If you thought that .biz was the TLD of spam, scams, and porn then you'd be right, but there is one notable exception: goldphoenixpcb.biz, an incredibly cheap board house, as shown by Lady Adas PCB cost calculator and according to Julian Bleeker they also do quality work.

Comparison with Olimex

My old favorite board house is Olimex in Bulgaria, but as their summer holliday is August and I'd like some boards soon, I've chosen to fire off an order to GP and post a comparison here.

These are the main features of the two board houses:

OlimexGold PhoenixUnit
Price13333USD / Euro board (16x10 cm)
Price23322USD / Euro board (16x10 cm)
Price327.4522USD / Euro board (16x10 cm)
Shipping to .dk610USD
Finish4GoldGold, silver or OSPImmersion
Normal clearance0.254 (10)0.178 (7)mm (mils)
Minimum clearance50.203 (8)0.102 (4)mm (mils)
PanelizationYesNo
DepanelizationShearing to rect.Routing to border
Fabrication55Days
Shipping time15Days
Payment6VISA by fax(!!!)Paypal:(WTF

Notes

  1. Price includes immersion Gold ($80/1000cm2) & multiproject depanel ($30/1000cm2) at GP to be comparable with Olimex.
  2. Price includes OSP finish ($10/1000cm2) & multiproject depanel.
  3. Price is @ 1000 cm2, Olimex offers a 20% discount after the first panel.
  4. Olimex only offers immersion Gold, but GP offers Silver ($20) and tin ($10) as well, leading to a much lower price for GP, if chosen.
  5. 4 mil clearance costs extra at GP, 8 mil clearance at Olimex just takes 10 days longer.
  6. Fax is such an anachronistic impliment that I nearly fell off my chair when Olimex requested that I send them one, but it did work ok, Paypal might be modern, but it doesn't suck any less than faxing, I'd call this a tie.

The GP price is the same as Olimex if you choose to have the board finished in immersion gold, I think this is very much a lavish extra that I can do without, so I think it's fair to include the GP price for OSP finish as well, however, I include the multiproject tax in both prices as I don't think most hobbyists could ever fill 1000cm2 with just one design.

Choosing OSP finish is fine enough with me, so GP ends up being somewhat cheaper than Olimex, but not as much as you might think and Olimex does offer rebates (20%) on multiple copies of the same 160x100 mm panel.

GP is arguably better than Olimex on most parameters, except minimum order size (160 cm2 vs. 1000 cm2), so my guess is that small volume projects will be better off getting made at Olimex, if 0.2 mm clearance is good enough and the slightly eccentric drill constraints of Olimex aren't an issue.

Misc thoughts

Olimex has a very informative website that has a lot of helpful details for simple hobbyists like me and they will also answer direct questions in a competent, yet somewhat curt manner.

GP has some information clearly missing from their website, like: "What is the minimum spacing between designs on the panelized board?" and direct questions by email are ignored.

An über cool feature of Olimex is that the 20% discount on identical panels can be applied in a second order, so you don't need a huge order to take advantage of their volume discount, you only need to repeat the same panel. It would be very handy to be able to point people at Olimex and tell them "order panel 4210 to get 2 copies of the PCB for this project", I don't know if the discount also works if someone else wants a copy of a panel I had made, but as it's based on Olimex saving on phototools and other setup costs I'm almost certain it can be made to work that way.

The GP process

12/8: Polish design and panelize

I spent about a weeks worth of evenings polishing the layout by optimizing in Eagle, running DRC, panelizing and inspecting in gerbv.

The files in the design are from my sensor controller, please see that page for details on how I generated the panelized layout.

16/8: Submit design

I simply took the lm75-ctrl.zip my shell script (make) produced and mailed it to Shane, GPs man in Canada attached to this mail:

Subject: PCB order: lm75-ctrl

Hi, here is a panel I'd like a quote for.

What is the minimum board-to-board spacing in a panel?

Options needed:
  2 layer, special price, 1000 cm2  $99
  Step/repeat, depanel               $0
  Multi project                     $30
  ROHS compliant immersion tin      $10
  Shipping to Denmark               $10
Total                              $149

Ship to:
  Flemming Frandsen
  Vidkærvej 1
  Nr.Vissing
  8660 Skanderborg
  Denmark

The files in the package are:

Gerber RS274X:
lm75-ctrl.plc Top silk screen
lm75-ctrl.stc Top solder mask
lm75-ctrl.cmp Top copper
lm75-ctrl.sol Bottom copper
lm75-ctrl.sts Bottom solder mask

lm75-ctrl.bor Dimension layer for routing.

lm75-ctrl.drd Excellon NC drill file

That was answered simply by: "Price is good" and payment instructions, not what I'd call verbose. Note that I ordered "Immersion Tin finish", that's because their price page said that Tin was the cheapest ROHS compliant option.

17/8: Pay by paypal

I've always hated and avoided paypal, so this took some handwringing on my part, but I did it and paid into GPs paypal account using VISA.

22/8: Boards shipped by FedEx.

By my calculation that makes the fabrication time 5 days. Shipping starts in Wuhan, google maps doesn't know GPs exact address, though.

27/8: Got the boards.

I got a package by FedEx today containing my PCBs or more accurately containing something resembling my PCBs:

That means that I got 906 cm2 of the 1000 cm2 that I paid for. I had calculated that I should have gotten 20 controller boards and 60 (!!!) lm 75 carriers, if GP was perfect, as it is they gave me a controller board extra and stiffed me for 26 of the lm75 boards.

The packaging that the boards came in stated that there were "21 panels" so that means that they lost around two thirds (67%) of the small boards, I guess that's because I violated their minimum board size of 25.4x30.48 mm, it would have been nice with a warning about that, though.

I did get bit miffed that the finish on the boards appeared to be raw copper, eventhough I had paid $10 extra to get immersion tin finish, so I fired off an email to Shane who quickly educated me:

We do not offer immersion tin any more, the finishing you get is OSP it is the same cost as immersion tin and it is also ROSH.
, well, that was nice to know, but why keep it a secret?

I've put up a few pictures of the Golden Phoenix PCBs and an older Olimex board in my gallery.

Conclusion

GP does nice work, I got my boards in the time promised and they are beautiful with milled edges and chrisp silkscreen, but the number of smaller boards does annoy me a bit.

I'm lucky that we probably will not be needing more than the 22 remote temperature sensors right now, so it's not a great disaster, but when we get around to needing those sensors I'll put in an order with Olimex.

The price I paid for 21 boards was $149, at Olimex that would have cost me $177 (5 panels of ctrl and 1 sensor), but I would have 48 sensor boards and ENIG Gold finish, so the actual savings on using GP for this over Olimex was a paltry $28.

Olimex boards have sheared edges, some fiddly limitations and they are about 19% more expensive than GP, but I think my next order will go to Olimex, mainly because of the large minimum order size, the longer turnaround and the lack of feedback from GP.

Update 17 Nov 2009: I've now had an order produced at Olimex and the turnaound time at Olimex was the same as at GP, so if I had enough work for GP that would have been as fast, better quality and cheaper per area.

I guess the solution is to have a few projects ready to go all the time so I can fill a GP order with other designs.

Addendum

I've been told by Chris Whittenburg that Gold Phoenix has a nice repeat business bonus; if you re-order a panel they will include 10% extra boards.

Chris also told me that he usually gets more boards than he expected and as far as I can tell I would have gotten 21 panels or 1029 cm2, if I hadn't been an idiot and violated the minimum board size rule.

Hugo Vincent also wrote to tell me that:

I your article on Gold Phoenix PCBs on your web site, and just wanted to let you know my experience was much better. Attached are some photos of a board I had made recently for my UAV project (www.albatross-uav.org). They arrived on panels (three panels of 15 boards, each measuring 52x46mm, which is actually slightly more than the 1000cm2 they advertise), V-Scored (rather than milled; trivially snapped apart). All up it was US$130 (base service + $10 international shipping + $20 electrical testing - non of the boards are marked as testing faulty). They did the panelization for me, my gerbers I sent them where for one board only. I was really impressed with overall quality and service, and will be using them again soon, and their 4-layer service soon too.

It's good to know that I was just bitten by my own inattention to GPs minimum board size and that the typical experience with GP is a good one.

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