Long-Term Review: Weller Magnastat Soldering Iron

One of the things you find yourself doing as a young engineer is equipping yourself with the tools of your trade. These will be the foundations upon which your career is built in a way that a diploma or degree certificate will never be, for the best degree in the world is less useful if the quality of your tools renders you unable to capitalise upon it. You may be lucky enough to make some of them yourself, but others you’ll lust after as unaffordable, then eventually put the boat out a little to buy at the limit of your meager income.

Your bench may have a few of these lifetime tools. They could be something as simple as screwdrivers or you may have one of those indestructible multimeters, but in my case my lifetime tool is my soldering iron. At some time in 1992 I spent about £60($173 back then), a lot of money for a student, on a mains-powered Weller Magnastat. The World Wide Web was still fairly fresh from Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT in those days, so this meant a trip to my university’s RS trade counter and a moment poring over a telephone-book-sized catalogue before filling in an order slip.

The Magnastat is a simple but very effective fixed-temperature-controlled iron. The tip has a magnet on its rear end which holds closed a power switch for the heating element. When the tip has heated to the Curie temperature of the magnet, it loses its magnetism and the switch opens. The temperature falls to below the Curie temperature and the magnetism returns, the switch closes, the tip warms up again, and the cycle repeats itself. The temperature of the tip is thus dictated by the magnet’s Curie temperature, and Weller provides a range of tips fitted with magnets for different temperatures.

The result is an iron with enough power to solder heat-sucking jobs that would leave lesser irons gasping for juice, while also having the delicacy to solder tiny surface-mount components without destroying them or lifting tracks. It’s not a particularly small or lightweight iron if you are used to the featherlight pencil irons from today’s soldering stations, but neither is it too large or heavy to be unwieldy. In the nearly quarter century I have owned my Magnastat it has had a hand in almost everything I have made, from hi-fi and tube amplifiers through radio transmitters, stripline filters, kits, and too many repairs to mention. It has even been pressed into service plastic-welding a damaged motorcycle fairing. It has truly been a lifetime tool.

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BeagleBone Green, Now Wireless

Over the past few years, the BeagleBone ecosystem has grown from the original BeagleBone White, followed two years later by the BeagleBone Black. The Black was the killer board of the BeagleBone family, and for a time wasn’t available anywhere at any price. TI has been kind to the SoC used in the BeagleBone, leading to last year’s release of the BeagleBone Green, The robotics-focused BeagleBone Blue, and the very recent announcement of a BeagleBone on a chip. All these boards have about the same capabilities, targeted towards different use cases; the BeagleBone on a Chip is a single module that can be dropped into an Eagle schematic. The BeagleBone Green is meant to be the low-cost that plays nicely with Seeed Studio’s Grove connectors. They’re all variations on a theme, and until now, wireless hasn’t been a built-in option.

This weekend at Maker Faire, Seeed Studio is showing off their latest edition of the BeagleBone Green. It’s the BeagleBone Green Wireless, and includes 802.11 b/g/n, and Bluetooth 4.1 LE.

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USB Soldering Iron is Surprisingly Capable

We know what you’re thinking. There’s no way an 8 watt USB-powered soldering iron could be worth the $5 it commands on eBay. That’s what [BigClive] thought too, so he bought one, put the iron through a test and teardown, and changed his mind. Can he convince you too?

Right up front, [BigClive] finds that the iron is probably not suitable for some jobs. Aside its obvious unsuitability for connections that take a lot of heat, there’s the problem of leakage current when used with a wall-wart USB power supply. The business end of the iron ends up getting enough AC leak through the capacitors of the power supply to potentially damage MOSFETs and the like. Then again, if you’re handy to an AC outlet, wouldn’t you just use a Hakko? Seems like the iron is best powered by a USB battery pack, and [BigClive] was able to solder some surprisingly beefy connections that way. The teardown and analysis reveal a circuit that looks like it came right out of a [Forrest M. Mims III] book. We won’t spoil the surprise for you – just watch the video below.

While not truly cordless like this USB-rechargeable iron, we’d say that for the price, this is a pretty capable iron for certain use cases. Has anyone else tried one of these? Chime in on the comments and let us know what you think.

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Pine64: The Un-Review

Even before the announcement and introduction of the Raspberry Pi 3, word of a few very powerful single board ARM Linux computers was flowing out of China. The hardware was there – powerful 64-bit ARM chips were available, all that was needed was a few engineers to put these chips on a board, a few marketing people, and a contract manufacturer.

One of the first of these 64-bit boards is the Pine64. Introduced to the world through a Kickstarter that netted $1.7 Million USD from 36,000 backers, the Pine64 is already extremely popular. The boards are beginning to land on the doorsteps and mailboxes of backers, and the initial impressions are showing up in the official forums and Kickstarter campaign comments.

I pledged $15 USD to the Pine64 Kickstarter, and received a board with 512MB of RAM, 4K HDMI, 10/100 Ethernet and a 1.2 GHz ARM Cortex A53 CPU in return. This post is not a review, as I can’t fully document the Pine64 experience. My initial impression? This is bad. This is pretty bad.

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Hackaday Reviews: Flir One Android

The Flir One thermal camera caused quite a stir when it was launched back in 2014. Both the Flir One and its prime competitor Seek Thermal represented the first “cheap” thermal cameras available to the public. At the heart of the Flir One was the Lepton module, which could be purchased directly from Flir Systems, but only in quantity. [Mike Harrison] jumped on board early, cutting into his Flir One and reverse engineering the Lepton module within, including the SPI data required to talk to it. He even managed to create the world’s smallest thermal imager using a the TFT screen from an Ipod Nano.

flircamA few things have changed since then. You can buy Lepton modules in single quantity at DigiKey now. Flir also introduced a second generation of the Flir One. This device contains an updated version of the Lepton. The new version has a resolution of 160 x 120 pixels, doubled from the original module. There are two flavors: The iOS version with a lightning port, and an Android version with a micro USB connector. I’m an Android user myself, so this review focuses on the Android edition.

The module itself is smaller than I expected. It comes with a snap-on case and a lanyard. While you’ll look a bit like a dork wearing the lanyard, it does come in handy to keep the imager from getting lost or dropped. The Flir One has an internal battery, which of course needs to be topped off before it can be used. Mine charged up in about half an hour.

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Tiny BLE UART Makes Bluetooth Low Energy Simple

Last time I talked about the internals of how Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) handles data. I mentioned that the way it is set up is meant to conserve power and also to support common BLE devices like heart rate monitors. On the other hand, I also mentioned that you often didn’t need to deal with that because you’d use an abstraction layer.

This time, I want to show you how I used the Hackaday special edition Tiny BLE (from Seeed Studios) and its mbed library to do a quick simple BLE project. If you didn’t read the first part, don’t worry. The abstraction is so good, you probably won’t have to unless you want to circle back around later and get a more detailed understanding of what’s happening under the covers.

I wanted something simple for an example so you could build on it without having to remove much code. For that reason, I decided to allow my phone to control the state of a three-color LED via BLE. To do that, I’m going to use a virtual UART and some off-the-shelf phone software. The whole thing won’t take much code, but that’s the point: the abstraction makes BLE relatively simple.

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Teensy Gets A Prop Shield

God of microcontrollers and king of electrons [Paul Stoffregen] is famous for his Teensy microcontroller dev boards, and for good reason. If you have a project that does more than blink a few pins, but doesn’t need to run a full Linux build, any one of the Teensy dev boards are a great option. As a dev board, [Paul] has released a few ‘shields’ that add various functionality – for example the audio adapter board that is able to play CD quality audio and perform DSP and FFT operations. Now, [Paul] has launched a new shield designed for interactive light and sound effects on art installations and for the rest of the crew at Burning Man. It’s called the Prop Shield, and adds more sensors, audio amps, and blinkies than a Teensy has ever had.

The Teensy Prop shield is equipped with 10DOF motion sensors, including a FXOS8700 accelerometer/magnetometer, a FXAS21002 gyroscope, and an MPL3115 altimeter and temperature sensor. A two Watt LM48310 audio amplifier can drive 4 or 8 ohm speakers, and 8 Megabytes of Flash memory can hold all the data for audio or a very long string of APA102 individually addressable LEDs.

The combination of motion sensors, audio amplifiers, and LED drivers may seem like an odd combination, but this is a shield for very odd projects. Stage effect, wearables, and handheld props become very easy with this board, and haunted houses are about to get really cool. With the on-board Flash, this board makes for a very capable data logger, and although the altitude sensor only reads pressure up to about 40,000 feet, this could be a very handy board for high altitude balloons.

The Prop Shield is available now in [Paul]’s shop. There are two versions, one ‘wit’ the motion sensors for $19.50, and the other ‘witout’ motion sensors for $8.40. The distinction is based on the Philly Cheesesteak protocol.

For the last few weeks, [Paul] has put the prop shield in the hands of a few dozen beta testers. Their impressions are in a forum thread, and like all of [Paul]’s projects, the response has been very good.