A Tale of Two Browser PCB Tools

We live in a golden age of free Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools. It wasn’t that long ago that an engineering workstation was an expensive piece of hardware running very expensive software that typically had annual fees. Now, you can go to your local electronics store and buy a PC that would shame that old workstation and download plenty of software to design schematics, simulate circuits, program devices, and lay out PCBs.

The only problem with a lot of this free software is it runs on Windows. I do sometimes run Windows, but I most often use Linux, so there is a certain attractiveness to a new breed of tools that run in the Web browser. In particular, I wanted to look briefly at two Web-based EDA tools: EasyEDA and MeowCAD. Both offer similar features: draw a schematic, populate a PCB, and download manufacturing files (that is, Gerber files). EasyEDA also offers SPICE simulation.

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$50 Multimeter Comparison and Teardown

We remember when buying even a modest digital multimeter was a big investment. These days, you can find tool stores giving away cheap meters and if you are willing to spend even a little money, you can buy a meter with tons of features like capacitance, temperature, and other measurements.

Like most things, though, you can pay a little money for a bargain, or you can overpay for a dud. To help you pick, [TechnologyCatalyst] decided to do an extensive video review of 15 different meters in the under $50 price category.

If you are looking for a quick video to watch, you might want to move along. The review is in nine videos ranging from an introduction, to a comparison of build quality, discussion about the displays on each meter, and, of course, the measurement capability of each meter. There’s even a video that shows tear downs so you can see inside the instruments.

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BeagleBone Green Hands-On: Lower Price, Same Horsepower

Although the BeagleBone Green was announced at the Bay Area Maker Faire last May, there hasn’t been much said about it on the usual forums and IRC channels. Now, it’s finally out and I got my hands on one of them. Through a cooperation between the BeagleBoard foundation and Seeed Studios, the best small Linux board for doing real work with small Linux boards is now cheaper, a little more modern, and green.

The BeagleBone Green is an update to the venerable BeagleBone Black, the dev board based on a TI ARM Cortex-A8. It’s an extremely capable machine with a few interesting features that make it the perfect device for embedded applications. With the BeagleBone Green, the BB Black gets a small hardware refresh and a drastic reduction in price. If you want to do real work on a Linux board, this is the one to get. Check out the review below for everything that’s been updated, everything that’s the same, and why this is one of the most interesting developments in small Linux boards in recent memory.

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Review: Single Board 65C02 and 65C816 Computers

The 6502 is a classic piece of computing history. Versions of this CPU were found in everything from the Apple ][, to the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Commodore 64. The history of the 6502 doesn’t end with video games; for the last forty years, this CPU has found its way into industrial equipment, medical devices, and everything else that doesn’t need to be redesigned every two years. Combine the longevity of the 6502 with the fact an entire generation of developers first cut their teeth on 6502 assembly, and you have the makings of a classic microprocessor that will, I’m sure, still be relevant in another forty years.

The cathedral of The 6502 is Western Design Center. For more than 35 years, WDC has been the home of 6502-related designs. Recently, WDC has been interested in the educational aspects of the 6502, with one of the VPs, [David Cramer], lending his time to an after-school club teaching opcodes.

The folks at WDC recently contacted me to see if I would give their hardware a close look, and after providing a few boards, this hardware proved to be both excellent. They’re great for educators adventurous enough to deviate from the Arduino, Processing, and Fritzing zeitgeist, and for anyone who wants to dip their toes into the world of 65xx development.

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Review: Microchip Curiosity is a Gorgeous New 8-bit Dev Board

Microchip has unveiled a new dev board called the Curiosity Development Board. I had my first look at this at Bay Area Maker Faire back in May but was asked not to publicize the hardware since it wasn’t officially released yet. Yesterday I got my hands on one of the first “pilot program” demo units and spent some time working with it.

I requested a sample board out of my own curiosity. As you may know, Microchip is one of the sponsors of the 2015 Hackaday Prize, but that partnership does not include this review. However, since we do have this relationship we asked if they would throw in a few extra boards that we could give away and they obliged. More about that at the end of the post.

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Review: FriedCircuits USB Tester

Over the last decade or so, USB has somehow changed. It’s not just for connecting printers, keyboards, mice, and webcams any more. It’s not even just for stuff you would have plugged into a serial port. It’s a power outlet. If you want to charge your phone, plug it into a power outlet that can deliver up to 2.5 Watts. Unintended consequences, I guess. If you ever find yourself in 1995 again, go over to Intel and tell them to bump up the current limit.

Being a power outlet, having a device to measure current, voltage, power, and all the other intricacies of the what’s going on inside a USB cable would be neat. The USB Tester from Fried Circuits is that device.

DSC_0009The Fried Circuits USB tester isn’t so much a single device, but a small set of tools that allow you to probe everything going on inside a USB cable. In its simplest form, it’s just a board with a USB A connector at one end, a USB micro connector at the other, and breakouts for measuring current, voltage, the differential data signals, and that weird ID pin that’s useful if you’re working with USB chargers or OTG devices.

This breakout board also has two rows of five pins broken out. That’s for the USB Tester Backpack, which is really the heart of this device. This backpack features a microcontroller and a 128×64 resolution OLED display for current, voltage, and power monitoring, reading the voltage on the data lines, and graphing everything on the display. Everything you would ever want to know about a USB port – except for the actual bits being shoved through, of course – is right there on the display. Press the button on the side a few times, and whatever info you need will be presented in tall, very readable numbers.

The Entire Reason For Buying One

If you’re only going to use this to look at voltages, amps, and current flowing through a USB cable, you’re throwing your money away with this USB Tester. If simple, at-a-glance monitoring is what you need, you can hop on Amazon and get a USB current/voltage meter for $15. Even Adafruit has one for $7.50. If you only need to read the volts and amps for a USB device, your money is better spent elsewhere.

USBData
The Fried Circuits Java app.

The Fried Circuits USB tester does something none of these other USB meters can do. It can log all the data to a computer over USB.

In my initial review of the USB Tester for the Hackaday Store, the only ‘official’ option for recording data from the Tester to a computer was a Java app. The developer of the USB Tester, [Will], chose Java because of the ‘write once, run anywhere’ Sun and Oracle have been shoving down our throats for the last 20 years. In theory, Java was an excellent choice for a datalogging solution for the USB Tester.

In practice, however, it just didn’t work. By [Will]’s own admission, it was the first thing he’s ever done in Java, and I think he set some of the options in NetBeans wrong. I could not get the data logging app to run on my Windows 8 box, or my OS X box, or my Linux boxxen. The only way I could run this app was by digging out an old XP box. Apparently, [Will]’s copy of NetBeans was configured for Java 5 or something.

[Will] knew about this problem, and last month he officially teamed up with [Edouard Lafargue] of wizkers.io. This is a platform for scientific instruments that runs in a Chrome App. The choice of running instrumentation in a Chrome app may seem odd, but this is apparently the new hotness; you can program an Arduino in a Chrome app, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in this space.

You can try out the Chrome app right here, and with the USB Tester everything works as intended:

Wizkers
The Wizkers.io app.

The Wizkers.io app can do everything you would expect from a datalogging app. It will tell you the volts, amps, watts, mWh, and mAh of the device currently under test. There are pretty graphs, and everything can be downloaded to a computer for further analysis.

It might seem like cheating to review this device with a 3rd party app, but by [Will]’s own admission, there were problems with the Java-based logger, and the Chrome app works perfectly. There’s also the delicious irony that a Chrome app is more portable than one written in Java. I appreciate that.

Of course the USB Tester also outputs this data over a serial connection (in JSON format, too!). If you just want to connect this to a computer, solder up some wires to the TX and RX lines.

Conclusion

If you want a device that just tells you how many mA a USB device is sucking up, you don’t need this. You can buy something for less than $10 that will tell you that. If you’re developing some USB hardware, you’ll eventually want to characterize how much power your device is drawing and when it’s drawing that much power. This will require a data logging tool, and apart from cutting up a few USB cables and wiring it into an expensive power supply, you can’t do better than the Fried Circuits USB tester.

Review: Stickvise Needs a Place on Your Bench

Stickvise is a simple device for a simple problem. It holds a work piece while you work on it. Most obviously this means a PCB for soldering, but there’s a twist of versatility that will make it work for a wide range of needs. Being someone who has often used the roll-of-solder-to-hold-a-circuit-board-down trick, only to upset the apple cart when I run out solder, this is a great little tool to have within arm’s reach. For those that already have a PCB vise, how often do you need more than one? How rarely do you need something that large? And if you’re lucky enough to have a microscope for soldering this is a perfect fixture for moving a board to and from without adjusting the focus.

Details of the Design

Simplicity. This is three pieces of aluminum bar-stock, some steel rod, nylon jaws, two springs, and some fasteners. It all works extremely well. To load up a new circuit board I loosen the wing nut and squeeze the clamp shut. Hand tightening the nut doesn’t take much force and it hasn’t slipped for me at all despite moving it around the bench for several days. Once set, the board can be taken out and flipped over easily thanks to the springs.

The extensibility here is key. As it stands, the nylon jaws have a V-groove to hold a board. If you need to support much taller boards you can always put some standoffs between the aluminum and the nylon jaws.

stickvise-custom-jawsBetter yet is the ability to design jaws for your own needs. [Alex Rich], Stickvise’s creator, already has a number of STL files available so that you may print out your own. The “fingers” on the custom jaw shown here interlock with the ones on the opposite side. But my favorite is an articulated set of “third-hand” style jaws based off of the PCB probe jig [Anool] covered back in May. There are even plans to make a parametric STL file so that printing larger or taller jaws doesn’t require a CAD modeling session.

If the range of the vise is too narrow you can simply replace the center bar with a longer one (source yourself or purchase from [Alex]) — the fixed aluminum end is secured with a set screw. This can even be used as a type of stretcher by reversing the spring jaw. I couldn’t think of an application in my own shop for this but you never know.

Stickvise Roots

stickvise-hackaday-approvedIf you have an eagle eye you’ll have noticed the Jolly Wrencher with “Hackaday Approved” next to it on the Stickvise. When [Alex Rich] started refining his original design he posted about it as a project on Hackaday.io. It didn’t take long to grab our attention and, after tossing around the idea a bit we approached [Alex] about his plans for manufacturing and how Hackaday might figure into that. I love seeing hardware come to life like this; it puts an artisanal spin on the things I choose to have in my lab.

Conclusion

stickvise-angled

It’s so simple you could build it, but for me the production quality is well worth buying it instead. It’s simple and durable, with the ability to be specialized for a number of different purposes. I wish I had had it when populating the board I’ve been showing off in these pictures (the LayerOne Badge from this year). If you do any work with circuit boards at the bench the stickvise is a solid entry on your must-have-tools list.

The Stickvise is available in the Hackaday Store.