Possible expressPCB program enhancements?

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The expressPCB program can highlight net connections. If I click on a pad, it shows me all the other pads that it should be connected to. It does this by reading the schematic.

That's good, but I think it could do other helpful things. It seems to me the program should be able to tell which pads are connected by traces and which are not.

That being the case, it should be able to tell me if all the pads that should be connected are connected.

It should also be able to tell me if pads that should not be connected are connected.

Does this make sense?

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The Pulsonix software I use does that, it makes a lot of sense. The free PCB software supplied by Advanced Circuits (it's based on Easy-PC) does it, FWIW.

Leon Heller G1HSM

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I thought every program did that... Altium, Eagle, basically any software that gets its PCB info from the schematic should do this... and I'm pretty sure that expressPCB has that option too somewhere.

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bloody-orc wrote:
I'm pretty sure that expressPCB has that option too somewhere.
I wish it were true. If someone knows how to do it, please let me know.

I know the button called "Highlight network connections". That's the name that pops up if I hover. That only highlights the other pads that should connect to the one I click on. If there is something else I'd like to know about it.

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Does it not show airwires for unconnected nets?

Eagle does this, highlighting both the traces and the airwires. You find out for certain whether there are unconnected pads when you have 'no airwires remaining' on the 'tidy' button, or when you do a design check.

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No. It doesn't highlight traces.

I feel scammed. I have occasionally used it for several years, mostly to draw schematics. Now I want to make some boards but I struggle. It's partly my fault, but the software could be more helpful.

I have read other peoples opinions of ExpressPCB and other such programs, but I've never read about this deficiency. It seems fairly substantial to me, so why do other people use ExpressPCB? Maybe because they don't know any better?

I'm thinking of switching to something else. I don't make boards very often and then I just make one batch. I can get 3 identical boards 2.5 x 3.8 inches for $51 plus shipping and fast service. Are there other companies that can come close? If I can make boards less painfully in another way it would be worth it to pay considerably more money.

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The schematic drawing program (ExpressSCH) does check for unconnected pins and that's good, but the board drawing program doesn't check anything.

Schematics are easy to draw. I can have traces crossing over traces, of course. That doesn't work for PCBs.

The board I'm working on now is fairly small but it has limitations for where certain devices are placed, and the board needs to be small so everything is crammed together. It's doable and I'm about done, but I need to meticulously check all the traces, pads and vias to see if there are any boo-boos.

I just discovered the pinout for the darlington I decided to use is different from the pinout for the plain NPN I had designed for. So after a lot of shifting around, I need to once again go through the meticulous checking. This is the third iteration and I'm getting tired. The penultimate check will be when I get the boards and get out the ohmmeter. Of course I won't know for sure until I do the smoke test. :)

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Does using a Highlighter count?

I rarely link the schematic and the PCB, as I always hand route my boards, and double check the "final" layout against a printed copy of the schematic, and the PCB layout on a large display. I highlight each pin & connection, as they are verified on the board. Any extra vias along the way are an obvious red flag...

Doing it part time, out of my pocket, just doesn't justify any of the expensive packages, and "The Old Way" works.

Most of my AVR projects get breadboarded, except for the Xmegas, and I keep the breadboarded prototype around until the first PCB is up and running.

JC

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Try Advanced Circuits, as I suggested earlier. I think that their prices are about the same, and the software is much better. They sell Pulsonix, if you want something with more capabilities.

Leon Heller G1HSM

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leon_heller wrote:
Try Advanced Circuits, as I suggested earlier. I think that their prices are about the same, and the software is much better. They sell Pulsonix, if you want something with more capabilities.
Well, I am thinking about it. As I see it, the boards are $33 a piece with a minimum order of 4. That's $132. That will give me some incentive to double check the board drawing before I order! :)

The good news is the boards can be up to 60 square inches, if I understand correctly. The bad news is my boards are apt to be 3 square inches.

It looks like I would have to learn another proprietary design program.

Maybe there is something else out there that is more attractive. I would rather pay $400 for a good design program and get a couple of boards for $50 than get free software and pay $132 for 1 batch of boards.

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I often use PCB Pool:

http://www.pcb-pool.com/ppuk/info.html

With most of the popular PCB packages one just has to send them the PCB file (or a GC-Prevue file), they charge extra for processing Gerbers.

Boards are made in Germany, so shipping costs might be higher than for a company in the USA.

Leon Heller G1HSM

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Quote:
The bad news is my boards are apt to be 3 square inches.

if you don't like ExpressPCb maybe try
http://www.pcbfabexpress.com/index.jsp
and then use a limited pin freebie program and then check your gerbers and drill file for mistakes!

ExpressPCB is great for quickies, no mfg surprises (save scrap costs) and the software is very easy to use...if you need gerbers from the start you probably should learn some other pcb software.

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Leon's suggestion of PCBPOOL is a good one. They offer very good prices for low qty prototypes. Quality is superb. They also give you a free metal stencil with each order, if that is not enough they offer shipping via the postal service.

The Quality alone is well worth the price, adding in cheap shipping options and free stencil just seals the deal for me.

seeedstudio is also a very good place, really good prices and specs are superb.

Both places accept Geber files so you can use any program that spits out gerber.

I used expressPCB when I first started making PCBs, pricing was good and the program was very simple to use. Consequence of the easy to use program is that it is limited to simple designs. Of course you can use the program for complex designs, but there are no rails in place to help avoid errors.

I use eagle now, but if I had to do it all over again I would have used a more standard type of PCB program such as altium. Too late for me to change now as I am used to eagle and I do not think I can export my custom eagle parts to another program.

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bluegoo wrote:

if you don't like ExpressPCb maybe try
http://www.pcbfabexpress.com/index.jsp
and then use a limited pin freebie program and then check your gerbers and drill file for mistakes!
Thanks for the advice. pcbfabexpress looks like a fairly good deal if I'm willing to use 5 day turnaround. What is their board quality?
Quote:

ExpressPCB is great for quickies, no mfg surprises (save scrap costs) and the software is very easy to use...if you need gerbers from the start you probably should learn some other pcb software.

I like ExpressPCB except there is no error checking of the PCB design. I probably could live with that for simple boards. But with traces on two layers, parts also, and lots of vias, finding routing mistakes is tedious and nerve-racking. A perfect job for a computer program.

I may try Eagle. From what I've read, getting Eagle to work right may be more nerve-racking than tediously checking traces. :) Why can't programs like Eagle get the gerber files right without manual intervention?

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Thanks everyone for your suggestions. I've got some research to do.

toalan wrote:

I use eagle now, but if I had to do it all over again I would have used a more standard type of PCB program such as altium. Too late for me to change now as I am used to eagle and I do not think I can export my custom eagle parts to another program.

I'm thinking of trying Eagle because the cheapest Altium is $1000 and Pulsonix doesn't post prices. I guess that's the "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" deal. I'm just an amateur.

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In the meantime, I just crossed my fingers and sent a board to ExpressPCB. $60 including shipping for 3 identical boards and I should get them in 3 business days. All I had to do was click a button while running the ExpressPCB.exe program. And give them my credit card number, of course.

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I am going to put a plug in for Advanced Circuits. I know that they cost a bit more. But, the quality is top rate as is the customer service. If you call them with a problem- they answer. Besides, we in the US need to spend our money in the US. We live here. We save a few bucks by getting it done in China. Pretty soon, none of us have a job.

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steve17 wrote:
Why can't programs like Eagle get the gerber files right without manual intervention?

I am not sure what you mean by "without manual intervention", once you have the board laid out you can run a script to generate the gerber files. Sparkfun has a script that generates the usual types of gerber files, go to the sparkfun website you should be able to find the gerber script.

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jimlake wrote:
I am going to put a plug in for Advanced Circuits.
Okay I looked again and it seems I can get small barebones boards for around $65 depending on the size, and quick turnaround. Is that right? When I looked yesterday I thought the minimum price would be $132. I guess I missed the barebones thing. I think the barebones boards have similar specs to the cheap ExpressPCB miniboards I currently use.

And they take gerber files so I can use various pcb design programs.

Maybe this is the way to go, unless I've made a pricing mistake.

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toalan wrote:
steve17 wrote:
Why can't programs like Eagle get the gerber files right without manual intervention?

I am not sure what you mean by "without manual intervention", once you have the board laid out you can run a script to generate the gerber files. Sparkfun has a script that generates the usual types of gerber files, go to the sparkfun website you should be able to find the gerber script.

Okay, I'm new to gerber files. I assumed once the board was designed, the board design program would produce the gerbers at the click of a button.

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Advanced Circuits has a list of limitations for their cheap barebones boards. The limitations are okay with me, but I wonder what "drilled hole board separations" means:

Quote:

# No internal routing (cutouts) and no scoring, tab rout, or drilled hole board separations.

I often put a line of vias (plated through holes) across the board where I want to cut to guide my hacksaw. Are they saying I can't do that? Or maybe they just mean holes that aren't plated through. ExpressPCB plates all holes, but that's alright with me.

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I think it's holes for separating boards.

Leon Heller G1HSM

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Quote:
Okay, I'm new to gerber files. I assumed once the board was designed, the board design program would produce the gerbers at the click of a button.

That is the hidden savings $ in using ExpressPCb especially when you are not familiar with Gerbers and other tooling files needed to make a pcb properly..no surprises..as far as checking their software pcb layouts... not a problem for old timers as we had to do that in the pre computer "tape it up" days..and if you didnt want to do it you found another profession!

to check your gerbers and other tooling you may want to add these professional quality freebies to your toolbox for checking those gerbers...the dfm in the Viewmate is pretty good and if you want to part with $100 they will upgrade it so you can actually edit the files and save them.

Lavenir's "ViewMate" can be downloaded at:
http://www.lavenir.com

GraphiCode's "GC-Prevue" can be downloaded at:
http://www.graphicode.com

Diptrace also has a limited PIN layout program and they recommend Viewmate as a checker because they seem to adhere to the Gerber "std" more vigorously.

I would not even recommend Altium to anyone that is concerned about cost $$$ as once they sell you the license they INSIST (via penalites) you renew your yearly service subscription...even if they do not have any major improvements to the software to deliver...subscription costs about $1600 a year and if you let it lapse they charge you for every month you did not have it AND a $1000 rejoining fee AND/OR an version Upgrade fee $$$! IMHO Altium software is decent... but Altium as a company is a real piece of sh*t!

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I have been using Olimex for years. He charges 33euro for a 6.3 by 3.9 panel. Panelize all your boards, I load it up and they will cut them out. I just got 2 Arduino boards and several small boards on one panel. Have them ship airmail for 9euro. From sending gerber files to getting boards back is about three weeks.