High-Speed PCB Design Tips

Phil Salmony
|  Created: November 30, 2022
High-Speed PCB Design Tips

In this article, we’ll examine a few tips and tricks for high-speed printed circuit board designs.

When it comes to high-speed designs, we are typically concerned with two areas. The first of them is signal integrity (SI), and issues related to  crosstalk due to trace spacing, reflections due to impedance mismatches, attenuation of the signal, and problems such as ringing. Of course, we would like to minimise those problems to the best of our ability. Secondly, we are concerned with electromagnetic interference (EMI).

Before we get started, I have to recommend a fantastic video on Altium’s YouTube channel by Rick Hartley on proper PCB design and how to achieve proper grounding. The topics covered in detail in that video are especially important for high-speed digital and high-speed analogue designs. Make sure to check out the video here.

When is a design “high-speed,” and when do we have to pay attention?

Before we get into high-speed PCB design tips, let's have a look at when we actually have to care about all of this!

Let's say, for example, that we have a 100 MHz clock signal in our design, and naively assume this to be the highest frequency apparent in our system. It turns out that the problem is not actually that the clock signal has a fundamental frequency of 100 MHz but rather that our design issues come from the rise and the fall times of this near square-wave clock signal.

These sharp transitions going from digital low to digital high (or vice-versa) contain far higher frequency content than the fundamental. Given a signal’s rise and fall times (depending on which of them is faster), we can calculate the maximum frequency within the signal (or rather the bandwidth) approximately using the following formula:

For example, for a 100 MHz clock signal with a 1 ns rise time, the bandwidth of that signal is 500 MHz—quite a significant difference!

When a PCB trace length exceeds 1/12th of the wavelength in the dielectric, we need to start considering our PCB design in far more detail. This is the point when our traces start to look like distributed length transmission lines, and not like lumped elements anymore. We call this length the “critical length.”

Tip #1: Reference Planes

We always want to have a ground or relevant power plane adjacent to a signal plane, directly on the layer below (or above) a layer carrying a trace. In certain cases, you can use a relevant power plane instead of a ground plane as a reference. Relevant here means that the reference plane voltage is the same voltage as the signal is derived from. Reference planes are not only important to maintain proper return paths and to minimise electromagnetic field spread, but also when requiring controlled-impedance traces. 

For AC signals, anything above a few kHz, and the return path is actually directly below the signal trace in the reference plane below. A very important rule is that there should be no splits in the reference plane underneath traces.

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Tip #2: Board Stack-Up

We want to have a ground plane not only adjacent to a signal plane but also adjacent to a power plane. It is also a good idea to have a thin dielectric between planes, which in turn gives us tight coupling and also allows us to use thinner traces for denser designs.

Thinner traces additionally give us more space to work with, and more space between traces. However, keep in mind that the manufacturing of thin traces can be more difficult.


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Tip #3: Controlled Impedance Traces

As soon as our trace length exceeds the critical length discussed in the introduction of this article, we need to control the impedance of our traces. That is, we need to adjust the width of our trace—depending on our chosen stackup and build-up—to give us a certain transmission line impedance. Typically, this will be 50 Ohms for single-ended signals. Altium Designer features a powerful 2D field solver that can calculate the required trace widths depending on your stackup and build-up for you in seconds!

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Tip #4: Trace Length and Spacing

We need to keep high-speed traces as short as possible—this helps with EMI and SI. Additionally, we want to keep different high-speed traces as far away from each other as possible to minimise crosstalk.

Additionally, aim to keep high-speed traces away from components such as inductors or power sections of a circuit. A typical rule of thumb is the “3 h rule,” which means the traces should be separated by at least three times the height of the dielectric between the signal layer and the next ground or reference layer.

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For high-performance, high-speed designs, we often require simulation tools to verify that we are meeting required signal integrity and EMI performances

About Author

About Author

Phil Salmony is a professional hardware design engineer and educational engineering content creator. After graduating from the University of Cambridge with a master's degree in electrical and control systems engineering, he began his engineering career at a large German aerospace company. Later on, he co-founded a drone startup in Denmark, where he was the lead electronics and PCB design engineer, with a particular focus on mixed-signal, embedded systems. He currently runs his own engineering consultancy in Germany, focusing predominantly on digital electronics and PCB design.

Aside from his consulting work, Phil runs his own YouTube Channel (Phil's Lab), where he creates educational engineering videos on topics such as PCB design, digital signal processing, and mixed-signal electronics.

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