Category Archives: Reviews

Reflow Madness

Over the past several months, I did a few more reflow repairs with my trusty heat gun.  I successfully resurrected a Beats Pill bluetooth speaker but it failed again after a few weeks.  Another Pill is still working okay.  I rescued a 15″ MacBook Pro with video problems but had no success with a 17-incher.

Meanwhile, my own 17″ MacBook Pro, which had been limping along with disabled AMD graphics (thanks to Cody Krieger’s excellent gfxCardStatus menu bar app), went fully dim after a reboot.  This was my excuse to hang up the heat gun for good and invest in a cheap Chinese reflow oven.

At $369, the Happybuy Reflow Soldering Machine is very cheap for a reflow oven but pricey given its design flaws and build quality.  The oven I purchased is an example of the T962A design, which is produced by several different manufacturers.  Google “T962A” and you’ll find various hardware fixes as well as improved firmware.

As shipped, the T962A is both unpleasant and dangerous to operate.  At this stage, I’ve made two modifications that should be considered mandatory

The first problem is that the metal case is not properly connected to ground, posing the potential risk of electrocution!  This is a widely known (and easy to fix) issue.  I’m amazed that units with such a serious defect continue to be shipped.

The second problem is that a heat shield is secured with what appears to be paper masking tape.  It produces noxious fumes and smoke when the oven heats up.  This is also easy to fix by replacing the tape with Kapton tape.  LOL, on Amazon the oven and tape are “frequently bought together.”

There are other fixes available to improve the UI and performance that I haven’t bothered with.  After fixing the ground and tape issues, the oven performs fine for repair work.  I use profile #3 for lead free solder.

To date, I’ve had one success and one failure with the oven.  I wrecked the aforementioned Beats Pill by melting the line in and out jacks.  These are apparently installed after the SMD components are reflowed.  On the other hand, my ailing MacBook Pro was a complete success.  Time will tell if this repair lasts longer than the heat gun fix.

A nice display for Raspberry Pi

I needed a compact computer setup for my cramped electronics workbench.  The SunFounder 10.1 inch display is both space- and cost-efficient.  Instead of using molded parts for the case, SunFounder uses laser cut acrylic sheets, presumably to keep the cost of production down.  A Raspberry Pi computer can be mounted behind the screen.

Although it has a few minor quirks, the SunFounder screen represents a great value.  Recent price on Amazon was $110.99.  Add a $25 RasPi, keyboard and mouse and you’ve got a very capable little one-piece computer for under $150.

What I like about this display:

  • 1280 X 800 pixel resolution is more than adequate for running a browser or a few terminal sessions
  • As claimed, the IPS LCD screen has a very wide viewing angle.  I also found the color saturation and contrast to be excellent
  • Built-in speaker
  • It has VGA and composite inputs in addition to HDMI

And a few deficiencies:

  • The monitor arrived with several loose screws.  Seems whoever assembled my unit didn’t have a screwdriver that day
  • I needed to dremel one of the acrylic plates that holds the RasPi in place to make it fit properly
  • An onboard source of power for the RasPi would be welcomed.  I suspect that a 5V connector that taps internal power could be added for less than the IR remote control that comes with the display.  What possible use is a remote anyway?  I can’t envision ever being more than arm’s length away for a screen that’s only 10 inches wide.

    My kludgy solution was to velcro an extension cord to the back, connecting separate power bricks for the display and RasPi:

  • Out of the box, I was getting no sound from the display.  The printed instructions that came with the it said to run raspi-config and choose the option to force audio out through HDMI.  But that did not work because the computer was detecting the SunFounder screen’s interface as DVI, which is not audio capable.  The solution was to add the line hdmi_drive=2 in config.txt to force HDMI mode.

These minor nits aside, for the price of a cheap Chromebook, the combination of the Raspberry Pi and SunFounder display provide several features that are useful on my workbench and would not be available on other similarly priced platforms like a  built-in serial port, gpio pins and the ability to display HDMI, VGA or composite video.

Next project, a perfect companion for this setup:  let’s dust off an Apple Newton keyboard and add USB connectivity to it.

Thoughts on the Apple Watch

I’ve been living with an Apple Watch for a month now (stainless steel case/Milanese loop band).  Overall, I think it’s great.  The most common criticism that I hear about Apple Watch is that there is no “killer app” that creates a compelling new product category.  This is absolutely true.  However, the real value of Apple Watch is the cumulative effect of its numerous and sometimes subtle features.

It’s the little things that count

Right off the bat, it’s easy to appreciate that the Watch is a beautifully crafted piece of jewelry (photos of the Milanese band don’t do it justice;  you need to see it sparkle in sunlight).  But it takes several days of wearing Apple Watch to get a full appreciation for its capabilities.

The best features of the Watch are not activated by direct user interaction but just seem to happen at appropriate times.  Case in point:  the first time I used the Map app on my iPhone to get driving directions I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I didn’t need to see or hear the phone to know when to turn.  The watch tapped my wrist with three double taps when I needed to turn left and with a steady series of twelve taps for right.

The Activity app won’t turn me into a marathon winner overnight but it succeeds in prodding me to do a little bit extra every day.  It sets daily goals for moving, exercise and standing.  Several evenings I found myself just short of goal right before bedtime and made up the difference with a quick exercise session.  This wouldn’t happened if the watch wasn’t giving me frequent encouragement (including virtual “awards”) to hit all my daily goals.

The Watch reminds me to stand if I’ve been sitting too long.  And it provides a weekly and periodic activity reports that encourage me to stay on top of my goals.  The cumulative effect of these little “nudges” should be a lighter, healthier me.

Size matters

It’s been reported that around 70% of the Apple Watches sold to date are the larger 42mm models.  I think the majority of the people people buying these are wrong for the following reasons:

  1. On all but the largest wrists, the 42mm case looks dorky.  There, I said it.  The 38mm watch has a more conventional size and looks elegant on both men and ladies.  But Apple doesn’t always make it easy for men with larger wrists to get a 38mm model that fits.  For example, if you’re a man in the market for a stainless steel Watch with the elegant Milanese loop band, you need to step up to the 42mm case (for an extra $50) if your wrist is larger than 180mm.  Apple should offer a large Milanese band option for the 38mm Watch.  Bigger guys who want a 38mm case with a stainless band will need to shell out an extra $300 to step up to the Link Bracelet.
  2. Yes, the larger watch has slightly better battery life.  But this is irrelevant because neither model will make it through two full days on a charge.  Whether you have a 38mm or 42mm watch, you will still need to take it off every night for charging.
  3. The larger screen doesn’t really offer much in terms of better ergonomics or readability.  I haven’t experienced any problems with the 38mm Watch recognizing exactly which object I’m trying to tap.

Some room for improvement

My main nit with the Apple Watch is that I need to rotate my wrist slightly more to activate it than I would to glance at a conventional watch.  It would be great if there was a user configurable sensitivity setting for the “Activate on Wrist Raise” feature.    With 40% power remaining after a typical day, I wouldn’t mind if the Watch sacrificed a little battery life to activate less conservatively.

According to Apple, the Watch and iPhone that it’s paired with are supposed to be able to communicate over a trusted WiFi network when they are out of Bluetooth range.  This doesn’t seem to work reliably in my house but it might have something to do with having multiple Ubiquiti long range access points installed (although this setup is seamless with all the other WiFi devices I use).

I’d prefer a thinner case, but to Apple’s credit, the Watch looks svelte next to most smart watches.  (Curiously, it looks thinner on my wrist than off).  I have no doubt that Apple will figure out a way to slim subsequent models down as they have done with every other device.

Apple should sell a proper charging stand for the Watch.  However, the Nomad Stand is an attractive option (albeit a tad expensive at $70 for a piece of twisted aluminum).

Minor gripes aside, the Apple Watch is a fabulous first generation product and I highly recommend it.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 first impressions

My office is replacing its aging fleet of HP 620 notebooks with Surface Pro 3  (256 GB, Intel Core i5) tablets.  Each tablet will be deployed with an optional keyboard cover and docking station.  This is the middle-of-the-road model, which is powerful enough to run most business applications but not suitable for more demanding video or graphic editing tasks.

The Surface Pro works well as a tablet replacement.  Although it’s somewhat clunky compared with Apple’s iPad, the build quality and overall feel are solid.  The built-in kickstand adjusts to a wide range of viewing angles and folds flat when not in use.  The power connector, which attaches magnetically similar to Apple’s MagSafe plug, is a bit awkward to plug in because of its width and the Surface’s beveled edge.  The sharp edges make the Surface Pro less comfortable to hold than an iPad.  The touchscreen is responsive and the display is bright with well saturated colors.

As a notebook replacement, the Surface Pro leaves a lot to be desired. The optional keyboard cover is both ingenious and frustrating.  The cover attaches magnetically.  Unlike the power connector, it attaches without any fuss and is easy to position even in dim light.  It can either lay flat or the back can be raised a bit by folding a section at its back. Both positions have flaws.  The tipped-up position achieves a more natural typing angle, but the not rigid enough keyboard cover flexes considerably.  The flexing disappears when the keyboard is in its flush position but I found it uncomfortable that way for long typing sessions. The trackpad is imprecise and I frequently found myself reaching for the touchscreen instead.

By no means should you call the Surface 3 Pro a laptop!  Trying to use the Surface on your lap is an exercise in discomfort and frustration.  The sharp edge of the kickstand digs into your legs and the keyboard cover flops around like a dead fish.  And you will look like a dork.

A stylus is included with the Surface Pro 3 but it isn’t particularly useful.  It took some considerable head scratching before I figured out that the stylus only works with Microsoft OneNote and a handful of apps.  I don’t see any good reason why it isn’t recognized by the general touchscreen interface.  The Surface doesn’t provide any place to stash the stylus.  If you buy the optional keyboard cover you get a flap of material with a loop to hold the stylus.  It has a self-stick backing that can be affixed to the cover but it looks goofy and would probably rip off after a week of use.

The docking station provides a full set of ports and comes with it’s own power brick.  It positions the tablet at a good viewing angle and has a conveniently located magnetized area along the left side to hold the stylus.  I struggled with inserting and removing the Surface from the docking station until I realized its sides slide in and out.  (Yeah, I know, RTFD, but there aren’t arrows or any other kind of visual cues.  This should be more intuitive.)

Overall, the hardware isn’t half bad.  However, the UI is a hot mess!   The Surface-specific annoyance is that the OS doesn’t automatically adjust when the keyboard cover is affixed or removed.  After disconnecting the cover and heading out without it, there was no way to unlock the tablet because the password field wouldn’t present a “soft keyboard.”  Conversely, I wasn’t able to connect and use the keyboard to finish a document that I started in tablet mode.

Other annoyances are just because the Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1.  The GUI is wildly inconsistent and switches between “classic” Windows and the new Metro look depending on what you are doing.  This schizophrenic UI must be baffling to users migrating from Apple platforms!  I’m thinking about disabling Metro entirely so at least I can get a consistent user experience.

Bottom line: the Surface Pro 3 is a good choice if you’re looking for an ultra-mobile computer to leverage existing Microsoft licenses or mainly use Windows-only applications.  And you want the ability to use it as a touchscreen tablet.  Otherwise, the similarly sized 11-inch MacBook Air, which has a “real” keyboard and intuitive OS is worth a look.

An excellent SSD upgrade

I was tasked with upgrading 36 aging corporate desktop computers (HP model DC5700) to defer the next hardware refresh by 2-3 years.  Bumping the RAM to the maximum 4 GB didn’t result in a satisfactory speed improvement so I decided to explore Solid State Disk (SSD) options.

Users store their files on networked home directories, so there wasn’t any need to expand the PC storage much beyond the stock 80 GB.  Based on user reviews, size and price, the 120 GB Samsung 840 EVO-Series looked like a great fit. (These are also available in 250 GB, 500 GB and 1 TB capacities).  It’s 3-year warranty also aligned perfectly with the planned remaining life of the computers.

I fully expected to have a few issues to sort out on a test system before I could turn over the project to a junior tech for deployment.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover the bundled software is remarkably efficient and user-friendly:

  1. Boot Windows and log in as a local administrator
  2. Connect the SSD to the PC using a SATA to USB adaptor cable or drive enclosure
  3. Run Samsung’s Data Migration utility to copy the PC hard disk to the SSD
  4. Shutdown the PC and replace the hard disk with the SSD.  (Don’t waste money on a 2.5″ to 3.5″ mounting adapter.  A piece of double sided foam tape is all you need to secure the SSD).
  5. Run the Samsung Magician utility to tweak performance settings

Hands-on time was under five minutes per PC and it took around 20 minutes for the migration utility to copy everything off the hard disk.

The performance improvement is amazing.  Boot time reduced from 3+ minutes to under 30 seconds.  McAfee full antivirus scan, which previously rendered the PCs almost unusable when it was running, is now barely noticeable.

Tremendous bang for the buck and unconditionally recommended!!!