Useful software in hobby electronics
April 5, 2019 • article
The computer has long entered the stage of hobby electronics. Sometimes I think this is a good thing, and sometimes I kind of dislike the idea. I mean, back in the day before computers were around it was already possible to build amazing pieces of equipment. But in this post I want to look at computers not as a distraction but rather as a useful companion for anyone who wants to get stuff done in hobby electronics.
What is useful software that anybody interested in hobby electronics should know about?
Some software in this list is free, some is not or only to some extent. I have used all of the software presented here in real-life applications and I am convinced that they are useful, one one situation or the other.
Lastly, I want to say that software alone is of course not enough. Software is only ever a tool that becomes useful once we have made up our mind about what we want to build or repair or understand. And, consequently, the piece of software that you need for your project depends a lot on the specific kind of project you are working on. In what follows I will list a few pieces of software I have found useful in the past, but if you feel that I forgot one that is particularly important to you, please do let me know in the comments and I will gladly include it.
Sprint Layout is a simple-to-use editor that lets you design your own PCBs. I recently wrote an article on whether you should build and design your own PCB or rather work with breadboards, and maybe you want to check it out here. Say you have decided to make your own PCB. Great! But now what?
You could in principle design it in Paint or any other primitive drawing program. But of course that is quite tedious. Sprint Layout is an affordable software (around $50 as the time of writing this article) that lets you design your own PCB.
Important: you have to design it yourself! That means that all connections, components, lanes, through-holes, and whatever else you can think of have to be placed by you. That can be quite daunting for involved schematics, but for simple enough projects with around 25-50 components it can work wonderfully well.
When I first bought Sprint Layout back in 2006 or so I was distraught because I thought I could just create my schematic, place the components, and then Sprint Layout would create the PCB for me. I later learned that this is called auto-routing and Sprint Layout does not offer this kind of capability.
But, as I said, for small projects this is not really needed anyway, so Sprint Layout is perfectly capable to help you a lot in your first steps! I find that in North America this software is a but unknown, but in Europe it is certainly rather popular.
Eagle Layout Editor
Eagle Layout is a piece of software that does come with auto-routing. Naturally it is much more expensive, but it is the tool of choice when you have complicated, multi-layer PCBs that are just too difficult to route by hand.
There is a free version of Eagle available, and this is the main reason I include this software in this list. I primarily use the free version of Eagle for creating schematics. It may seem ridiculous to you, but I have yet to come across a more complete, freely available schematic editor than Eagle.
The device library contains thousands of items, and if your device is missing you can simply create your own. Eagle also comes with a bunch of schematic-only symbols: those do not have a real-life counterpart that gets mounted in the PCB, for example, the GND symbol for the ground potential, or +5V symbols to indicate which lanes are connected to the positive supply.
All schematics can be exported to a high-resolution image file and they are more than sufficient for the documentation of any hobby electronics project. For that purpose alone I highly recommend the free version of Eagle.
Fritzing is an amazing piece of free software that can be used to model and design breadboard circuits, with a wide variety of third-party tools (Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and so on). In that sense, Fritzing is the Eagle equivalent for breadboards.
I have not used Fritzing for much of my career in hobby electronics because I am just getting used to breadboards, but it sure does look impressive. What impresses me most is that Fritzing identifies as a "hardware initiative," that is, it comes with a forum and an entire community. In that sense it is much more than just a piece of software: it is a platform where anybody and everybody can share their creations on breadboards.
I sure will be using it more in the future! Learn more about Fritzing here!
This is a serious piece of software, and I have only used it a few times. It is a simulator that you can use to simulate just about any circuit imaginable. It is very powerful but also very complex, learn more about it here. And the best part: it is completely free!
LTspice can not only simulate digital circuits, which are perhaps a bit boring. Its true strength and potential lies in simulating analog circuits. If you want to build a bandpass filter for your next audio project, LTspice is a great place to do your virtual experiments. You can decide how fine you want to adjust the time steps for numerical simulation, and you can hook up as many virtual probes to different parts of the circuit as you want.
Since I am not very knowledgeable in analog electronics I have not used this software much, but it sure is impressive. I would definitely keep an eye out for an opportunity when this software could potentially help you with a more complicated project. Also, there are many tutorials available!
MPLAB X IDE
Whenever I use microcontrollers I tend to use PIC controllers from the company MicroChip (but they also offer a wide variety of other controllers). At any rate, one of the big advantages of using PIC controllers-in my opinion- is the existence of the MPLAB X IDE. IDE stands for Integrated Development Environment, and the X stands for version 10. This last bit is important because version 10 came with a major overhaul along with many bugfixes of previous versions. I was used to version 7 or 8, and I had to re-learn quite a bit when switching to version 10. It was totally worth it!
This piece of software is freely available and allows you to create projects with PIC controllers. This is a story on its own, and I won't go in too much detail here, but the MPLAB IDE X comes with two key features: support of external devices that you can use to program your PIC (in my case, I use the PICkit3, a serial USB programmer) and it brings along a range of compilers that are needed to transform the code you write for your controller (say, in C) into machine language (the so-called "hex file").
Okay, that may sound confusing to you. I just read the above paragraph again, and it also sounds confusing to me. What do I want to say? If you want to get started with microcontrollers (and I may write about this super-exciting topic in an upcoming blog post) then it is a good idea to remember MPLAB X IDE. It is a professional environment, and there are professional paid-for versions available that come with certain additional features.
So why use MPLAB and not a completely free version? The reason is simple: MicroChip is the world's perhaps best microcontroller company. If you learn how to use their software it will come in handy when you are interviewing for that engineering job a few years down the line. Okay, the choice is of course up to you, but if a company like MicroChip offers phenomenally good software for free, why not use it?
Have I forgotten something?
Please do let me know in the comments what is your most favorite piece of software and I will be glad to include it here! Thanks for reading!