Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Flashback – The first JeeNode PCB

In AVR, Hardware on Oct 1, 2013 at 00:01

The first JeeNode circuit board was very exciting to make, back in January 2009:


Initially, I just wanted to get the connections right and didn’t care for silkscreen labelling, so there was none. It was created with CadSoft’s EAGLE, a commercial package with a freeware version for small boards. The “JeeNode” name came a month later, by the way.

The learning curve of the EAGLE package is steep, but then again, drawing this sort of stuff is going to be complicated whatever you do, because it’s not about drawing a nice picture where only aesthetics matter, but a meticulously designed diagram of which all the paths and connections have to follow certain rules, such as wires not crossing (doh!) and wires all having a minimum width and separation.

Here’s the JeeNode v6 PCB in comparison, of which many thousands have been produced:


It’s still surprisingly similar in design to the first iteration, although the production details and fabrication process have greatly improved over the years. One aesthetic detail I’ve always been pleased with is the blue-with-gold color choice. The gold plating is easier to solder than the HASL process I used initially, and is much more resistant to corrosion. Don’t think too much of this gold layer, by the way: it’s chemically deposited (fairly nasty stuff, from what I understand) and only a few atoms thick. Still… enough to do its work, and visually attractive (all in the eye of the beholder, evidently).

The purpose of a PCB is three-fold: a physically strong base for all the components, a reliable interconnect between all the pins to implement the actual circuit design, and silkscreen labelling to ease assembly and use afterwards.

The result: a tangible product. Quite an exciting change for a software developer used to work with bits and bytes, and who could never before point to the “real” result of it all!

  1. Nice reading again about your first footsteps into the Arduino world!

    But, what started JeeLabs in the first place? What made you decide to do this?

    • Heh – I was tired of writing software. One reason was that I didn’t succeed at writing a successor for my Metakit database library, and that the Vlerq project never reached the ultra-flexible/-performant goal I was aiming for. So I went back to a long-time hobby, enjoying the act of actually making tangible stuff for a change. Totally fell off my chair when I discovered what ┬ÁC’s could do by now. The rest was passion and tons of fun – the shop idea came a little later and eventually turned it all into a sustainable activity.

  2. You noted EagleCAD. Have you tried kiCAD? I come from sw also and aspire to make a PCB this year. I recently took an intro to kiCAD at our local hackerspace. I was running it on a mac and it was surprisingly unstable, difficult to install. I was also surprised by the “quality” Yes, I know it is free…but I would think with its popularity this would be more polished. I realize as I write that how stupid that sounds = but I’m comparing with other open source projects.

    I’m finding inspirations from your post since electronics is new, I have shipped tons of software – and there is something tangible about it – but I agree the idea of making a PCB is exciting.

    THank you.

    • In my experience, KiCAD can still be used quite well on Mac OSX by running it inside a Linux VM (i.e. Parallels, VMware, or Virtualbox), although it’s bound to use different modifier keys and keyboard shortcuts..

    • Hmmm. KiCAD on Windows is a stable product. I use it for all my PCB’s.

  3. I haven’t really tried different CAD softwares but I recently used to design a simple circuit with a few relays to be connected to a JeeNode. It was very easy to draw the circuit and then create a PCB design for it directly in the browser. I then downloaded gerber files which I sent to Osh Park and a couple of weeks later I had the tangible boards in my hand. Warmly recommended!

    • I tried I thought the way it supports groups of folks creating a PCB together brilliantly. I was not as impressed with the web based UI. I found it slower and harder to gain accuracy. But perhaps my challenge was my own newness to it all.

      My opinion on is it is a brilliant attempt. However to become a heavyweight PCB software tool, the UI needs a lot of work – and then there is all the parts that need supporting. This would take a significant investment. I’ve listened to the team on The Amped Hour podcast – they seem super smart. But after my initial trial, I am unconvinced that I will use the tool over KiCAD or Fritzing.

      Again, I’m a n00b. Thus my opinion could be quite naive.

  4. The teacher of the class I took on KiCAD also ran Windows. And indeed – it was very stable on Windows. Worked great. He loved it, etc.

    I am also playing around with Fritzing. What I like about it is it’s workflow from complete n00b (e.g.: breadboards, parts from adafruit and sparkfun, etc.) to outputing Gerber files (which I haven’t done).

    I’ll probably find out as I evolve in my understanding of PCBism is Fritzing is extremely approachable, but when I want to actually make a PCB I’ll want to switch (for some reason I don’t yet know) to KiCAD. At that point, I am very familiar with Windows (although getting rusty. I find the Mac OS and Mac hardware to be “more enjoyable” after 20 years running only Windows and before that Unix (in college)).

    The good news is that my incredible lack of knowledge and the community’s exceptional knowledge keeps me getting up each morning eager to learn more.

  5. I gave KiCAD a quick try on Ubuntu – the version in the repositories – quite a while ago and it crashed within a couple of clicks. Only toying with the idea of a project at the time so didn’t persist and would give it another go but it’d take a while to build up confidence.

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