Monday, December 14, 2009

Gianttech Plasma Cutter

As mentioned in the previous post, I have bought a plasma cutter a short while ago from the good folks at http://www.plasmametalcutter.com/. Since I only have 110 service in the garage, I had to opt for the Cut40D model (which is confusingly called the Slice40D on the face of the unit). This model features auto-switching between 110 and 220. It comes with a 220 plug on the end, but it is easy enough to switch it for a 110 style plug. I opted for the 110 20 AMP style plug.

All in all, it is a very good study unit. It slices through sheet metal like it isn't even there and so far does fine up to at least 1/4" mild steel. I haven't yet tried it out on thicker stock, but I'm not sure if it could go to a full 1/2" or not. Most of my projects are with 1/8" angle iron stock and it blasts through that with no problem. Like welding, you need to watch the safety precautions and it takes some practise to make steady cuts - especially straight lines.

The Gianttech folks I bought the unit off of were very helpful, however shipping up here to Canada took quite a while, but as a hobbyist I wasn't in a huge hurry. I also bought the package of extra consumables available for the unit since I read that these can be used up quickly. I have had to change the tip once, but I think that is because I fried it when I was learning how to use the unit. Now that I have more practise, I am not noticing much deterioration of the tip or other consumables.

I also had to upgrade my air compressor to an 8 gallon 2+ HP unit. I ended up buy this unit from Boss Tools. It is a very sturdy compressor that seems to deliver loads of pressure! While the Cut40D comes with a combination air regulator and filter, on the advice of my welding teacher, I also added in an extra filter (this item). Apparently, the drier and cleaner the air, the better the cutting and the longer the consumables will last.

Here is a quick video of the cutter in action (note that I keep calling it the "Slice40D" since that is what the face of the unit says):



I only had a couple of small issues with the unit. Like many Chinese tools, the manual was laughably short. My Lincoln Electric MIG welder came with an encyclopedia compared to the Gianttech cutter! However, what was there was adequate to get started.

Another issue was that I initially got a lot of air leakage from the hoses connecting the regulator/filter unit to the cutter. First, I replaced the hose clamps and that mostly fixed it, then I replaced the 1/4" NPT-hose barb fitting off of the regulator and that fixed it. Again, pretty small stuff, and I suppose typical of the small "fit and finish" items you find on Chinese tools (my lathe & milling machine also needed minor tweaks). For the money, I am frankly amazed with how well it works. If I were running a full welding shop, I would probably opt for a heavy duty Miller machine or something, but for a "weekend warrior" hobbyist like me it works great!

Plasma Cutting Table

Plasma Cutting Table

Maintaining my blistering pace of a posting every month or so, here is another project write-up along the metal working lines. I recently bought a Gianttech plasma cutter from the good people at http://www.plasmametalcutter.com (which I will post about shortly). It became obvious pretty quickly that just cutting things on the edge of the welding table wouldn't work very well - and risked damaging my beautiful 3/16 steel top for the welding table. So, the answer was to build a simple plasma cutting table.

At it's most basic, a plasma cutting table is just a set of steel slats turned on their end that conduct electricity to the workpiece, but won't interfere with the cutting action because of their thin profile. I decided that the most reasonable design was to go for 1 1/5" slats of 1/8" thick mild steel. I also figured that the grating part of the table would take a lot of abuse from cutting so it would be good to make it so it could be easily turned over and eventually replaced. The basic idea then was to build the grate as one unit, then have it be able to be set onto the base frame to make the completed table. The base frame is made from good ol' 1 1/2" x 1/8" angle iron. The table surface area is 2' x 2'.





The first parts that I made (which I didn't take pictures of) were two angle iron squares. One makes up the top frame and the other is the cross brace for the legs.

Here is the construction process for the grate - I just used corner clamps to keep adding in more and more slats. They are positioned just slightly over 1 1/2" apart so they space out evenly:



When it was done - and with a bit of grinding and fitting - the grate fit perfectly into the top frame:



Here are the grate, squares and legs waiting for assembly:




...and here is the completed unit:



Ah, the astute observer will notice, why isn't the grate nestled neatly in the top frame the way it was designed? Because i managed to weld it together upside down! Arrgghh! Another lesson that WELDING IS PERMANENT! Double check everything before reaching for the welding gun. However, I was able to weld some extra angle iron onto the top frame to hold the grate. So, it ends up being an inch or so higher than I might have liked, but otherwise is very usable and the top is still easily replaceable:




It's all stores up nice and compact and when I need to work, I can just swing the welder and cutter out on their trolley.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Death of the Lixin e80

Well, I suppose it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that the e80 has already given up the ghost!

It has been given a couple of good tests lately. A few weeks back a colleague of mine from overseas came over to do some work, so I lent him the e80 along with a pre-paid Rogers SIM. (Yes, Rogers will, rather reluctantly and with a lot of ifs and buts, sell you just the pre-paid SIM.) In use, my colleague reported very poor battery life and the charger started to smoke rather alarmingly!

When I got the phone back, it seemed to be just dead. It wouldn't boot up, nothing and I suspected the battery was dead. I then tried getting a real, Nokia branded BL-4B battery off of eBay (<$10). It seemed to try to charge up, but wouldn't boot, so I decided that since it seemed to be just about dead anyway, I would dismantle the whole thing to see if maybe there was an obvious loose connector or something. I also had another USB style charger I could use to replace the one that smoked itself!

The phone wasn't too hard to dismantle completely (sorry, forgot to take a picture) and when disassembled, it would start up just fine. So, after a few tries at reassembling it, I did manage to get it back together and get it working. I ran it for a few weeks and it seemed to be behaving normally, but I just left it running on my desk and I wasn't carrying it around or using much - just testing standby time.

So, since it seemed to be behaving OK, I decided to take it with me on a business trip to the US and use it with my T-Mobile SIM. Big problems ensued! While the charger didn't catch fire or anything the problem was that the phone would loose it's charge withing less than two or three hours on standby! What was worse is that the battery level indicator wasn't terribly accurate - it would look like it was at 2/3 charged and then 15 minutes later would be dead! Anyway, it is just not usable to carry a round a phone that may die any minute, so I am going to declare this unit fried and move on.

Interestingly, a recent article in The Economist (which you can read here if you are a subscriber) quotes a Chinese consultant as saying "despite China’s booming exports of grey-market phones, domestic sales have started to fall. Customers have realised that they break easily and come with no guarantees." Still, these folks seem to be very inventive and I suspect they will come back with better quality, functionality and prices - just like the Japanese car manufacturers did in the 1970s and 80s.

I am, of course, a bit disappointed, but I don't feel terribly ripped off since the original price wasn't too bad and, anyway, my i9 still works just fine. I actually have just purchased the most recent Sciphone Dream G2 Android phone off of eBay to give that a try! I will write that one up as soon as I receive it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Welding Cart

Having finished up my welding table, the next step was to have something to actually put my welder on rather than having it sit on the floor. So, I built the following which is based on a plan from "Welding Complete" from Creative Publishing International (available from Amazon here). However, I needed to modify the original plan to make it a bit wider so my plasma cutter would have a place to stay.

Here is the drawing- which omits the wheels which were just purchased from the local home center:


I won't bother going through all the build since it was basically the same as the welding table, but one thing I forgot to get a picture of was the correct way to align the upright components for welding, which is like this:




Use a carpenter's square to ensure the uprights are at a perfect 90 degrees before welding! I missed this crucial step with one of the legs on my welding table and it will be ever so slightly out of square forever now. Welding is definitely a measure THREE times, cut once, measure TWO MORE TIMES then weld type of process.

Here is the whole frame before painting. The hooks are to hang cables off of, but I am a bit worried I will be catching my knees on them.



Finally, a good thick coat of tractor green paint covers a multitude of sins! Actually, we have a pool pump in the same garage as the welding gear and occasionally small amounts of chlorine gas seep out and rust steel instantly, so I really need to paint everything to preserve it. I also put the rubber matting on the help protect the finish and provide some extra electrical insulation.




Here is the whole team! Note that the welding cart is extra wide so the plasma cutter can go beside it.



Next up... Bringing some order to my chaotic garage and workshop, which is hardly a project worth blogging about! I will be welding up some shelves and cabinets as part of the process and I will post that later. I also promise to get back to the Arduino soon. I have another Ethernet shield I haven't yet got assembled and I really want to look at networking two Arduinos together and having them do something halfway useful!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Welding Table Construction

In honour of Monty Python's 40th Anniversary... And now for something completely different!

I believe way back in the original start of the blog, I explained that I also did a lot of machining including designing & building steam engines a few years ago. I had always meant to take a welding course, and on a whim I decided to finally do that this fall. So, the last few Saturdays I have been struggling out of bed at 6:30 AM to get into to weld with a huge stick welder (Shielded Metal Arc Welding - SWAM) process. Naturally, I have gotten totally obsessed and decided to get a welder for myself!

Originally, I wanted to get a 240 VAC stick welder, but my friendly neighborhood electrician told me the garage wiring just wasn't up to it, and this is hardly something I want to do inside the house! After some research, I settled on a Lincoln Electric MIG-Pak 140 unit which runs off of regular 120 VAC (similar to this) that does Metal Inert Gas arc welding (aka GMAW - Gas-shielded Metal Arc Welding). Fortuitously, it went on a good sale and I picked up a bottle of C02/Argon shielding gas, a leather welders coat and an auto-darkening welding helmet and I was set!

The technique and setup for the MIG welding is quite different from the big Hobart industrial units I am using in class, but MIG welding is pretty easy to at least pick up the basics of. The good thing with getting used to using the big welder in class is it gives you a very healthy respect for all the safety precautions and you get all the good theory on how everything is supposed to work and the various types of welds as well as the good advice of an experienced instructor.

So, after fooling around with my welder to get a feel for how it performs with various thicknesses of metal and so on, I decided the first traditional project for a starting welder is to build a metal welding table. I need the extra surface space in the shop and I definitely need a metal surface table for arc welding.

Step 1 - I worked up a design to get the rough dimensions and the shopping list for the metal store:




This used 1 1/2 inch square tubing for the legs, 1 1/2 angle iron for the frame and 3/16 thick sheet for the table top.

Step 2 - I bought the table top already cut to size and then cut down the frame and leg pieces from the ten foot lengths I bought. Here are the parts laid out before welding:





Step 2 - First I welded the frame that supports the top. The parts were cut mitered and then I put them on some firebricks on the top itself - on the assumption that the top is more level that the old floor of my garage!



Step 3 - With the top frame done, then I welded the plates for the caster wheels to the bottom of the legs:




Not too bad MIG welds considering I am just starting out!



Step 4 - I welded the leg assemblies to the frame assemblies. I wish I had captured the proper way of lining up the legs perfectly perpendicular to the frame! I actually messed up the first leg and it went on slightly out of true, but the other three legs went on perfectly. You will see later that it's not too bad and the one leg being slightly out won't be too big an impact. Once the legs are welded onto the frame, I needed to grind down the welds on the top of the frame so it would mate properly to the table top:




Step 5 - The frame and leg assembly was welded to the top. Here I use an intermittent rather than a continuous weld:



Step 6 - Roll it out of the shop and paint it! The slats are 1 1/2 inch wide 1/8 thick strapping I added to make a shelf for storing stock and other bits & pieces. Can you tell which leg is slightly out of alignment?



Here it is with good double coat of primer:




Finally, it got a good heavy coat of Tremclad basic green glossy paint so it looks like a tractor!





A nice substantial first welding project and something very useful for the shop! Next up will be a cart to put the welder on and my new plasma cutter which I should get next week.

Some day, I will combine the Arduino, welding and maching stuff into one project, promise!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Exporting contacts to Lixin e80 and i9

I recently had a question on my YouTube page about importing contacts into the Lixin phone. Now, I'm NOT Lixin Tech Support, but I have worked out a way to do this that works for both the i9 & the Lixin e80 phone. I am afraid these only apply to Windows. I have no idea if there is a way to do this on Mac OS or Linux.

After cruising around the i9 support forum, I found a piece of software called PhoneSuite (available from here). This is a piece of software supposedly from MediaTek that allows communication with the MKT6205 phones similar to phone interface software suites from other manufactures. It allows you (supposedly) to upload your contacts and manage pictures and ring tones on the phone. I have never used these features, but I did figure out the contacts thing.

Phonesuite doesn't have an install routine, you just run unzip it into a folder somewhere and run Phonesuite.exe. It looks like something that has been whipped up in Java. Anyway, first go to the "Settings" dialog:


You need to select the MTK6205 option and whatever COM port the phone is on. To get the phone communicating with PhoneSuite:
  1. Plug in the USB cable from the phone to an available USB on your PC.
  2. Select "COM Port" on the e80 or i9.
  3. In PhoneSuite, select the COM (serial) port your phone is on - usually it will be a number higher than the COM 1 & COM 2 ports which refer to your PC's RS232 port.
There is an option to just load the phone book from Outlook. You can try this, but it didn't work for me. When I select this, first Outlook will ask if Phonesuite can access your address book. Once you give permission to allow the access, then I get:


The application then will completely die! It seems that PhoneSuite dies when it hits any standard phone number characters like "(",")" or "-"!

After much trial and error, I found that you can import contacts from a CSV file - a comma delimited text file created by a spreadsheet program like Excel.

First, Export your contacts from Outlook to a CSV file.
  1. Go to "File" > "Import and Export".
  2. Select Export to a file and click Next.
  3. Select "Comma separated values" - either DOS or Windows, I don't think it matters.
  4. In "Folder to Export" select "Contacts".
  5. Select a file name.
  6. Click "Finish" and it will proceed to export everything to a CSV file.
If you look at the file in Excel, you will see that you have loads and loads of headings! Here is a partial list:
  • Title
  • First Name
  • Middle Name
  • Last Name
  • Suffix
  • Company
  • Department
  • Job Title
  • Business Street
  • Business Street 2
  • Business Street 3
  • Business City
  • and on and on and on...

However, PhoneSuite can only accept the following fields:
  • Name
  • Mobile
  • Home
  • Company
  • Email
  • Office
  • Fax
  • Birthday

This is where it gets tedious! You will need to go into Excel and cut out all the columns you don't need and merge columns like first & last name. What you need to end up with is a spreadsheet that looks like:





















NameMobileHomeCompanyEmailOfficeFaxBirthday
Test User+15555555555+125555555555Test Companywho.are@you.com+135555555555+1455555555551/4/2004

How do you get rid of the "(",")" & "-"? You need to do a search for these characters and replace them with nothing. Just check the Excel documentation on how to do this.

Once you have everything cleaned up, save the contacts file as a CSV within Excel. Just go "File" > "Save as" and select "CSV".

Now, to get it into PhoneSuite and with the phone connected:

  • Click the File icon in the upper left:
  • Select "Import" and navigate to the CSV file you just created.
  • This should import all your contacts into a "PC Folder" called "Import".
  • Select all the contacts you just imported and drag them to the "Handset Folder".

If everything is set up right, they should all transfer to your i9 or e80 and be accessible. If you get "Invalid Characters" warning, then you have to go back and scrub the file further in Excel and look for pesky tray brackets or dashes!

It is kludgy, but it does work. For my Samsung T509, I never could figure out a way to do this!


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Further on the POP3 email checker

Well, since this project has been a bit of a surpirse hit, I thought I would include a few further notes and refinements.

This is a small change to the updateClient function that just flashes the LED rapidly four times to indicate the network is down:


void updateClient() //This function contacts the POP3 server
{
if ((millis() - updateTimer) > 5000)
{
Ethernet.begin(mac, ip);
// Serial.println("connecting...");
delay(1000);
if (client.connect())
{
// Serial.println("connected");
client.println("user Pop.User"); //Insert your usual email login name
client.println("pass YourPassword"); //And your password here
client.println("quit");
client.println();
clientConnected = true;
}
else
{
// Serial.println("connection failed");
// Flash four time rapidly to indicate network down.
for (int x = 0; x < 4; x++){
digitalWrite(ledPin, HIGH);
delay(100);
digitalWrite(ledPin, LOW);
delay(100);
}
}
updateTimer = millis();
}
}


What is odd is that when I have tried this with another LED it blinks very dimly - even when I move around which digital pin the other LED is coming from. Very odd and I still haven't figured out what is causing that.

Another thing to watch for is that this assumes that the number of emails comes through in array position 106 & 107 (I then subtract 48 to make the ASCII code into an integer):


mailNum1 = inString[106] - 48; //Array position 106 contains the first digit
mailNum2 = inString[107] - 48; //Array position 107 contains the 2nd digit if it is available


This, of course, may vary depending on how many characters there are in your POP3 server name and so on. I would recommend starting with the basic commands for getting the POP3 string back:


#include <Ethernet.h>

byte mac[] = { 0xDE, 0xAD, 0xBE, 0xEF, 0xFE, 0xED };
byte ip[] = { 192,168,0,172 };
byte server[] = { XXX, XXX, XXX, XXX }; // IP address of your POP3 server

Client client(server, 110);

long updateTimer;
boolean clientConnected = false;

void setup()
{
Serial.begin(9600);
}

void loop()
{
updateClient();
checkAvail();
}

void updateClient()
{
if ((millis() - updateTimer) > 10000)
{
Ethernet.begin(mac, ip);
Serial.println("connecting...");
delay(1000);
if (client.connect())
{
Serial.println("connected");
client.println("user user.name"); //Insert your usual email login name
client.println("pass YourEmailPassword"); //And your password here
client.println("quit");
client.println();
clientConnected = true;
}
else
{
Serial.println("connection failed");
}
updateTimer = millis();
}
}

void checkAvail()
{
if (clientConnected)
{
if (client.available())
{
char c = client.read();
Serial.print(c);
}
if (!client.connected())
{
Serial.println();
Serial.println("disconnecting.");
client.stop();
clientConnected = false;
}
}
}



Then watching the output in the serial window, which will look something like:


connecting...
connected
+OK hello from popgate 2.43 on pop108.xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx
+OK password required.
+OK maildrop ready, 0 messages (0 octets) (16335883)
+OK server signing off.

disconnecting.


You can then use this output to figure out the right position in the array for mailNum1 & mailNum2.

Hope that helps someone out there. It has been very flattering to see how many folks are interested in building this for themselves. As I explained in the first post, once you have the raw number of emails as an integer you can process with Arduino, you can do all sorts of interesting things beyond just flashing and LED!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Arduino POP3 Email Checker

Since it turns out people actually occasionally READ this blog, I decided it was time to go back to do an Arduino project and try something different. Since I hadn't done any Arduino work with the Internet before, I decided to try something I thought would be relatively simple - having the Arduino check my email and give me some sort of visual indication of how many emails I have. I started out with:
Both were bought from the good people at Robotshop.ca.




These are just combined with a high intensity LED - which really should have a resistor and will have one eventually!



Here is a quick video - sorry it is a bit murky and the LED is a bit bright!



This was actually probably the hardest Arduino code I ever wrote! For one thing, I hadn't done anything substantial with the Arduino for a while and I found I had forgotten much of what I thought I knew. Also, getting the timing right and getting the number of emails out of the return string actually proved pretty difficult. I made things more difficult for myself by trying to use the String library (formerly TextString), which for some reason didn't return consistent results and was generally not documented and finicky. Then I found the usual LED 13 wouldn't work properly - perhaps because the Ethernet Shield was interfering with it. All-in-all, this small program must have taken me three weeks to write!

I did have a bit of help with the code from Digger450 on the Arduino forum in this exchange, which I am very grateful for!

However, now that it is done, this is a nice little demo of Ardunio on the Internet that does do something at least semi-useful. My next extension may be to hook it up to a servo so that it shows my emails on a physical chart or something. I could also use my SparkFun SerialLCD unit to display the subject lines or something.

Here is the source code:

/*=================================================
Ethernet POP3 Mail Checker & indicator

Checks how many messages are waiting on the POP 3 server
and flashed LED on Pin 9 to indicate number of messages.

It will handle up to 99 messages in the POP3 mailbox.

Uncomment the serial lines for troubleshooting.

Copyright by Chris Armour
3 September 2009
http://opensourceprojects-torchris.blogspot.com/

===================================================*/

#include <Ethernet.h>

byte mac[] = { 0xDE, 0xAD, 0xBE, 0xEF, 0xFE, 0xED };
byte ip[] = { 192,168,0,167 }; // IP address you wish to assign to Arduino
byte server[] = { XXX, XXX, XXX, XXX }; // IP address of your POP3 server
char inString[165]; // Number of characters to be collected
int i = 0;
int mailNum1 = 0; // First digit of the email number
int mailNum2 = 0; // Second digit
int mailTotal = 0; // Total # of messsage
char d;
int ledPin = 9;

Client client(server, 110); //The default POP port is 110

long updateTimer;
boolean clientConnected = false;

void setup()
{
//  Serial.begin(9600);
pinMode(ledPin, OUTPUT);
digitalWrite(ledPin, LOW);
}

void loop()
{
   
updateClient();
d = checkAvail();
if (d >= 10){
getMailNum();
}

}

/*========================================
        Functions
=========================================*/

void updateClient() //This function contacts the POP3 server
{
if ((millis() - updateTimer) > 5000)
{
 Ethernet.begin(mac, ip);
//    Serial.println("connecting...");
 delay(1000);
 if (client.connect())
 {
//    Serial.println("connected");
 client.println("user Your.Name"); //Insert your usual email login name
 client.println("pass PassWord"); //And your password here
 client.println("quit");
 client.println();
 clientConnected = true;
 }
 else
 {
//    Serial.println("connection failed");
 }
 updateTimer = millis();
}
}

char checkAvail() //This checks if there is data available and returns a char
{
if (clientConnected)
{
 if (client.available())
 {
 char c = client.read();
     return(c);
 }
 if (!client.connected())
 {
//    Serial.println();
//    Serial.println("disconnecting.");
 client.stop();
 clientConnected = false;
 }
}
}

int getMailNum() //This actually loads the char returned by checkAvail() and puts in into an array
{
inString[i] = d;
i++;
if (i == 165){
   i = 0;
       client.flush();
       mailNum1 = inString[106] - 48; //Array position 106 contains the first digit
       mailNum2 = inString[107] - 48; //Array position 107 contains the 2nd digit if it is available
       if ((mailNum2 >= 0) && (mailNum2 <= 9)){ //If mailNum2 is present, then it is a two digit mail count
         mailTotal = (mailNum1 * 10) + mailNum2; //when 2 digits are present, multiply the 1st by 10 then add to mailTotal
//            Serial.print("Total emails:  ");
//            Serial.println(mailTotal);
          blinkLED(); //Run the blink function as many times as there are emails
       }
       else {
         if ((mailNum1 >= 0) && (mailNum1 <= 9)){//if there is only one digit, then that is mailTotal
         mailTotal = mailNum1;
//        Serial.print("Total emails:  ");
//        Serial.println(mailTotal);
         blinkLED(); //Blink the LED
         }
         }
     }
 }

void blinkLED(){ //Blinks the LED for as many times as indicated by mailTotal
         for(int x = mailTotal; x >= 1; x--){
           digitalWrite(ledPin, HIGH);
           delay(200);             
           digitalWrite(ledPin, LOW);
           delay(200);
         }
}

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lixin e80 GSM Phone Review

Why do this?

You know, this reviewing cheap Chinese GSM phones could be a whole new area for this blog. This hardly qualifies as "open source", but then it is also an interesting phenomenon. Sure, the phones have laughable manuals, no support and oddball features, but on the other hand, they do have impressive basic functionality and come at a reasonable price. See my earlier blog on the i9 on the strange way they are produced. Here is another interesting tidbit from the i9 forums (available here, but you need to join the forum to access it) about how the clone phones are made:

The clone manufacturing business is not done in the primary plant of
CECT, nor in any primary Manufacturing plant. They are made in the
private plants, small and numerous, thus the varying differences in the
os. Before leaving for China we met with Mentor Graphics. They build
the Nucleus os which is the base os for the phone. We also met with MediaTek in Tiawan, the makers of the MT6225 chip.

It was very very very difficult to get into an area that actually manufactures the i9. We finaly did.

But they are only one of several locations. And one of several variations. And many only manufacture one portion of the unit.

These phones also give some insight into what Chinese consumers are getting their hands on and how quickly the manufacturers capabilities are growing. In my view, this is like looking at the first generations of Volkswagens, Toyotas or Hondas imported into Western markets - easy to scoff at but potentially a serious game changer!

Anyway, if there are any readers of this blog who want me to review another phone, just contact me and send it along and I'll have a go. While these units are cheap, I can't afford to buy a new one every week!

What set this off is that I decided I wanted something smaller that either my i9 or my Samsung phone that I could use in the US with my T-Mobile pre-paid SIM card. I trolled through eBay and, as usual, there is a whole crazy ecosystem of these kinds of unlocked GSM phones. I decided against the iPhone "mini" knock-offs (imagine, ripping off a phone that doesn't exist!) and went for just basic voice functionality. After a bit of sifting and sorting, I decided on the "Lixin e80", which is a nice, small, basic phone.

Basics


After placing the order with the usual small, anonymous vendor in Hong Kong, the unit eventually arrived. The shipping is free, but you do have to be prepared for about three weeks delivery time. The total cost was around $80 USD. I could probably have gotten the unit for cheaper, but with the shipping charges it would have worked out the same so I figured this was fair enough.

Here is a basic shot of the back and front of the phone:








As usual, good luck trying to find anything from the web about the unit! Going to www.lixin.com yields an entirely Chinese website and when you run it through Google's translator, it seems to just be a listing of various enterprises. The packaging isn't too much more help in explaining the features:



Then, of course, there is the hilariously Engrish manual:



There are various feature lists from various vendors selling the phone in Asia and the Middle East, such as:

Hot Spot

  • Dual sim card dual standby
  • Dual Camera
  • Bluetooth A2DP
  • FM radio(can output voice)
  • Schedule FM record
  • E-book reader
  • MP4,MP3
  • Quad band:GSM850/900/1800/1900MHZ
  • Magic voice:change your voice to others
  • Language :English/French/Spanish/Portuguese/Italian/Turkish/Arabic/Persian
That helps a bit, I guess.

Out of the box


The phone comes with a charger, headphones, spare battery, a sync cable/charger and a highly amusing manual:



When I got it, I actually found this was a pretty pleasant form factor, which a nice texture and feel in the hand. The quality of the manufacturing ("fit and finish") is very good really. It's main important features are:
  • Dual SIM
  • Quad-band GSM
  • Back and front cameras
  • Built-in flashlight
  • Micro SD support
  • FM Radio
  • MP3 & Video player
  • The usual voice, SMS & MMS support
  • GPRS data access.
A couple more shots:







It supports a Nokia charger jack as well charger jack for small 2mm connectors. Handy if you don't have the right charger around!



The LED flashlight is pretty bright!


Mandatory video


Here is a video where I run through some of the useful and less useful features:



Operating System


The phone appears to run a variant of the Nucleus OS from Mentor Graphics and the flow of most of the menus is somewhat similar to the CECT i9. The processor is the MKT6225, which is a bit underpowered for doing much more than basic features - which is all this phone does. It does ship with two batteries, which is pretty useful if you're going to be away from the charger for a long time. So far, I would say the battery life isn't stellar, but then I haven't really run an specific tests on that.

The phone seems to have basically no on-board memory, but it will accept standard MicroFlash cards. Supposedly it will accept up to 16 GB cards, but I'd be surprised. It has no problem reading my 2 GB card.

Voice and Data

The voice quality on the calls seems to be fine so far and reception is at least adequate. The volume in both hand-free and regular mode is quite high (in contrast to my Samsung T509). In fact, the e80 can be too loud so you need to watch that you don't hurt your ears!

It does pair to my Blueant Z9 Bluetooth headset with no problem at all and provides perfectly good Bluetooth voice quality. I don't have any Bluetooth headphones, so I can't test that (yet).

The dual SIM feature is handy if you are travelling around to places that offer pre-paid SIM cards or you just want to have one SIM for personal and one for work. You can choose to have both online and able to receive calls at the same time or choose to only receive calls on one (if you don't want work bugging you!). When you are busy on one SIM, calls into the other roll over to voicemail. What would be cool is if it gave you an indication that you had a call on the other SIM and allow you to put the first one on hold - or even conference the two SIMs together! Alas, that will have to wait.

The phone does support GPRS data (if you have it turned on your SIM card, that is). I was able to get it working, but it did take a lot of time fiddling with the settings to get it right. You need to do a lot of Googling around to find the correct settings for your carrier, but I found the Rogers settings documented in various places. The set up is basically the same as those for the i9. The actual performance of the GPRS features seemed pretty poor. After all the fooling around it took to get it working, I would say the GPRS is probably not all that usable.

Size


Just to get a sense of the size of the unit, here it is with (L to R) Samsung T509, Lixin e80, Real iPhone 3G, CECT i9:




This shows the comparison to the thickness of an iPhone 3G:


It has a nice feel in the hand - quite small.


Camera and media:


The back and front cameras, as you might expect, are pretty poor. The phone is labelled, improbably, as 8 Mega Pixels, but the best resolution of either camera is 640 x 480. Here area couple of shots at full size from my yard:









The multimedia capabilities seem to be adequate. The FM radio reception is a bit poor - especially without the headphones (I think these act as an antenna). The ability to record live bits of the radio is interesting. Supposedly the MP3 player supports playback of lyrics.

It does play back *.3gp videos stored on the microflash card. I haven't had much luck encoding my own, but the couple of clips that come with the phone aren't too bad. It will record full motion video, but it is quite poor quality.

Connecting to a PC and syncing


When you hook it up to a USB port, you are offered three choices:
  1. Mass storage
  2. Webcam
  3. COM port
Mass storage allows you to access the MicroFlash card and store files and so on just like a thumb drive. Like the i9, it does have the interesting capability of acting as a webcam on your PC for use with services like Skype.

When in the "COM port" mode, it is possible to do a limited amount of syncing of the phone using the same PhoneSuite software which appears to be from Media Tek. You can Google to find the software or get it from the i9 forums. I was able to import my contact list, but it took quite a bit of work since the PhoneSuite software would die if it ran into characters it didn't like or blank fields. Basically, I had to export my contacts to CSV format and then manually massage them until they would import. If anyone is interested enough, I can describe the format. I suspect you can also use it as a tethered data service for GPRS, but I haven't tested that.

Conclusion


Let's be clear, this is NO iPHone! The iPhone, of course, is more of a general purpose mobile computing platform than just a phone, anyway. The e80's data features are poor, it does not support Java Mobile, so you cannot run other applications or games on it and the features/interface are a bit quirky. However, it also does somethings my iPhone can't (or didn't do until recently):
  • Dual SIM
  • Removable battery
  • Act as a USB thumb drive
  • A handy little flashlight that isn't a downlaoded App!
  • MMS (only available recently on the iPhone via the 3.0 OS)
  • Back & front cameras
The Lixin e80 is a decent, voice only phone set. One you might buy for your kids or keep around as a secondary phone on a pre-paid SIM card. What might it point to? Just wait until these guys get a slightly faster processor and Android going!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Temperature Perfrormance

I finally have some actual performance data on the first solar cell.

This is from a test run that I did with 100 litres of water in a black plastic container over about 6 1/2 hours:


Time
Water TempOutlet TempBox Temp
Ambient
11:00:0020
21.737
20
12:10:0027
28.4
30
20
13:36:0033
34.4
43.5
22
15:00:0036
37.2
47
23
17:17:0037.8
37.8
30.5
23
18:20:0035.5
35.3
29
22

This shows the unit can pick up a fair amount of heat - 17.8 degrees C in around 6 hours. Since 1 Litre of water is equal to 1 Kg of water and it takes 1 Kcal to heat 1 Kg of water 1 degree, this means the system put 1780 Kcal of heat into the water which equals 7,447,520 joules or 2.0687 kilowatt hours.

This shows the result graphically:


What is interesting here is that as soon as the sun goes off of the tubes and box cools down, the system actually starts to radiate heat and cool the water!

As to whether this would help with the pool situation, the numbers aren't very encouraging! If it can heat 100 litres of water by 17.8°, this means it would heat 1,000 litres by 1.78° and 10,000 litres by only 0.178°! Unfortunately, the pool probably holds 40,000 litres, so even two solar units might only provide 0.112°! Well, I will continue with unit #2 and then see where it goes. I can also work on the positioning and angles for the units as well. Currently they are just pointed roughly South, but it may be worth checking different positions.

By the way, when I checked how much the 100 litres of water in the container was heated without the solar heater it was only one or two degrees, so the unit certainly does something!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Got it working!

Well, after some pause to get the right pump and to have the weather align, the first solar panel now is working - although, as expected, it doesn't actually have the oomph yet to really impact the pool's temperature.

Here are a few stats from today's run of about 5 hours:
  • Average pool temperature ran around 22°C - the impact of the cell was negligible.
  • The internal temperature of the box itself was around 35°C while the unit was running.
  • The outlet temperature was around 24°C showing that heat was, in fact, transferring to the water.
  • When I turned it off for an hour or so and then started it up, the water temp was 60°C - which shows it can develop some pretty good heating!

I did have to buy a new pump since my old one was just too small. This one is a nice little 1/4 HP submersible pump that has the benefit of running very quietly. I'm not 100% sure it will be able to pump through three units, but I at least think it will be able to handle two.



This shows the general arrangement. The pump is in the pool and the cell is propped up pointing south. This is just temporary until I prove out the design, then it's up to the roof of the garage.



Another shot from the front:




When I get it a bit more proved in, I'll try running my Arduino monitoring system then have the monitoring system actually turn the pump on and off.

The key thing I learned from the run today is that the cell needs to have the air purged out of it before it will run, so I need to hook it to the hose to flush the air and then quickly get the pump hooked up to it. In future, I may have to build an Arduino and solenoid valve based solution to handle the start-up purging automatically.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

First Full Scale Solar Pool Heater Cell!

Good heavens but it has been a long time since I have updated this blog! What will happen to my advertising revenues?

In this installment, I just wanted to run through the step-by-step of building the first cell of my solar pool heater project. Eventually, I will likely have three of these units and (assuming we ever get any sun this summer) they will bring the water temperature up from the current low 70s F (20s C) to something closer to 80 F (26 C). The construction turned out to be very easy, really, and just used common items from the hardware store. No fancy, high-tolerance machining - just rough & ready carpentry. I'll post a CAD drawing after I have built a couple of them.

So far I have not been able to get good performance data because of the weather, but a "bucket test" yesterday showed it could get around 20 liters of water up to around 50 C (122 F)! When I have a bit more performance data I will post it. This will just be the construction.

1. Assemble the base.

I Started off with an 8 foot by 2 foot sheet of plywood - basically half the standard sheet of 4 by 8. This was left over from some of the work we had done in the attic. I added a couple of 1 inch by 2 inch boards across to act as supports and cross bracing:




2. Layout the tubing.

I am using standard 1/2 inch CPVC tubing bought from the local home center. The elbows loop the tubes back to provide a complete circuit. There is about 140 feet of tubing in this box. Everything went together very smoothly, but the glue for the CPVC is foul stuff! Even working outdoors it was making me dizzy. Still, goes together super easily and is permanently bonded in <5 minutes. The brackets are just standard 1/2 brackets. They fit the tubing a bit loosely, but I figure that makes sense to handle thermal expansion.



3. Build a box.

Nothing hard here - just used 1 by 3 inch boards to build up the sides cut out holes for the intake & output.




4. Paint it black.

Astute observers will note that black absorbs heat better than white & wood color! This is just some matte black barbecue spray paint I got on sale. This shot shows the size of the unit a bit better. Eight feet is pretty tall actually!



5. Weather proof paint.

I put a thick coat of exterior alkyd on the back & sides so that it would be weather proof when eventually mounted on the roof of the garage. I also inadvertently put a pretty good coat on my patio stones!



6. Finally a 1.4 inch Plexiglas top.

This will weatherproof the tubes, but I am also assuming somewhat of a "greenhouse effect" to help increase the temperature.



And here you have it! This is it running it's first "bucket test" on 18 litres or so of water. As I said earlier, it did get the water over 50 degrees Celsius, but it wasn't a good run because of some leakage around the hose clamps.


I plan to try it with a couple of larger volumes of water just to assess its "performance envelope" and then hook it up to the pool. My guess is it would have a negligible impact on the pool and I will need to wait until its two brothers are built to have it really make a difference!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Results of today's run

And here is what I got from running the heater all day with 18 litres of water:

Time
Ambient Temperature
Water Temperature
10:15 AM
16°C
14.5°C
12:15 PM
21°C30.6°C
2:15 PM
21°C37.6°C
4:15 PM
22°C38.7°C
6:15
19.4°C33°C

And for those who think visually:


Not boiling hot, but definitly hot bathwater, which is fine for this run.

So, there you have it. I may try running it with a larger volume of water to see how that works.