It's pretty much time to move off protoboard. For the first time in many, many years I'm soldering up a circuit board. Admittedly, it's stripboard. And this is where the problem is. When I last did this stuff, I was making small circuits, with not many connections. Digital circuitry with a lot of busses means an awful lot of wires. It also means cutting a shedload of tracks. Not that I'm in to the high-frequency end of things, but it's extremely naff for that too. With all the wires and the low density of the holes, the density you can put chips in compared to a regular PCB is very low. While I'm happily committed to stripboard for this project, it's clearly not viable for doing anything serious.
So, custom-made PCBs. I don't fancy etching my own. I don't like the look of home-etched PCBs, I don't want more nasty chemicals around with the children, and there are plenty of places that'll produce professional-looking boards. At least simple surface mount is likely to be in my future, at which point things like solder mask is really useful. It's all going in that direction.
This means I'll need proper PCB software. My half-assed attempts at schematics in Eagle are going to need to be kicked up a notch if I'm going to get a PCB out at the end of it, so I'm working through the tutorial and all that. There are plenty of tutorials from people like Sparkfun showing how to get from Eagle to a nice professional-looking PCB.
It's about at this point I realise how highly the game has been raised in terms of amateur electronics, from electronics mags in the early '90s with simple analogue circuits. You can get modules for pretty much all near-cutting-edge technology, ready for amateur use. Break-out boards for all kinds of exotic BGA devices, as well as all the microcontroller boards with really useful headers. Sticking these things together is now like scripting languages when programming. Lots of high level glue and productivity-enhancing short-cuts.
However, this is not all. Even when people take the harder route, fully doing their own PCBs, things are way more advanced. Tonnes of people using really fiddly surface mount, and doing all kinds of amazing stuff. While I'm only hacking at stuff, it's nice to see the standard that can be aspired to, even amongst hobbyists.