This is one piece of free EDA software I've held off of reviewing for quite a while, because the last time I tried it, which must be a few years ago now, I was rather unimpressed with it, however recently I've been hearing good things about it so I decided to give it another go.
For this review I'm looking at version 4.0.5, which is currently the latest, running on Debian Sid, it's also available for Windows, OS X and anything else you can build it on, yes it's open source which is always a good thing in my opinion.
KiCad like many other EDA programs is split in to multiple parts:
- Project manager and launcher
- eeschema schematic editor
- component library editor
- footprint editor
- pcbnew PCB editor
- Gerber viewer
- PCB Calculator
- Page layout editor
Most of these are fairly self explanatory but I will cover each one briefly.
Schematic Editor (eeschema)
After creating a project you are given a blank schematic and PCB file, the first thing you notice right away with KiCad is the rather minimal interface, I definitely like this but does raise the question "is it lacking features?".
For the most part the answer to that would be no, it's simple and easy to use but it has all the required tools you need, within 5 minutes I was able to make a decent schematic and at no point did I have to look anything up.
The color scheme is thankfully fully adjustable, I much prefer to stick to black and white for my schematics. Adding component footprints is easy enough with a visual browser, KiCad comes with a fair number which you're free to contribute to here, you can update your footprints directly from the Github repositories, in the footprint editor preferences -> footprint library wizard.
Once you're done with your schematic you simply export the netlist.
PCB Editor (pcbnew)
The PCB editor is surprisingly easy to learn and use, within 15 minutes I had converted my schematic in to a decent PCB layout, all the tools are easy to find and there was practically no setup involved other than setting the minimum trace width and anything else you want.
There are many keyboard shortcuts in KiCad, most of which make perfect sense like M to move, R to rotate, G to grab and so on, I find KiCad to be a perfect balance of features and usability, of course if you don't like something you can always change it.
I have to say I'm very impressed with the features and overall usability, without a doubt KiCad easily matches Eagle in every way I can think of, being free and open source just makes it even better.
Nothing special to see here, it does exactly what you'd expect of any decent gerber file viewer.
Adding Parts and Footprints
This perhaps more than anything else makes or breaks an EDA tool, thankfully KiCad has excellent support for custom symbols and footprints, it even includes a small but fairly decent library of parts, as for the actual editors they are not really any different from the PCB or schematic editor.
This is a handy little tool that offers a few useful things like trace width, minimum electrical spacing, transmission lines, RF attenuators, color codes, etc, nothing you can't find elsewhere but it's nice it's included.
This caught my eye right away, it allows you to convert an image in to a schematic symbol, footprint or logo, how useful this is in practice I'm not sure but it's certainly interesting.
This is a simple editor for the page title box which is great for printing or a more professional project.
I'm really liking where KiCad is going, sure it has some quirks and it might not be as powerful as say Altium, but for a free multi platform EDA tool I don't think there is anything better than this so I highly recommend you give it a try.