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.
The 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.
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:
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.
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.