thursday, 28 january 2010

posted at 09:05

I was supposed to blog more often, but as usual I missed it. I'm not just going to dump everything though, but rather try and break things up a bit into more logical chunks. So today lets talk about shopping!

I've been looking around for local suppliers of parts and toys. In the past I've always just taken a trip down to my local Jaycar for whatever I needed, but I'm increasingly coming to understand that their range is actually quite limited for what I want and the prices are quite expensive. So I've naturally turned to the internet for help.

The first stop was RS Electronics. They're one of the big industry suppliers, and have a warehouse in Port Melbourne (which means fast shipping). Somehow they also offer free delivery. I placed an order with a couple of weeks ago as a tester, though still for stuff I needed: a couple of AVRs, a PIC, and some 20Mhz crystals. They had the chips in stock and they arrived by courier the next day. The crystals were only available in their UK warehouse, so they didn't arrive, but neither did they bill for them straight away either. I was a little confused as to whether or not they were still on order or if I had to do something else, so I sent an email. A couple of hours later I got a phone call from a lovely lady who apologised for the confusion and said she'd make sure the order was still good. Obviously it worked, because a week later my parts arrived. So +1 to RS. Mid-range prices, fast free shipping, excellent customer support.

Now I had 20Mhz crystals for the PIC, but I was still looking for 16Mhz crystals for the AVRs. I couldn't initially find anyone that stocked them locally, but eBay had the answer. The ALLEPARTS store operates out of China and has bulk components for a pittance and free shipping (how do folks afford this, I don't get it). The paltry sum of $8 resulted in a pack of 20 crystals arriving a couple of weeks later. That's an insane price - Jaycar charge $5 PER CRYSTAL! There are other very similar stores on eBay, but I'll probably end up back there because now I know them.

At this point I had enough to get on with the first stages of my next project, which I'll write about soon. While waiting for parts I spent a lot of time trawling for other suppliers, and found all sorts of stuff along the way.

First, the venerable SparkFun. They seem to be near the centre of the hobbyist electronic world, supplying lots of common and uncommon parts and kits, and working hard to make parts that are difficult to get or to work with accessible to mortals (eg by building breakout boards). There's tutorials and forums and all manner of things. I've spent a lot of time here reading things (particularly the Eagle tutorials) and generally lusting after things, and I probably would have laid down a chunk of cash pretty quickly if it wasn't for the insane price of shipping to Australia, a topic I'll rant about soon. Not being able to just buy stuff immediately forced me to continue looking locally for suppliers, but also to really consider what I actually need.

For example: I'm mesmerised by the Arduino, and I'm of course not the only one. My first thought was that it would be the perfect platform for learning AVR stuff, and so I determined that this was what I needed. Upon further study, I started to realise that while it is very very cool, its not at all what I want. Its a great tool for rapid development, and its been positioned so that non-technical people can use it too, but from what I can gather, its has way more overheard than I want. I'll get into it more when I talk about my new project next time, but I need some very specific hardware with insanely quick response times. The code is likely going to need to be cycle-counted to work properly.

I could do this with the Arduino by bypassing its firmware and development environment and else and just using it as an AVR board, but by the time I do that I've removed all the things that make it special and worth the extra cash. Its not hideously expensive but if you hadn't already gathered, I am (for a variety of reasons) working on less than a shoestring budget. I can't justify the cost. But I'm still very interested in the platform, and I'm thinking about buying the starter kit for a tech-savvy friend that hasn't done any kind of electronics stuff before.

Lets talk about international shipping. Its insane. There's a world of interesting and reasonably priced parts that become inaccessible because the price of shipping is often more than the price of the part itself! My current hate is the FTDI Vinculum VDIP1. Its a brilliant little module that acts as a USB host controller. This week I could just find $40 for the part itself, but I can't justify $80 once shipping from the UK is factored in. I haven't yet found a local supplier that prices it reasonably; RS have it for $70 which is slightly better but still more than I want to spend. Honestly, the freight plane pilot could put this thing in his pocket; that's how small it is. How can that kind of cost be justified?

PCB manufacture is another thing that's going to hurt. I've been spending a lot of time in Eagle and it makes preparing PCBs a snap. As I mentioned previously, I planned to try BatchPCB to get my DAC board fabricated. I sent the order in a couple of weeks ago. The board itself came to a quite reasonable US$15. By the time handling and shipping was factored in, it blew out to a cool US$50. I made the order anyway, because I want/need the board and I'm treating it as a trial, but its only going to be something I can do for complex designs. This seems to just be the nature of the industry though; board manufacture isn't cheap on small scales. I have heard good things about Seeed Studio and their efforts to make this sort of thing more accessible, but I haven't quite figured out how they work yet.

That's the shipping news. Lets get back on to buying things.

So local stores! I've managed to get a few recommendations from the local HackerSpace group (what an awesome idea, can't wait to get more involved with this). Little Bird Electronics appear to be a local SparkFun reseller, though I think they have a few other bits. I'm intending to buy a Bus Pirate from them soon, as it looks like an incredibly useful bit of kit to have on the desk.

Via Jon Oxer at Practical Arduino I found ProtoStack. They don't have a huge range, but they do have all the "essentials" for microcontroller hacking. Here's a tip though - make it clear on your website which country you're in. If I'd come across this site on my own, I probably wouldn't have looked at it in any great depth because the prices are in US dollars, the site is a .com, etc - I would have gone "crap range, US = crazy shipping, ignore". It was only because Jon's video mentioned that they're in Australia that I took the time to look at them in depth. Shipping is only $5 so on the occassion that I need something they have, I will be buying from them.

Anyway, that's about all I have about shopping for now. I have a bunch of other local sites bookmarked, but I haven't done anything more than a cursory search on most of them. I'm starting to get a list of affordable places to buy things together, though there's still a couple of bits I need to find. Fortunately I now have enough parts to do a good portion of my prototyping. That's a story for next time!