Monday, June 18, 2012

Adafruit Internet of Things Printer [Review]

What’s more fun than reading tweets on a smartphone, tablet, or computer screen? Reading them on an Arduino controlled, Ethernet connected, thermal receipt printer like the Adafruit Internet of Things Printer. This little printer kit might be the answer to all your Twitter ticker tape dreams and more. Let’s check it out!

Everything you need except an Arduino
Adafruit’s Internet of Things Printer kit comes in a plain white box and includes everything you will need except a microcontroller. An Arduino Uno Ethernet or an Arduino Uno with an Ethernet shield will need to be provided or purchased separately. The kit includes a laser cut acrylic enclosure, the thermal printer, a 50’ roll of thermal paper, a 5V 2A power supply, and assorted hardware. Assembly instructions, example Arduino sketch, and libraries are available online and linked on Adafruit’s website. Most people will need about an hour to put it together, upload the sketch, and start printing. As with almost everything, I recommend setting aside enough time. Rushing through the process will only lead to frustration or worse.

The instructions are clear and easy to follow. The few possible pitfalls, mostly centered around which flavor of Arduino you’re using, are clearly highlighted to prevent foul-ups. The assembly was stress free, and it took me just under an hour to put the device together. The one assembly problem I had was when I decided to deviate from the written instructions. Almost as soon as I tinned the header pins and wires, I realized there would be a connector on some of the pins which now contained just enough solder to be a problem. Luckily, Adafruit included enough extra header pins to allow me to easily fix my mistake and complete the assembly.

Downloading the code and libraries from Github was easy. Modifying the Twitter search string in the Arduino sketch was simple and shouldn’t be too much of a challenge even for those new to the Arduino or microcontrollers. The same goes for downloading and installing the Arduino IDE. Other than one little hiccup, which was totally my fault, assembling the IoT Printer was straightforward and fun.

Under the hood
The one thing I didn’t like about assembling the printer kit is the excess of wire. I assume the power and data cables come with the thermal printer when Adafruit gets them from their vendor. Adafruit must be thinking that it’s easier for the end user to keep those cables intact and they’re probably right. If you’re picky like me, it wouldn’t be too difficult to shorten up the wires but they all easily disappear into the enclosure. It says a bit about the design of this kit, if this is all I could find to complain about.

I set my printer up to print local weather tweets and took it to work with me. There are no windows on the second floor which is where the IT department is located. Sometimes I spend all day in there without ever seeing what the weather is like outside. I could check the weather on a computer or smartphone, but what fun is that? Printouts are more tangible then the ethereal images on an display. When I hear that telltale crunching sound of the printer printing behind me, I get up, walk over, and stretch out the long ribbon of paper to read the latest entry. The printed tweets provide a more tactile feel and connection to the information. Blinkenlights and moving pictures are great, but it seems one doesn’t give up 5000 years of holding written information in their hands in the less than a 100 years computer displays have been around.

Adafruit's Internet of Things Printer in action
The Internet of Things Printer has generated mixed reactions from my co-workers. One person though it was interesting but couldn’t believe I paid as much as I did for it. I didn’t have the heart to tell them how much extra the Arduino Uno Ethernet was. One guy looked at me with his mouth hanging open and asked, “It does what?” and “You bought this?” But, a few of the engineers and designers that work on the same floor seemed to get it. It appears they at least appreciate it for what it is.

I’m happy with the Internet of Things Printer. Adafruit balances cost, style, function, and ease of assembly and I think they do it fairly deftly. Out of the box it’s a little expensive for what it does but not for what you get. You get full value from this kit when you find out how to use it in some new or niche way. For me that tinkering, even it if doesn't ever lead to some cool hack, is where I expect to get the most out of the kit. There’s also a bit of educational value here too. Turning a LED on with an Arduino is all kinds of Friday night fun, but interfacing with web based services and printers is a tad bit more exciting. If you’re looking for something to tinker with, or just looking to print out stuff like, “#Detroit #Michigan Temperature 78-F few clouds Wind W 17km/h Humidity 80%...”, I recommend the Adafruit Internet of Things Printer.

Links: Adafruit, Internet of Things Printer, Internet of Things Printer Instructions

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