Review: Antex TCS 50W Digital Temperature Controlled Soldering Iron.

Sometime last summer, I suffered a very sad loss indeed. My soldering iron failed, and it was not just any soldering iron, but the Weller Magnastat temperature-controlled iron that had been my iron of choice since my student days. It was time to buy a replacement, and a whole world of soldering equipment lay before me. In the end I settled on a choice that might seem unexpected, I bought an Antex TCS 50W temperature controlled iron with a digital temperature controller and LCD display in its handle.

No room for a poor iron

When looking at a new iron it’s worth considering for a moment what requirements you might have.  After all, while we’d all love to own a top-of-the range soldering station it’s sometimes necessary to target your purchase carefully for an acceptable blend of affordability, reliability, and performance. It’s possible to find temperature controlled irons for astoundingly low prices these days, thanks to the wonders of globalised manufacturing. But the irons themselves will not be of good quality, their bits will be difficult to replace, and sometimes they are better described as variable temperature rather than temperature controlled. If I was to escape a poor choice I’d have to set my sights a little higher.

Antex are a perennial in the world of British electronics, their signature yellow-handled irons have been around for decades. They aren’t priced at the top end of the market yet they have a pretty good reputation, but could their all-in-one temperature controlled iron be a good alternative to a unknown-name iron that came with a soldering-station-style controller? I parted with my £55 (about $68) before taxes, and waited for the delivery.

All-in-one, win or bin?

The iron I chose is the latest in a long line of their all-in-one temperature controlled irons, and so the blurb tells me, the first with digital control. Previous models had an analogue adjustment which if I recall correctly was achieved by means of a screw, while this one has an LCD display with up and down buttons on its handle.

I haven't bothered with the supplied stand, as you can see.
I haven’t bothered with the supplied stand, as you can see.

In the box are the iron, a rather useless stand made from metal sheet, and an instruction leaflet. Fortunately my requirements included a decent stand, so I’d already ordered the more substantial companion product with a sponge. Out went the sponge and in went a bundle of brass turnings, but the stand itself is fine.

The iron has the usual Antex bit that fits as a sleeve over the cylindrical element. I bought a range of bits of different sizes, it’s never a bad thing to have choice. The handle is bigger than their standard irons as you might expect, but has a flattened and curved profile that’s easy on the hand. It’s noticeably lighter than the Magnastat, which along with its extra-flexible silicone cable makes it easier to use than its predecessor.

In use, the extra length of the handle doesn’t compromise soldering ability. In the time since purchase it has been used to construct multiple projects, and everything from the smaller surface-mount components upwards are taken in its stride. The 50 W element has plenty of power for soldering to PCB planes that suck away the heat, though you probably wouldn’t use it to solder heavy-gauge copper.

The temperature range of 200 to 450 Celcius is ample for my requirements, in fact once I’d set it to my normal 360 degrees I’ve never changed it. Time from power-on to full working temperature is about 45 seconds, which isn’t the fastest on the block, but then again since I turn it on when I sit down it’s not ever been an issue.

A match made in heaven

So, based on quite a few months of regular use, I’m happy with my iron. The question is though, was it the best choice? I think so, given that the competition at the price would almost certainly not come with such readily available support. There’s almost an instinctive distrust of all-in-one temperature-controlled irons that I haven’t found to be justified by the reality. An alternative might have been to build one of the clever designs that adds a temperature controller to a Weller tip, but given that this is an iron I sometimes use to earn a living I’d rather be working for cash than working on my iron. There are certainly cheaper irons and there are probably better irons, but for me this one hits the sweet spot between the two sets of being a good enough iron without being too expensive.

49 thoughts on “Review: Antex TCS 50W Digital Temperature Controlled Soldering Iron.

    1. I’ve had my Weller for nearly 50 years – used pretty much every day. A bit like Triggers Broom (an English thing) – new tips, handle, cable, elements, stats, you name it, and then the transformer failed when it developed a fault. One of the few things on it that is obsolete.
      I am so attached to the thing – nothing else comes close – I dug out the transformer from the potting (it’s an old style PSU) and re-wound a same size 50VA transformer from some old kit lying around to give a 24v secondary. Added a switch and a fuse and I reckon it’s good for another 50 years! It should outlive me now. I’ve tried others but they just aren’t as good as a Weller.

  1. I used a 15W Antex iron back in the early 1970s when I did soldering for spacecraft circuit boards. I loved it and acquired one for myself when I left there. It is still my favorite iron for SMT work. A 110V regulated one would be great. I checked the US distributors but they didn’t have them listed. Too bad.

    1. Same, back in the day…not quite that long ago. But I bought it because I needed to do surface mount work and didn’t have the cash for a real soldering station yet. The 15W iron works great because the heat cartridge is right up near the tip. I have it in my portable toolkit and still use it often! I think I bought it from HMC Electronics. M.M. Newman distributes the mini irons now, and they’re quite a bit more expensive these days! http://products.mmnewman.com/antex-soldering-irons/miniature-soldering-irons-and-tips

    2. I should have noted I also have Hakko and Weller temperature regulated irons on my work bench and use them regularly for non-SMT parts. I still like the Antex best for SMT.

  2. I’ve had one of these since they came out. They are brilliant when working out on site doing repairs and wanting to travel light. It even works on 110V but is really quite slow to get up to temperature. I did have a cap blow on the PCB but Antex replaced it under warranty and sent it back with a brand new tip.

  3. A small TENMA station from farnell, hakko clone of a discontinued station, with regulated temperature, screen and presets, along with a very decent stand for an unbeatable price… so far this is the best buy I have made concerning soldering irons, as it is only one and a half times the cost of a cheap station from china…

  4. Oh dear Jenny, ’tis a poor iron. We have homeworkers and these were issued to them as a replacement. 3\4 failed within 3 months. They ended going back to farnell & @ £90 each they are a poor replacement of their predecessor. Ended up with Hakko FX-888D without any failures……. so far!

  5. I have an old 50W nameless, temperature controlled soldering station. It works very well, but I can’t find the correct tips anywhere. Now the tip has completely gone, I have resorted to drilling a hole in the remaining part of the tip, cut off a piece of 6^2mm solid coper wire, sand one end into a bit of a cone, tap it into the hole in the tip, and cut it to length.

    It doesn’t last very long because it lacks any coating, but I can grind it to whatever shape I need, and get replacement by the meter.

  6. As I get older, my hand eye coordination is getting worse. So I hacked a portable battery powered Haako to take variable DC power through the wall or just use the 4 AA bat cartridge. Then, I took the heat guard and cut off the plastic top in such a way that I can wrap my hand around the plastic guard and only be about 1 inch away from the tip with my hand. Using a magnifying cam I can once again do SMD work without royally screwing it up.

  7. METCAL MX500.

    I used to not like using them because I couldn’t get used to “smart temperature” somehow being smarter than me or better than having a digital read out. But now I am a convert.

    New, they are stupid expensive. The key is finding a good used on everyone’s favorite auction site, which isn’t too hard if you are patient and willing to snipe bid. OR just buy a broken one and fix it cheaply.

    The schematics are out there and they typically are pretty easy to fix. Someone even put together a troubleshooting list for it.

    They are awesome, easy to swap tips and they have a crazy number of tips and hand pieces for them.

    METCAL all the way.

    Not to cut down your choice but 50 watts is a monster iron, just look at that thing. It looks huge and not something I’d want to hold all day….

      1. yeah, its probably just they picture doesn’t include anything for scale and it being good for 50W makes it seem big to my brain. Looking at it a bit it doesn’t look all that big. I guess I would have trouble with it having buttons on the grip more than anything, but maybe its a “push and hold” sort of affair. I struggle with mechanical pencils that have the actuation button on the side. I’m always accidently pushing those and having the lead retract on me! And I have yuge hands! But the not needed a bulky power supply brick would probably be a plus for bench space for your pick. To each their own!

  8. TS-100 FTW!!!

    It is a total underdog compared to all the Wellers, Hakkos and Antexes
    but it is a very, very good iron.
    It uses a similar kind of tips to a Hakko model, the ones with thermocouple
    included which are a bit on the expensive side but they work like in a dream.
    It sports a beefy STM32 and a tiny OLED screen and has some fancy features
    like cooling down to 150C when not in use and jumping straight to 320C
    when picked up thanks to its accelerometer.
    And when I say jumping, I mean it. Tips are small and its power depends on the
    adapter used which can be up to 80W I think.. and that is immense when
    you see that the iron itself is no bigger than a cheap pen.
    If anybody is interested, I could write a detailed review.. I am using it now for
    more than 18 months or so.

    Regards,

    1. Yep absolutely. The TS-100 is great, and the accelerometer wake feature is much better than the temp one that some other irons use – by the time you get it over to your work it’s already back to temperature.

      I’ve taken mine on work trips and international travel, it’s great.
      The *only* other thing I could ask for is a nice case with an integrated power brick and room for some spare tips.

      1. Cool idea with the case… I am just finishing my cnc today.. together with some printed parts and some electronics
        I think I have a first project here :-)

    2. The TS-100s are great portable irons – I carry one around in my bag with the few other bits of gear, and it’s amazing how many times it’s found use hooked up to a car or truck battery, or into a 24V supply on an industrial control panel. A simple barrel jack adapter also means I can normally power it with the same power brick I use for my laptop.

  9. Does anyone know a cheap (ish?) iron with a short distance between the grip and the tip?

    I’ve got a Metcal station at work, and it’s amazingly easy to use – the tip is close to your fingers, so you have much finer control.

    But I can’t afford $1k+ (AU) for a home one.
    Maybe there’s a Hakko T12 compatible thing out there somewhere in the depths of aliexpress?

    1. TS-100, see above.
      The tips I mentioned are T12-likes but shorter. Thats what you asked for, right.?
      The only downside when using the T12 tips is that the distance between grip and tip gets longer.but see for yourself on aliexpress.

      1. $50 is definitely within my criteria of cheap, but looking at the TS-100, it seems realllly long.
        They claim their cartridge is 34mm shorter than a T12, but the whole damn cartridge protrudes from the handle.

        Metcal has a similarly long cartridge, but it almost all slides inside the grip, only ~5cm extends out.

        Anyway, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll try to find some dimensions on the TS 100 since maybe the photos I’m looking at are deceptive…

  10. My idea of an all in one is the Aoyue 866, with hot air, pre-heater and soldering iron in one base station. It replaced a Velleman temperature controlled iron which was alright but no where near as much power as the Aoyue, which has a 60W iron, and 400W preheater and hot air gun. If you do PCBs with large ground planes regularly, a preheater is great. You can solder stuff without boosting the iron to insane temperatures risking hot spotting and burning up components or lifting pads.
    Even some limited reballing and reflowing is possible if you’re careful, though the preheater isn’t programmable for reflow unfortunately. I could build something that does the trick :)
    The iron heats up in about 20 seconds. In 10 seconds the indicated temperature is reached, but the tip reaches the right temperature 10 seconds later. It came with an array of bits, stand for iron, brass sponge and replacement heaters for both the iron and hot air gun. I’ve owned it for half a year and got the money back out of it by repairing stuff already. The only thing missing is a desoldering iron, but I have the bulb sucker iron for that. It’s not great but does the job.
    I’m still looking for the hakko well type tips with my iron, with the little hollow in the tip. If anyone knows where I can order those I’d be very grateful!

  11. I bought myself a Hakko 936d clone (the D means digital not sure the original had a D) for £20 came with a nice stand with sponge tray and I’ve got to say I have used real Hakko’s and I can’t tell the difference in performance it accepts Hakko 800m tips which is a massive bonus at the price point. they are cheap not very portable though and readily available on ebay. http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/936D-CONSTANT-TEMPERATURE-SOLDERING-STATION-WELDING-60W-ESD-LED-DISPLAY-HOT-/162165989464?hash=item25c1d8a058:g:1x4AAOSw-itXq~gz

    1. No, it’s got a quite flexible, probably silicone, cord. Much better than my aged Weller. It was a gamble buying it, I was prepared to be disappointed, but it paid off.

  12. Seems the element will be at 240v (SCR chopped/controlled?).
    If the controller can be hacked to run a lower voltage heater then I’d probably convert it from SCR to MOSFET for DC and make an all-in-one portable iron that’ll run off one of my portable universal laptop PSU battery packs (the 12 to 19V battery packs).

    Found the 24v iron I have that are marked for 48w draws over 3A! (DC) when starting from cold with my reused for experimentation controller (tracks badly soldered, PCB a mess, MOSFET bodged where a capacitor and SCR used to be, complete hack-job: But it works! It keeps the temperature more stable than with the chopper circuit). The PCB is similar to the ZD-916 stations, but has buttons along the bottom for 200, 300, 400 temps and an up/down button set on the side.

    1. Looking at the Antex TCS50W page history on archive.org it was £69.99 early last year, then went up to £87.36 sometime in May.

      Even at £55 it’s way more than the last soldering iron I bought for £3.38, a cheap Chinese USB one which works surprisingly well for a bit of general soldering because it heats up in seconds, but it can over-cook SMD components and doesn’t have enough power for really thick wires etc.

  13. Good to here that people are keeping their Weller :-) I got mine just on 40 years ago and it’s still working well, I’ve occasionally thought maybe I should get something newer, but from the posts above I suspect I don’t need to :-)

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