As a beginner to the world of electronics and microcontrollers, you might have come across breadboards or at least heard the name. In this guide and tutorial, I will explain everything you need to know about breadboards as a beginner so that you don’t waste any extra time building your circuits. Let’s get started!
What are breadboards?
This is probably the first question you have if you have not heard about breadboards before. A breadboard is a component which allows you to easily connect wires together and allows you to disconnect them with the same amount of ease. With a breadboard, you will not have to worry about splicing, twisting or soldering your wires again and again. Here is how a breadboard looks-
A breadboard has many “holes” on it which are called pins(I will also refer to them as the same). All pins in a column are connected to each other and all columns are disconnected form each other. The 2 pairs of rails running on the side of the full size breadboard form individual connected lines. This is how it looks-
The 4 vertical rails on the extremes of the breadboard are used for connecting power as it allows you to minimize the number of wires travelling to your power source which keeps your circuit clean and light while also minimizing resistance and conserving power.
If you were to connect 2 LEDs in parallel to a battery without a breadboard it would look like this-
It looks cluttered and disorganized, despite the fact that it is such a simple circuit and is represented on a screen. Here is how neat and organized it looks on a breadboard-
This looks way less cluttered and much easier to understand, not to mention that it is quicker to build, test and then disassemble. Without the breadboard, you would have to spend a lot of time cutting the wires to the right length, twisting and soldering them to the LEDs legs and then disassembling all the components. If you made a mistake by any chance, it would be much harder to find it out and then even harder and time consuming to fix it.
While breadboards come in many sizes, it is possible that you need many of them to build your circuit on and you need them to be firmly connected to each others, just wires won’t cut it. You will obviously not want to glue them together as that is time consuming, inconvenient would make the setup permanent, and that is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
In the above images, you can see that there are protrusions(marked with red) and holes(marked with blue) on the breadboard. These fit right into each other which joins the breadboards firmly and also allows you to conveniently take them apart after you are done testing the circuit.
You would have realized that I keep using the word “test”. This is because while breadboards allow you to temporarily build and run your circuit on them, they are not meant for permanency. A circuit built on a breadboard takes up a lot of space because it offers a restricted way to connect them. You are not given the freedom to determine how the rails are connected and therefore your circuit is built according to the breadboard, not the other way around. Breadboards also tend to be too thick sometimes and do not allow SMD(surface mount components to be used). Here is why-
SMD components lack any pins and are much smaller and therefore have no way of connecting to a breadboards(unless pins are attached to them).
How do we get over these limitations? By using perfboards and PCBs
These are thin sheets made up of non-conductive material which have holes or “perforations” on them. These perforations are made at regular intervals and are also ringed with conductive material(usually copper). The perforations are like the pins on the breadboard, except they are not connected to each other and require you to solder the legs of the components on them. Here is how a perfboard looks-
They come in a lot more sizes AND shapes than breadboards which means you will never have to join them. They allow your circuits to be a bit smaller(as you determine how everything connects) and more permanent but the limitations should be obvious by now. They are semi-permanent ways to build your circuits and do not allow you to prototype and test your circuit. You will still need a breadboard for that. But what if you wanted something even more permanent, smaller and rugged? Read on to find out.
Printed Circuit Boards
PCBs are like perfboards except they allow you to determine EXACTLY where the holes and SMD pads are and allow you to directly connect them with the help of conductive “traces” that are printed on the surface. PCBs are about as permanent as your circuit can get and allow you the most flexibility. Here is how a PCB looks-
In the above image, the PCB(which looks complicated, I know) is mostly going to be used with SMD components but their still are some regular LEDs which will be used(top left). The process of constructing a PCB(after designing) is time consuming and if you are a beginner, don’t even think of doing it. There are many ways to design your PCB and then buy them from which I have listed at the end of this blog. For a tutorial on how to do this, click here.
PCBs allow you to completely customize and optimize your circuit layout but they are the hardest to use in the trio and are not recommended for beginners.
Which and When
So, when to use which one? Its simple. Start by testing and refining your circuit on a breadboard. During this period you should completely focus on testing your circuit, refining it, fixing and improving it, etc. Do not think about its size, cooling, aesthetics etc. After you are satisfied with it, build it on a perfboard. In this step, do not focus on improving, experimenting or adding and removing things from your circuit. Just make sure that it roughly meets the size and shape requirements. Now is also the time to make sure that the price of your circuit is right and that it is rugged enough. If you are satisfied with the perfboard, you can refine the shape, size a bit more and leave it there, otherwise you can move on to a PCB. Start designing your PCB, making sure to get the size, shape, dimensions, cooling, pricing exactly right. You can also choose to use SMD alternatives of your normal components. After ordering the PCB, build your circuit, make sure it works and that’s it! You can do whatever you want with it, and your hard work has finally paid off.