I’m a big fan of the SmoothieWare project for driving 3D printers, CNC machines and Laser Cutters. The code is clean, efficient, and the software actually designed in a modular and sensible fashion. Compared to most 3d printer firmwares, which have accrued layers of cruft, its very readable and usable.
The only real issue is there isn’t a huge amount of hardware out there that’ll run the firmware. This post is a compilation of the available boards as of January 2015, and my thoughts on each. Prices will be in GBP, using Google’s conversion rate, and include the cheapest shipping rate to the UK. I’ll only be counting items that are in stock and ready to order right now, not pre-order items. If there are multiple options for connectors etc, i’ll choose the cheapest.
Available from RobotSeed for £108 (€142) inc shipping for SmoothieBoard 5X, the SmoothieBoard is the big daddy of them all. It has 5 onboard A4982 stepper drivers with digital current control, 6 endstop connectors, 4 thermistor inputs and 6 MOSFET outputs, which can drive 3 high current (hotend, heated bed) and 3 medium current (fans, lights, relay) devices.
The SmoothieBoard benefits from being the primary development platform for the SmoothieWare project, so will probably never become unsupported, and has a huge amount of IO, which means it’ll be able to support pretty much any stepper-based machine you want to throw at it. The SmoothieBoard has the stepper drivers mounted directly on the mainboard, which is far better than pololu-style stepper drivers as favoured in the reprap world from a thermal point of view.
The SmoothieBoard supports ethernet networking, which is very nice functionally. SmoothieWare supports gcode streaming over TCP, and has a rudimentary WebUI.
The downside is it is a bit expensive for running things like CNC machines, as you end up paying for a lot of features you wont use, and it is on the large side, which makes it not ideal for small delta machines. There is provision for attaching external LCD controllers, the RepRapDiscount GLCD is the recommended unit, however it does need an additional adaptor PCB for truly plug-and-play assembly.
Price 7/10 (a bit expensive, but well featured)
Features 9.5/10 (some features need extra bits attaching, like the LCD adaptor PCB and 5V regulator).
Azteeg X5 Mini
The X5 Mini is available from panucatt for £80 ($122) inc shipping. It is a 3D printer focused board, featuring 1 High Current MOSFET and 2 medium current MOSFETs. It boasts 4 onboard stepper drivers, this time DRV8825 types, which have 32x microstepping and can drive up to 2.5A stepper motors. Input wise, it has connectors for 4 endstops, and has 2 thermistor inputs.
The X5 is significantly smaller than the smoothieboard, which will help with mounting. For those of us coming from old-school reprap electronics, it is close in size to a sanguinololu. Again, the RRD GLCD can be attached. No PCB adaptors are available that I can find, but making up an adaptor cable is fairly simple. There is no onboard networking provision.
Price: 7/10 (£20 cheaper than the smoothieboard, but you get a lot less for the saving)
Features: 6/10 (Only 1 Extruder, No network, LCD needs cable making)
The new kid on the block, the AZSMZ Mini comes in at an astoundingly cheap £46 from AliExpress. This increases to about £60 when you include 5 DRV8266 based stepper drivers.
Assuming we ignore the incomprehensible name for now, it has some interesting features. The size is slightly bigger than the X5 mini.
It is the only SmoothieWare compatible board for sale right now that has removable stepper drivers, which a lot of people seem to like. While this gives you the choice of which stepper drivers to use, it also means you’re limited on how much heat you can remove from the driver, decreasing your total motor current. It has 5 slots for stepper drivers, using the standard pololu-style pinout. As Pololu carriers are in use, there is no digital current control on this board.
There are 3 MOSFET outputs total, 1 High Current, and 2 Medium Current, Labelled Bed, Fan and Heat, along with 3 Thermistor inputs, allowing for dual extrusion. I would have liked 1 more medium current output, as assuming you want to use dual extrusion, you can’t have a fan without adding an external MOSFET board. Provision is made for 4 endstops, labelled X, Y Z and A.
Like the X5 Mini, there is no networking provision on the AZSMZ.
This board has a dedicated GLCD controller available, also from AliExpress for £19. This LCD connects directly to the EXT2 and EXT3 ports, meaning connecting it is zero hassle. Though it uses the same connectors, these controllers arent the same as the ones on the RRD GLCD, so if you really want a RRD you’ll have to make an adaptor.
As it is so new, a certain level of wariness may be good to adopt when it comes to the AZSMZ. As far as i’m aware, nobody outside of china has them in-hand yet, and the reliability is yet to be tested. From an EMI perspective, the position of the USB connector is a bit suspect, as the USB lines appear to pass through all the sources of noise on the entire board, Extruder PWM, Stepper Drivers and switching VReg!
Price: 9/10 (Though its yet to be seen if its cheap for a reason, and you need to include the cost of your stepper drivers!)
Features: 7/10 (The extra extruder and onboard LCD provision put it above the X5 mini, but the limited number of high current outputs is strange for a supposed dual-extrusion board, and the lack of digital current control is a pity)
The Sunbeam 2.0 costs £101 (PLN 570) from 3d-printers.pl shipped to the UK (assuming i’ve translated the website correctly!). It is another general usage board, similar in concept to the SmoothieBoard, but with a few changes.
For external connection, there are two USB ports onboard, a native USB, and a “Debug” FTDI chip. The debug port can be used for direct access to the microcontroller’s serial port, including for flashing bootloaders etc. The Sunbeam also has Ethernet onboard, allowing the WebUI and Network Streaming to be used.
The stepper drivers change from the A4982 to the A4988. The main difference is that the A4988 supports 8x microstepping, and the A4982 is in a slightly bigger package, so is theoretically easier to swap out if you do blow a driver up. There are still 5 motors, allowing dual extrusion on a 3D printer, and there are still 3 High current outputs (Bed, E1, E2), and 3 Medium current outputs (labelled as Fan outputs).
Input wise, there are only 3 Thermistor inputs, and 3 Endstop inputs. This is pretty much the minimum to run a dual extrusion 3D printer, I would have liked to have seen at least one more endstop input for bed probing. An onboard switching regulator provides 5V for general power from the 12-24V supply power.
Like the AZSMZ, the Sunbeam has a connector intended for connecting a GLCD. This addon is available from 3d-printers.pl for £32 (PLN 179.99) including shipping, and plugs into a single ribbon connector on the board.
The only real issue I have personally with the sunbeam 2.0 is that the documentation is only available in polish, though connector pinouts etc are all labelled in English so connecting things up without the documentation should be no problem.
Price: 8/10 (Around the same price as the SmoothieBoard but you dont need to buy any adaptors or regulators for full functionality.)
Features: 10/10 (About as feature complete as you can get!)
I know these things usually end with a conclusion that tells you which board to buy, but with this subject depends hugely on what machine you’re building, and the features you want and need.
Personally, I’d get a sunbeam 2.0 for any project where it’d fit physically and fiscally, and drop to the AZSMZ where budget or space disallows.