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When a signal needs a specific impedance to operate properly, controlled impedance should be preferred. In high frequency applications, keeping impedance constant on the complete electronic board is essential to protect the transferred data from damage and to maintain the clarity of the signal. The longer the trace or the higher the frequency, the more adaptation is needed. Any lack of rigor at this stage can increase the switching time for an electronic device or circuit and cause unexpected errors.

What is microstrip?

Microstrip is a type of electrical transmission line which can be fabricated using printed circuit board technology, and is used to convey microwave-frequency signals. It consists of a conducting strip separated from a ground plane by a dielectric layer known as the substrate. Microwave components such as antennas, couplers, filters, power dividers etc. can be formed from microstrip, with the entire device existing as the pattern of metallization on the substrate.

Microstrip is thus much less expensive than traditional waveguide technology, as well as being far lighter and more compact. Microstrip was developed by ITT laboratories as a competitor to stripline (first published by Grieg and Engelmann in the December 1952 IRE proceedings).

The disadvantages of microstrip compared with waveguide are the generally lower power handling capacity, and higher losses. Also, unlike waveguide, microstrip is not enclosed, and is therefore susceptible to cross-talk and unintentional radiation.

For the lowest cost, microstrip devices may be built on an ordinary FR-4 (standard PCB) substrate. However it is often found that the dielectric losses in FR4 are too high at microwave frequencies, and that the dielectric constant is not sufficiently tightly controlled. For these reasons, an alumina substrate is commonly used.

On a smaller scale, microstrip transmission lines are also built into monolithic microwave integrated circuits.

Microstrip lines are also used in high-speed digital PCB designs, where signals need to be routed from one part of the assembly to another with minimal distortion, and avoiding high cross-talk and radiation.

Microstrip is one of many forms of planar transmission line, others include stripline and coplanar waveguide, and it is possible to integrate all of these on the same substrate.

A differential microstrip—a balanced signal pair of microstrip lines—is often used for high-speed signals such as DDR2 SDRAM clocks, USB Hi-Speed data lines, PCI Express data lines, LVDS data lines, etc., often all on the same PCB. Most PCB design tools support such differential pairs.

What is stripline?

Stripline is the earliest form of planar transmission line. A stripline circuit uses a flat strip of metal which is sandwiched between two parallel ground planes. The insulating material of the substrate forms a dielectric. The width of the strip, the thickness of the substrate and the relative permittivity of the substrate determine the characteristic impedance of the strip which is a transmission line. As shown in the diagram, the central conductor need not be equally spaced between the ground planes. In the general case, the dielectric material may be different above and below the central conductor.

To prevent the propagation of unwanted modes, the two ground planes must be shorted together. This is commonly achieved by a row of vias running parallel to the strip on each side.

Like coaxial cable, stripline is non-dispersive, and has no cutoff frequency. Good isolation between adjacent traces can be achieved more easily than with microstrip. Stripline provides for enhanced noise immunity against the propagation of radiated RF emissions, at the expense of slower propagation speeds when compared to microstrip lines. The effective permittivity of striplines equals the relative permittivity of the dielectric substrate because of wave propagation only in the substrate. Hence striplines have higher effective permittivity in comparison to microstrip lines, which in turn reduces wave propagation speed.

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