Review: DSLogic Logic Analyzer

Logic analyzers historically have been the heavy artillery in an engineer’s arsenal. For many of us, the name invokes mental images of large HP and Tektronix iron with real CRT screens. Logic connections were made through pods, with hundreds of leads weaving their way back to the test equipment. The logic analyzer came out when all else failed, when even a four channel scope wasn’t enough to figure out your problems. Setting them up was a pain – if you were lucky, the analyzer had a PC keyboard interface. If not, you were stuck typing your signal names into the front panel keyboard. Once setup though, logic analyzers were great at finding bugs. You can see things you’d never see with another tool – like a data bus slowly settling out after the read or write strobe.

There have been a number of USB based logic analyzers introduced in recent years, but they didn’t really catch on until Saleae released their “Logic” line of devices. Low cost, high-speed, and easy to use – these devices were perfect. They also inspired an army of clone devices based upon the same Cypress Semiconductor parts. DSLogic designed by DreamSource Labs, can be thought of as an open source evolution of the original Saleae device.

DSLogic appeared in 2013 as a Kickstarter campaign for an open source logic analyzer with an optional oscilloscope extension. I think it’s safe to say that they did well, raising $111,497 USD, more than 10 times their initial goal of $10,000 USD. These days both the DSLogic and the oscilloscope extension are available at The Hackaday Store. In this review we’re focusing on the logic analyzer portion of the tool. 

Click past the break for the full story!

Continue reading “Review: DSLogic Logic Analyzer”

Review: uISP programmer for AVR

I got into AVR chips because they are easy to program, and that has become more and more true over the years with the ever-falling cost of programmers. But it’s pretty easy to make a mistake when burning the fuses on the chips and if you don’t have a proper programmer (my first programmer was a horrifyingly slow self-built DAPA cable) you’ll have a brick on your hands. This little board may be able to help in that situation. I gave the USB µISP a try this week. The half-stick-of-gum-sized board flashes firmware like a champ and includes a rescue pin for when you have clock source problems.

My full review is below. All technical information for the µISP can be found in the User’s guide. The board itself is now available to purchase in the Hackaday Store.

Continue reading “Review: uISP programmer for AVR”

Review: HUZZAH is the ESP8266 WiFi Setup You Need

A little board that adds WiFi to any project for a few hundreds of pennies has been all the rage for at least half a year. I am referring to the ESP8266 and this product is a marrige of one of those WiFi modules with the support hardware required to get it running. This week I’m reviewing the HUZZAH ESP8266 Breakout by Adafruit Industries.

If you saw the article [cnlohr] woite for us about direct programming this board you will know that a good chunk of that post covered what you need to do just to get the module into programming mode. This required adding a regulated 3.3V source, and a way to pull one of the pins to ground when resetting the power rail. Not only does the HUZZAH take care of that for you, it turns the non-breadboard friendly module into a DIP form factor while breaking out way more pins than the most common module offers. All of this and the price tag is just $9.95. Join me after the break for the complete run-down.

Continue reading “Review: HUZZAH is the ESP8266 WiFi Setup You Need”

Review: Transistor Tester

Amazon has been getting creepier and creepier lately with their recommendations.  Every time I log in, I’m presented with a list of new Blinky LEDs, Raspberry Pi accessories, Arduino shields, and the like. It’s as if they know me. Their customer database paid off when it recommended a $22 transistor / component tester. I’ve been seeing those testers around quite a bit lately. Curiosity got the better of me and my mouse found its way to the “Buy it now with one click” button. Two days later I had a “SainSmart Mega328 Transistor Tester Diode Triode Capacitance ESR Meter MOS/PNP/NPN L/C/R” in my hands.

I’m going to get the obvious out of the way. This thing is built cheap – as cheap as the factories can make it. My particular unit arrived with the LCD flapping in the breeze, hanging on by its flex cable. Fitting the LCD back into the acrylic backlight frame revealed a slightly worrisome twist in that same flex. Thankfully nothing was actually damaged, though I do want to give the flex cable some protection in the future. More on that later. The circuitry was open for all the world to see on the bottom of the tester. The heart of the unit is an ATmega328. Supporting it are a few transistors and a handful of passives.

I didn’t have huge expectations for the tester, but I hoped it would at least power up.  Hooking up a 9 volt battery and pressing the magic button brought the tester to life. Since I didn’t have anything in the socket, it quickly lit up and displayed its maker information – “91make.taobao.com”, and “By Efan & HaoQixin”, then it informed me that I had “No, unknown, or damaged part”.

I had a few resistors lying around the bench (doesn’t everyone?) so I put one in. The tester read it as 9881 ohms. Sure enough, it was a 10K 5% resistor.  Capacitors – ceramic disc, electrolytic, and surface mount all worked as well. The tester even provided ESR values. The real test would be a transistor. I pulled an old  2N2222 in a TO-18 metal can, and popped it in the tester. The damn thing worked – it showed the schematic symbol for an NPN transistor with Collector, Base, and Emitter connected to Pins 1,2,and 3 respectively. Flipping the pins around and re-testing worked as well. The tester showed hFe as 216, and forward voltage as 692 mV, both reasonable numbers for a 2N2222.

triacThe tester worked surprisingly well – it was able to correctly identify BJTs, FETs, even esoteric parts. The only thing it balked on was a linear voltage regulator, which showed up as two diodes. Regulators are a bit more than a simple device though, so I can’t blame the tester there.  The values returned were all reasonable as well. While I don’t have a calibrated lab to check against, the numbers lined up with my Fluke meter.

So what exactly is driving this little tester? There are about 20 versions of it on the market, all of them from China. 91make is a seller on taobao.com, often referred to as “China’s ebay.” 91make’s front page features no less than 7 versions of the transistor tester, with various cases and LCDs. Some digging turned up the history on this device. It turns out the transistor tester is an open source hardware project (translated) originally created by [Markus Frejek], and built upon by [Karl-Heinz Kubbeler] and a number of others. The Subversion repository  for the project shows it is quite active, with the most recent check-in only a few hours ago. The project is also well documented. The English PDF is 103 pages, explaining theory of operation, the circuit itself, and the software. The document even explains some of the shortcomings of the Chinese versions of the tester, including using a zener diode where the original schematic calls for a precision 2.5V reference. Yes, it will work, but it won’t be as accurate as the original.

The devs also don’t officially support the clones which I can understand, considering the quality and changes in design each manufacturer is baking in to their own version. There is  a huge thread on the EEVblog forum covering these testers. Some can be modified to be closer to the official version. In fact, with an ISP tool the intrepid hacker can update the firmware to the current rev from [Karl-Heinz’s] repository.

So the final verdict on this tester is that it is a thumbs up with a small caveat. These testers are built down to a cost (and that cost is as close to zero as possible). They’re great for sorting parts, but they’re no substitute for a higher quality measuring device. I’d also love to see a version that supports the original developers.

Review: Printrbot Assembled Simple Metal

Hackaday is getting back into the swing of doing reviews, and with that comes reviews of the tool du jour, 3D printers. I have some reservations about reviewing a 3D printer; they’re a new technology, and what may be standard today could be hopelessly outdated in a few months time. Remember geared extruders? The new hotness is, apparently, direct drive extruders.

This is a review of the Printrbot Assembled Simple Metal. If you need any evidence that reviews of 3D printers have a shelf life, you only need to look at the Getting Started guides for this printer. When I bought my Simple Metal, the Printrbot recommended software stack was Slic3r and Repetier-Host. Barely three months later, Cura is now the Printrbot recommended software stack. If you think a simple change in software is inconsequential, check out these prints:

prusa parts
Prusa i3 X-carriages. Left sliced by Slic3r, right sliced by Cura

The print on the left was sliced with Slic3r. The print on the right was sliced with Cura. Notice the small teeth that grip the timing belt on each of these prints. With the Cura-sliced print, everything is fine. The Slic3r-sliced print is a complete failure, not of the machine, but the recommended software for the machine.

Therefore, if the goal of writing a review is to have a definitive opinion of a piece of equipment, a number of questions must be addressed. Since most 3D printing software is open source, should software be included in the review? Is the value proposition of a 3D printer simply a function of price to build volume (this seems to be the standard metric now), or are there intangibles? Should the review cover the quality of prints out of the box, or should the review only focus on print quality after dozens of hours of tweaking? I simply don’t know the answers to these questions, and I suspect you couldn’t get any two people to agree on the answers to these questions.

With that said, I feel I have used this printer enough to make a judgment call as to if this printer was a good buy.

Continue reading “Review: Printrbot Assembled Simple Metal”

Review: Re:load Pro

About a year ago, [Nick Johnson] over at Arachnid Labs sent a tip in about Re:load Pro, his digital constant current load design. [Nick] was running a crowdfunding campaign, which always makes me think twice about posting. However in this case, I had no qualms writing a feature here on the blog (and backing the campaign with my own cash). Re:load Pro is actually [Nick’s] third generation current load. Having purchased and used the original Re:load, I knew [Nick] was capable of fulfilling all the promises in the campaign. Turns out I was right – [Nick] and the Arachnid Labs team had a very successful crowdfunding campaign. All the kickstarter backers have been enjoying their units for months now. When it came time to stock up the Hackaday Store, the Re:load Pro was a no-brainer.

What does one need a digital constant current load for? Plenty of jobs could benefit from it! From testing batteries to verifying power supplies, to tests of many driver circuits, a digital load is a great tool to have in your arsenal.

Like many electronic devices, our first step with the Re:load Pro was to upgrade the firmware. Since the Re:load Pro is operated by a Cypress Semiconductor PSOC 4,  firmware updates are handled by the cyflash python package. For now this means heading to the command line and installing pip and cyflash. Those who aren’t familiar with a command line prompt will find a step by step guide on the firmware update page.

I should note that the Re:load Pro is powered by the USB input. I connected it up to my lab PC, which had no problem supplying the necessary power.

Calibration

The next step is calibrating the Re:load Pro. This requires an adjustable power supply capable of supplying at least 10 volts at 2amps, a decent multimeter, and of course some test leads. If you don’t have a reliable adjustable supply ask around; it should be easy to find someone who does.

The calibration is performed in three steps – first with nothing connected to the Re:load Pro. Then a power supply set to approximately 9.99 volts is connected. The voltage displayed on the Re:load Pro is tweaked with the rotary encoder to display the same value as that of the power supply. My power supply has a rather cheap internal voltmeter, so I used a multimeter in parallel with the setup. With voltage done, the Re:load Pro will draw 2 amps from the power supply. You need to adjust the current displayed on the Re:load Pro such that it matches the voltage displayed on your power supply current meter. Again, since my supply doesn’t have the most accurate meter, I used a multimeter – this time in series with the Re:load and the power supply.

Taking Measurements

reload-pro-review-thumbWith all the preliminary work done, it’s time to make some measurements! Re:load pro has a simple user interface. everything is accessed with the rotary encoder on the front panel. Turn the dial to your desired value, and press to select. In my case, I wanted to check the voltage drop of a LiPo battery under various loads. I simply hooked up the battery and dialed 350ma on the encoder. The Re:load Pro showed me that the battery was holding at 12.1 volts, and a display on the lower left side showed me how many milli amp hours I had pulled from the battery.

The Re:load Pro’s USB connector isn’t just for power. It will show up on your PC as a serial device. Just open your favorite terminal emulator, set the port to 115200 baud 8/N/1, and you’re good to go. The Re:load Pro uses a simple text based command/response protocol, all the commands are outlined on the Arachnid labs page.

Conclusion:

Re:load Pro is one of the first of new breed of open source tools. Like the closed source Rigol Oscilloscope, it replaces tools which cost several times more. [Nick] and Arachnid Labs aren’t just resting on their success though – they’ve just finished up a kickstarter for their latest open source tool. Tsunami is an open source signal generator based upon the Arduino platform. Tools enable projects, and open source tools are the best way to push the entire ecosystem forward.


Editor’s Note: We are reviving the concept of “Reviews” on Hackaday. These were pioneered long long ago by Hackaday Alum [Ian Lesnet] with his post on smart tweezers but little has been done since. We see a lot of tools, parts, raw materials, and equipment flow through our inbox. We plan to post reviews as a new Hackaday Column. These reviews are not paid placement, they are chosen by editors and writers based on our own interest. This particular example is available in the Hackaday Store and we started with it because we already have the hardware in-hand. However, we will be reviewing items we do not sell and have already put out requests for review units. If you know of something you think worthy of a review, please let us know by submitting it to the tips line. Thanks!

-Mike Szczys, Managing Editor

Hands-On Othermill Review Grinds Out Sparkling Results

We’ve been on the lookout for alternatives to chemically etching circuit boards for years. The problem has been that we don’t particularly want to devote months of or lives learning how to build precision CNC mills. Off in the distance there may be an answer for that quandary if you don’t mind parting with twenty-two Benjamins. Sure, it’s a heck of a lot more expensive than toner transfer and cupric chloride, but the Othermill can be purchased right now (in your hands a few months later) and after reading this in-depth review we are a bit less hesitant about opening our wallets for it.

othermill-review-thumbIt’s a tome of a review, but that means there’s something for everybody. We especially enjoyed seeing the 10 mil board shown here which took about 1-hour to mill. Considering it has also been through-hole drilled we’d put that on part with the time it takes to etch a board. There are obvious places where the traces are not perfectly smooth (not sure if that’s burring or over-milling) but they are not broken and the board’s ready to be populated.

Alignment is something of an issue, but the Othermill isn’t limited to PCBs so we’d recommend designing and milling your own alignment bracket system as an early project.

Who isn’t envious of custom-builds that can get down to 10-mils, like this beauty from 2013. Our hopes had been sparked when Carbide 3D came onto the scene. We’re still optimistic that they will make a big splash when they start shipping preorders in a few months.

As this review proves, Othermill is already out in the wild with a 6-8 week wait before shipping. We saw it in action milling multiple materials at the Hackaday Omnibus Lauch Party and were duly impressed. Price or waiting-period aside we’re going to hold off until the software options expand beyond Mac-only; either Othermill will add support or someone will come up with a hack to use traditional CNC software. But if you count yourself as a subscriber to the cult of Apple the software, called Otherplan, does get a favorable prognosis along with the hardware.

Already have an Othermill sitting on your bench? Let us know your what you think about it in the comments below.

Bonus content: [Mike Estee], CTO of Othermill just gave a talk last night about how he got into making mills and the challenges of building something with super-high-precision. Sound isn’t good but the talk is solid. Hackaday’s [Joshua Vasquez] also gives a talk on the video about building an SPI core for FPGA. These talks are one of the Hardware Developer’s Didactic Galactic series which you really should check out if you’re ever in the San Francisco area.

Continue reading “Hands-On Othermill Review Grinds Out Sparkling Results”