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.

First Look: Macchina M2

In the past few years, we’ve seen a growth in car hacking. Newer tools are being released, which makes it faster and cheaper to get into automotive tinkering. Today we’re taking a first look at the M2, a new device from the folks at Macchina.

The Macchina M1 was the first release of a hacker friendly automotive device from the company. This was an Arduino compatible board, which kept the Arduino form factor but added interface hardware for the protocols most commonly found in cars. This allowed for anyone familiar with Arduino to start tinkering with cars in a familiar fashion. The form factor was convenient for adding standard shields, but was a bit large for using as a device connected to the industry standard OBD-II connector under the dash.

The Macchina M2 is a redesign that crams the M1’s feature set into a smaller form factor, modularizes the design, and adds some new features. With their Kickstarter launching today, they sent us a developer kit to review. Here’s our first look at the device.

Continue reading “First Look: Macchina M2”

Review: The Asus Tinker Board (Updated)

In the years since the launch of the original Raspberry Pi we have seen the little British ARM-based board become one of the more popular single board computers in the hobbyist, maker, and hacker communities. It has retained that position despite the best efforts of other manufacturers, and we have seen a succession of competitor boards directly copying it by imitating its form factor. None of them have made a significant dent in the sales figures enjoyed by the Pi, yet they continue to appear on a regular basis.

We recently brought you news of the latest challenger in this arena, in the form of the Asus Tinker Board. This is a board that has made us sit up and take notice because unlike previous players this time we have a product from a giant of the industry. Most of us are likely to own at least one Asus product, indeed there is a good chance that you might be reading this on an Asus computer or monitor. Asus have made some very high quality hardware in their time, so perhaps this product will inherit some of that heritage. Thus it was with a sense of expectation that we ordered one of the first batch of Tinker Boards, and waited eagerly for the postman.

Update:

A member of the Asus Marketing team read this review and contacted Hackaday with some updated information. According to our discussion, the Tinker Board has not officially launched. This explains a lot about the current state of the Tinker Board. As Jenny mentions in her review below, the software support for the board is not yet in place, and as comments on this review have mentioned, you can’t source it in the US and most other markets. An internal slide deck was leaked on SlideShare shortly after CES (which explains our earlier coverage), followed by one retailer in the UK market selling the boards ahead of Asus’ launch date (which is how we got our hands on this unit).

Asus tells us that they are aiming for an end of February launch date, perhaps as soon as the 26th for the United States, UK, and Taiwan. Other markets might have some variation, all of this contingent on agreements with and getting stock to regional distributors. With the launch will come the final OS Distribution (TinkerOS based on Debian), schematics, mechanical block diagrams, etc. Asus tells Hackaday it is a top priority to deliver hardware video acceleration for the Rockchip on the Tinker Board. The Board Support Package which hooks the feature into Linux is not yet finished but will come either on launch day or soon after. This is the end of the update, please enjoy Jenny List’s full review below.

Continue reading “Review: The Asus Tinker Board (Updated)”

Books You Should Read: Making A Transistor Radio

When a Hackaday article proclaims that its subject is a book you should read, you might imagine that we would be talking of a seminal text known only by its authors’ names. Horowitz and Hill, perhaps, or maybe Kernigan and Ritchie. The kind of book from which you learn your craft, and to which you continuously return to as a work of reference. Those books that you don’t sell on at the end of your university career.

Ladybird books covered a huge range of topics.
Ladybird books covered a huge range of topics.

So you might find it a little unexpected then that our subject here is a children’s book. Making A Transistor Radio, by [George Dobbs, G3RJV] is one of the huge series of books published in the UK under the Ladybird imprint that were a staple of British childhoods for a large part of the twentieth century. These slim volumes in a distinctive 7″ by 4.5″ (180 x 115 mm) hard cover format were published on a huge range of subjects, and contained well written and informative text paired with illustrations that often came from the foremost artists of the day. This one was published at the start of the 1970s when Ladybird books were in their heyday, and has the simple objective of taking the reader through the construction of a simple three transistor radio. It’s a book you must read not because it is a seminal work in the vein of Horrowitz and Hill, but because it is the book that will have provided the first introduction to electronics for many people whose path took them from this humble start into taking the subject up as a career. Including me as it happens, I received my copy in about 1979, and never looked back. Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Making A Transistor Radio”

Forrest Mims, Radio Shack, and the Notebooks that Launched a Thousand Careers

There was a time when Radio Shack offered an incredible variety of supplies for the electronics hobbyist. In the back of each store, past the displays of Realistic 8-track players, Minimus-7 speakers, Patrolman scanners, and just beyond the battery bin where you could cash in your “Battery of the Month Club” card for a fresh, free 9-volt battery, lay the holy of holies — the parts. Perfboard panels on hinges held pegs with cards of resistors for 49 cents, blister packs of 2N2222 transistors and electrolytic capacitors, and everything else you needed to get your project going. It was a treasure trove to a budding hardware hobbyist.

But over on the side, invariably near the parts, was a rack of books for sale, mostly under the Archer brand. 12-year old me only had Christmas and birthday money to spend, and what I could beg from my parents, so I tended to buy books — I figured I needed to learn before I started blowing money on parts. And like many of that vintage, one of the first books I picked up was the Engineer’s Notebook by Forrest M. Mims III.

Wish I could find my original copy from 1979. This one is on Amazon.
Wish I could find my original copy from 1979. I just bought this one from Amazon.

Many years rolled by, and my trusty and shop-worn first edition of Mims’ book, with my marginal notes and more than one soldering iron burn scarring its pulp pages, has long since gone missing. I learned so much from that book, and as I used it to plan my Next Big Project I’d often wonder how the book came about. Those of you that have seen the book and any of its sequels, like the Mini-notebook Series, will no doubt remember the style of the book. Printed on subdued graph paper with simple line drawings and schematics, the accompanying text did not appear to be typeset, but rather hand lettered. Each page was a work of technical beauty that served as an inspiration as I filled my own graph-paper notebooks with page after page of circuits I would find neither the time nor money to build.

I always wondered about those books and how they came about. It was a pretty astute marketing decision by Radio Shack to publish them and feature them so prominently near the parts — sort of makes the string of poor business decisions that led to the greatly diminished “RadioShack” stores of today all the more puzzling. Luckily, Forrest Mims recently did an AMA on reddit, and he answered a lot of questions regarding how these books came about. The full AMA is worth a read, but here’s the short story of those classics of pulp non-fiction.

Continue reading “Forrest Mims, Radio Shack, and the Notebooks that Launched a Thousand Careers”

Review: Hammer-Installed Solderless Raspberry Pi Pin Headers

A few days ago we reported on a new product for owners of the Raspberry Pi Zero, a set of solderless header pins that had a novel installation method involving a hammer. We were skeptical that they would provide a good contact, and preferred to stick with the tried-and-trusted soldered pins. It seems a lot of you agreed, and the comments section of the post became a little boisterous. Pimoroni, the originator of the product, came in for a lot of flak, with which to give them their due they engaged with good humor.

It’s obvious this was a controversial product, and maybe the Hackaday verdict had been a little summary based on the hammer aspect of the story. So to get further into what all the fuss had been about I ordered a Pi Zero and the solderless pin kit to try for ourselves.

Continue reading “Review: Hammer-Installed Solderless Raspberry Pi Pin Headers”

Hands On With The First Open Source Microcontroller

2016 was a great year for Open Hardware. The Open Source Hardware Association released their certification program, and late in the year, a few silicon wizards met in Mountain View to show off the latest happenings in the RISC-V instruction set architecture.

The RISC-V ISA is completely unlike any other computer architecture. Nearly every other chip you’ll find out there, from the 8051s in embedded controllers, 6502s found in millions of toys, to AVR, PIC, and whatever Intel is working on are closed-source designs. You cannot study these chips, you cannot manufacture these chips, and if you want to use one of these chips, your list of suppliers is dependent on who has a licensing agreement with who.

We’ve seen a lot of RISC-V stuff in recent months, from OnChip’s Open-V, and now the HiFive 1 from SiFive. The folks at SiFive offered to give me a look at the HiFive 1, so here it is, the first hands-on with the first Open Hardware microcontroller.

Continue reading “Hands On With The First Open Source Microcontroller”