Full Disclosure: For the purposes of this post, PCBWay supplied me with a few free prototype PCBs, so I guess you could say that this is a sponsored post. Nobody gets a free pass around here though – I’ll be keeping this review totally impartial!
By this point, I’ve had quite a lot of PCBs made out in China, with varying results, and I have a “go-to” manufacturer whose work I’m generally very happy with. I’ll refer to that manufacturer as Brand X in this post.
I’m always on the lookout for new and better things though, so when PCBWay got in touch recently to a) compliment me on my project, and b) offer me free PCBs in return for a review (this review, in fact) I was more than happy to accept. And not just because of the compliments (though flattery does go a long way) – I was genuinely interested to see how they stacked up against the producers I was more familiar with.
So here’s what I did – I sneakily had them make a board that I’d already (recently) had made by Brand X. I figured that way, I could do a side by side comparison and tell you about it. Sound good? Let’s get to it!
For the purposes of this, the board I ordered was the rosco_m68k bus board prototype (revision 0). This board is a local-bus backplane for my rosco_m68k Motorola 68010 project.
Technically, this isn’t a hugely challenging board from a manufacturing perspective. It’s a two-layer design, although the front layer is just one big copper pour, with all the routing happening on the bottom. The smallest trace width on here is 0.160mm (6.3mils) with clearances being the same. Everything is through-hole – there’s no SMT pads on here, no vias and no thermal reliefs or anything like that. In short, it’s a very simple board that should be well within the capabilities of any fab, and shouldn’t break the bank. Ideal for a side-by-side comparison.
The board itself is 160 x 115 mm, and for the purposes of the review, I ordered with the same options from both manufacturers – FR4 in blue, lead-free HASL, 1.6mm thickness and 1oz copper.
Comparison 1 – Order Process
Ordering PCBs is by this point second nature to me, and to be honest there wasn’t a lot to choose between PCBWay and Brand X in this regard. Both websites just worked and ordering was a breeze – Upload a zip with gerbers and drills, get instant quote, set options and click Order.
The approval process did take slightly longer with PCBWay, but then this was my first order with them so I guess they check things a little more carefully. In any event both companies had passed my order to production within a day or so, so no big deal.
Comparison 2 – Price
I knew Brand X would be hard to beat in this category as they’re widely considered to be the cheapest around. And, pound for pound (well, dollar for dollar, but whatever), I was right. Here’s how the pricing stacked up for 5-off:
PCBWay’s shipping was a fair bit cheaper than Brand X‘s, but the board price is considerably cheaper. Cheaper doesn’t always (or even usually) mean better of course, but this category is about raw price, and we have a clear winner.
Winner: Brand X
Comparison 3 – Lead Time
I ordered from Brand X on the 26th April, with the PCBWay order being made the next day, 27th April. I was interested to see how shipping time stacked up on this board as it’s a bit of an odd size, and blue (both of these can have impact on manufacturing time).
Despite the one-day lead Brand X had, both boards were actually handed to the carrier on the 29th April, so PCBWay are the clear winner here. Both were within the promised 2-3 day time, but PCBWay smashed it by almost an entire twenty-four hours.
Comparison 4 – Delivery Time
I didn’t think it was fair to compare delivery times for two reasons:
- This isn’t a comparison of international logistics companies
- International shipping is generally hosed at the moment due to Covid-19
For those reason, there’s no comparison in this category (suffice to say both took longer than they would have pre-Covid, with neither one markedly worse than the other).
Comparison 5 – First Impressions
First impressions of the boards were good – both boxes contained the ordered quantity, and the boards themselves looked good.
To me, the PCBWay boards beat Brand X boards though on purely aesthetic grounds – the blue was, well, just more blue. I was actually surprised by the difference, as I’d assumed that everyone would just use the same raw materials, but the deeper blue did look (to my eye) much nicer.
A cursory inspection also showed some silkscreen issues on the Brand X boards that didn’t show up on the PCBWay ones. For example, Brand X‘s board:
You might argue that these differences are just cosmetic, but how a thing looks matters. When you’ve spent many hours designing a thing and it comes back from manufacturing not looking its best, the disappointment is real.
Comparison 6 – Assembly and operation
Another category where there’s no clear winner, which is to be expected really as this isn’t a challenging board to manufacture by modern standards. In fact, if either board had been difficult to solder or failed to work I’d have been amazed.
As it was, both Brand X and PCBWay’s boards were great to work with, a dream to solder (there were no problems with even the fiddly bits like the Micro USB socket) and worked perfectly. As one would expect.
Overall Winner: PCBWay
In this totally subjective test, PCBWay take the victory, if only by a nose. Are they the cheapest? Well, no. But as I said, cheaper isn’t always better, and when it comes to quality PCBWay definitely deliver the goods.
Is that worth the extra money? Only you can decide that. Personally, I’m looking forward to redoing this with a more challenging board and really putting them through their paces.
Will I use them for every board from now on? In all honesty, probably not. I have a lot of prototypes made that inevitably end up as scrap, and for those cost is the driving factor (given I can be assured they’ll function correctly, of course).
But will I use PCBWay again? Absolutely. Because most of the time, quality matters.
Also, their blue FR4 is, well, bluer. And I like that.
If you enjoyed this post or even found it useful, and you have PCBs to make, why not give PCBWay a try?
None of the links in this post are affiliate links, and other than the free boards that were supplied for review purposes I don’t receive anything in return for your attention or clicks.