Years and years back I used to spend a lot of time understanding and, in some cases, modifying consumer electronics for fun and self-education. That hobby ended up on the back burner for a long time though as life changed and I moved to Minnesota, ran a freelance business, and worked full time as a softawre developer.
During a few months of downtime between jobs this year I finally took the time to dive back into things. And, holy crap, has the world changed.
Here are a few key shifts in the electronics hobbyist and general “maker” world between 2008 and 2018 that threw me for a loop this Summer:
Ardunio has moved on…
- Sad: Almost all the Arduino stuff I learned back in the day is ancient by now. :(
- Awesome: The Arduino and Arduino-compatible world has absolutely exploded with options - from a plethora of MCU prototype kits to easy-to-add modules for the Arduino IDE to make use of all kinds of crazy features in these boards and a huge variety of modules.
The art of finding components has changed a lot…
- Sad: Radio Shack’s history as a place where you could find occasional components is long, long gone.
- Awesome: Specialist companies like Adafruit, major parts suppliers like Mouser and Digi-Key, and straight-out-of-China shops like SeeedStudio and DFRobot are way, way better than stumbing into a strip-mall shop looking for that one component. And even Amazon has a lot of vital stuff available - often able to be shipped in just a day or three. (whoa)
Bench tools are way more accessible, even complex items…
- Sad: Professional-grade tools are still expensive as heck and it looks like the “prosumer” market that grew in other markets, like photography, never quite took root in electronics hobby work.
- Awesome: Affordable bench tools for once-complex tasks are now within reach, in terms of cost, opening up a huge range of possibilities thanks to a massive increase in the volume of inexpensive options being generated by an innovative market in China.
Basically, the hobby and craft of prototyping and modifying electronics has become immensely more democratized. The cost of entry into this stuff is a fraction of what it used to be and information is incredibly easy to find!
Back in the old days, when I was spending quality time with each new issue of Make Magazine, the promise of Arduino was easily visible. Open hardware, a fully open source stack - from IDE to bootloader to compiler - and a small, but rapidly growing, community of fans showed a lot of promise.
But, honsetly, it wasn’t quite there yet. Kits were expensive. Good tools weren’t really easy to find. Easy-to-use “module breakouts” were also expensive and tough to find. Pretty much all of these things changed massively in the intervening years.
First off, the Ardunio stack is a lot more mature these days, to say the least. Everything from the IDE itself to the high quality community-supported module selection has blossomed into a thriving ecosystem. Every time I ran into a seemingly immense problem it wasn’t too tough to Google up an answer or find code snippets on GitHub to help understand things more clearly. Hell yeah, 2018.
Second, getting started with basic MCU projects is so immensely easy with the kits provided by all kinds of vendors. I’m a huge fan of what Adafruit’s been doing - especially the weekly “new product” videos where they spend a bit of time going over each item. And the huge variety of kits available at a low cost with super-fast shipping on Amazon is pretty damn incredible.
Another huge democratizing factor involves the explosion of options in the breadboard/prototype space. The varitey of breadboard flavors available at a decent price these days is pretty damn staggering. And “module” kits, like a super cool breadboard kit I found at DFRobot, make building circuits with resistors, caps, diodes, and other common components immensely easier and, frankly, way more fun.
Finally, I’ve gotta talk about breakouts a bit. The idea - taking a utility device (like a thermistor) or an IC (like a SPI flash chip) and putting it on a little breakout board with a few pins is just amazing. The complexity of prototyping ideas on a breadboard has been reduced from “build the whole circuit” to “plug and play”, especially given the great libraries out there to make use of the most popular breakouts like the DHT (Digital Humity/Temperature) sensors and various EEPROMs.
Its a good year to be into the Ardunio ecosystem in 2018.
Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s I used to fill out web forms on websites for companies like National Semiconductor to get prototype samples of interesting looking ICs to play with. Back then I was particularly fascinated by EEPROMs, especially given the fact that moving data around was immensely clunky until bus-powered USB externals and, eventually, flash drives became ubiquitious.
But actually tinkering with these things proved difficult. Assembling a set of tools on my bench to get things done was difficult enough but, even with datasheets on hand, often these prototype samples became enigmas for my inexperienced hobbyist brain to pick apart. Searching for answers never really pulled up anything interesting and there weren’t many communities out there to talk with about these things.
Even in later years, when modifying the original Xbox became a popular hobby, finding components or ordering custom-built boards to spec was an esoteric and expensive art. There wasn’t an ocean of Youtube videos to show off DIY techniques or enclaves of nerds on public forums hashing out key details. Sure, part datasheet PDFs were pretty easy to get, but the parts themselves usually required a manual dig through catalogs without any grep or “find” to help out.
These days you can look up just about any component you’re looking for on Digi-Key and (if you’re lucky enough to be in Minnesota) get it shipped to you in a few days. And Amazon’s marketplace is full of stuff you can get cheaply (and rapidly) if you know your way around their interface and take time to read the fine print and reviews. Too unusual for Amazon’s marketplace and too old or too new for Digi-Key? Alibaba’s marketplace probably has what you need, or even eBay.
For me though, the biggest change was in sites like SeeedStudio. I probably spent four entire days browsing through their site to find the fascinating things they had on hand. Even more fascinating is their “Fusion” service - where you can send in schematics and get back a professionally built board to your specs. You can even have them assmble the board to spec! And the costs are reasonable enough to enable some really interesting projects, even in super-niche interset areas like keyboard MCU modification.
Tying all of this together is the huge variety of cheap tooling available, enabling folks to dive into electronics work without having to pay thousands of dollars for tools. Sure, you can’t go wrong buying the pro gear, but who’s got $10,000 to sink into a hobby right off the bat?
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about.
My dream has always been to afford (and justify buying) a gold-standard heirloom multimeter from Fluke or one of their peers. Sure, its expensive as hell, but it’ll last forever! But that just isn’t practical, especially if you’re just testing the waters or doing small personal projects.
Today though, the variety of inexpensive multimeters is absolutely massive. The one on my bench now, the AstroAI WH5000A, is only $36 while I’m writing this. And it ships in two days! This would’ve blown my mind in 2008. In 2018, its just one of many options in that price range (or lower!).
In earlier years, it felt like more complex tools like scopes and analyzers would remain out of reach forever. In the back of my head I always kinda dreamed of having a top-notch scope and analyzer on my bench, at least as soon as I found the $10,000 it’d cost to get ahold of them. But I knew it’d never really be an option.
Today though, the huge variety of lower-cost options makes this critical digital tool accessible to just about anyone. Ranging from so-cheap-they’re-expendable $10 USB logic analyzers to lower-cost (and lower channel count) $200 range hobbyist-targeted kits from pro vendors like Saleae and everything in between the variety is massive. There are even open source hardware options like the Dangerous Prototypes Logic Shrimp and Logic Pirate that you can get pre-built from a variety of places or build yourself.
The Sigrok open source logic analyzer software project, in particular, is really fascinating in this space. Not only is the PulseView GUI top notch for analysis but their Supported Hardware page provides a great look at the options out there for analyzers.
Oscilloscopes, in particular, are one of those “would be nice to have” things that I never really could justify shelling out for on a hobbyist bench. Whenever I went looking I got sticker shock from the professional gear out there and even surplus equipment was priced out of my range. But these days you can find kits like the DSO Nano priced under $100 that can give you the data you need for a basic project or, for a bit more, computer-attached options like the DScope C20P can give you a bit more functionality if your bench already has a computer to plug a USB device into.
After a lot of research I ended up going with the DreamSourceLab DSLogic Plus along with their DScope C20P. Both have been immensely valuable while diving into some of the more complex digital projects I’ve been working on and, time permitting, I’d like post an article about them from my particular perspective as an MCU-focused hobbyist.
This is another place where things have blown wide open in the last decade. Even the renonwed, NYT-owned review site Wirecutter has a regularly-updated “Best Soldering Irons” review page that goes a long way to demystify things for newcomers and old timers alike.
I’ve personally used three different irons on my bench this Summer. One is an old “RadioShack Special” I got for $10 back in the late 90’s. That thing is next to useless. The other is a super-basic Weller WLC100 station (about $40) that I got on Amazon in the mid-2010’s for a small project. It’s better than the old one, by a huge margin.
But my favorite one is actually the current (and somewhat long-standing) pick at the Wirecutter: The X-Tronic 3020-XTS. Temperature control and a decently designed iron at $60 is a pretty great deal. Auto-shutoff is pretty great for me, given how absent-minded I can be. And the simplest feature - the little spool holder on the left - is probably the one I’m most thankful for. No more hunting for the solder I need or digging around for the specific wick for the job.
But finding a good iron isn’t all that’s gotten easier. The “quality of life” stuff is even easier to find now too.
Back in 2006 I spent weeks digging around the web trying to find a decent solder wick for desoldering components. I had pretty awful experiences with the off-the-shelf wick I got at RadioShack but I could tell that it could be a useful tool if, you know, it worked for my needs. A quick search on Amazon found me my new favorite - Chemtronics Chem-Wik. That was just the start though.
Within a few days I felt like I moved from the stone ages to the modern era with all the creature comforts to make things safe and as painless as possible.
That’s what’s “new”, at least to me, in 2018 so far. I’m planning on writing a few more articles covering my recent explorations in this area, particularly relating to things like probing pins and other items with a scope to find useful test points, using a logic analyzer to identify and understand data moving on various busses and finding/using JTAG pins on a microcontroller to learn about it and even dump its firmware.
Here’s to the future, you guys. :)