One of the joys of owning a PC is that you can build your own and make your own upgrades. There’s nothing quite like spending months planning out a new build, only to see it come to life. You’ve agonized over which graphics card to use. You’ve thought long and hard about the motherboard. Now, you’re ready to assemble it.
The last thing you want is for one little static shock to fry one of your expensive components. In order to make sure your build is safe, you want a good quality anti-static desk mat. It also helps if you’re using a well-designed ESD anti-static wrist strap.
Of course, electrostatic discharge (ESD) isn’t just an issue when you’re building a PC. It’s an issue whenever you’re working on any electronics with sensitive circuitry. Want to modify your game console, smartphone, or tablet? You’re going to want to take anti-static precautions. This is especially true if you’re running a business, working on someone else’s electronics.
Today, we’re going to review four of the best ESD anti-static desk mats for PC building and more. These mats all have their own strong points and weak points that need to be examined.
We’ll have to talk about the quality of the material, and how durable it is. In addition, we’ll need to look at any built-in storage solutions, and how handy they are. We’ll also have to talk about any accessories, such as wrist straps. Once we’ve looked at all those different factors, we’ll be able to make a fair judgement. Let’s begin!
StarTech.com Anti-Static Mat
StarTech.com is one of the better-known manufacturers of electronic tools and accessories. They even have a foothold in the hardware market, as with their Ethernet extender kit. Because of their track record of quality, we were happy to get our hands on their ESD mat.
The StarTech.com Anti-Static Mat is a simple beige mat that’s made of a rubbery PVC material. Specifically, the top layer is smooth anti-static PVC, while the bottom is anti-static PVC foam. At less than a tenth of an inch thick, it’s extremely flexible. It’s easy to roll up and store, and it’s portable enough to bring with you on the road.
When it’s unrolled, the mat has a length of 24 inches, and a width of 27.5 inches. This makes it large enough for big projects like full-sized PCs. The entire surface is smooth, and none of that area is occupied by storage compartments or other extras. That said, there’s a snap at one corner, where the grounding cable is attached.
The grounding cable is bright blue, and naturally comes to rest in a tightly-coiled state. That said, it’s 10 feet long when it’s fully extended. At the tip, there’s a little alligator clip, which should be attached to a grounded piece of metal. There’s no wrist strap in the package, but you can easily provide one for yourself. When working on a PC in particular, the simplest thing is just to attach the bracelet to your PC’s frame.
HPFIX Anti-Static ESD Mat
The HPFIX Anti-Static ESD Mat is constructed from a tough grey rubber. It’s a bit thicker and less flexible, but it’s also an extremely durable material. In fact, it’s flame-resistant up to 932 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it a great surface for anyone who needs to do soldering work. That said, it’s not well-designed for working on larger components. At 15.9 inches wide and 12 inches high, it’s definitely on the small side.
The actual working area is actually a bit smaller: just under 15 inches wide and 8.66 inches high. This area has a centimeter scale worked into the top and side. If you need to lay things out while you’re working, this can certainly be helpful. There are also nine storage wells at the top, for keeping small parts and even tools. Underneath these and just above the horizontal scale, there’s a row of 29 tiny wells. These are well-sized for the precision screws used in today’s electronics.
The kit includes both a grounding cable and a wrist band. Both of these connect to a unique grounding plug that inserts into a three-prong power outlet. The plugs from the cable and wrist band insert into the back of a flat black plastic plate. On the front, two dummy plastic prongs insert into the main sockets, and a metal prong goes into the ground socket.
HPFIX backs this mat with a lifetime manufacturer’s warranty. Perhaps more impressively, they have a 180-day, no-questions-asked return window. This gives you plenty of time to test drive it and see how well it works for you.
iFixit Portable Anti-Static ESD Mat
iFixit is another well-known manufacturer of electrical tools. Not long ago, we reviewed their computer technician repair kit, a complete set of PC assembly tools. We were impressed enough by what we saw that we wanted to check out their anti-static mat.
The iFixit Portable Anti-Static ESD Mat is designed specifically to be portable. The bulk of the blue material is a blend of nylon and polymer. There are black nylon strips sewn around the edges, providing a degree of reinforcement for the rest of the material.
When it’s opened up, it measures 23.9 inches square. That’s big enough for almost any job, and there are no pockets or other features taking up real estate. Even so, the mat can collapse to 10.98 inches wide, 6.3 inches high, and 1.5 inches thick.
Along with the pad itself, the kit includes a blue wrist strap with a coiled cable and alligator clip. There’s also a black grounding cable, which plugs into the end of the pad. This also has an alligator clip, which can be attached to any grounded metal surface. The entire kit is covered by a lifetime manufacturer’s warranty, so you’re protected from any defects.
CPB S180 Large Anti Static Silicone Repair Mat
The CPB S180 Large Anti Static Silicone Repair Mat is constructed from a rugged blue silica gel. This material is specially-engineered for heat-resistance, and can withstand up to 932-degree temperatures. In other words, you can solder away without having to worry about burning your repair mat.
The material is also insulated, so you won’t burn the surface underneath the mat. Even so, the size is a generous 21.6 x 13.8 inches. That’s not exactly enormous, but it’s big enough for most jobs.
There’s a scale ruler at the bottom of the working area, with markings in inches and centimeters. Across the top and the right side, there are a number of storage wells in various sizes. There are 21 of these in total, and four of them are magnetized to retain tools and screws.
If that’s not enough, there’s a row of 49 tiny wells along the left edge. These can each hold a few precision screws, but what if you want even more organization? On the right of the working surface, there are 124 individual screw wells. In the top of the fat rail, you’ll find 17 holes. These can be used for inserting and holding precision screwdrivers.
The CPB mat itself is not grounded, although the silicone itself is highly static-resistant. It does include an anti-static wrist strap, with an alligator clamp that can be grounded.
What is ESD?
Electrostatic discharge is a sudden discharge of electricity between two objects. When one object and another object have opposite electrical charges, electricity could suddenly flow from one to the other. This can be caused by direct physical contact, or because the charge is sufficient to jump the gap.
For ESD to happen, an electrical charge must first build up. This often occurs when there’s friction between two objects. They rub together, and one object collects electrons from the other, obtaining a negative charge. This electrostatic charge creates the potential for electrostatic discharge. In other words, those electrons can then jump to another object. And as you’ll recall from high school physics, electricity is a flow of electrons.
Electrostatic discharge can take a number of forms, from the very big to the very small. For example, lightning is caused by the friction created in turbulent cloud systems. On the smaller end, when you walk across a carpet, that also creates a charge. When you touch a doorknob and feel a shock, that’s an electrostatic discharge.
This can be problematic when you’re working with sensitive electronics. The heat from a little finger shock is incredibly intense; it’s basically ultra-miniature lightning. It’s so localized that it doesn’t cause our bodies serious harm. At most, it zaps away a few skin cells. But this same intense heat, applied to a modern circuit board, could critically damage a crucial component. Modern transistors are very small, and disruption to just enough molecules can cause complete failure.
In some cases, the damage can be catastrophic. Your graphics card or motherboard fails, and it’s immediately apparent. In other cases, the damage could be latent. In those situations, you don’t notice the damage right away. But weeks or months down the road, a perfectly good part suddenly fails. Either way, you can save yourself a lot of headache by taking measures to prevent ESD damage.
How Do ESD Mats and Straps Work?
ESD mats work for two reasons. The first is that they provide a surface that’s made from insulating material. This material won’t hold an electrical charge, so there’s no way for a charge to jump to or from it. Not only that, but it provides a barrier against potential electrical charges in the underlying work surface. Your wood, plastic, or metal table could have a charge of its own, and a mat will block it.
Not only that, but many mats are equipped with a ground cable. This cable will divert any electrical charge that reaches the mat, preventing it from damaging your devices. Incidentally, this is the same principle behind an ESD wrist strap. Any discharge from your body goes into the grounding cable instead of into whatever you’re handling.
When choosing an ESD mat, think first about how much area you’re going to need. Are you assembling an entire PC, or are you working on smaller devices? Think also about what kind of work you’re going to be doing. If you’re going to be doing any soldering, for example, you’ll need a mat that’s heat-resistant. Finally, think about how portable the mat is. If it needs to travel with you, that’s going to be a concern.
As you can see, any one of these mats would make a great choice. But which one is the ideal choice for you? We started out by reviewing the StarTech.com Anti-Static Mat. This is the simplest of the bunch, without a lot of bells and whistles. That said, the lightweight, yet effective design provides plenty of protection against static discharge. Not only that, but it’s exceptionally portable, so it’s great if you do a lot of work on the road.
The HPFIX Anti-Static ESD Mat is designed more for soldering than it is for large scale work. Then again, it’s very well-equipped for working on smaller electronics. With all the little storage wells, it’s easy to keep track of your screws and parts. All in all, it’s an excellent choice for soldering and small jobs.
The iFixit Portable Anti-Static ESD Mat is made from a synthetic fabric and polymer blend, so it can fold up. This makes it very portable, and it has a large enough surface area for big jobs. We wouldn’t recommend soldering on it. But for anything short of that, it’s a good selection.
The CPB S180 Large Anti Static Silicone Repair Mat has the most storage and organization features. It’s got plenty of little wells and compartments, so you can keep all your small parts together. It’s also great for soldering, and it has a reasonably large, but not enormous surface area. Then again, the mat itself isn’t grounded, which could be cause for concern.