Just before Patrick left on his recent holiday, he sent an early prototype tuner kit my way for testing. The purpose was to beta test the kit, the parts, the labeling, and the assembly instructions. I built the kit and took extensive notes, giving him detailed feedback on the entire process.
Now that he's back from holiday, he's given me permission to review it here.
I will leave it up to him to post information on exactly how long it will be before orders can be filled, but let me just say that the first small batch is expected quite soon. He's anxious to start making some of his money back on this, because the initial cash outlay for the parts and materials was pretty steep. Not to mention his time, of course.
Okay, on to the review...
Physical Features and Connectors
The box is about the same width and depth as the original tuner module, however it is about twice as tall
as the original. This really shouldn't be that big of a deal, it just means that when installing it, you need to be extra careful with wire routing and such behind the dash. I had no problem finding space for it behind my dash.
It is built into a basic off-the-shelf gray "project box" which has not been cut or modified in terms of its shape. Essentially, he chose the box first, then carefully designed the kit to fit exactly within that box.
The external connectors and such are not built-in to the box. Instead, long wires protrude through holes in the side of the box and the connectors are on the ends of the wires. You get the same connections that were present on the original tuner module, they're just dangling on the ends of wires instead of embedded in the side of the box. The numeric address selector switch is gone (as he warned it would be), but since the player software doesn't take advantage of it anyway, this isn't a problem. I believe there might be ways on the PCB itself to change the address, not sure.
In the early draft of the instructions that I worked from, no mention was made of the additional analog voltage inputs that he'd hinted about earlier. There were no external connectors for those inputs. So I can't comment on whether those worked or not. However, there seemed to be plenty of "unused" spots or connectors on the main PCB that looked like they might be used for those things if you had the right information. I'm guessing he'll supply that information before this stuff goes final.
Design and PCB Layout
Come on, this is Patrick we're talking about. The thing is a work of art. It's an incredibly clean design that's logical and clear. There is very little risk of a sloppy mistake when assembling, as it's all made very easy. Components all go in from the same "top" side of the PCBs, and all soldering is done from the bottom side. It's two double-sided PCBs that are assembled separately and then get "sandwiched" together where they connect with some multi-pin plug connectors.
Parts and Labeling
Every part was there, and in the correct quantity. The only thing I needed was solder. At the end of the process, I did not have any leftover parts. Not only that, but the parts were all painstakingly hand-labeled and cross-referenced on the parts list. Everything was labeled so well that I only needed to refer to the cross-reference a few times (and noted those times for Patrick, who will likely update the instructions so that you
won't ever have to look at the cross-reference).
All of the parts are the "through-hole" type, and the design is clean and simple, so even someone with mediocre soldering skills should be able to handle this one.
In the two cases where the pins of certain ICs needed to be bent a certain way to fit in the PCB, the ICs came pre-bent and ready to plug into the board. Bravo!
This was a breeze. A time-consuming breeze, but for the most part, I never even broke a sweat. He's made it so easy that you hardly even have to think about it.
It took me about 8-10 total hours of work, on and off over a weekend, to get it assembled. But keep in mind that I was taking extensive notes during the process and being extra careful about checking and analyzing everything. The average schmoe should be able to do it on a Saturday if their spouse brings snacks and drinks regularly.
Most of the assembly time is due to the fact that there are so many
components to solder. You have to develop sort of a rhythm for soldering in so many resistors and capacitors. If you can get a "system" down for doing each part quickly and efficiently, the work will go much faster.
In a couple of spots, I was worried that a given wire or bundle of wires might not fit through one of the drilled holes. But I discovered that all of the holes were drilled exactly to the correct size for the supplied wires, and that you could
get them through as long as you were careful.
Of course, the tuner worked perfectly the first time I tried it after assembly was done, so I was happy.
Well, those of you who are interested in the project have probably already given the instructions a peek. (He put drafts on the web in PDF form already, I was working from one of those drafts you've already seen.) So you already know they are clear, to the point, complete, and easy to follow. I simply left the instructions up on my computer screen and worked directly from them there, no need to print them. I did go to the trouble of actually downloading
the PDF to my hard disk before opening it. It's possible to open a PDF directly from the web, but I don't recommend trying that for one as large as this one. Having it on your hard disk means that you can scroll through it faster and you won't have to re-download it when you lose your internet connection.
I had one "sphincter factor" moment when one of his suggested continuity tests didn't work. It led me to discover that I had soldered one of the components into the wrong hole. Hopefully he'll update the instructions to give a warning for that particular part at that step and you won't run into the same problem I did.
The instructions were written with "one layman assembling a single kit" in mind. In other words, they seem to be geared toward care and attention to detail instead of mass production. You are told to solder components in only a few at a time and test at each stage. I think that if you're planning on assembling multiple kits for other users, you will probably be able to come up with a more assembly-line-oriented system where you can put whole groups of components into place all at once instead of painstakingly doing them one at a time. This would cut down on the time it takes to put it together.
Some of the preface information in the instructions was very valuable to me. For instance, he suggested having a small box handy to drop all of your clipped leads into. This is something I wouldn't have thought of, but it made the process go so much smoother and easier. I never stepped on a lost lead and got hurt from it, and I'm the kind of klutz who would have done exactly that if he hadn't warned me about it in the instructions.
Works just like the original tuner. Reception is as good or better than the original tuner, although I have no empirical data to back that up.
One thing that I noticed is that the "temperature whine" problem is completely gone. My original factory tuner has a quirk (and I tried two of them to make sure it wasn't a fluke) where, when it was cold in the morning and the car was warming up, certain AM radio frequencies would make a sine wave noise in the background that gradually faded out as the car warmed up. Patrick's tuner does not exhibit this problem at all.
No mention was made in my instructions about the weatherband capabilities of the tuner module. I don't even remember if he'd managed to get supplies of weatherband-capable modules or not. You'll have to ask him about that. But I'm pretty sure that a new player software version would be needed to make use of it if it were even present, so I can't comment on that either.
Great piece of kit, as they say.
An easy and economical way to add a tuner to your empeg. If you want a tuner for your player, don't hesitate to order one as soon as he makes them available.