A testing and soldering aid you’ll wish you had years ago.
The team at DIYODE have seen a great many workbench aids for soldering and holding PCBs for testing. Never have we seen anything like the PCBite range. The concepts involved are so simple, we’re not sure how someone didn’t come up with this at the dawn of electronics. However, it’s the execution and attention to detail that hold this product above so many others. This product range is so well-made, precisely engineered, and versatile, that we think it’s in a class of its own. If there is another product out there that’s as good as this, we’re yet to find it.
The PCBite range is made by Sensepeek, a Swedish company whose focus is research and development products. Sensepeek manufactures in both Sweden and Asia (country unnamed) but all assembly and quality control happens in Sweden. In Australia, the range is distributed by K & A Electronics, who supplied us with a kit for testing and review.
Sensepeek, through K & A Electronics, supplies PCBite products individually or as kits. The items we reviewed are the 4007 Large Base kit, 4017 Insulated Cover, 4005 probe kit of four mutli-use probes, and 2 x 4014 200MHz oscilloscope probes. All of these products are available in varying kit combinations. The whole range is worth checking out on K & A Electronics’ website. It is supported by spares and consumables, such as replacements for the low-friction films.
The basis for the kit is a steel plate and four magnetic-based PCB holder posts. The posts are machined metal that feels like aluminium with a chemical blackening treatment, and assembled from at least three main parts but there could be more unseen. There is a centre ‘T’-shaped post, along which slides a well-knurled, close-fitting tubular collar with a spring underneath it. These two components are seated in a solid base that has a magnet anchored under it and a low-friction plastic film over that. This section completely conceals the spring.
To use the posts, the maker just places them roughly in position on the plate, then pulls the knurled section downward. The spring tension has been chosen well, as this process is easy with two fingers, yet the spring is still strong enough to grip the PCB well. The PCB is inserted into the gap between the top of the ‘T’ post and the collar, and the collar is gently released to sandwich the PCB. Then, the other posts slide easily by finger pressure to where they are needed, thanks to the low-friction film under each.
Sensepeek have even considered dense PCBs with crowded edges, as they have supplied nylon self-adhesive split washers. These are easy to install with a little care, as the adhesive must be removed before they are split and worked around the post. In its basic form, the kit is a PCB soldering and working aid. This is why the washers are not pre-installed: They can cope with temperatures of 85°C but no higher, and as such, soldering may damage them. If you are only using Sensepeek products for soldering, you need not apply them.
The plate itself is worth a mention, too. It has been cut with rounded corners from a sheet of mirror steel. This means that one side has a fine circular brushed finish, while the other has a protective film covering a surface that you can see your reflection in. It’s almost as good as a glass mirror, although steel mirrors always have some distortion. The idea here is that you can use the mirror to see under the board as easily as the top. However, we chose to cover this side with the supplied self-adhesive low-friction pad. This helps the posts slide around and if you don’t need the mirror, it’s a good idea. We used the mirror side because if we chose the brushed side, the mirror side would rest on the bench and become scratched quite quickly. The brushed side will resist this better, and the pad preserves the mirror for the future. The pad even comes with instructions for the most accurate placement and application method.
That’s all nice, but it’s not what impressed us about this kit. PCB holding is only the beginning. The kit comes with four test probes. These consist of a magnetically-based gooseneck, solid metal head with thread, and a PCB with threaded receptacles. The PCBs are very thought-out. They have a socket in the centre, soldered to the board, which contains a spring-loaded fine needle. There is a pair of header pins, connected in parallel, so that test leads can be attached. After threading the PCB to the head, using a spanner because it’s a firm fit and pliers are not the correct tool for this job, the test lead can be attached and the gooseneck placed on the metal plate. It slides just as easily as the post clamps holding the PCB. With the base in a suitable position that the user will quickly develop a feel for, bend the gooseneck until the needle rests against the desired test point.
The gooseneck is so well engineered that it supports the weight of the head and probe while not being at all springy: The needle stays where you place it, in light but reliable contact. The test point can be a component or IC leg, solder join, or any exposed conductor. There are options for test leads, too. The kit comes with two leads terminated in piggyback banana plugs, which will fit in either a multimeter or bench test equipment. There are also four coloured leads with header sockets at both ends. These header sockets are like the jumpers most makers are familiar with from microcontroller and development boards, but are higher quality with much, much better wire. Most jumper leads come with a very fine 26 or 28 gauge wire and a stiff plastic sheath. These leads are 22 gauge with a supple silicone jacket.
It’s a similar story with the 200MHz oscilloscope probes. These feature the same magnetic-base goosenecks, with almost the same PCB. The differences are small in scale, and consist of a tiny socket for a high-frequency RF connector, and only one header pin, which is used for the ground connection. There are some other components shielded under a metal enclosure on the front, as is necessary for such a sensitive, high-frequency test probe. The probe is supplied with two socket-to-socket wires in the same silicone 22AWG as before. One is very short and the other is a little longer. They connect to a special ground clip, which is a spring-loaded plunger with a two-prong wire attachment like a pearl catch. There are two header pins on this, one for the ground pin of the probe and the other for piggybacking connections between multiple probes to one ground point.
In addition to the PCB end, the kit comes with a lead of short but workable length, with a BNC plug at one end, and an RF connector at the other for the probe head PCB socket. Sensepeek have even supplied the kit with four pairs of colour-coded silicone cable clips to keep the lead secured to the gooseneck. There is also a plastic adjustment tool, because the BNC socket contains the adjustment/compensation circuit common to oscilloscope probes. This whole assembly translates to a very usable oscilloscope probe, as there is not the bulk associated with traditional probes. The needle point can get into tiny spaces and tracks, even the finest SMD ICs.
The biggest advantage we found is that the probes are better for breadboards and small components than traditional oscilloscope probes. On many occasions, we have needed to take a signal from a breadboard, and invariably the weight of the unsupported probe lifts the component out of the spring clips. Jumpers can be used but when it comes to oscilloscopes, every connection is extra noise and interference. The wire doesn’t help that, either. Sadly, the PCB posts don’t open far enough to hold a breadboard. However, using the flat machined into the posts, we were able to secure the breadboard anyway, and it was quite a firm fit. Taking readings of last month’s Kids’ Basics alarm circuit output was the easiest and most reliable breadboard oscilloscope experience we’ve ever had.
No product anywhere, ever, is perfect. However, we can’t think of many improvements to this range other than posts that open a little bit further to accept breadboards, and a little more length on the oscilloscope probe leads. Additionally, the oscilloscope leads are fixed at 10x attenuation, with no 10x/1x switch. This would be nice to have but is not essential.
Further products we would like to see are component-holding heads for the goosenecks, for placing components when soldering. This would benefit SMDs in particular. As the vast majority of test equipment interfaces with either BNC plugs or banana plugs, we think the range of leads is adequate but more length would be nice, at least as an option. Other users may find additional connection types they would like to see.
The other significant factor is price. These products and kits are not cheap, but quality and good design never are. When compared to the kind of test equipment these products are meant to be used with, the price becomes more justifiable. If the functionality, versatility, and ease of use could somehow be quantified rather than qualified, then we feel that the PCBite range would win easily when compared against cheaper products.
All in all, the Sensepeek PCBite range from K & A Electronics is a great investment for any maker regularly using test equipment. We’ve very reluctant to part with it and give it away. In fact, we're going to have to get one for ourselves!
Available from K&E Electronics
- PCBITE KIT WITH 2XSP200 200MHZ PROBES 4016 $299.99
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