What is a controller board?
The controller board (or motherboard) is the brain of the printer. It takes the commands given to it by your computer (in the form of G-Code) and orchestrates their execution. The motherboard contains a microcontroller (essentially a tiny, self-contained computer) and all the circuitry needed for running the motors, reading the sensors, and talking to your computer.
Why get a Smoothie board?
The Azteeg X5 Mini is not like most 3D printer controllers. Most boards (based on the Arduino) have an 8 bit 16 Mhz Atmel AVR processor. This is roughly equivalent to a computer from the late 70s. The Azteeg X5 is equipped with a 32 bit 120 Mhz ARM processor. This is basically a slimmed down version of the chip that powers your cell phone.
The X5 also runs a different firmware called Smoothie. Smoothie is a new firmware that is designed to take advantage of modern processors. It prides itself in it’s advanced motion control, thus the Smoothie name. The code is much cleaner than Marlin, and much better documented. You can learn more about Smoothie at smoothieware.org.
Easy to use
Anyone who has tried to upload firmware through Arduino can tell you how much of a hassle it is. Arduino is a tool that was made for development and prototyping, not for regular people who just want to get their printer working. Smoothie is different.
The Smoothieboard appears to your computer as a regular old flash drive. To update the firmware, simply drag and drop the firmware.bin file to the drive.
Want to make a configuration change? No need to recompile and reupload the firmware. There is a file on the drive called config.txt that contains all your settings. You can edit it as you would any other text file. The changes take effect once you restart your printer. Simple.
Despite what you may think, the Azteeg X5 Mini actually costs less than an equivalent Arduino based board. The X5 is $113 while the Mini RAMBo is $128.
Here are the other things that make the Azteeg X5 our favorite controller board.
The X5 Mini now has an Ethernet (RJ45) jack, just like the official Smoothieboard. Now you no longer have to have your printer tied to your computer with USB. You can connect it to your network and control it from anywhere in your house, or even the world. You can also check on the status of your printer through your web browser. See the Smoothie documentation for more on how this works.
You can connect to your printer using MatterControl’s network printing feature.
The X5 now uses modular Pololu style stepper drivers, just like the Azteeg X3 and X3 Pro. The board comes with a set of SD5984 drivers, but you can use whatever other drivers you want with it as well. Remember to solder on the extra 3 pin header for digital current control.
Where the X5 really shines is in conjunction with the SD6128 stepper drivers. These drivers are capable of 1/128th microstepping, which is 4 times more than the the stock SD5984 drivers the board comes with (1/32) and probably 8 times more than what you are used to (1/16).
What is microstepping?
The standard stepper motors used in most printers have 200 steps per rotation. However, by balancing the power fed to the motor coils, those steps can be divided up. This allows the motor to move in smaller increments, and makes the overall motion less jerky and quieter.
Most other boards are not capable of utilizing such high levels of microstepping due to processing power limitations. The higher the level of microstepping, the less time there is between steps for the processor to make calculations. The AVR boards, with a 16 Mhz processor, cannot handle more than 1/32 microstepping at a print speed of 150 mm/s. The Azteeg X5’s ARM chip, with a 120 Mhz processor, can handle 1/128 stepping at the same speed.
- Built in micro SD card slot.
- The Azteeg X5 is the easiest board to hook up to the beautiful VIKI 2.0 graphic LCD display.
- Digital current control (using supported stepper drivers) allows you to adjust the power delivered to your stepper motors through software. No need to adjust trim screws on the board.
Panucatt Azteeg X5 GT 32bit Motion Controller
In addition to the Azteeg X5 Mini, Panucatt now offers the Azteeg X5 GT. The GT is a larger board that has additional stepper drivers and heaters, allowing you to run dual extruders. It has a few other additional features as well.
- Support for Panucatt’s high power Bigfoot stepper drivers.
- Magnetically isolated USB circuitry which prevents you from frying your computer if your printer shorts out.
- Onboard 12V power supply allows you to use 12V fans and accessories with a 24V printer.
- Addon board for ethernet (not built in).