Creative X-Fi Platinum Repair

When my Sound Blaster X-Fi Platinum packed it in a month ago, I was devastated. It would intermittently fail to be detected by the BIOS on boot up and audio would randomly drop out anywhere between 30 seconds and 1 hour after loading the OS.

24-bit, 96KHz AD/DA with 109db SNR and 0.004% THD+N on all channels, for a prosumer card, was amazing 9 years ago and is still decent by today’s standards. It came with a front 5.25” bay I/O module which in combination with the PCI card offered a ton of connectivity – 7.1 channel audio out (3.5mm TRS), Digital I/O, Line In 1, Microphone 1 (3.5mm TRS), Aux In 1 (4-pin Molex), Coaxial S/PDIF In/Out (RCA), Aux In 2 (RCA), Optical S/PDIF In/Out, Midi In/Out, Line In 2 (6.35mm TRS), Mic In 2 (6.35mm TRS) and a dedicated Headphone Out (6.35mm TRS).

I’m a big fan of Creative Technology’s sound cards. They command a small price premium, but their entry level sound cards are a tangible improvement on integrated motherboard audio and their high end offerings are the best available for semi-professional use, or when the cost of a dedicated FireWire audio interface made by the likes of M-Audio, EMU and Mackie are unjustified.

The only other “serious” player in the consumer market for sound cards is ASUS with their Xonar series, which I hate with a passion. ASUS has managed to segment the market into 3 niches – the “Essence” audiophile range, Republic of Gamer range and Gaming and Entertainment Series, with a staggering 16+ models on offer. Sure, the models differ in I/O connectivity, some utilise different components and PCB layout leading to better SNR and THD figures but the main differentiator by far is the level of pandering to audiphools.

Would Sir like to pay extra for the benefit of socketed and replaceable op-amps? Gold plated everything? “Audio grade” capacitors? EMI shields? Solid core PCB? Dedicated Molex power connector for noise free audio? Multi-layer PCBs with multiple ground planes?

Some sound cards came with promises that expansions modules would shortly be available (which never eventuated). But the worst by far is software package. Gaudy control panels, buggy drivers and DSP/FX which just doesn’t sound quite right to me; I much prefer Creative’s Crystalizer, CMSS-3D, Bass boost and EAX effects . Granted, Creative’s X-Fi cards (which ASUS orignally released the Xonar series to compete with) initially had teething problems when Windows 7 was first released –  pops, cracking and settings that failed to save, but these were fixed in time with updates, and Creative is still producing driver updates for compatibility with Windows 8/8.1, 9 years after the initial product release.

Ranting aside, I was loathe to buy a new sound card and tried everything to get it working again – reinstalling drivers, reseating the card and connectors, changing PCI slot and cleaning off all dust, testing the card from a Ubuntu LiveCD to rule out Windows shenanigans, visual inspection for any dry solder joints, cracks or burn marks, freezer spray to the main audio and power regulation ICs to test for thermal related issues but no dice.  I couldn’t be bothered testing the card at the component level so I left the X-Fi Platinum in the computer and purchased a Sound Blaster ZxR as a replacement.

The following day, when I went to remove the X-Fi Platinum, I noticed this:

The bastard C177 had started bulging! I could have saved splashing out for a new sound card if I’d waited another day before buying a replacement. Though, on the flip side, my motherboard didn’t get sprayed with corrosive electrolyte from the capacitor venting. You win some, you lose some.

C177 is a Jamicon 220µF 16V 6.3x11mm WL series capacitor. Checking the datasheet, the WL series are low impedance, miniature sized capacitors and this particular component was rated for 1000 hours at 105°C with an impedance of 0.095Ω (20°C, 100KHz) and max ripple current of 430mA rms. C177’s proximity to L10 (100µH inductor) and the switching regulator TPS54352 are a dead giveaway that it’s on filtering duties and powering the EMU20K1 ASIC.

Jamicon is a fairly average brand of capacitor. It is nowhere near as terrible as the Su’scon, Chhsi, Canicon (yes you can, but it would be illegal!) and CapXon trash found in cut price electronics but it’s not a premium US or Japanese made component either. The closest part I had in my tub of spares was a premium Panasonic FC series (low impedance) 270µF 35V part, rated for 3000 hours at 105°C with an impedance of 0.068Ω (20°C, 100KHz) and max ripple current of 1050mA rms. It’s slightly larger at 10x16mm but there is enough clearance on the PC to allow it to be bent on its side to avoid obstructing other PCI/PCIe cards. By every technical specification, it is a superior part and will probably outlast the remaining life of the PCI card and I/O module. The increased capacitance doesn’t matter too much as C177 is only filtering the switching output, and not part of any signal filter or decoupling an IC.

The failed capacitor was a royal pain in the backside to replace – the tiny pads meant it was easy to lift the tracks by accident and the double sided PCB with plated through holes made desoldering difficult. The first leg came out in less than a minute, but the second leg took almost an hour to remove. The copper ground planes were a very effective heatsink, such that applying the tip of a 60W soldering iron set at 450°C for 5 minutes only made the pad lukewarm and a blowtorch had little effect. I eventually snipped the capacitor lead as close as possible to the PCB on both sides and drilled out the leg and solder blob with a fine 0.8mm PCB drill bit.

Soldering in the replacement was a much easier task. The capacitor is bent on its side and held down with a blob of hot melt glue:

Success! The sound card has been working continuously for slightly over 96 hours now and I suspect the only reason for its demise will be the lack of PCI expansion slots in future computers. I’m not sure whether to keep it around as a spare or to sell it on eBay…

Chevron 6 Outlet Power Board Teardown

This power board was purchased for approximately $5 3 years ago from Big W if memory serves correctly . It is “Chevron” branded  (i.e. Big W’s house brand of electrical accessories) and has 6 outlets, a 10A circuit breaker, 1m power cord and the usual Australian plug with insulated active and neutral pins. Markings on the cable and plastic housing indicate the OEM is NingBo Qiaopu Electric Co. Ltd. who seem to be the supplier of choice for electrical accessories across the Woolworths group of stores. The same model is also sold under a plethora of other brands – DOSS, CLA, Woolworths Essentials, Supercheap Auto and BCF, to name a few.

I couldn’t be bothered messing around with the anti-tamper screws so just sliced straight through them with the cutting wheel on my rotary tool. There’s not much inside one of these basic power boards – a circuit breaker and 3 strips of stamped brass contacts. It is obvious that it’s built down to a price – everything is friction fit or held in place by tabs moulded into the plastic. Why they bothered to use screws and then go to the effort of covering the heads with a plastic button is beyond me. I can only presume it was cheaper  than heat sealing both halves of the plastic housing or using locking tabs.

For reasons which I still can’t adequately explain, even after opening and inspecting the power board, the last socket on the power board caused the “primary” side of any connected switch-mode power supplies to arc over and fail catastrophically upon power on. The power board has always been plugged into the mains outlet via a surge protector and a USB phone charger, Hi-Fi and multifunction printer that occupied the other sockets remain perfectly operational to this day.

Oh well. It was a good excuse to upgrade to a DSE Surger Catcher. They are fantastic value for $35, and Dick Smith often have them on special at the $19 mark or “Buy 1 get 1 free.”

Simple PICAXE PWM Fan Controller

This was written in about 5 minutes to test 12V DC fans noise and airflow characteristics before installing them in a PC. The code will run on any of the current generation PICAXE chips at their native frequency (i.e. not overclocked via the setfreq command or poking registers). The pins used need to be modified to suit the selected chip.

speedup, slowdown and power are all input pins interfacing to switches. The PICAXE-08M was used for this so the pwm pin is pin 2 (hardware limitation). PWM frequency is set to 25kHz, above the human hearing range to avoid audible whining due to magneto-restriction, and a reasonable compromise on efficiency. Duty cycle is set as an integer between 0 and 160 i.e. 50% = 80, 75% = 120, 100% = 160. Pauses are used as a rudimentary method to debounce the input switches – 200ms was adequate for the tactile switches I had on hand, though some momentary push-buttons may need longer. You may wish to set the minimum value to something other than 0, eg 32 (20% duty cycle) so that fans never turn completely off, or to prevent stalling at low speeds.

Input switches need to be connected via a 10k resistor to ground and a 1k resistor in series with the input pin. The fan can be driven via a NPN transistor and a 1k resistor in series with the transistor base. RevEd recommends you use a darlington transistor, although a BD139 NPN transistor worked just fine for me and only became lukewarm in operation with a fan rated at 200mA current. Ensure you use a diode (1N4004 or similar) across the fan to suppress back emf. I had two power supplies on hand so ran the PICAXE-08M from 5V and the fan off 12V directly. See the PICAXE Interfacing Circuits (#3) manual for more information on wiring up external input/output devices.

 

Hobby King Turnigy AAA Ni-MH LSD Batteries Review

Original article by Malik Salgado, republished with permission under a CC BY-NC-SA license. Some edits have been made to improve readability and aid formatting.

From Hobby King’s website:

Low self discharge AAA NiMH battery. Great for remote devices, camera, transmitters, or other low discharge electronics that you want to use over several months or years without having to recharge.
Low-Self-Discharge NiMH batteries are a new technology that prevent the battery from slowly losing its charge over time. In fact these LSD batteries can stay charged for over a year without losing more than 30% of their charge. Normal NiMH batteries would lose nearly 100% of their charge over 12 months.

Specifications:

Category: AAA battery
Capacity: 800mAH
Voltage: 1.2V
Chemistry: NiMH Low Self Discharge
Weight: 12g
Dimensions: 44.5×10.5mm
We guarantee our cells are true to their capacity!
Sadly battery marketing is an evil game, with overstated capacity being the industry norm. Generally speaking, battery factories will suggest vendors to overstate the capacity by at least 30%, marking 1800mAh cells with 2300mAh labels or more!
While this might work for toy stores, such marketing tactics wouldnt survive 1 week in our store with customer feedbacks and reviews, and thats why we guarantee ourTURNIGY 800mAh NiMH cells to be at least 800mAh!

The Test

Test Equipment:

Turnigy AAA 800mAh LSD Batteries
http://www.hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/__10899__Turnigy_AAA_LSD_800mah_Low_Self_Discharge_ready_to_use_.html

Maha MH-C9000 WizardOne Charger/Analyzer
http://www.digitaldingus.com/reviews/maha/mhc9000/index.php

Results

Battery NumberInitial Weight (g)Initial 100mA DischargeBreak-in* Capacity (mAh)0.5C Discharge (400mA)0.5C/0.5C Charge/Discharge**
112.0629878852859
212.2624862840848
312.0631859830840
412.0612857826836
612.0631855829837

*Break-in: a 16 hour charge at 0.1C (80mA) (where C is the rated battery capacity), followed by a rest period of 2 hours, then a discharge at 0.2C (160mA), then a 2 hour rest, the another 16h x 0.1C charge.

The charging continues regardless of dV/dt (voltage) or dT/dt (temperature) indicators, which normally indicate ‘full’ charge, and will always proceed for the full 16 hours. The discharge is terminated when the battery can no longer sustain the proper current at greater-than-or-equal-to 0.90 volts.

**Charge/Discharge: Charge at 400mA (which is properly terminated), a 2 hour rest, then a discharge.

Limitations

The charger used was not calibrated. However, it is believed to be accurate, as other MH-C9000 chargers have been compared with calibrated battery test equipment and shown to correlate extremely well.

The total energy output, in mWh, has not been measured. This is a function of the voltage X current X time. A battery with a higher voltage under load (eg. 400mA) will provide more energy than a battery with a lower voltage under the same load.

As the MH-C9000 does not log voltage, nor calculate energy output, no mWh result has been provided. However, based on casual and sporadic observations of the voltage reading during discharge, the voltage can be assumed to be around 1.18V under 400mA load for the majority of the discharge.

Conclusions

The batteries, which are rated at 800mAh, delivered more than their rated charge, at both the IEC standard test (break-in mode) and in a higher-drain test. This indicates that the batteries should perform well under significant load.

The batteries had significant charge upon arrival, which indicates some LSD (low self discharge) capacity. Considering it was at least a a couple of weeks since shipment from Hong Kong, it can be inferred that they do not have a very high rate of self discharge.

However, without knowing how much or when the batteries were initially charged, it is hard to calculate how slowly the batteries self-discharge.

The change in capacity between the break-in and charge/discharge indicates the possibility that more capacity may be gained by repeated cycling.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

SanDisk Cruzer Blade 8GB USB Flash Drive Review

The SanDisk Cruzer Blade 8GB USB Flash Drive was purchased from Dick Smith Electronics on special last weekend for $17.88. An 8GB model for <$20 is a pretty good deal for your standard everyday flash drive – there are higher performance models available for only a fraction more, but they are only available from specialist computer retailers and/or online stores, requiring an additional $5 or so p&h.

The Cruzer Blade package is fairly minimalistic compared to past SanDisk products (Micro, Contour etc). The reverse side has basic warranty information in multiple languages. This model is apparently limited edition, but there seems to be no difference other than the body colour (other models are black). The flash drive measures in at 40 x 18 x 7.5mm (L x W x H). Keeping the flash drive attached to a lanyard is probably a good idea – unlike previous Cruzer models, the Blade is not supplied with one to keep costs down. The body is made of 2 molded plastic shells. Worryingly, the USB connector is molded into the plastic body and may be prone to damage. While it negates the need for an end cap, the connector is prone to flexing when inserting the flash drive into tighter USB ports. The plastic is reasonably flexible so it should survive everyday use with reasonable care. One other thing problem is the lack of a status LED. While modern OS’s allow hot-plugging USB devices,  more than enough people corrupt all their data by removing a flash drive while it is in the middle of a write operation.

I ran the Cruzer Blade through a suite of benchmarks to assess its performance. Long story short, the Cruzer Blade is a fairly average performer. In fact, the previous generation of SanDisk flash drives (Cruzer Micro) which the Cruzer Blade replaces is actually moderately faster. Also, be aware that performance may vary slightly between different capacity models (eg 8GB vs 16GB). With that said, on to the results (click to enlarge):

The first utility used to benchmark the Cruzer Blade is CrystalDiskMark 2.2. A total of three tests are run in read and write mode; 3 repetitions are averaged to give the final result. Sequential represents the maximum achievable speed if you were to copy large files to the drive. Random 512k and 4k are more realistic representations of speeds achievable during daily use. The Cruzer Blade manages a reasonable ~20MB in Sequential and 512K read but slows down significantly with smaller file sizes. As expected, the write speeds are significantly slower.

Next, ATTO Disk Benchmark was used to assess read and write speeds at different file sizes. Attainable read speeds vary from 1MB to 34MB/s, and 357KB/s to 4MB/s for write. The read speeds overall are decent, but write speeds for 16K and lower are lackluster. Performance for 64K to 8MB files is abysmal, clocking in at 2.6MB/s.

The following two tests with Flash Memory Toolkit 2.00 also present a similar story – good read, but poor write speeds:

Finally, HDTune Pro’s random access test is used to assess the Cruzer Blade’s random access speeds:

Once again, these results are fairly average. Portable applications will have no problems running from the Cruzer Blade and basic file transfers will complete reasonably quickly.

So how does the Cruzer Blade 8GB stack up? Overall performance is typical of most commonly available standard flash drives. Good read speeds, but write performance is a let down. Computer enthusiasts won’t be satisfied, but for the remaining 95% of the population, the Cruzer Blade will work just fine for everyday use and still kicks the pants off generic, no-name Chinese flash drives.

Pros:

  • Cheap (2GB models start at $3.99)
  • Small
  • No cap to lose and replace
  • Good read speeds

Mediocre

  • 2 year warranty
  • No lanyard provided

Cons:

  • Fragile plastic connector
  • No status indicator LEDs
  • Lackluster write speeds