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Virgin Mobile Mifi Update

MiFi Battery

You may remember me writing about the Virgin Mobile MiFi I picked up last year, and if not, that’s fine, but I’ve got an update, so you can just read this post…

For the most part, the MiFi has worked well as a 3G modem. Connection is hit & miss. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s crap, but it mostly works. I ended up taking it on a recent trip which involved minimal airport waiting time and things went bad. I fully charged it up the night before using the AC charger, and all appeared well. So in the morning at the airport I turned it on, got a few minutes of use, and it died. I wasn’t too concerned since I was just wasting time at the airport.

When we got to our destination I plugged it into the AC charger and charged it up, except it didn’t charge up. The charger got warm, so I assumed it was working and decided the battery had died. Ugh. Annoying. Still, not a big deal, as I got free WiFi from our host.

So when I got back from my trip I ordered a replacement battery from Amazon, which was less than $5.00. When it arrived I determined that it was not the damn battery, but the damn charger! I confirmed this by charging it up using a USB cable. Also, the charger doesn’t get warm anymore, so I assume it’s dead.

Besides that whole adventure, I learned something new. See, I got the MiFi partly as a backup to my home Internet connection, figuring that if it went offline, I could use the MiFi. The only issue was that you connect to it via WiFi, which my Mac Pro does not have. I never charged the MiFi with USB before because USB charging is typically slower than AC charging, but now that I’m doing it all the time, I’ve found the secret to using it via USB instead of WiFi. (I say secret because I kept seeing questions as to whether it was possible, and people saying it was not.)

Disclaimer: I use a Mac… I’ve not done this under Linux or Windows.

MiFi Mounted

Plugin the MiFi, and you will see it mounted in the Finder. Now, for many USB devices if you just want to charge them, you unmount (eject) them, and they keep charging.

MiFi Mounted

Here’s the trick with the MiFi… Eject it! Once you do, it’ll show up as a new network connection and you can see it in the Network Control Panel, and you can click the “Connect” button.

MiFi Prefs

Hey, we are now connected! You can see the send/receive data, and if you click the “Show in menubar” checkbox, you get a handy little menu. (I didn’t need to fill in any values like the account name or password. It seems to load them all properly from the MiFi somehow.)

MiFi Menu

I’m still not 100% sure it charges up while using it in this fashion, so a bit more testing is needed, but hey, it’s progress…

Update: I’ve got an addition to what is posted above.

Installer

I tried the above on another Mac Pro I have and it did not see the MiFi until I ran the installer you see when you first mount it. After that, it showed up fine in the Network Control Panel, but the magic values were not filled in. (I also did not reboot, like the installer asked me to.) I ended up getting the Account Name from connecting to the MiFi (using WiFi) and finding it under the WWAN -> Diagnostics menu (listed as NAI) and the password was my 6 digit account pin. A bit more hassle, but now you know where to look.

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Kitten-Proof Wiring

Charlotte

This is Charlotte. Charlotte is a kitten. Kittens are cute. When Charlotte is good, she eats out of her food bowl. This is what a kitten should do.

Chewed USB Cable

Sometimes Charlotte is bad, and chews on things she should not chew on, like a USB cable. Bad Charlotte! I’m now out one USB cable.

Luckily, that was just a USB extension cable, and not the iPad cable that was plugged into it.

Since Apple is a little picky about who can manufacture iPad cables, I’d prefer not to have to buy replacements unless I really need them.

Tubing + X-Acto Knife

Luckily, my local hardware store has this great tubing that is just 23 cents per foot, and I’ve got an X-Acto knife.

My plan was to just slice the tubing open and then push the iPad cable into it. Simple enough, right?

In my first attempt I tried to use a steel ruler to get a nice straight line on the tubing, but that didn’t really work, and it was much easier to just freehand the cut. I will warn you that I have a BFA in Graphic Design, so I’ve been using X-Acto knives for well over 20 years. If you’re not as handy with them, be careful when you cut your tubing.

Kitten-Proofed

Here’s our new improved cable, with a protective covering. I showed it to Charlotte and she tried to chew on it, but either she didn’t like the taste, or figured out she was not going to chew through it. Either way, I win.

Kitten-Proofed

One tip: when you cut the tubing to the length you need, cut it just a bit longer, so you can cut it to the exact length after you’ve fed the cable into it. I managed to cut the first one I made just a little too short, though it was easy to fix with a very small piece of tubing added to the end, and then held in place with some clear tape.

I’m hoping once Charlotte is out of her “chewing” phase I can do away with the tubing, but for now, it works quite well.

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Cheap Arduinos

As I continue to explore the world of Arduino, I started looking for cheap Arduinos to use in projects – permanent projects that need a dedicated microcontroller. Once you’ve got an Arduino and start having fun with it, you think about things you can build, but you always want one around for prototyping and trying out new ideas, so for permanent installation, you’ll want a cheap Arduino you can drop in place.

Now, since Arudino is open source hardware anyone could get the parts themselves and assemble and use/sell an “Arduino-based” board. This is great, and it’s why I love open source, and it provides many choices. That said, if you are not the “build your own from scratch” kind of person, keep reading for some kits that may work for you.

These are the cheap Arduinos I found, with some notes on each. All of them require some sort of of FTDI connector, as they do not have USB connections. This is fine for boards that will find their way into projects that do not need to be connected directly to a computer, the idea being, you buy one FTDI connector, and you can use it to program all of these boards. Each vendor should also have an FTDI connector for sale, for instance, SparkFun’s FTDI Basic Breakout 5V, Adafruit’s USB FTDI TTL-232 cable, etc. (You will need to figure out the whole 5V or 3.3V thing.) Also worth mentioning is that most of these are kits, which means you’ll need to be comfortable soldering small pieces to make them functional. (Shipping costs you see below are typically estimates, with the choice of the lowest cost.)

Ardweeny
Photo from Solarbotics

Ardweeny probably wins the prize for smallest Arduino, as the “board” and the components actually sit on top of the chip! It’s a novel idea, that’s for sure. If you want a super-cheap Arduino to plug into a breadboard, this is it.

Pros: Cheap – under $10, Very small
Cons: You can’t replace the chip*, so if it gets blown, you’re out of luck, No easy way to power it, Requires FTDI to program it

Now, if you want to “free your Ardweeny from the breadboard” you can get an Ardweeny BackPack which provides power, and a few other niceties. It’s $11.95, which makes teaming it with an Ardweeny total more than $20, which doesn’t make a ton of sense to me… It’s a neat idea, but it all seems a little weird.

Maker Shed has it for $9.95 + $6.95 shipping and Solarbotics has it for $9.95 + $6.94 shipping but note that Solarbotics has a $5.00 “handling fee” if you place an order under $30.

PicoDuino
Photo from The Makerspace

PicoDuino is another small Arduino. I don’t know much about “The Makerspace” and their web site doesn’t really provide much info on them. I do like their description of the product “We designed the Picoduino to be small, cheap, and disposable so that you can throw it in a project and forget about it.”

Pros: Cheap – just $10, Small, The chip is in a socket, so it is replaceable
Cons: No easy way to power it, Don’t know much about “The Makerspace”


Similar to how the Ardweeny has it’s backpack, the PicoDuino has it’s PicoDuino Shield Adapter, which makes using it in a more traditional fashion a little bit easier. The adapter is $10, same price as the PicoDuino itself.


The Makerspace has it for $10.00 + $5.00 shipping.

RBBB
Photo from Modern Device

Really Bare Bones Board (or RBBB) is a step-up in the small/cheap Arduino world. It’s got an easy to connect power jack, a socket for the chip, and the board itself is a bit “customizable” as far as the size you want it to be.

Pros: Affordable – under $13, Power jack, Customizable board size, Chip is socketed
Cons: Still need an FTDI connection (maybe)

I really like the specs of the RBBB. Also note, you can buy one fully assembled for $22.00 if that’s more your style.

Modern Device has it for $12.95 + $4.00 shipping, and The Shoppe at Wulfden has it for $12.00 + $2.00 shipping.

BoArduino
Photo by ladyadaSome Rights Reserved

BoArduino comes from Adafruit Industries, and looks to be pretty similar to the RBBB with perhaps just a few more niceties and features.

Pros: Affordable – $17.50, ICSP header, “No-Wait” bootloader, “protection” diode
Cons: A bit more expensive than the other options

Adafruit has it for $17.50 + $3.99 shipping. (Occasionally Adafruit offers 10% discounts on kits, so if you’re lucky you could get it for $15.75, which would just get you in under the $20 barrier including shipping.)

(Note that Adafruit also has a USB version of the BoArduino, which swaps the DC power jack for a mini-USB connection and comes in at $25.00)

Arduino Pro Mini
Photo from SparkFun Electronics

Arduino Pro Mini comes from SparkFun Electronics and it’s damn small. In fact, it’s miniature! It’s also not really a kit, as it comes assembled (you just need to add header pins.) The chip is surface mounted, so it’s non-replaceable. Again, size is the #1 feature of the Pro Mini.

Pros: Affordable – $18.95, Small, Really Small
Cons: More expensive than the other options, non-replaceable* chip

SparkFun Electronics has it for $18.95 + $4.41 shipping. (That’s the 3.3V version. There is also a 5V version.)

(Note that SparkFun also has the Arduino Pro which is just a dollar more, and comes in 3.3V and 5V versions as well, but at almost $20 and a surface mounted chip, I’m not as interested in this one.)

Diavolino
Photo by Windell H. Oskay, www.evilmadscientist.comSome Rights Reserved

Diavolino comes from Evil Mad Science, and it’s red, and has flames. The Diavolino does not come with a socket for the chip, so add another $1.50 or so if you want one. As for power, you can get a battery pack for an extra $1.00. There’s an extremely detailed assembly guide which I think any beginner would be comfortable following.

Pros: Cheap – $13.00, Nice power options
Cons: Large, No socket included

Evil Mad Science has it for $13.00 + $5.55 shipping.

So that’s my quick rundown of cheap (non-USB) Arduino boards. It should be noted that almost all of these get cheaper as you buy more of them. For instance, the RBBB is $12.50 for one, but just $9.50 each when you buy 10 of them. Also, while it makes the most sense to use an FTDI cable to program these, for any of the boards that use a socketed chip, you should be able to pull the chip, put it in a USB-equipped Arduino, program it, and then return it to the non-USB board. In theory anyway… Note that I also didn’t really talk about what model these are based on, most appear to be based on the Duemilanove or the slightly older Diecimila. How you use it will determine if this matters much. All boards mentioned use the ATmega328, though many show outdated photos with older chips on their product pages, so always read the specs!

And if this isn’t enough, take a look at the spreadsheet of many more Arduinos, which may be slightly dated, but is definitely a nice long list.

(Update: When I say something is “not replaceable” it may be better to say “not easily replaceable” at least by a beginner. — Thanks to Milwaukee Makerspace for pointing this out.)