite new to PCBs. I’ve had 5 PCBs printed at jlcpcb with three more I hope to order this week. I’ve done all these in Kicad. Learning Kicad was no picnic, but it was along the lines of learning Photoshop, Cubase, Dreamweaver, or any other fairly involved program. It was doable with a concerted effort. After I found that hulk-of-a-man Chris Gammel’s “Getting to Blinky” series and B. A. Bryce’s Kicad Tutorial, I had pretty much all the ammo I needed to get not-totally afraid of basic PCB work. I think I also downloaded the Kicad EPUB book, too.
Kicad has its quirks. Some of those hurt a bit until you adapt. Frankly, I wish I would have put the time into ironing out those kinks instead of working so hard on Orcad PCB Editor Lite. If those quirks were gone, I’d imagine that a person would need to be doing some military grade time-travel circuits to outgrow Kicad. Here’s some trash some dummies have scraped up. (I’m joking again. These guys KILL me at PCB design.) I see a board with DDR3 RAM. That means high-speed to me. That means big time to me, also. I see that Kicad is limited to 32 copper layers. What do you do with 32 layers? It will be very difficult to outgrow Kicad. Is Kicad the greatest PCB program of all time? Probably not. However, it seems to be good enough for DDR3 RAM. Unless you are good enough to know the limitations at that ultra-high end, I suspect Kicad is a fine tool for everyone involved.
Orcad: The Bottomless Pit
It’s obvious that Orcad is DEEP. The problem is I don’t know how deep. I never hit bottom. With every turn, there are 400 factors that can go wrong and Orcad makes you responsible for all of them. Pads are a good example. Kicad has a little menu where you select the shape, the diameter of the hole, diameter of the solder mask, and that’s about it. You can easily steal the pad from a 1/4 watt thru-hole resistor and toss into on your LED footprint. Orcad includes an entire .exe application that does nothing but make “padstacks”…. which are just pads to me. You can make different shaped pads on different layers and all kinds of nutty crap I can’t imagine ever using in my entire life – (who knows!). The padstack .exe program isn’t overly complicated, but it requires that you have an in-depth understanding of pads. I don’t. I’m not sure I want that understanding, really. If I need it, I’ll look it up later.
With Orcad, there was no “regular” pad that you could just slap on a “regular” board that you could just shove a “regular” thru-hole component through……let’s say a 3mm LED. I spent six hours after studying Orcad for a month working on a footprint for a 3mm LED and I didn’t get it done. There was just too much depth. I had to go deep into the theory of the “padstack”. Let me clarify. It’s possible that I was getting close to cracking the code on Orcad PCB Editor Lite and all of these difficult tasks would become manageable. The fact that there was no clear, easy path for me to gloss over the mundane details meant that every single detail had a high probability to go wrong. PCBs must be perfect. Bla!
With all that said, my use of “regular” in quotes was well-founded. What is “regular”? Who the hell knows! Super powerful tools can do anything. If we are building a board for the now-extinct space shuttle, I suspect “regular” goes out the window…. the same thing with biodegradable sensors or PCBs that flex. However, a default mode which reduces the chances for error for a “blinky”-type “hello world” board would have helped tremendously.
I spent three hours trying to figure out how to get a silkscreen line longer. I never figured it out. I’ve been drawing lines in computers for 30 years. I’ve been wearing out Google for 20 years. (Ouch, I am old!!!) There are established norms for this in many programs. You’d imagine selecting the line – Orcad PCB Editor has no “select” tool by the way. You’d see some boxes on the edges of the lines, and you could drag them to resize. Nope. You’d expect some feedback on how to manually enter the exact length you want. Nope. I’m sure there is an easy way to do it. I did not find the help I needed. I just can’t fathom what kind of software engineer would pick such a system for entering X/Y data.
Hell, I got hung up for 45 minutes on their search feature in their “Capture” schematic software. I used wildcards “*” before and after “cap” just to look at all the capacitors. It’s not obvious that when you make another search it is within your first search. This isn’t a terrible idea, really. You can drill down data multiple times. However, there is no reset button. How do you reset it? You have to figure out that you need to make the search button blank to reset it. I wasted a LONG time on this.
This goes on and on. Orcad has no interest in intuition. Once you memorize the code, you will have it, but you have to do this for essentially every step along the way. It makes a person question the entire Orcad company.
The worst part is never really found a useful jackpot of information in one consolidated spot (like Chris Gammel’s video) or the B.A. Bryce blog. I did find a lengthy Youtube series on PCB Editor Lite by Kirsch Mackey. The series was helpful, but the nature of Orcad is you must fully understand each menu. Those videos went hard and fast to get straight to the goal. They did not cover why things were done…which is much more important. I really appreciated Gammel’s Kicad approach after watching these videos. It’s not really Mackey’s fault. PCB Editor Lite just covers too much stuff.
The documentation in Orcad is worthless. I can’t understand Shakespeare, the King James bible, or marketing buzzwords. The documentation sounds like they are writing a grant proposal to a non-technical crowd. Buzz words are chosen at every stage to the point that a person of my limited intellect just can’t follow it. I did find quite a bit of help at http://userweb.eng.gla.ac.uk/john.davies/orcad/pcbdesigner.pdf By necessity, it glosses over a few important areas. Regardless, it was the best help I found.
The Orcad Naming Problem
Here’s a major reason I was set back. There is Allegro. It is the flagship PCB software of Orcad and maybe the universe. Professionals say it is very good. I believe them. I’ve seen blogs claiming it costs more than a Kia….the car. Previously, Orcad had Orcad Layout for their PCB software. Now, it is called Orcad PCB Editor. If you are in demo mode, you get Orcad PCB Editor lite. Sometimes, Allegro and PCB Editor get used interchangeably as if they are the same thing. Sometimes, it’s clear they are not the same thing. You hear all these terms thrown out all the time and you get confused on what version you are even on. I read hundreds of pages of a book about Orcad Layout before I realized I was reading a book about software I wasn’t even using. This was just another direction in which I was flanked. Who is running this ship! I don’t need it to be easy, but I don’t want you to intentionally confuse me. If I wanted that, I’d go back to school.
If you want to jump in, work hard, and build PCBs this month Orcad breaks convention for no foreseeable benefit at a shocking number of turns. You will have to fight through nonsense until you learn their method. Kicad is not easy, certainly has its quirks, but you can get your first PCB finished in a reasonable time by following some barely reasonable rule-of-thumb settings.
It’s possible that PCB Editor Lite has some magic quality to it. I never got that far. Frankly, I’m thrilled that my boss scrapped the project and told me to do it in Kicad.