An In-Depth Comparison Of Hobby PCB Manufacturers

[Icamtuf] has been working on a prototyping run of a project, which involves getting PCBs made by several low volume PCB manufacturing companies. After receiving the boards, he analyzed the results and produced an interesting analysis.

The project he is working on is Sir-Box-A-Lot, a Sokoban gaming console clone that we’ve covered before. It uses an AVR128DA28 microcontroller to emulate the original box-pushing game and drive the OLED display. He ordered PCBs from OSHPark, DigiKey Red, JLCPCB, PCBWay and Aisler.

OSHPark boards are gorgeous, but you pay for it.

There were pros and cons for each of the services: OSHPark produced the nicest-looking boards, but at the highest cost. DigiKey Red had a flawless solder mask, but a rather sloppy-looking silkscreen and shipped the boards covered in adhesive gunk. JLCPCB was fast, shipping the boards in less than 7 days, but the smaller details of the silkscreen were blurry and the solder mask was thinner than the others. The solder mask from PCBWay was very slightly misaligned but was thicker than most, and they were the only ones who queried a badly shaped hole to see what [Icamtuf] wanted to do: the others just made assumptions and made the boards without checking.

To be fair, this analysis is based on a single PCB design ordered once and it is possible that some companies were having a bad day. These were also delivered to the US, so your delivery times may vary. So, there are no clear winners and I wouldn’t make a choice based on this alone. But the analysis is well worth a read if you want to know what to look out for on your own PCBs.

44 thoughts on “An In-Depth Comparison Of Hobby PCB Manufacturers

      1. I sometimes order (assembled) PCBs from JLC and am super happy with them. I have two problems: Some parts go missing after some time. (But I recently realized that you can pre-purchase stuff. Even ICs they have to order from somewhere else. I will have to try this later.)
        Second issue: I order for my company, so I can get the VAT back, if I have a good invoice. I never got a good invoice for them. I think they actually overpay the VAT. Lets say I payed 100€. I get a document from the customs office stating “value: 100€. VAT: 20% = 20€”. But I only payed 83€+ 20% =17€ VAT. JLC has to tell DHL the price without VAT when using DAP shipping…

        Oh and of course the rotation of some parts is different from the Kicad rotations. So that has to be corrected all the time.

        Apart from that: I’m very happy with them.

          1. If you mean “Fabrication Toolkit” in KiCAD, it does not fix rotation issues. However, their Techs are actually quite good and will fix the rotations. I do it myself just to be sure but you can throw a lot crap at them and they fix it or catch it before production (misplaced, wrong rotation, even incorrect package).

    1. Wish there was an aussie one.
      My Average order from JLC is $2 for x boards, $30 shipping… I’d be pretty happy to spend $15 for x boards and $10 in shipping, or $14 for express post.

  1. I’ve been using board houses for decades, honestly I’d have killed for the price, quality and capabilities of JLC, PCBWay etc. when I started out.

    Being able to complain about minor alignment issues or blemishes in the mask, slight imperfections in the silk or an odd hole not being queried seems like grand luxury in comparison (a luxury I fully embrace)

    My first product that went to market had a 3x5cm SS PCB with no silk, no mask, every drilled hole added to the cost, drill changes cost more still and forget trying to order a board with more than two layers or that didn’t have 2 sets of parallel edges.

    The setup fee for a board run was £75 plus a minimum order of 50 boards (and each 3×5 board cost £1.20 in qty 50) so we designed, photo etched and drilled prototypes in house before sending them out for manufacture to be sure the board was right.

    I once trusted a colleague to finalise and sign off a board design because I was going on holiday.

    He made a balls of it so the first 50 boards were ‘upside down’ but still useable and manglement insisted they had to be used because respinning the board meant another setup fee and another 50 board minimum order.

    Just occasionally I stumble across a youtube showing one of my products with a first run board and the ‘presenter’ usually criticises the board which amuses me.

    These days I can get Qty 5, 10×10 DS, PTH, HASL boards with silk and mask in a choice of colours manufactured and delivered to my door for about 10-15% of the setup fee alone.

    1. (Author here) Oh yeah, when i was getting started, it was simply unthinkable for a hobbyist to be able to get PCBs professionally manufactured. DIY etching was the only route.

      But nowadays, we have the luxury of multiple vendors to pick from, and I figured it’s good to compare and contrast. The bottom line is that they’re all competent, but they differ when it comes to pricing, fulfillment, and so on.

  2. I think it is fair to mention the JLC and PCBway are manufactured in prototype PCB factories and the quality of esp the silkscreen/soldermask is a bit less. With JLC you can choose a better silkscreen, can’t see it immediately with PCBway.

    Also when choosing ENIG as finish in opposite to HASL will add to the quality. Would be fairer to compare the ENIG finish of JCL and PCBway to the others.

    1. (Author here) I hesitated about the ENIG / HASL distinction in the article. But then, ENIG is not necessary in the vast majority of hobby work, so there’s some value in comparing the cheapest option across vendors. For most, this is HASL, but OSH and DKR only offer ENIG.

        1. OSHpark is a good choice for small boards. If you’re doing something that’s only an inch or two square their prices are reasonable. ($5 per square inch for three boards, delivered in the US.) You pay by the square inch, so they quickly escalate, and their prices aren’t nearly so attractive for people outside the US because the shipping isn’t free.

          1. Has the shipping situation changed then? Last time I ordered OSHpark boards to the UK it was free still (not THAT long ago but not very recently…) However the standard shipping was painfully slow. Maybe they ditched that option and only offer FedEx to the UK now

  3. I’ve only used a manufacturing service once, and it was JLCPCB, primarily because of their absurdly cheap assembly service — they have a library of parts which are permanently loaded into the assembly machines, so if you restrict your design to use just these parts you save on a lot of setup costs. My application was super simple, basically a voltage converter hat for a Raspberry Pi with a special form factor, and it turned out to be cheaper for me to build the converters out of raw mosfets than to use a dedicated IC (I couldn’t find any they had in stock). For hobby stuff where you’re making very small quantities this does actually matter.

    Quality-wise I am in no position to judge, but the boards looked great and worked first time. I was honestly surprised, but that was mainly because my design worked.

    I’d love to find an EU-based service for quicker turnaround but haven’t seen anything remotely comparable pricing (i.e. less than a factor of three times more expensive!).

      1. Or… you could do a hybrid, as I always do since the 1st time I dared test their SMT.
        Simply have them assemble all BASIC parts you need – which are, as you’d expect, the most common values of R’s and C’s and some other commodity parts.
        But no need to actually restrict your design to use *only* basic parts.

        Decide which “extended” parts, if any, you’d a) want to use, b) you’d prefer to not hand-solder (eg 0.4mm QFNs with bottom pads, or LGAs / BGAs etc) that c) they have in stock.
        Although as someone said above, you can now also have them pre-order parts from e.g. Digikey, Mouser etc that you’ll get accounted in your “private parts-lib”. Haven’t tried that myself, yet.
        Apart from the extra setup fee per unique Extended Part, I think there’s some limit on maximum how many different Extended parts you can load, per design. When there’s simply no more feeder slots.

        So if you run into the feeder slots limit, or have more exotic parts you can’t or don’t want JLC to source, or e.g. already have stocked up on something and you’d rather use own inventory; simply complement the almost-fully SMT:ed boards with some remaining manual soldering when boards arrive.

        Best of two worlds. You’ll save countless hours from avoiding *really* boring hand pnp & soldering of commodity “dust”-parts, while maintaining flexibility to e.g. use existing inventory or through-hole stuff without the extra fees.

        SMT service can’t be over-rated!
        As much as I love Kicad’s iBoM and the feeling of actually building a board with some hand soldering, I for one will never go back to ordering completely bare PCBs.
        Always machine assemble at least the basic-parts for me, please

        1. 100% agree about PCBA services. To use a vastly over work phrase, it’s a game changer. I can push a button in my office and a week later get a fully populated board.

          I’ve done the hybrid approach but avoiding the extended part charge seems kind of silly. It’s $3/part type. Yeah, for one board it jacks the price up but for an order of 5 or 10, it’s not worth doing the work yourself. For an order of 50 or more, it amounts to de minimis.

  4. I have only made one order with JLCPCB, but it makes sense what was mentioned about the thinner solder mask. If you rework joints a while and use solder wick braid, it can scratch it off (yes, I know you shouldn’t apply too much pressure — but I haven’t had this issue so far).

    The pads however seem to withstand “abuse” quite well.

    1. JLCPCB usually does ask me questions about unusual features on my boards. It’s a mixed blessing, it adds a day or so of delay just so I can explain that the soldermask holes under the reverse mounted LEDs really are intentional, etc.

      In a recent design I had a “hole in pad” design (vias required under a surface mount part’s base pad for heat sinking). Somewhat surprisingly pcbway bumped up the price significantly for this, which was autodetected by their software and not toggleable. I ended up going with JLCPCB with the design, even though they had their own price bump for white soldermask (the colors that JLCPCB charges extra for seem to shift periodically). JLCPCB didn’t plug the vias under the part, but I didn’t need them to.

      1. I also usually get questions, usually relevant and sometimes actual mistakes; sometimes “unusual features” that are intentional.
        Last few orders I noticed there’s a checkbox “Let engineer sanity-check the design”, which adds 1$ or so. I’ve always checked that box.

        Memory is fussy now, but I also think there’s a generic text-box at the end for any misc. notes you’d like to provide. Typically I’ve forgotten to say anything re. those “unusual features”; perhaps the “needless” questions could’ve been avoided if I’d added some explicit notes.

  5. I am curious about customer service and ease-of-use with these sites. I ordered some moderately complex boards from JLCPCB and because of some confusing details in the ordering process, web site, etc., some of my parts were not populated (and they were parts that I pre-ordered), including that there were no parts populated on the bottom-side. In my opinion I was tricked; I was offered a very low price with a lot of hand waving about what I was getting. (I even have chat messages with their agent about non-standard parts, top / bottom placement costs, etc.) Mistakes happen, but I was shocked that they would make no concessions on refunds, credit for new order, etc.

      1. Actually, that’s not what I’m saying. Do use your McDonalds analogy, I asked how much it would cost to add cheese and they said “free”. I asked how much pickles were and they said “free”. Then I ordered my burger and got no cheese, no pickles, and only the bottom half of the bun.

        1. Heh, I hear your pain. I also have experienced some confusions and surprises, there’s no doubt a language barrier etc.

          But in this case, at least it sounds like they didn’t actually charge you for the (non-delivered) “cheese” and “pickles”.
          But still, not a great experience to get such surprises anyway, esp. if it seriously messes up your time-plan. which is, in any not-strictly hobbyist context, probably the case

          1. M, but that’s the thing; they DID charge me for the “pickles” and “cheese” because I pre-ordered some of the parts, but then later said that they could not be installed. And my board was useless without them. And they were too small to hand place, even if I could somehow get the parts on hand. There should have been some flag that got triggered when I ordered a board with parts on the top and bottom, pre-ordered parts, but then they could not be placed. The order should never have been fulfilled. And that was AFTER I had conversations with their agents. And they made NO effort to rectify things.

    1. I’ve pushed a LOT of boards through JLCPCB (at least 50 orders in the last few years) and only had one incorrect assembly – missing part. It was their fault, the part was available when I ordered but somehow not when running through the PnP machine. They assembled it anyway and shipped it with no notification to me. Their first response to the missing part was “can’t you just solder it on?” My response was “No, that’s what I paid you to do.” The boards were useable with reduced function. They finally offered a sizeable discount on a future run and I agreed. I think this is a cultural Chinese thing. Everything is negotiable.

      Did they trick you? I would not use those words. If you stay within the bounds of what they do well, a good outcome is very likely. Outside the bounds, not as much.

  6. I usually order from Aisler. One reason is that shipping from Germany to France is fast and predictable while shipping from the US is the opposite.

    And the other reason: lead. JLCPCB is inexpensive but only if you buy leaded stuff which the default and the advertised option. If you don’t, price jumps and is the same as Aisler’s.

    1. “If you don’t, price jumps and is the same as Aisler’s.”

      Uh, if I click on “lead-free HASL” for JLCPCB, the price jumps… from $2 to $3.20 for 10 cm x 10 cm 2 layer PCBs. Which is… not the same as Aisler (which would be over 25 euro). Is it different for EU customers somehow?

        1. That might have changed and my PCBs were much smaller than 10*10. I had tried that a couple years ago I think and both manufacturers had time to bill differently (I know at least Aisler changed how they compute the cost).

          In any case, lead-free being less expensive is a win for everyone.

  7. One thing to be wary of. I had to produce 10 PCB’s for a customer. I ordered the 10 from JLCPCB, I would get them 1 week before the deadline. The PCB’s were $1 each and $30 shipping. When I received the order there were only 8 PCB’s. They happily refunded me $2. That was not the issue!
    Lesson learned: ALWAYS ORDER Extras!

    1. This is a lesson *regardless* of manufacturer. It actually used to be that you could buy boards without electrical testing cheaper, and in general it was usually mostly safe, but it *would* happen occasionally. In those cases you’d always (well, essentially always) get the amount you ordered, but there was always a chance something could screw up (you could usually mitigate those risks by staying well away from trace/space clearance limits, adding teardrops, etc).

      Nowadays everyone includes E-test, which means there’s always a chance you’ll get less than you ordered (but at least they always work!) – usually they’ll email you, say oh if you really want it we can send the remainder later, etc. But you *always* have to order more than you need, from any manufacturer.

      Same trick applies though, if you stay away from their capability limits, you’re more likely to always get the amount you need. Usually the one that tends to screw up is drill alignment, so large annular rings is always a good plan.

    2. I haven’t ordered in 4 years but way back in 2019 both Seeed and Elecrow gave me excellent boards for a good price. Nobody’s mentioned either; did they go to crap or get super expensive, or are they just uncool now?

  8. Haven’t ever done any PCB’s myself but appreciate this story. I file these away mentally in the “oh yeah, Hackaday had an article on this once” brain folder for future reference.

  9. I have to jump in and say I’ve seen half a dozen stateside vendors and three China based vendors, but have begun using PCBWay for both personal designs and work designs. They can always beat and stateside vendors on delivery and price and even with very complex fine pitch smd designs, I’ve never had a problem that wasn’t due to layout, and yes, they DO check your designs and have found problems before production. I can also say that most work boards are reworked several times with lead-free solder and I’ve never had problems with traces coming up or with delamination.

    The only thing I can add, is to get a stencil if you do leadless chips or those with pads underneath and use a hot plate to reflow. It makes life so much easier.

  10. Just to add a data point from a heavy user of JLCPCB. I have a colleague that has been using them since 2014 and he says for quick, cheap, and meeting the essentials, they get a score of 9/10. There has been some rare errors, but overall, he has never missed a proto timeline with them.

    I will warn everyone though. Due to the low cost and accessibility for DIY PCBs, my colleague has unfortunately sent of designs that were not quite ready for prime time because cost wasn’t enforcing the “measure twice cut once” mentality, LOL.

    Lastly, as someone else mentioned, I would have like to have seen ENIG vs HASL as part of the comparison. I do understand the author’s reasoning for excluding. My colleague ONLY chooses ENIG for a variety of benefits.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.