It’s an entertaining pastime when browsing the array of wonders available from the other side of the world at the click of the mouse, to scour the listings of the unusual, the interesting, or the inexpensive. Sometimes when you find something unexpected you are rewarded with a diamond in the rough, while at other moments your bargain basement purchase is revealed as a hilariously useless paperweight. This is a game in which the stake is relatively low and the reward can be significant, so rarely does an order for some parts or sundries go by without a speculative purchase.
The latest to arrive is a soldering iron. The CXG E90W is a 90W mains-powered temperature controlled iron with its control electronics built into its handle. Such irons are by no means unusual, what makes this one different is that it has a low price tag.
The Miniware TS100, an iron I quite like and the current darling of the pack, is priced at nearly £50 ($71). Just how can this iron priced at just under £15 ($21) be any good? I placed one on the order, and waited for delivery.
If you like reading about scientists creatively using household objects for their work, you will enjoy browsing Twitter hashtag #reviewforscience where scientists are sharing stories of repurposing everyday things for their lab and field.
Research papers focus on the scientific hypothesis and the results of testing it. It is very common for such papers to leave out details of tools and techniques as irrelevant. (A solid scientific conclusion should be reproducible no matter what tools and techniques are used.) This sadly meant much of scientists’ ingenuity never see light.
We can thank Amazon user [John Birch] for this event. His son wished to study how ants from different colonies interact. In order to observe how these groups of ants react to each other while still keeping the populations separate, he wanted to keep one group of ants inside a tea strainer. He posted this technique as a review on the tea strainer’s Amazon product page, where it caught the attention of @RobynJWomack and started spreading, taking off when @DaniRabaiotti suggested the tag #reviewforscience.
Sadly, it appears our original scientist (who posted under his dad’s Amazon account) did not succeed with the tea strainer technique. But he has succeeded in drawing attention to creativity in science worldwide, as well as making his dad internet famous.
We love lab hacks here. For scientists who wish there was a place to document their creative lab hacks, might we suggest Hackaday.io?
The short answer: something like $200, if your time is worth $0/hour. How is this possible? Cheap kit printers, with laser-cut acrylic frames, but otherwise reasonably solid components. In particular, for this review, an Anet A8. If you’re willing to add a little sweat equity and fix up some of the bugs, an A8 can be turned into a good 3D printer on a shoestring budget.
That said, the A8 is a printer kit, not a printer. You’re going to be responsible for assembly of every last M3 screw, and there are many. Building the thing took me eight or ten hours over three evenings. It’s not rocket surgery, though. There are very accessible videos available online, and a community of people dedicated to turning this box of parts into a great machine. You can do it if you want to.
This article is half how-to guide and half review, and while the fun of a how-to is in the details, the review part is easy enough to sum up: if you want the experience of building a 3D printer, and don’t mind tweaking to get things just right, you should absolutely look into the A8. If you want a backup printer that can print well enough right after assembly, the A8 is a good deal as well; most of the work I’ve put into mine is in chasing perfection. But there are a couple reasons that I’d hesitate to recommend it to a rank beginner, and one of them is fire.
Still, I’ve put 1,615 m (1.0035 miles) of filament through my A8 over 330 hours of run-time spread across the last three months — it’s been actively running for 15% of its lifetime! Some parts have broken, and some have “needed” improving, but basically, it’s been a very functional machine with only three or four hours of unintentional downtime. My expectations going in were naturally fairly low, but the A8 has turned out to be not just a workhorse but also a decent performer, with a little TLC. In short, it’s a hacker’s printer, and I love it.
Do you remember your first oscilloscope? Maybe we have entered the era in which younger readers think of a sleek model with an LCD screen, but for the slightly older among us the image that will come to mind is likely to be a CRT-based behemoth. Mine was a 2MHz bandwidth Cossor from the 1950s, wildly outdated by the 1980s, but it came to me at no cost. It proudly proclaims itself as a “Portable Oscillograph”, but requires its owner to be a weightlifter to move it. I still have it, as a relic and curio.
For most of us a new ‘scope is still a significant investment. Even affordable current models such as the extremely popular Rigol instruments are likely to cost several hundred dollars, but offer measurement functions undreamed of by those 1950s engineers who would have looked on the Cossor as an object of desire.
Oscilloscope buyers on a budget may not have the cash for a Rigol, a Hantek, or any of the other affordable ‘scopes. Someone starting on the road of electronic engineering can scout around for a cheap or free second-hand CRT model, but thanks to the ever advancing march of technology they also have another option. Modern microprocessors and microcontrollers have analogue-to-digital converters and processor cores that are fast enough to provide the functions of a simple oscilloscope, and to that end a variety of very cheap ‘scopes and ‘scope kits have come on the market. These invariably have a rather small LCD screen and a relatively low bandwidth, but since they can be had for almost pocket-money prices their shortcomings can be overlooked in the name of value. It’s been a matter of curiosity for some time then: are these instruments any good? For around £16 ($21) and the minor effort of an online order from China, we decided to find out.
If you look at most stockists of electronic kits these days, you are likely to find an oscilloscope kit in their range. These are volume produced in China, and the same design trends appear across different models. You can buy surface mount or through-hole, and most of them feature a bare board with maybe a piece of laser-cut Perspex standing in for a case. There are one or two models appearing that come with a case though, and it was one of these that we ordered. The JYE Tech DSO150 is a single-channel ‘scope with a 2.4″ 320×240 pixel colour LCD screen and a 200kHz bandwidth. Its specification is typical of the crop of similar kits, though its smart case sets it apart and made it an easy choice.
In the Box
We ordered one, and when it arrived, it was packed in a small cardboard carton that had suffered some crushing in transit, but had protected the internal contents well enough that no harm had been done. A layer of foam protected the LCD, and the case parts appeared rigid enough to protect the rest of the components. There was a bag of discretes, the case parts, two PCBs, a test lead with crocodile clips, and two pages of instructions.
When looking at a kit, it’s best to start with the instructions, because no matter the quality of the kit itself it is the quality of the instructions that make or break a kit. If you can’t build it then it doesn’t matter how good it might be, it’s effectively junk.
The DSO150 instructions are two sheets of high quality double-sided colour print, with the emphasis on pictures rather than words, The front page introduces the kit and gives a quick soldering guide, then the next two pages step through each stage of construction. The final page has basic instructions for use, specification, and a troubleshooting guide. Our kit had all surface-mount parts already fitted, if we’d known the kit could also be had with SMD parts to fit we’d have bought that version instead.
The instruction steps are long on images and short on text, but there are sometimes few cues as to where the component in question lies on the board. Sometimes some careful examination of board and picture is necessary to ensure correct placement. The first step though doesn’t involve any soldering, wire the main board up to a 9V supply, and watch the LCD boot into the oscilloscope software. There is support via a forum on the JYE Tech website, we presume you’d go there if it failed to boot out of the box. A 9V PSU isn’t included, you’ll need to find one with a 2.1mm centre positive plug. Fortunately a suitable candidate was in the box of wall warts here, formerly being used by a router.
The main board assembly is straightforward enough, being the assembly of larger through-hole parts such as switches and connectors. The analogue board has a brace of small through-hole resistors and ceramic capacitors to fit, of these the resistors were of the tiny variety which made distinguishing between some of their colour stripes a little difficult. Bring your multimeter to check. There is a BNC connector that requires significant heat on there too, so make sure you have a suitably beefy iron to hand. Finally there is a small board for the rotary encoder, then the front of the case can be assembled to the main board, the analogue board attached, and the ‘scope set up. Verify on-board voltages, attach the test clip to the calibration output and adjust the compensation capacitors for a square wave, and the rest of the case can be added to complete the unit.
In use, the DSO150 makes a simple and straightforward enough oscilloscope. The usual volts/division and timebase selection is easy enough, and the various trigger modes can quickly be selected. If you’ve used an oscilloscope before then you will have no problems getting started with it. But of course, the DSO150 isn’t just a simple oscilloscope, it’s a digital storage ‘scope. And with 1024 sampling points it can do the usual storage ‘scope thing of allowing the user to examine a stored waveform in great detail, scrolling back and forth through the stored points. Here the instruction sheet falls short, not mentioning that a double tap on the V/div or Sec/div buttons allows you to scroll.
Connecting the signal generator to our DSO150 allowed the exploration of its bandwidth. The claimed 200kHz is pretty spot-on, winding the signal generator far beyond that point showed a tail-off in displayed amplitude. Also the minimum 10µS per division limits the usefulness of a waveform display at these frequencies.
The DSO150 is supplied with a short test lead terminated in a pair of crocodile clips. This is somewhat less useful than the oscilloscope probes we’re used to, though happily it can also be used with a standard 1x/10x probe. Looking at the square wave on the test terminal through a standard probe reveals a sharp corner on the waveform, so there seems not to be any problems between the compensation on-board and that in the probe. It’s likely that either the DSO150 here will be used with a standard probe, or that the crocodile clip will swiftly be replaced with a probe of some kind.
So then, the JYE Tech DSO150 oscilloscope kit. A nice little ‘scope within the limitations of the STM32F103C8 microcontroller that drives it. If you can put up with a 200kHz bandwidth and a 50V peak input voltage then it’s a useful pocket instrument. Its calibration will depend on the STM’s crystal and voltage reference, but as with the rest of its specification, when you consider its pocket-money price those become minor considerations. Add in that its software is open-source, and you have a very nice platform indeed. If we wanted to nitpick we’d ask for a battery compartment and a proper probe, but since both of those would put up the price we wouldn’t make too much noise about it. If you need a pocket ‘scope to supplement your bench scope when working on lower frequencies, or if you have a youngster in the family looking for their first ‘scope, buy one! Our review unit will definitely see some use rather than gathering dust.
If you were to ask a random Hackaday reader what their most fundamental piece of electronic test equipment was, it’s likely that they would respond with “multimeter”. If you asked them to produce it, out would come a familiar item, a handheld brick with a 7-segment LCD at the top, a chunky rotary selector switch, and a pair of test probes. They can be had with varying quality and features for anything from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, though they will nearly all share the same basic set of capabilities. Voltage in both AC and DC, DC current, resistance from ohms to mega ohms, and maybe a continuity tester. More expensive models have more features, may be autoranging, and will certainly have better electrical safety than the cheaper ones, but by and large they are a pretty standard item.
If Hackaday had been around forty years ago and you’d asked the same question, you’d have had a completely different set of multimeters pulled out for your inspection. Probably still a handheld brick with the big selector switch, but instead of that LCD you’d have seen a large moving-coil meter with a selection of scales for the different ranges. It would have done substantially the same job as the digital equivalent from today, but in those intervening decades it’s a piece of equipment that’s largely gone. So today I’m going to investigate moving coil multimeters, why you see them a lot less these days than you used to, and why you should still consider having one in your armoury. Continue reading “Why You Shouldn’t Quite Forget The Moving Coil Multimeter”→
Let’s say you’re working on a project, and you need a microcontroller. Which chip do you reach for? Probably the one you’re most familiar with, or at least the one whose programmer is hiding away in a corner of your desk. Choosing a microcontroller is a matter of convenience, but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are dozens of different ARM cores alone, hundreds of 8051 clones, and weirder stuff including the Cypress PSoC and TI’s MSP430. Which one is best? Which microcontroller that costs under a dollar is best? That’s the question [Jay Carlson] tried to answer, and it’s the best microcontroller shootout we’ve ever read.
[Jay] put together a monster of a review of a dozen or so microcontrollers that cost no more than a dollar. Included in this review are, from Atmel: the ATtiny1616, ATmega168PB, and the ATSAMD10. From Cypress, the PSoC 4000S. From Freescale, the KE04 and KL03. Holtek’s HT-66, and the Infineon XMC1100. From Microchip, the PIC16, PIC24, and PIC32. From Nuvoton, the N76, and M051. The NXP LPC811, Renesas RL-78, Sanyo LC87, and Silicon Labs EFM8. ST’s STM32F0 and STM8. STCMicro’s STC8, and finally TI’s MSP430. If you’re keeping score at home, most of these are either ARM or 8051-style cores, but the AVRs and PICs bump up the numbers for ‘proprietary’ core designs.
This review begins the same as all tech reviews, with a sampling of tech specs. Everything is there, including the amount of RAM to the number of PWM channels. [Jay] is going a bit further with this review and checking out the development environments, compilers, dev tools, and even the performance of different cores in three areas: blinking bits, a biquad filter, and a DMX receiver. There’s an incredible amount of work that went into this, and right now, this is the best resource we’ve seen for a throwdown of microcontrollers.
With all this data and the experience of going through a dozen different microcontroller platforms, what’s [Jay]’s takeaway? The STM32F0 is great, the Atmel/Microchip SAM D10 has great performance but you’ll be relying on some third-party libraries. The pure Microchip parts — the PIC16, PIC24, and PIC32 — have infinite product lifetimes, a wide range of packages, and a huge community but use a clunky IDE, and expensive compilers. The Cypress PSoC was just okay, and the PSoC5 or PSoC6 would be better. Surprises from this test include the Renesas RL-78 and its high performance, low cost, and the most power-efficient 5V part in the test.
With all that said, what’s the best microcontroller? That’s a dumb question, because the best microcontroller will always be the best microcontroller for that application. Or whatever you have sitting around in the parts drawer, we were never quite clear on what the answer actually is. That said, this is a new high water mark for microcontroller reviews, and we hope [Jay] will continue his research into microcontrollers that cost more than a dollar.
When it comes to soldering irons, most of us are likely to be in agreement that there is a level of quality below which we will not descend. To do a decent job requires a decent tool, and when it comes to soldering that means a good quality temperature controlled iron with a decent power level and a quality bit. Anything else just isn’t worth considering.
But what if you look at it from the opposite angle? When it comes to soldering, just how low can you go? In that case probably the ultimate scraping of the soldering barrel comes courtesy of USB soldering irons, taking their juice from a five volt phone charger socket and providing tiny power levels you’d expect to be barely enough to work at all. Surely these are toys, not irons! Continue reading “Review: Aneng LT-001 USB Soldering Iron”→