Review: TS100 Soldering Iron

Temperature-controlled soldering irons can be cheap, lightweight, and good. Pick any two of those attributes when you choose an iron, because you’ll never have all three. You might believe that this adage represents a cast-iron rule, no iron could possibly combine all three to make a lightweight high-performance tool that won’t break the bank! And until fairly recently you’d have had a point, but perhaps there is now a contender that could achieve that impossible feat.

The Miniware TS100 is a relatively inexpensive temperature-controlled soldering iron from China that has made a stealthy entry to the market, and which some online commentators claim to be the equal of far more expensive professional-grade irons. We parted with just below £50 (around $60) to place an order for a TS100, and waited for it to arrive so we could see what all the fuss was about.

Constituent parts of a TS100 iron.
Constituent parts of a TS100 iron.

The Goods

The iron arrived well-packaged in a smart cardboard container that was well up to the task of protecting it through international air mail. Nestled in foam were the iron handle, a single combined element and bit, and an envelope containing a short instruction leaflet and a click-seal bag with an Allen key and a spare screw to secure the bit. There was no power supply, you supply your own 12 to 24 V DC to power it.

The handle is a plastic wand containing the temperature control electronics about 100 mm (4″) long, and similar in girth to a chunky fountain pen. At its rear is a barrel socket for the DC supply alongside a micro-USB socket for firmware and configuration, on its top are a small OLED display and a couple of buttons, and at its front is a receptacle for the element unit. Meanwhile the element unit is about 105 mm (3.15″) long, with an exposed length to the end of the bit of about 70 mm (2.75″).

The assembled TS100 iron
The assembled TS100 iron

Assembling the iron is simple enough, the element slots into the receptacle and an Allen screw is tightened to hold it in place. The whole assembled unit weighs 30 g, or a shade over an ounce, and has a balance point almost at its centre.

We hadn’t ordered a power supply with our TS100, but you will doubtless be able to buy one if you don’t have one of the right power level and polarity to hand. We used a 19.5 V netbook supply which was far more than capable of delivering the 40 W the instruction leaflet claims for the iron at 19 V. Maximum power is given as 65 W when supplied with 24 V, while minimum is 17 W with 12 V.

In the hand, the iron is light and easy on the fingers. On its own it is similar in weight and feel to holding a fountain pen, and it is easy to see where comparisons with more expensive irons from the likes of Weller come from. However the iron itself is not the whole story, because your choice of power supply and in particular its lead will make a huge difference to how it feels in practice. The Weller will come fitted with an extra-flexible silicone lead probably designed to work at higher temperatures, by comparison the lead on a cheap power supply is likely to be a stiffer and cheaper affair. Our netbook supply had a right-angled plug, and though it wasn’t a nice flexible silicone cable it turned out not to be a significant burden once it was ensured to be out of range of the hot end.

The TS100 ready to use
The TS100 ready to use

Heating up, the TS100 may not be as quick as some irons, but it’s no slouch. It’s quoted as 15 seconds to 300 Celsius at 19 volts in its instruction leaflet, and our iron certainly didn’t disappoint. Setting the temperature is a simple case of using the buttons to move the temperature up and down on the OLED display, and once it remains at a particular temperature it stores that setting in its non-volatile memory.

In Test

To test the iron we assembled a little radio kit, a surface mount design intended for first-time surface mount solderers and thus using fairly substantial 1206 components and SOICs rather than SOPs or smaller integrated circuits. We found the iron perfectly easy to use, but with one caveat: the stock bit is a pencil tip, type “B2” that is fine for the larger surface mount devices but which would in our opinion probably be a little unwieldy for anything smaller than an 0805. Fortunately there is a large range of other bits of all shapes and sizes for the iron, including one with a finer point that surface-mount wizards may want to look at.

One of the features of the TS100 is that its firmware can be easily upgraded over USB, and to that end it is easy to download the latest version and install it. Simply hold down one of the buttons on live USB plug-in to enter firmware upgrade mode, and when it appears as a drive on the computer into which you’ve plugged it, copy the firmware file to the drive and it upgrades itself.

Unfortunately, in our case the curse of the firmware upgrade struck us, and after downloading and unpacking the file we were unable to make our iron accept it. We can confirm that the process failed for us on Ubuntu, Windows, and MacOS computers, so maybe it just wasn’t our lucky day. Fortunately the TS100 is not one of those devices that is easily bricked by a failed firmware upgrade, so we were simply presented with an error file rather than a dead iron. A soldering iron is in essence a hardware device not a software one, and the shipped firmware version is fine for soldering, so that’s what we’re reviewing.

It’s worth pointing out here that the TS100 firmware is billed as open-source, and that the code and schematics are available from the link above. We say billed as open-source though, because while the code is officially freely available it does not seem to be accompanied by any form of open-source licence. This may be of more concern to software libre purists than many readers, but still, it is worth mentioning.

The TS100 config file
The TS100 config file

We’re told that the latest versions of the firmware provide adjustment of the iron parameters other than temperature through a menu system on the device itself, but on our model the older firmware requires the editing of a text file that appears in a drive when you plug the iron’s USB port into a computer without holding a button down to enter firmware upgrade mode. In the file you can find settings for the different temperatures and timings, and adjust them to your taste.

The Bottom Line

After having the TS100 for a few weeks, what’s our verdict? Is it a good iron, does it give those expensive irons a run for their money, and would we recommend that you consider one?

It’s important to consider the soldering iron market as a whole when answering those questions. If you spend a four-figure sum on a soldering station, you will find yourself with an iron that is lighter than the TS100, it will have a shorter reach, a quicker warm-up time, better software control, more available bits, in fact it will beat the TS100 in every way possible. You’ll be using that soldering station hard every day for a decade, and it will still deliver the goods.

If however you spend a low three-figure sum on a soldering station from a quality manufacturer, you’ll get something closer. It’ll probably have a similar choice of bits and a nice extra-flexible silicone cable, and it will probably last longer, but in soldering terms it will be a surprisingly similar experience. Even having to spend a few more dollars on a power supply, a decent soldering station in this range will still cost you over twice as much as the TS100.

At the same price range or lower as the TS100 it’s likely that soldering stations will start to decrease in quality, be from anonymous manufacturers with no replacement bit support, and not have quite such a good user experience. Perhaps an all-in-one iron for a similar price such as the Antex TCS50 we reviewed earlier in the year is a better comparison, and at this point we start to see how the TS100 is redefining this sector. The Antex is a good iron for everyday soldering, it is the same weight as the TS100 and has the same reach. It’s mains-powered and comes with an extra-flexible silicone cable, but when you compare the irons side-by-side it becomes obvious that the Antex is being left behind. Its handle is huge by comparison, and its temperature control is limited to a very basic up/down setting with no configurability.

So if you are a high-end professional user looking for an iron to work with every day, the TS100 is probably not a choice that will displace your top-of-the-range model. But if you are a regular solderer or serious electronics hobbyist who is looking for the best bang for buck, you should definitely consider one as an alternative to a low-end soldering station. And if you are buying at the bottom of the temperature-controlled iron food chain then you should really give the TS100 a serious look. Returning to our point at the start of this review, it’s cheap, lightweight, and certainly good enough.

Meanwhile if you manufacture soldering irons, this one will probably have you worried. We look forward to seeing what the models produced to compete with it have to offer.

The Miniware TS100 soldering iron, along with associated bits and power supplies, can be found online from all the usual vendors of Chinese electronics.

DEF CON Badgelife: The ESP Rules All

Badgelife is the celebration of independent hardware creators, working for months at a time to bring custom electronic badges to conferences around the world. This year at DEF CON, Badgelife is huge. It’s not just because this year was supposed to feature a non-electronic badge, and it’s not because the official badge imploded last month — Badgelife is all about people spending most of the year designing, and manufacturing hardware, culminating in one very special weekend.

[Garrett] owns Hacker Warehouse, a store providing all kinds of neat hacker tools ranging from software-defined radios to lock pick sets to side channel analysis toolkits. This year, [Garrett] decided he wanted to branch out his business and get involved in a little bit of hardware creation. He’s been curious about this for some time and figured a limited edition DEF CON badge made sense. What he wound up with is a beautiful little badge with games, blinkies, graphics, and potential to cause a lot of wireless mischief.

Would you look at that. RF design on an independent badge.

The design of the Hacker Warehouse badge is surprisingly simple compared to the Bender Badges and puzzling crypto badges that are also part of this year’s Badgelife hardware celebration. On board is an ESP8266 with a custom PCB implementation that includes a larger Flash chip. The other side of the board is loaded up with four tact switches in a D-pad arrangement. On top is a 96 x 64 pixel full-color OLED display, and blinkies are provided by fourteen mini WS2812 RGB LEDs. Power is provided by two AA cells and what looks to be a nice fancy switching regulator. This is real hardware, not just a few modules thrown together with a bunch of LEDs.

Oh, what wireless fun

This badge is built around the ESP8266, a very interesting WiFi-enabled microcontroller that has more features than it should. [Garrett] is using the ESP as a WiFi scanner of sorts, allowing anyone with this badge to monitor WiFi channels, APs, packets, and — this is important — deauth packets.

Over the last year, there have been a number of projects around the Internet that take an ESP8266 and spew deauthorization frames into the spectrum. These frames cause a WiFi client to stop using an access point, and basically shuts down all the WiFi in an area. It’s well documented, and people have been doing it for years, but the ESP8266 makes deauth attacks so very, very easy. We’re going to see a lot of deauth frames this year at DEF CON, and the Hacker Warehouse badge will be able to detect them. It can also generate these frames, but that capability is locked for now.

Blinking and glowing

An electronic conference badge isn’t cool unless it has obnoxiously bright and glowy LEDs, and the Hacker Warehouse badge is very cool.

Onboard the Hacker Warehouse badge are 14 RGB LEDs, programmed with 46 different patterns that are certainly bright enough to annoy someone. This is what you need for a badge, and it’s beautiful.

This is a truly fantastic badge that’s also a great development board for the ESP8266. Everything you need for portable WiFi gaming fun is already there — you have blinky LEDs, an OLED, what seems to be a fairly nice power supply, and enough buttons to do something interesting. All you need to do to program this badge is attach a USB to serial adapter to the pre-populated header and you really have something. It’s a great badge, and we can’t wait to see the hacks for this great piece of hardware next week at DEF CON.

The Cheapest Meter on Banggood

According to [pileofstuff], he didn’t really need another digital multimeter. However, when he saw a DT-832 meter on Banggood for the princely sum for $4.99 he wondered just what kind of meter you’d get for that price. You can see his conclusions in his recent video (below). He does make it clear, by the way, that he wasn’t paid for the review or given the meter. He just decided to see what $5 would buy in a meter.

Depending on your predisposition to cheap Asian electronics, you may or may not be surprised. After all, for $5 you can’t expect a top-of-the-line lab instrument. The device measures AC and DC voltage, DC amperage, ohms, transistor beta, and has a diode tester and continuity buzzer. It also has some frequency measurement capability. You can’t be too surprised it doesn’t auto range, though. To be fair, although he mentions Banggood as the source of the meter, a quick Google search shows you can get them from all the usual sources, and the price is down to $3.73 as long as you let them ship it from Canada.

Continue reading “The Cheapest Meter on Banggood”

Books you should read: The Bridge

A few weeks ago, Amazon’s crack marketing AI decided to recommend a few books for me. That AI must be getting better because instead of the latest special-edition Twilight books, I was greeted with this:

“The asteroid was called the Hand of God when it hit.”

That’s the first sentence of The Bridge, a new Sci-Fi book by Leonard Petracci. If you think that line sucks you in, wait until you read the whole first chapter.

The Bridge is solidly in the generation ship trope. A voyage hundreds or even thousands of years long, with no sleep or stasis pods. The original crew knows they have no hope of seeing their destination, nor will their children and grandchildren. Heinlein delved into it with Orphans of the Sky. Even Robert Goddard himself discussed generation ships in The Last Migration.

I wouldn’t call The Bridge hard Sci-Fi — and that’s perfectly fine. Leonard isn’t going for scientific accuracy. It’s a great character driven story. If you enjoyed a book like Ready Player One, you’ll probably enjoy this.

The Bridge Is the story of Dandelion 14, a ship carrying people of Earth to a new planet. At some point during the journey, Dandelion 14 was struck by an asteroid, which split the ship in two. Only a few wires and cables keep the halves of the ship together. The crew on both sides of the ship survived, but they had no way to communicate. They do catch glimpses of each other in the windows though.

Much of the story is told in the first person by Horatius, a young man born hundreds of years after the asteroid strike. Horatius’ side of the ship has a population of one thousand, carefully measured at each census. They’ve lost knowledge of how to operate the ship’s systems, but they are surviving. Most of the population are gardeners, but there are doctors, cooks, porters, and a few historians. At four years old, Horatius is selected to become a gardener, like his father was before him. But Horatius has higher aspirations. He longs to become a historian to learn the secrets of the generations that came before him and to write his own story down for those who will come after.

Horatius sees the faces of the people on the other side of the ship as well. Gaunt, hungry, often fighting with knives or other weapons. A stark contrast to the well-fed people on his side of the vessel. The exception is one red-haired girl about his age. He often finds her staring back at him, watching him.

Horatius might have been chosen as a gardener, but he’s clever — a fact that sometimes gets him in trouble. His life takes an abrupt turn when the sleeping ship awakens with an announcement blaring “Systems Rebooting, Ship damage assessed. Reuniting the two halves of the ship and restoring airlock, approximately twenty-four hours until complete.”

The hardest part of writing a book review is not giving too much away. While I won’t tell you much more about the plot for The Bridge, I can tell a bit about how the book came about. You might call this book a hack of the publishing system. Leonard Petracci is also known as leoduhvinci on Reddit. The Bridge started life as Leonard’s response to a post on /r/writingprompts. The prompt went like this:

After almost 1,000 years the population of a generation ship has lost the ability to understand most technology and now lives at a pre-industrial level. Today the ship reaches its destination and the automated systems come back online.

Leonard ’s response to the prompt shot straight to the top, and became the first chapter of The Bridge. Chapter 2 followed soon after. In only a few months, the book was complete. Available on Reddit, and on Leonard’s website. The Bridge is also available on Amazon for Kindle, and on paper from Amazon’s CreateSpace.

The only real criticism I have about The Bridge is the ending. The book’s resolution felt a bit rushed. It would have been nice to have a few more pages telling us what happened to the characters after the major events of the book. Leonard is planning a sequel though, and he teases this in the final pages.

You can start reading The Bridge right now on Leonard’s website. He has the entire book online for free for a few more weeks. If you’ve missed the free period, the Kindle edition is currently $2.99.

Places to visit: Electric Mountain

The experience of being a teenager leaves a host of memories, of social awkwardness in the difficult process of not quite being a child any more, of tedious school days, and of team sports seemingly enjoyed only by the few. Wherever in the world you grew up will have lent a particular flavour to your recollections of that period of your life, whether your memories are good or bad.

One surprising common theme in British teenage memories, at least those of a few decades ago, are power stations. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Central Electricity Generating Board had a PR effort that involved bringing parties of teenage school geography students in for a tour of their local electricity plant, so if you talk to a British person of a certain age you’ll probably find they’ve been up close and personal with a coal-fired power station.

The true power station marvel of the age would have been too far away to tour for most kids at the time, though our geography teachers expounded on it at length. Dinorwig pumped-storage power station in Wales was opened in the early 1980s, and is a hydroelectric plant that uses excess grid generating capacity in the middle of the night to pump water into a lake at the top of a mountain, from which it can later be released at very short notice to respond to demand surges in a matter of seconds. The oft-quoted example is that when an episode of Coronation Street draws to a close there are several million British kettles turned on simultaneously, at which point Dinorwig comes online to rapidly make up the resulting shortfall.

Continue reading “Places to visit: Electric Mountain”

Hacking an Inspection Microscope

Sometimes I need to be able to take photographs of very small things, and the so-called macro mode on my point-and-shoot camera just won’t cut it. And it never hurts to have an inspection scope on hand for tiny soldering jobs, either, though I prefer a simple jeweler’s loupe in one eye for most tasks. So I sent just over $40 off to my close friend Alibaba, and a few weeks later was the proud owner of a halfway usable inspection scope that records stills or video to an SD card.

Unfortunately, it’s only halfway useable because of chintzy interface design and a wobbly mount. So I spent an afternoon, took the microscope apart, and got it under microcontroller control, complete with WiFi and a scripting language. Much better! Now I can make microscope time-lapses, but much more importantly I can take blur-free photos without touching the wiggly rig. It was a fun hack, so I thought I’d share. Read on!

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First thoughts on the new UP Core

I normally stay away from talking about x86 single-board computers because I don’t have a lot to say about them. They’re too expensive, and run too hot, to be interesting. Enter the new UP Core funding now on Kickstarter.

The UP Core is just 56.5 mm × 66 mm (2.2 in × 2.6 in) and powered by a 64-bit Quad Core Intel Atom clocked at either 1.44 GHz or 1.92 GHz. It will ship with either 2 GB or 4 GB of RAM, and either 32 GB or 64 GB of eMMC. The board has a USB 3 port, HDMI, DSI/eDP, and two MIPI-CSI ports supporting either a 2 MP or 8 MP camera. It has both WiFi 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth LE built-in.

In other words it’s powerful enough to serve as a desktop PC running Linux, Android, or a full Windows 10 installation. The cheapest UP Core configuration—with 1 GB memory and 16 GB eMMC—is €69, or around $75. Continue reading “First thoughts on the new UP Core”