3 years ago

Custom PC UK 2014-01


hoBBY tech BUILD YOUR OWN PCB Just a few short decades ago, building printed circuitboards (PCBs) involved careful hand-drawing, awkward ultraviolet light boxes, nasty chemicals and tedious drilling. These days, the hobbyist community has it easy: fire up some free software, design your circuit, send it off and you’ll receive a professionally printed board within days – and at surprisingly affordable prices. But just how easy is it to design your own PCB? Easy enough that I was able to do it, so you lot should have no excuse. 01 BUILD A PROTOTYPE The first step is to build a prototype. Solder-free breadboards are your friend, here: you can stick components and wires where you please, and if something doesn’t work it’s easy to change. In my case, I was building an Arduino-compatible night-light and white-noise generator for my newly born daughter, but you may have different requirements: a fan controller, temperature monitor, network-connected mains control system, burglar alarm, jet-pack control system – whatever. Your prototype will probably go through several iterations. Don’t be afraid to experiment – it’s far better to take risks at this stage than after you’ve paid to have your project etched onto a PCB. 02 TRANSCRIBE THE DESIGN Possibly the most welcoming software for the electronic engineering neophyte is Fritzing. A product of the Interaction Design Lab in Potsdam, Frizing is an open-source project that provides an easy way to design and document simple, oneor two-layer PCBs. Grab a copy from, and begin the transcription process. The first screen that opens in Fritzing is the Breadboard View: simply drag components from the list on the right to create an on-screen replica of your Sadly, no decent photos exist of this stage of my build. Schoolboy error! physical prototype. You don’t need to understand anything about electronics, just drag and drop the parts until the image on-screen matches what you have on the desk in front of you. 03 DOCUMENT THE DESIGN This step is optional – and, I have to admit, one I usually skip, to my shame – but it’s handy. The second view in Fritzing is the Schematic View. This takes the components and wiring from the Breadboard View and creates a formal electronic schematic that details the circuit. The parts, however, will be randomly placed, so it’s up to you to shuffle them around in a logical order, and then to follow the ‘rat’s nest’ wires to join them together. For simpler circuits, an Autoroute function in the Routing menu can do the wiring for you. For more complex projects, however, expect to do a lot of manual tweaking. A well-laid-out schematic is vital for any project you intend to make public: it allows people to understand the circuit and even offer advice about making it smaller, cheaper or more efficient. 04 DESIGN THE PCB The third view is the PCB view, where you’ll lay out the physical components of your PCB. As with the Schematic view, anything entered from the Breadboard view is already present but will need positioning and wiring – with Autoroute again an option for simpler circuits. You can also adjust the size and shape of your circuitboard, which is key to reducing the cost: PCB fabrication houses charge by circuit area, so shaving centimetres off your design can knock pounds off the cost. When positioning components, ensure there’s room for them – most Fritzing components include a ‘footprint’, which shows how much space they will occupy. Also, make use of both layers; a ‘via’, inserted from the right-hand component list, provides a way to force a PCB trace to jump from one layer to another if required. When you’re finished, run a Design Rules Check from the Routing menu, to ensure you haven’t made any obvious mistakes, and then insert a Ground Fill or Copper Fill from the same menu. 14 January 2014

CUSTOMISATION A good schematic is the mark of a decent project, but nobody would blame you for skipping the step Building a circuit in Fritzing is as simple as duplicating your breadboard layout INTEL LAUNCHES QUARK-BASED GALILEO Fresh on the heels of the launch of its Atombased MinnowBoard, Intel has announced another open hardware project: the Arduinocompatible Galileo. Designed for the enthusiast market and priced competitively – the boards are expected to sell for under £50, although a final UK price had not been provided at the time of publication – the Galileo packs a Quark chip; Intel’s first ultralow-power system-on-chip (SoC) design. Built to compete with microcontrollers from the likes of Atmega and Texas Instruments, the Quark is a full x86 processor based on a similar instruction set to the old Pentium family. This means the board is capable of running Linux, while also providing Arduino-compatible microcontroller functions. 05 PRINT THE PCB When your PCB is wired up, print out a copy on paper and use that as a template to insert your components: this placement test will allow you to make any lastminute changes needed for component clearance. When you’re satisfied, you can export the design files – known as Gerbers – from the File menu. These files can be sent to any PCB manufacturer for printing, etching and drilling – or, if you wish, you can support Fritzing’s The finished PCB can cost as little as a fiver, and looks far better than stripboard Take your time in Fritzing’s PCB view for good results development by using its in-house Fritzing Fab service, available from the Routing menu. This service is typically slightly more expensive than those offered by UK companies such as http://, but the profits go directly to funding further development of the Fritzing software. When your PCB arrives a few days later, you’re ready to build your device – and marvel at the easiness of the whole process. TESSEL OPENS UP The Galileo isn’t the only piece of open hardware announced this month, as the Tessel development board’s hardware and software will also be opening up ahead of a spring 2014 launch. Designed as a hardware development platform for software developers, each Tessel board includes integrated Wi-Fi and is programmed with JavaScript. Using NPS packages provided by the Node.js community, the Tessel is capable of connecting hardware modules – sensors, SD cards, servos, RFID/NFC readers, relays and more – to the Internet via a built-in web server, or working as a client for information sharing services, including Twitter. GARETH HALFACREE is the news reporter at, and a keen computer hobbyist who likes to tinker with technology. @ghalfacree January 2014 15

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