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Tag: soldering

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!

5 things I wish I knew when I started learning electronics

You want to get started in electronics, and there are so many things to keep track of. When I got into the field many years ago, I had to try and figure out what works. In the following list I am trying to compile the five most important facts that I wish I had known back then, so you don’t have to go through the same trouble that I did. I hope you find it helpful!

1. You don’t need an expensive, dedicated power supply to get up and running. Use batteries instead!

The simplest thing is to just use batteries! Either use a 9V block battery (useful for most LED circuits) or three AA batteries in series for 4.5V which will work for most microcontroller circuits. The advantages of using batteries are that the power is very clean: there are no voltage spikes that can influence logic gates and circuits. Also, the power is limited. If you short your circuit (which most likely will happen at some point) the total power is limited, and usually nothing bad happens if you discover your mistake soon enough. With a dedicated power supply the short circuit current may be a lot larger, particularly when the supply is not short circuit protected. Sure, a disadvantage is that you need to keep buying batteries, but you can easily switch to rechargeable batteries instead. It will be a nice investment.

Note: this only makes sense if you are experimenting with circuits, of course. As soon as you want to build a permanent circuit it makes sense to acquire a dedicated power supply.

2. If you get a power supply, get a good one!

If you get decide to buy a power supply, get a good one. For the reasons listed above, a cheap power supply may not be a good option for you: if it does not come with short circuit protection, you may end up damaging not only the power supply itself but also your circuit in the event of a short. Is it really worth it? This comes down to personal preferences, in the end, but I recommend to buy a power supply that has several regulated fixed voltage output (5V and 12V are enough to begin with) with a built-in short circuit protection.

3. Soldering is not dangerous!

A soldering iron is a good investment as well. Sure, in the beginning you can get away with not using any soldering at all, but consider spending a few dollars on a cheap iron and it will help you along your first steps. Also, it will come in handy later down the road, even if you decide not to pursue electronics: whenever some wire needs to be reattached (it happens!) you will be well-equipped. So maybe don’t buy the most expensive soldering iron you can find, but get one that you feel works for you. Also, don’t be afraid of the soldering iron! It gets very hot, up to 450C, but how many times have you used a lighter to light a candle without burning yourself? Probably many times. If you are careful, nothing will happen and you will not injure yourself with a soldering iron. I have used soldering irons for more than ten years, and only almost slightly singed my pinkie, once. If these odds are favorable to you, go ahead!

4. You are not alone. Find some friends!

Find a local community of makers. I hesitated for a long time because I did not know these communities exist. But they do! Especially in cities with universities or technical colleges there typically are rather sizeable maker communities. And the best part: people are friendly! At first I was quite intimidated to get in touch, but then I finally thought “Oh well, let’s just give it a try!” And I am glad that I did! I was surprised by the friendliness of other electronics enthusiasts. Give it a try!

5. Datasheets are your friend!

Believe it or not, but datasheets can be your friend! Especially for simple applications, many datasheets contain sample circuits that you can copy and build in real life without any modifications.

But what do you think?

Let me know in the comments below, or sign up for our newsletter to stay updated on new posts! If you have a particular question you are interested in, let me know and I will try to answer it in an upcoming post! See you around!

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