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When less is more?

25 March 2019

It used to be that being an electronics hobbyist was easy.

Most components were big enough to be easily worked with and the majority of them had wire leads that were designed to go through holes drilled in circuit boards. These "through hole" components were also well-suited to "birdsnesting" a prototype design -- a process involving soldering the wires of one component directly to those of another in a free-standing form.

Today however, most components are designed for surface mounting -- a process whereby the parts actually sit flush on the circuit board and are soldered directly to the copper. These parts have no wires coming out of them, they simply have little tinned areas where solder "reflows" under the effect of high temperature. That high temperature is often delivered by way of radiant heating elements or a blast of very hot air -- no soldering iron required.

Unfortunately, surface mount devices (SMDs) do not lend themselves nearly so well to prototyping via the somewhat low-tech method of birds-nesting, nor are they even suitable for using on a breadboard where previously, through-hole components could be pressed into a perforated plastic base so as to make connections with underlying conductors.

In short, prototyping with SMD is a lot more work. However, there is a company that is taking advantage of this.

On Slashdot this morning I found reference to the Electric Dollar Store

This is actually quite a good idea.

It's not completely new but it is a good spin on a concept that some others have used as a part of educational or prototyping systems.

You see, another problem with modern electronic components is that many of them come in *tiny* packages with lots of very small "legs" (connections) that are sometimes as close as 0.2mm a part. Clearly soldering such parts is a nightmare for the average hobbyist and fraught with peril. In the past, the best way to prototype with these parts was to fit them to a "carrier" PC board which then allowed their connection to the test circuit using regular wires.

The Electric Dollar Store takes this idea a step further and not only mounts a range of components on their own circuit board but also provides a consistent electrical interface between them all via something called the I2C bus -- a serial communications standard that gives each board its own unique address so that it can be controlled by a central CPU such as the one found in an Arduino microcontroller board.

This is a very simple concept but one which can make casual experimentation by the hobbyist a whole lot easier and therefore a whole lot more fun.

What is also very simple is the Electric Dollar Store's web presence. It's not exactly an overwhelming website, containing just a handful of pages and a product-page for each of the ten items on sale. But it is perfectly adequate... some might say it embodies the very essence of "elegant simplicity".

Will they make a fortune?

I doubt it. There probably just aren't that many people looking for a 3-axis digital magnetometer on an intelligent break-out board. However, if this is exactly what you're after, this little enterprise is gold.

Will this create a resurgence in electronics as a hobby?

Most certainly not and indeed the purist would probably say "it's not really electronics because you're just playing with software to use these boards".

However, I could be totally wrong and this could be the start of an enterprise that grows into a highly sustainable business like SparkFun did. To quote from their website:

"In January 2018, SparkFun celebrated its 15-year anniversary. A lot has changed since our humble beginnings in a Boulder college apartment. Curious about how we went from one guy mailing boxes out of a basement to 140 employees in an 80,000-square-foot building? Check out SparkFun founder Nate's very detailed history of the company"

Yep, sometimes less is more, much more.

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