How to choose pcb programmer

Introduction to PCB Programmers

A PCB (Printed Circuit Board) programmer is an essential tool for anyone involved in electronics design and development. It allows you to transfer your designed program or firmware onto the target device, such as a microcontroller or EEPROM, on your PCB. Choosing the right PCB programmer is crucial to ensure efficient and reliable programming of your electronic projects.

In this article, we will guide you through the process of selecting the best PCB programmer for your needs. We will cover the different types of PCB programmers, key features to consider, and factors that influence your decision-making process.

Types of PCB Programmers

There are several types of PCB programmers available in the market, each with its own set of features and capabilities. Let’s explore the most common types:

1. In-System Programmers (ISP)

In-System Programmers (ISP) are widely used for programming microcontrollers and other devices that support in-circuit programming. They allow you to program the target device without removing it from the PCB. ISP programmers typically communicate with the target device using serial interfaces like SPI, JTAG, or UART.

Some popular ISP programmers include:

  • AVR ISP: Used for programming Atmel AVR microcontrollers.
  • PICkit: Used for programming Microchip PIC microcontrollers.
  • ST-LINK: Used for programming STMicroelectronics microcontrollers.

2. Universal Programmers

Universal programmers are versatile tools that support a wide range of devices, including microcontrollers, EEPROMs, flash memories, and more. They often come with interchangeable adapters or sockets to accommodate different package types and pin configurations.

Some well-known universal programmers are:

  • Xeltek SuperPro: Supports a vast array of devices from various manufacturers.
  • TL866: A cost-effective universal programmer with a large device support database.
  • Elnec BeeProg: A high-end universal programmer with advanced features and fast programming speeds.

3. JTAG Programmers

JTAG (Joint Test Action Group) programmers are used for programming and debugging devices that support the JTAG interface. They offer advanced features like boundary scan testing, real-time debugging, and flash programming.

Examples of JTAG programmers include:

  • Xilinx Platform Cable USB: Used for programming and debugging Xilinx FPGAs and CPLDs.
  • Altera USB Blaster: Used for programming and debugging Altera (now Intel) FPGAs and CPLDs.
  • Segger J-Link: A versatile JTAG programmer and debugger supporting various microcontroller families.

Key Features to Consider

When choosing a PCB programmer, there are several key features to consider to ensure it meets your specific requirements:

1. Device Support

One of the most important factors to consider is whether the programmer supports the devices you intend to work with. Check the programmer’s specifications and device list to ensure compatibility with your target devices, including microcontrollers, EEPROMs, flash memories, and more.

2. Programming Speed

The programming speed of a PCB programmer determines how quickly it can transfer data to the target device. Faster programming speeds can significantly reduce the overall programming time, especially when working with large firmware or multiple devices. Look for programmers with high programming speeds to improve efficiency.

3. Programming Interface

Consider the programming interfaces supported by the programmer. Common interfaces include:

  • ISP (In-System Programming): Allows programming of devices without removing them from the PCB.
  • JTAG (Joint Test Action Group): Provides advanced debugging and testing capabilities.
  • SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface): A synchronous serial communication interface for programming.
  • UART (Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter): An asynchronous serial communication interface.

Choose a programmer that supports the interfaces required by your target devices and development workflow.

4. Software Compatibility

Ensure that the PCB programmer comes with compatible software that supports your operating system (Windows, macOS, Linux) and provides a user-friendly interface for programming and configuration. The software should also offer features like device selection, file management, and error handling.

5. Reliability and Durability

Investing in a reliable and durable PCB programmer is crucial to avoid programming errors and ensure longevity. Look for programmers with a solid build quality, well-designed connectors, and features like overvoltage protection and electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection.

6. Technical Support and Upgradability

Consider the level of technical support provided by the manufacturer, including documentation, user guides, and firmware updates. Upgradability is also essential to ensure that the programmer can support new devices and features in the future.

Factors Influencing Your Choice

In addition to the key features mentioned above, there are other factors that can influence your decision when choosing a PCB programmer:

1. Budget

PCB programmers come in a wide range of prices, from low-cost options to high-end professional-grade programmers. Determine your budget and prioritize the features that are most important to you. Keep in mind that investing in a reliable and feature-rich programmer can save you time and effort in the long run.

2. Project Requirements

Consider the specific requirements of your projects, such as the types of devices you will be programming, the programming interfaces needed, and any special features like debugging or testing capabilities. Choose a programmer that aligns with your project needs.

3. Ease of Use

If you are new to PCB programming or have limited technical expertise, opt for a programmer with a user-friendly interface and comprehensive documentation. Look for programmers with intuitive software and clear instructions to ensure a smooth learning curve.

4. Portability

If you need to program devices on-the-go or in different locations, consider the portability of the programmer. Some programmers are compact and USB-powered, making them easy to carry and use without additional power supplies.

Recommended PCB Programmers

Based on the factors discussed above, here are some recommended PCB programmers for different needs and budgets:

Programmer Type Key Features Price Range
AVR ISP ISP – Supports Atmel AVR microcontrollers Low
– ISP programming interface
– USB-powered
——————– ——————— ——————————————————– ————-
PICkit ISP – Supports Microchip PIC microcontrollers Low to Mid
– ISP programming interface
– Debugging capabilities
——————– ——————— ——————————————————– ————-
Xeltek SuperPro Universal – Wide device support High
– Fast programming speeds
– Interchangeable adapters
——————– ——————— ——————————————————– ————-
TL866 Universal – Cost-effective Mid
– Large device support database
– USB-powered
——————– ——————— ——————————————————– ————-
Segger J-Link JTAG – Supports various microcontroller families High
– Advanced debugging features
– High-speed programming

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

1. Can I use a universal programmer to program any device?

While universal programmers support a wide range of devices, it’s essential to check the device list and specifications to ensure compatibility with your specific target device. Some devices may require specialized programmers or adapters.

2. Do I need a separate power supply for my PCB programmer?

Many modern PCB programmers are USB-powered, eliminating the need for a separate power supply. However, some high-end programmers may require an external power supply for enhanced performance or to support specific devices.

3. What is the difference between ISP and JTAG programming?

ISP (In-System Programming) allows programming of devices directly on the PCB without removing them. JTAG (Joint Test Action Group) programming provides advanced features like boundary scan testing, real-time debugging, and flash programming. JTAG is commonly used for complex devices like microcontrollers and FPGAs.

4. Can I use a single PCB programmer for both microcontrollers and EEPROMs?

It depends on the specific programmer and its device support. Some universal programmers support a wide range of devices, including microcontrollers and EEPROMs, while others may specialize in certain device families. Check the programmer’s specifications and device list to determine its compatibility with your target devices.

5. How important is programming speed when choosing a PCB programmer?

Programming speed becomes more critical when working with large firmware or programming multiple devices. Faster programming speeds can significantly reduce the overall programming time and improve efficiency. However, for small-scale projects or occasional programming, a lower-speed programmer may suffice.


Choosing the right PCB programmer is crucial for efficient and reliable programming of your electronic projects. Consider factors like device support, programming interfaces, speed, software compatibility, and reliability when making your decision. Evaluate your project requirements, budget, and ease of use to select a programmer that best suits your needs.

By following the guidelines and recommendations provided in this article, you can make an informed decision and choose a PCB programmer that will streamline your programming workflow and help you achieve your project goals effectively.