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.

High Speed SSD1306 Library

[Lewin] wrote in to tell us about a high speed library for Arduino Due that he helped develop which allows interfacing OLED displays that use the SSD1306 display controller, using DMA routines for faster display refresh time.

Typically, displays such as the Monochrome 1.3″ 128×64 OLED graphic display , are interfaced with an Arduino board via the SPI or I2C bus. The Adafruit_SSD1306 library written by [Limor Fried] makes it simple to use these displays with a variety of Arduinos, using either software or hardware SPI. With standard settings using hardware SPI, calls to display() take about 2ms on the Due.

[Lewin] wanted to make it faster, and the SAM3X8E on the Due seemed like it could deliver. He first did a search to find out if this was already done, but came up blank. He did find [Marek Buriak]’s library for ILI9341-based TFT screens. [Marek] used code from [William Greiman], who developed SD card libraries for the Arduino. [William] had taken advantage of the SAM3X8E’s DMA capabilities to enable faster SD card transfers, and [Marek] then adapted this code to allow faster writes to ILI9341-based screens. All [Lewin] had to do was to find the code that sent a buffer out over SPI using DMA in Marek’s code, and adapt that to the Adafruit library for the SSD1306.

There is a caveat though: using this library will likely cause trouble if you are also using SPI to interface to other hardware, since the regular SPI.h library will no longer work in tandem with [Lewin]’s library. He offers some tips on how to overcome these issues, and would welcome any feedback or testing to help improve the code. The speed improvement is substantial. Up to 4 times quicker using standard SPI clock, or 8 times if you increase SPI clock speed. The code is available on his Github repo.

Sodium Pickle Lights

A few weeks ago, the folks at the 23b hackerspace held Sparklecon, an event filled with the usual infosec stuff, locks and lockpicking, and hardware. A con, of course, requires some cool demonstrations. They chose to put a pickle in an arc welder, with impressive results.

This build began several years ago when the father of one of 23B’s members pulled off a neat trick for Halloween. With a cut and stripped extension cord, the two leads were plugged into a pickle and connected to mains power. The sodium in the pickle began to glow with a brilliant orange-yellow light, and everyone was suitably impressed. Fast forward a few years, and 23b found itself with a bunch of useless carbon gouging rods, a 200 Amp welder, a pickle, and a bunch of people wanting to see something cool.

The trick to making a pickle brighter than the sun was to set the arc just right; a quarter of an inch between the electrodes seemed optimal, but even then pickle lighting seems very resilient against failing jigs made from a milk crate, duct tape, and PVC. Video (from the first Sparklecon, at least) below.

Continue reading “Sodium Pickle Lights”

An OLED Ring for Bluetooth Notifications

Wearables are the next frontier of amateur electronics, and [Kevin]’s Arduboy ring is one of the best examples we’ve seen yet.

Inside the Arduboy is an nRF51822 – a chipset with Bluetooth Low Energy, an ARM Cortex M0,256k of Flash, and 16k of RAM. There’s also a an OLED and a touch button for displaying notifications from a phone, with the ability to reply to these notifications.

The enclosure for the ring is rather interesting. It’s a bit thick, but that’s for a reason – there’s a 40mAh battery stuffed along the sides of the ring. The enclosure itself is 3D printed to spec, and contrary to some beliefs, there’s nothing wrong with bending a LiPo cell once. Sure, it only has four hours of battery life with the display on, but it has a 24 hour battery life in standby mode, making it almost useful as an everyday wearable.

This is [Kevin]’s second wearable, the first being the Ardubracelet, an extremely interesting OLED bracelet with three different displays.  The Arduboy is much more compact and comes extremely close to looking like a product. You can check out the video of it below.

Continue reading “An OLED Ring for Bluetooth Notifications”

Making MicroView Wordy

Despite the MicroView shipping a ton of units, we haven’t seen many projects using this tiny Arduino and OLED display in a project. Never fear, because embedded systems engineer, podcaster, and Hackaday Prize judge [Elecia White] is here with a wearable build for this very small, very cool device.

The size and shape of the MicroView just cried out to be made into a ring, and for that, [Elicia] is using air-drying bendy polymer clay. To attach the clay to the MicroView, [Elecia] put some female headers in a breadboard, and molded the clay over them into a ring shape. It works, and although [Elecia] didn’t do anything too tricky with the headers and clay, there are some interesting things you could do running wires through the clay.

What does this ring do? It’s a Magic 8 Ball, a game of Pong controlled by an accelerometer, a word-of-the-day thing (with definitions), all stuffed into a brass silicon, OLED, and clay knuckle. Video below.

If you’re wondering, Turbillion (n). A whirl; a vortex.

Continue reading “Making MicroView Wordy”

Throwing Pis into the Stratosphere

It’s always exciting to see the photos from High Altitude Ballooning (HAB) outings. While it’s no surprise that the Raspi is a popular choice—low cost, convenient USB jacks, etc.—this is the first build we’ve seen that uses an OLED during the trip to show real-time data on-screen to be picked up by the on-board webcam. (Though you may have to squint to see it at the bottom middle of the above image).

[Fabrice’s] payload made it to 26,000m, and the screen he chose, an ILSOFT OLED, performed admirably despite the extreme conditions suffered (temperatures can reach -50C). The last time we saw a near-space Raspi payload was a couple of years ago, when [Dave Akerman] was closing in on UK balloon altitude records. [Dave] hasn’t stopped launching balloons, either, testing new trackers and radio modules, as well as his most recent build that sent a Superman action figure to the skies—all recorded in glorious HD.

Check out both [Dave] and [Fabrice’s] blogs for loads of pictures documenting the latest in High Altitude Ballooning, and stay with us after the jump for a quick video of [Fabrice’s] OLED in action.

Continue reading “Throwing Pis into the Stratosphere”

Hackaday Links: BSAPEDWLOVKTUB.YBKAB

Here’s something that’s just a design study, but [Ivan]’s Apple IIe phone is a work of art. You’re not fitting a CRT in there, but someone out there has a 3D printer, an old LCD, and a GSM module. Make it happen. See also: the Frog Design Apple phone.

A few days ago we posted something on an old ‘286 machine that was able to load up the Hackaday retro site. For a few people, this was the first they’ve heard about our CSS and Javascript-less edition designed specifically for old computers. They dragged out some hardware, and [WTH] pulled up the site on a Dell Axim.It’s actually somewhat impressive that these machines have SD cards…

[Arduino Enigma] created a touchscreen Enigma machine. Why haven’t we seen an Arduino Colossus yet?

The crew at Adafruit now have a Flying Toaster OLED, which means we now have flying toaster bitmaps for all your OLED/graphic display projects.

[Ian] had an old rackmount programmable voltage standard. This was the remote programmable voltage standard, without front panel controls. No problem, just get an Arduino, shift register, and a few buttons. Video right here.

A few months ago, [Jan] released a neat device that stuffs a modelling synth inside a MIDI plug. He’s selling them now, and we’d love to see a few videos of this.