Solder Station Comparison Essay

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Reading several very good student essays about c. wright mills. maybe just a few less cheerful robots out there... #sociology

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Temperature-controlled soldering irons can be cheap, lightweight, and good. Pick any two of those attributes when you choose an iron, because you’ll never have all three. You might believe that this adage represents a cast-iron rule, no iron could possibly combine all three to make a lightweight high-performance tool that won’t break the bank! And until fairly recently you’d have had a point, but perhaps there is now a contender that could achieve that impossible feat.

The Miniware TS100 is a relatively inexpensive temperature-controlled soldering iron from China that has made a stealthy entry to the market, and which some online commentators claim to be the equal of far more expensive professional-grade irons. We parted with just below £50 (around $60) to place an order for a TS100, and waited for it to arrive so we could see what all the fuss was about.

The Goods

The iron arrived well-packaged in a smart cardboard container that was well up to the task of protecting it through international air mail. Nestled in foam were the iron handle, a single combined element and bit, and an envelope containing a short instruction leaflet and a click-seal bag with an Allen key and a spare screw to secure the bit. There was no power supply, you supply your own 12 to 24 V DC to power it.

The handle is a plastic wand containing the temperature control electronics about 100 mm (4″) long, and similar in girth to a chunky fountain pen. At its rear is a barrel socket for the DC supply alongside a micro-USB socket for firmware and configuration, on its top are a small OLED display and a couple of buttons, and at its front is a receptacle for the element unit. Meanwhile the element unit is about 105 mm (3.15″) long, with an exposed length to the end of the bit of about 70 mm (2.75″).

Assembling the iron is simple enough, the element slots into the receptacle and an Allen screw is tightened to hold it in place. The whole assembled unit weighs 30 g, or a shade over an ounce, and has a balance point almost at its centre.

We hadn’t ordered a power supply with our TS100, but you will doubtless be able to buy one if you don’t have one of the right power level and polarity to hand. We used a 19.5 V netbook supply which was far more than capable of delivering the 40 W the instruction leaflet claims for the iron at 19 V. Maximum power is given as 65 W when supplied with 24 V, while minimum is 17 W with 12 V.

In the hand, the iron is light and easy on the fingers. On its own it is similar in weight and feel to holding a fountain pen, and it is easy to see where comparisons with more expensive irons from the likes of Weller come from. However the iron itself is not the whole story, because your choice of power supply and in particular its lead will make a huge difference to how it feels in practice. The Weller will come fitted with an extra-flexible silicone lead probably designed to work at higher temperatures, by comparison the lead on a cheap power supply is likely to be a stiffer and cheaper affair. Our netbook supply had a right-angled plug, and though it wasn’t a nice flexible silicone cable it turned out not to be a significant burden once it was ensured to be out of range of the hot end.

Heating up, the TS100 may not be as quick as some irons, but it’s no slouch. It’s quoted as 15 seconds to 300 Celsius at 19 volts in its instruction leaflet, and our iron certainly didn’t disappoint. Setting the temperature is a simple case of using the buttons to move the temperature up and down on the OLED display, and once it remains at a particular temperature it stores that setting in its non-volatile memory.

In Test

To test the iron we assembled a little radio kit, a surface mount design intended for first-time surface mount solderers and thus using fairly substantial 1206 components and SOICs rather than SOPs or smaller integrated circuits. We found the iron perfectly easy to use, but with one caveat: the stock bit is a pencil tip, type “B2” that is fine for the larger surface mount devices but which would in our opinion probably be a little unwieldy for anything smaller than an 0805. Fortunately there is a large range of other bits of all shapes and sizes for the iron, including one with a finer point that surface-mount wizards may want to look at.

One of the features of the TS100 is that its firmware can be easily upgraded over USB, and to that end it is easy to download the latest version and install it. Simply hold down one of the buttons on live USB plug-in to enter firmware upgrade mode, and when it appears as a drive on the computer into which you’ve plugged it, copy the firmware file to the drive and it upgrades itself.

Unfortunately, in our case the curse of the firmware upgrade struck us, and after downloading and unpacking the file we were unable to make our iron accept it. We can confirm that the process failed for us on Ubuntu, Windows, and MacOS computers, so maybe it just wasn’t our lucky day. Fortunately the TS100 is not one of those devices that is easily bricked by a failed firmware upgrade, so we were simply presented with an error file rather than a dead iron. A soldering iron is in essence a hardware device not a software one, and the shipped firmware version is fine for soldering, so that’s what we’re reviewing.

It’s worth pointing out here that the TS100 firmware is billed as open-source, and that the code and schematics are available from the link above. We say billed as open-source though, because while the code is officially freely available it does not seem to be accompanied by any form of open-source licence. This may be of more concern to software libre purists than many readers, but still, it is worth mentioning.

We’re told that the latest versions of the firmware provide adjustment of the iron parameters other than temperature through a menu system on the device itself, but on our model the older firmware requires the editing of a text file that appears in a drive when you plug the iron’s USB port into a computer without holding a button down to enter firmware upgrade mode. In the file you can find settings for the different temperatures and timings, and adjust them to your taste.

The Bottom Line

After having the TS100 for a few weeks, what’s our verdict? Is it a good iron, does it give those expensive irons a run for their money, and would we recommend that you consider one?

It’s important to consider the soldering iron market as a whole when answering those questions. If you spend a four-figure sum on a soldering station, you will find yourself with an iron that is lighter than the TS100, it will have a shorter reach, a quicker warm-up time, better software control, more available bits, in fact it will beat the TS100 in every way possible. You’ll be using that soldering station hard every day for a decade, and it will still deliver the goods.

If however you spend a low three-figure sum on a soldering station from a quality manufacturer, you’ll get something closer. It’ll probably have a similar choice of bits and a nice extra-flexible silicone cable, and it will probably last longer, but in soldering terms it will be a surprisingly similar experience. Even having to spend a few more dollars on a power supply, a decent soldering station in this range will still cost you over twice as much as the TS100.

At the same price range or lower as the TS100 it’s likely that soldering stations will start to decrease in quality, be from anonymous manufacturers with no replacement bit support, and not have quite such a good user experience. Perhaps an all-in-one iron for a similar price such as the Antex TCS50 we reviewed earlier in the year is a better comparison, and at this point we start to see how the TS100 is redefining this sector. The Antex is a good iron for everyday soldering, it is the same weight as the TS100 and has the same reach. It’s mains-powered and comes with an extra-flexible silicone cable, but when you compare the irons side-by-side it becomes obvious that the Antex is being left behind. Its handle is huge by comparison, and its temperature control is limited to a very basic up/down setting with no configurability.

So if you are a high-end professional user looking for an iron to work with every day, the TS100 is probably not a choice that will displace your top-of-the-range model. But if you are a regular solderer or serious electronics hobbyist who is looking for the best bang for buck, you should definitely consider one as an alternative to a low-end soldering station. And if you are buying at the bottom of the temperature-controlled iron food chain then you should really give the TS100 a serious look. Returning to our point at the start of this review, it’s cheap, lightweight, and certainly good enough.

Meanwhile if you manufacture soldering irons, this one will probably have you worried. We look forward to seeing what the models produced to compete with it have to offer.

The Miniware TS100 soldering iron, along with associated bits and power supplies, can be found online from all the usual vendors of Chinese electronics.

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