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Product Reports Center:

Find the info you want on robotic products such as kits, book, microcontrollers, and sensor before you buy them.  Don't waste your money!

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Current Reports on:

bullet The Android Head
bullet The Basic Stamp I
bullet The Basic Stamp II
bullet Boe-Bot from Parallax
bullet CCS PIC C compiler
bullet Dontronics AVR SIMMStick and BASCOM AVR compiler
bullet Newfound Electronics WARP-13 PIC programmer board
bullet OWI Robotic Arm Trainer
bullet Radio Shack Parts
bullet Cold Heat Solder
bullet Velleman Multimeter
bullet   PING Sonar Module
bullet   Emimic Text-to-Speech Module
bullet   LCD Screens for your Bot
bullet   SG90 Micro Servos
bullet   GBS301 Serial Bluetooth Link from IOGEAR

 

This list is designed to give you information you need on purchasing robotic related items as quickly as possible.  Brief summaries or opinions from users of the products listed will be given.  All viewers of this list are invited to summit their own product reviews by e-mailing the list administrator on any robotic or car automation related products you owned or have used.  Submissions should include your name, a brief summary of the product and a + rating you feel it deserves (see below).

In our reports we hope to address the unique concerns of the amateur robot and automated car builder.  Concerns such as: "Is this the cheapest product?"  "Couldn't I just build something like this?"  "Is this easy to modify?"

We will accept reports about products and the companies that make them.

For fast assessments of products a 5 Plus (+++++) rating system is used to indicate how a product rated in the opinion of the user.    The highest rating being 5 Plus signs means this is a reliable item, user friendly, is backed by a good company and is worth it's retail price. 

4 Plus signs means this product is worth buying if you need it.

3-2 Plus signs means something is off with the product, perhaps over priced, not enough user support, or you could build the product for much less than retail price.  A rating of 3 means you should still consider it if you don't think you can build the product yourself.  Otherwise a rating of 3-2 means you could probably build the product yourself with tools you probably already have and with parts easily obtainable from Radio Shack or less expensive mail order companies like Digi-Key. 

1-0 Plus signs means this product is problem prone, unreliable, full of errors, and in our opinion you should not waste your money on a product with this rating!  A zero indicates the people responsible for making the product should be shunned by all robot builders.

 

The Android Head:   ++++
The Animated Android head from the RobotStore is built and designed by Milford Instruments in the United Kingdom.  There really is no other kit like it right now. The complete kit includes an animatronic controller card which is designed around a Basic Stamp II (included in the kit).  The Basic Stamp II is programmed to control the functions of the card.  With the card you can control the four servo controlled movements of the animated head.  The head is constructed out wood and must be assembled and glued together.  The Animatronics card is pre-assembled but the Basic Stamp must be program before use.  The kit includes everything you need except for a 9-12 volt 1amp power source, which can be supplied by a lead acid battery or a wall wort power transformer.   The directions and assembly instruction are easy enough to follow after you have gone over them a few times to figure out how everything goes together.  The directions are reasonably clear, but I feel the company created the instructions with a technical person in mind.  The direction just sort of show you pictures of how to put the head together with no explanations.  People who have never built something like this before would find it very confusing to put together!

Programming and controlling the card is fairly straight forward, though it does take a few minute to become familiar with the controls and process of recording movements.  Once you play around with the system and get it operational the results of seeing the head move in sync with the card's recordable voice is AWESOME!   The kit is worth the cost of about $200 if you want to get started with applications for robot to human interaction.  Otherwise in my opinion it would be very easy to recreate the physical servo controlled movements of the head.  The controls of the Animation card could also be duplicated if you are proficient with programming the Basic Stamp II and understand how to create circuits such as a voice recorder.  The Animation Card includes a connection where you could wire in outside controls such as an IR sensor to active the head when someone walks by it, so it sort of is hacker friendly.  However, no circuit diagrams are included so accessing unused Basic Stamp lines would be difficult.     Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

The Basic Stamp I   ++++
The Basic Stamp I from Parallax is a programmable micro-controller.  The Stamps get their name from the programming language they use, PBASIC.  The Basic Stamp I has 8 user definable I/O lines and is programmable via a PC printer port with only 3 connections.  The programming software runs under DOS on a PC.  The Stamp is a rugged little thing that has proven to be very versatile on a wide variety of applications.  I use BS1's on my fighting robots and they are well worth the $34 price tag.  However, the BS1's has a "carrier board", this board give you a place to stick the BS1 with connectors to the I/O lines, battery connector and connector for the programming cable to the printer, along with extra space for prototyping.  Cost of the "carrier board for the BS1 is about $15.  I use the carrier boards with my BS1's but they are not necessary, you can use a breadboard and make your own programming cable, it's only 3 wires from the printer port to the stamp for programming. So don't waste your money on the carrier board and cable unless you buy a Basic Stamp Starter kit that includes them in it.  Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

The Basic Stamp II   ++++
The Basic Stamp II from Parallax costs about $50, and it is at least twice as good as the BS1.  Unlike the BS1 in my opinion you do need the carrier board for it, which costs about $20.  The BS2 is programmed via a 9 pin serial connector.  The code used for the BS2 is some what more complex than with the BS1 but it is also more versatile. The BS2 offers 16 user definable I/O lines and  2K of code space which is plenty for common robotic tasks.   Personally I think Basic Stamps are the easiest to use and program.  They come with TONS of supporting documents and user website dedicated to giving instructions, but the BS2 in paricular does fall short in some areas, namely interrupts. It does it's job well but there are some better micros out that for about the same price are just a tiny bit better.  But the other micros fall short in the area of documentation and user applications.  So it's a trade off.  The Basic Stamp II with carrier board is indeed worth it's retail cost.   Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

Boe-Bot:  ++++
Based on Parallax Board of Education this little bot comes with two Futaba S148 servos that you need to "hack" for continuous rotation (easy), two Panasonic IR detectors, two IR LEDs, a 555 oscillator, two CDS photo-resistors and a bunch of components. You need to assemble the robot, the PC board is finished and has a nifty little prototyping area made from a solderless protoboard. The manual is very thorough, but the wiring diagrams are somtimes not correct, so wire from the directions and the schematics. This robot is very good for learning electronics basics, programming basics and robotics basics. Cost is about $200, $170 for educational operations. The manual is in the form of lesson plans and works well for classroom type instruction. Good product, lots of expansion possibilities!   Report submitted by TRCY member Dennis Clark

CCS PIC C compiler  +++++
http://www.ccsinfo.com This is a series of compilers really. The PCB is for PIC 12 bit cores, the PCM is for 14 bit cores (16F84 for example) and the PCW is for both and is a full IDE. All of them integrate into MPLAB to replace the MPASM assembler that it normally uses. The documentation is excellent, support is first rate over email and its very complete and easy to use. It took me 20 minutes to write and compile a program that uses serial I/O and toggles port lines. Very nice. Many macros and libraries included for serial I/O, LCD displays, PWM, pulse capture and more. This is a first class package, and for $99 for PCB and PCM, its a bargain. PCW is a $350 package - Good value, but not for the hobbyist. This is a first class way to get full floating point math, complex data structures and simple serial I/O into a PIC project!  Report submitted by TRCY member Dennis Clark

Dontronics AVR SIMMStick and BASCOM AVR compiler ++++
The Atmel AVR is a new microcontroller on the market, of these, the 90s2313 AVR is one of the coolest. It is a 20 pin micro with built in UART, two timers, analog comparator, 15 I/O lines, 128 bytes RAM, 2K FLASH ROM and 128 bytes EEPROM. They aren't easy to find in the USA however are common in the EU and elsewhere. Don's SIMMSticks are small boards that fit into old-style 30 pin SIMM sockets and are great proto-typeing platforms. You can make an in-circuit programmer for the AVR chips with three resistors and a parallel port cable - REALLY easy. Dontronics kits ONLY come with the special parts - you have to get the caps and resistors. All documentation is on Don's website, it does not ship with the product, you need to download it. Don's construction directions are not the best, and you may need to send him a few emails if you have not done much electronic assembly, you will have problems if you don't read schematics and are not familiar with electronics.

To get the most from a SIMMStick system there are some cool options:

RUNAVR kit A: DT104 board, 90S2313, crystal - US$17.65
RUNAVR kit B: above + DT003 and DT203 boards which are the base SIMM sockets, power supply and RS232 link for communication (not programming) and a nifty test board with LEDs and switches for testing your designs. Check out the site for more details, I use my DT003 and DT203 boards (the additional parts in kit B) with my PIC 16F84 projects as well.

BASCOM AVR is a Basic compiler for the AVR chips. You can get the FREE demo which is fully functional, just only programs 2K worth max - which just happens to be how much program space you get in a 90S2313, so it is NOT a crippled demo! This is a cool package that is very simple to use and yet very powerful. It is a compiler, not an interpreter so the code is very fast. The editor, debugger, compiler, and programmer are all integrated into a GUI so its really easy to use. Installation of the software is simple if you have W98, but there may be problems with old system files if you are running W95 - Fortunately the author, Mark, has pretty good directions for fixing these problems on his site and will help with difficulties. So, I think the install package is rough (you should not have these difficulties!) but the product is very polished. 
Report submitted by TRCY member Dennis Clark

Newfound Electronics WARP-13 PIC programmer board  +++++
http://www.new-elect.com This PIC programmer board will program every PIC but the 17CXXX series. It emulates the Microchip PICSTart+ board and so integrates fully and perfectly with MPLAB. It is serial port based, not another cheesy parallel port project and it comes fully assembled for US$91. This is about 1/4 the price of any other quality (read, not parallel port based) programmer. There isn't much more to say, its inexpensive (relatively) and works perfectly.  Report submitted by TRCY member Dennis Clark

OWI Robotics Arm Trainer:    +++++
If you want a robotics arm to play around with or hack into your own creation this is the arm to get.  It sells for about $70 or less depending and is well worth it!  It's easy to assemble and comes with five motor/gear box combinations.  Whenever possible slip gears are used in the main joints.  This means you'll not strip the gears.  It gives a great range of movements with it's five axes of motion and is hacker friendly.  It's very easy to assemble and looks very sharp once complete.  You have to keep in mind even though it's a great kit it won't lift much weight.  In my own test I found that it'll lift a heavy screwdriver, but not much else.  It's not designed for heavy loads, but if you want to experiment with a robot smart enough to arrange letter blocks in order, this is what you need!  To find out more check out the OWI Website.   In my hackers opinion it would be extremely difficult to create a robotic arm for amateur use at the price this kit sells for.  The Kit also comes with very detailed instructions that covers all components of the kit and making it very easy to assemble.  

You can also buy a computer interface for the Arm Trainer, cost is $80 and very much not worth it!  The circuit is very easy to make your self, all the computer interface does is control the motors, on/off and forward/reveres, there are no feed back sensors in the computer interface kit for the Arm Trainer.  This means the software that comes with the interface only control the amount of time the motors are on.  This does not make for smart controls and is unreliable.  Don't waste your money on the Arm Trainer Computer Interface!  Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

Radio Shack Parts:  +++++
It might sound odd to rate any Radio Shack parts as a product, but many builders look to Radio Shack as a part supplier and soon find they can run up quite a tab.  Radio Shack is great to pick up the odd parts, like resistors or even solder if you run out, but what about buying in bulk? 
Radio Shack can actually be a great place to get many hard to find items, especially batteries.  You can even order in bulk from the normal Radio Shack store catalog, commercial catalog and RadioShack.com  Most orders are shipped 5-10 business days.  You can get everything from resistors to Basic Stamps, all at competitive prices.  Best of all when you order something through a local Radio Shack store, you can get a full return, plus the shipping cost within 30 days of purchase!  No one else can do that.  

In short I am giving Radio Shack  +++++ because they are great in a pinch and offer very good service.   Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

Cold Heat Solder: none, ZERO (+)
Cold Heat Solder and all nock offs like it sold on TV, the internet and Radio Shack.  This tool promises to be a battery operated portable handy dandy soldering tool which can solder something one second and the very next be cold to the touch.  Nice thought, but in my opinion it is total crap.  It does not work as Seen On TV.  It attempts to heat solder by forcing high current through a new type conductive ceramic which allows the current to flow when touch to a conductive object.  This runs down the batteries very quickly.  It also just flat out does not work.  So don't waste your money.

 Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

Velleman Multimeter +++++
You may run onto Velleman multimeters at computer stores and catalog companies, and if so buy one.  They are usually under $20 and usually closer to $10.  Often they come with a battery, rubber boot and test leads.  These a low price multimeter which are really good quality.  And Velleman is owned by Fluke.  I use them for all my testing needs.  If you find them for $10, buy a couple, you'll be glad you did if you work with electronics a lot.

 Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

PING Sonar Module +++++
The PING sonar module from Parallax Inc. makes installing and controlling a sonar module on your robot a breeze!  This tiny sonar module can interface into any system with an available serial line.  For micros like the Basic Stamp II these means you only need 1 single i/o line for serial input.  The PING unit does all the hard work. For the coding side you tell your micro to read in the value from the serial line it's connected to.  I have found this product to be very easy to use and reliable!   Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

Emimic Text-to-Speech Module +++++
This module is great.  Really easy to program and interface with, requiring only 2 serial i/o lines.  Program your micro with a couple of lines of code to output a serial command to your i/o port along with the words you want to say it before you know it your robot has a versatile voice. The board and control a 8ohm speaker by itself or your can connect a powered speaker to it.  I recommend a small powered speaker like from Radio Shack.  Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

LCD Screens for your Bot +++
LCD screens on your robot or project to me remind me of "Old School" robotics when an LCD screen was a big deal.  And there's nothing wrong with that if you are an LCD fan.  But most LCDs I have seen on robots and used on mine are not easy to read, you need to be up close to view them and they are mono.  I know an LCD might be handy for debugging what the robot is doing, but thus far I have not seen anyone who really need for used that function effectively to warrant an LCD screen on their robot.

If your project is more like a game, then an LCD might really be needed.  Some of the new LCD screens from EarthLCD.com include color and touch screen options and might be just the thing for your next interactive robot.  But otherwise, save your money for other robot parts.   Report submitted by TRCY member Justin Ratliff

SG90 Micro Servo +++++
The SG90 Micro Servos, which can often be found on at www.ebay.com from Hong Kong or Chinese distributors, 4 for $40 are a fantastic bargain!  They are super tiny yet strong.  They make great actuators for robot hands or arms. 

GBS301 Serial Bluetooth from IOGEAR +++++
The GBS301 Serial Bluetooth dongle from IOGEAR is a fanatic product!  Check out the TRCY Bluetooth Projects page for more details on how to use this device.  It's a great way to add wireless control to your robot without eating up a lot of I/O lines from your microcontroller based robot.

 

This area of the TRCY website is dedicated to providing product reports on robotic related items.  These reports are intend to be used as a guide from fellow robot and automated car builders who have used the products in the past.  The members of TRCY and the website administrator are not responsible for any problems that occur with any products you buy based upon reports found on this page.