Friendly Wire

Discover the joy of electronics

Category: Electronics kits

Soldering vs. breadboard layouts

Wires are the veins of any circuit. Nowadays most circuits are built using printed circuit boards (PCBs), and what used to be wires has become lanes of copper on a carrier board. This technique is quite involved and rather complicated: the circuit has to be designed, then converted into a PCB layout, and then it is etched out of a copper sheet. In modern PCBs there can be multiple layers (2,4, or even more) and the size of PCBs ranges from a few mm2 to desk-size. It sure can be intimidating as an electronics enthusiast to see these works of art!

A complicated contemporary PCB found in desktop computers.

The sheer number of lanes is mind-boggling! Compare this to an old-fashioned electronics construction from the 1950s:

Hand-wired circuit in a radio from the 1950s.

As electronic hobbyists we can probably relate much more with the second image 😉 But nowadays it is possible, even for hobbyists, to design our own PCBs! Designing a PCB like the one shown above is perhaps still a bit too much to aspire, but it is quite straightforward and surprisingly easy to design your own PCB nowadays.

Needless to say, modern PCBs require you to solder the components into place. There is another option in the shape of so-called perf boards or prototyping boards: These are PCBs that come with pre-drilled holes that have a copper contact pad around each mounting hole. The typical spacing for these holes is 2.54mm which fits most through-hole-technology (THT) components (but be careful with surface-mount devices, SMD, they usually don’t fit). Here you can see a few such perf boards:

Perf boards in different sizes. Surely there is one size that works for you? 😉

These perf boards is what many hobbyists use for creating prototypes of their projects, and more often than not, this will be the only way, shape, or form that their projects sees the light of day 🙂 But it works, and I have used perf boards for most of my homemade projects. They are simple to use, perhaps a bit costy, but they are a healthy compromise between a PCB and a flywire construction on your kitchen table. Here you can see a typical perf board construction:

A typical perf board. It ain’t pretty but it works.

But, as I said above, with a perf board you have to know how to solder. What is the other alternative? Well, we mentioned it last week’s blog post: you could use a breadboard. Breardboards are reusable, not terribly expensive, and they are designed to work with standard 2.54mm THT components (just like perf boards). Here you can see a typical breadboard setup:

A typical breadboard circuit.

The big question: what is right for you? When you start electronics, is it better to get a couple of perf boards and solder? Or should you rather stick to breadboards and hold off with the soldering for a while?

In the following I have complied a list of pros and cons that I can think of and that may help you to make your decision. Let me know in the comments if I forgot anything important!

Advantages of soldering 🙂

  • The electrical connection is always guaranteed (provided you know how to solder).
  • The electric connections are very rigid: even small vibrations of the PCB do not lead to problems down the road since wires don’t come loose easily.
  • Soldering components on a perf board is very space-efficient. A breadboard that has the same functionality is typically larger. If space is a concern, choose a perf board and solder your components into place.
  • With perf boards (and, of course, with custom PCBs) it is possible to use advanced layout techniques. What do I mean by that? When you build circuits that use radio frequency (RF) or if you are building switch-mode power supplies that work in the kHz domain the routing of cables is important. In particular, huge wire loops can be disadvantageous for the efficiency of your circuit. With a perf board (and with a custom PCB of course) you have more flexibility to route the wires exactly the way you want.

Disadvantages of soldering 🙁

  • The connections are more permanent in nature. Sure, you can always try to desolder a component, but for some components this is very difficult, if not impossible. For integrated circuits (ICs) I recommend using sockets so that you can easily remove them later. Still, a soldered component can be a headache to extract, so think about it before committing to a design choice 🙂
  • Designing and manufacturing a custom PCB can be very time-consuming: either you manufacture it at home (which is possible, but you need supplies) or you order it online. Either way, you have to wait and cannot just go ahead and tinker. Alternatively when using a perf board there is no delay. But keep in mind that perf boards and custom PCBs are single-use items and therefore difficult to repurpose for a different project in the future.
  • Soldering can be difficult for beginners and may keep you from achieving some first success. Keep it in mind 🙂

Advantages of breadboards 🙂

  • Rapid prototyping is possible, it only takes a few minutes until a circuit is completed. You have an idea? Quickly take it to the breadboard. By the time your hypothetical soldering iron is heated up you will already be finished with the main part of the circuit!
  • Breadboards are beginner-friendly because they are cheap and easy to work with.
  • Breadboards are eco-friendly because they can easily be disassembled and used for the next project.
  • The amount of special equipment and tools is minimal. It does not take a lot of tools to get started with a breadboard.

Disadvantages of breadboards 🙁

  • Breadboards do not fit all devices: for some ICs or more specialized components, special adapter PCBs are needed that break out the pins of that component in the 2.54mm spacing required by breadboards.
  • The circuits can become a bit messyand hard to understand due to a myriad of cables and wires. Therefore breadboards are typically best used for simple circuits; if there are too many connections, consider spreading the circuit out into functional blocks on multiple breadboards.
  • The electric connection is not always perfect: small vibrations can lead to wires getting loose over time, so always double-check your connections.

The bottom line

In the end of the day, you need to decide. I have a few general guidelines that I like to follow:

  • Is it a permanent project you want keep using?
    Does it have to be small and fit in a constrained area? Then use a perf board and solder.
  • Is it a small experiment where you need to keep changing components? Is it something you want everybody to be able to build themselves with minimal effort? Choose a breadboard instead!

As always, I am eager to hear your opinion on this! What is your approach to the soldering-vs-breadboard debate? Let me know in the comments!

Getting started with electronics in 2019! What do you need?

We live in a world that becomes more and more dominated by technology. I think this is a good thing, because it tends to improve the quality of our lives. But it is also easier and easier to get lost in the brave new tech world. When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to learn how wires work, and eventually I took my first steps: I connected a battery, a switch, and a lamp, and that was my first circuit.

Fast forward to 2019: Circuits with actual wires become less and less every day. Almost every electronic circuit is now artfully etched into a PCB, and the electronic components are becoming smaller by the day. This is great, but it makes it more difficult to understand what is going on. Children in high school, nowadays, grow up with smartphones and tablet computers that were not even dreamed of twenty years ago.

When personal computers were new in the early 1980s, it was possible for a single person to read the entire manual and understand the entire product, start to finish. If there was a problem, you could read the schematic and fix it. This has become impossible nowadays: the circuits are just too complex.

But now we can decide: do we want to accept the status quo, or do we want to break with the routine and do something about it? I strongly recommend the second route 🙂 It is never too late to learn something about the world that surrounds us.

Okay, so let’s say we decided to learn electronics in 2019. Now what? There is an approximately infinite number of tutorials, videos, books, e-courses, and electronics kits out there, just waiting for you to discover them. Really, one might say that it is a saturated market. Ironically, that makes it worse for the absolute beginner. How should I know which steps to follow when I want to learn electronics in 2019? There are just too many options!

It is easy if you have a concrete question: how does an OPAMP work? How can I program a PIC microntroller in-circuit? How do I calulate the optimal value of this buffering capacitor? But when you are new, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to know which question to ask. After all, knowing which question to ask is the most difficult part of any problem, I find.

So what to do?

Roughly, electronics can be divided into a few subcategories:

  • digital electronics with discrete logic ICs (the electronics of the 1970’s and 1980’s)
  • digital electronics with embedded microcontrollers (a.k.a. the electronics of today)
  • analog electronics (for example: audio electronics, amplifiers, measuring devices, …)

Instead of trying to understand everything at once I always recommend to start small. Pick one thing that you would like to understand, and get your hands dirty as soon as possible. No procrastination along the lines of “Hmmm, I wonder which book I should read. Let’s read the reviews instead!” but, rather, a simple-enough project that sparks some joy.

Friendly Wire

This is the title of this blog, because I really believe it. Wires are friendly. What do I mean by that? Over the next couple of months I want to present here a few simple electronics projects that will get you started in 2019. Projects you can follow at home, with an absolute minimum of special tools or equipment. Projects that are fun, that will hopefully make you want to learn more, that inspire you, and that give you a sense of understanding!

It is not the goal to explain everything there is to know about electronics on this blog. Others have done this way better than I could ever imagine to do. Instead, I want to pick you up in your everyday life, and shove an interesting circuit in your face 🙂

We can do it! Let’s build it and figure out what it does! And in the end, we will have an interesting new piece of electronics that we build ourselves! That you built, because you can do it! With wires! And LEDs! And switches! Oh, and a battery maybe.

This is a picture of a so-called breadboard. These are nice because you can stick any electronic component in there with minimal effort. Then you can use wires to connect the components. In the above picture you can see LEDs, capacitors, resistors, a potentiometer is hiding at the bottom right, and in the top right you can see a battery clip for a 9V battery.

It is my goal for 2019 to present on this blog a variety of nice breadboard-based circuits. You can build them at home, you don’t even need a screwdriver. The most important detail: I will explain every thing along the way!

This is where I feel many tutorials are lacking, when it comes to beginners: they always assume some prior knowledge. But what if you don’t have time to read up on all of this on your own time? What if you have a job, a family to take care of, and you just have one hour on the weekend?

My goal is to create short, self-contained tutorials that have all the information you need to finish the project, start to finish, with no hidden tricks and without any strings attached.

Let me know in the comments if you are interested, and if you have a particular field of electronics you would like to know more about. It’ll take me a while to get this all figured out, but I already have a few ideas. Stay tuned.

If you want to stay in touch, consider signing up for our newsletter on the right side. I try to post once a week, and the electronics content will steadily increase.

And remember: you can do it! See you around!

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