A comparison of cheap IoT ESP8266 boards from AliExpress

Recently I decided make an wifi “Internet of Things” sprinkler controller, and wanted to take the opportunity to get to know the plethora of ESP8266 devices better. Getting started can be a bit daunting, because although these things are ludicrously cheap (under $2 USD each!) the manufacturer of doesn’t produce the same kind of savvy, beginner-friendly documentation that’s seen the Arduino platform rocket to fame.

For example, in order to put code on the ESP-12E module linked to above, you’ll need a handful of extra components, a 3v USB to serial adpater, and a specific wiring setup. Also, you’ll have a hard time getting it on your breadboard, because the spacing between the contacts on the side is 2mm, not the standard 2.54mm. Contrast this to an Arduino Uno, which is basically plug-and-play.

A number of breakout boards have been made to make prototyping with ESP8266 chips easier, and we’re going to look at three of the cheapest ones you can buy on AliExpress.

ESP8266 Breakout Boards
From left: The Wemos D1 Mini, Witty Cloud Dev board, and a generic breakout.

1. The generic breakout (pictured right)

AliExpress: Generic Breakout

Coming in at only $0.15 each (in a 10 pack), and sometimes less than $2.00 with the chip soldered on, these boards are the cheapest option, but have their annoyances. The biggest being that they don’t actually fit on a breadboard. Well, it does, but it leaves no space either side to fit any other pins.

ESP8266 breakout not fitting on breadboard
See the way it fills up all the space? At least the Wemos D1 Mini leaves a single row.

I’ve seen some creative solutions to this where jumper wires are run out from underneath the adapter board, but it’s kind of a pain, and you’ll probably at least once put a pin in  the wrong hole. Also, nothing on these boards gets you closer to programming the ESP – you’ll still need a 3v serial to usb adapter.

ESP8266 Generic Breakout
This batch came with the pads pre-tinned, so soldering was a breeze.

One other issue is that if you buy the ESP chips and breakouts separately, you’ll have to solder them yourself. I found it pretty straight forward, but I can understand why this would be a deal-breaker to some.

2. The Witty Cloud Dev Board (middle)

AliExpress: Witty Cloud Dev Board

Still insane at only $4 USD each these two-tier boards have everything you’ll need to get started. The top layer is basically just the breakout above, but the second layer acts as a bare-bones programmer, featuring a micro USB socket, reset and flash buttons.

ESP Witty Breakout

Actually, the top layer has a couple of extras on it – an RGB LED, which is pretty neat; an LDR, also neat I guess; and another USB micro socket, which can only be used for power. I suppose this means you can flash the device, then pry it off the lower part and use it independently.

Again, it won’t fit in a breadboard, and if you’re attaching other sensors, you’ll have to remove them to use the programmer. It is nice that you can use the one programmer for any number of breakouts though.

3. The Wemos D1 Mini

AliExpress: Wemos D1 Mini

Still only $4 USD and the top result when you search ‘ESP8266’ and sort by number of orders (a great way to filter the dodgy results out). Wemos have earned this spot by making a pretty user-friendly product, and publishing some documentation.

Wemos D1 Mini
The underside of the D1 Mini, you can see the reset button and USB header peeking out from underneath.

One feature that sets this board apart is auto-programming, which means you don’t have to mess around pressing buttons when you want to flash new code to it, you just click the Upload button – just like Arduino!

Unlike the breakouts above, it fits on a breadboard with enough space for a wire either side. Also, it comes with a selection of headers – standard breadboard pins, Arduino socket style, and a bizarre hybrid style that’s far more useful than you’d perhaps initially expect.

Wemos D1 Mini and three various headers
The three different header options you get.

4. The NodeMCU V3 Dev Board (still waiting)

AliExpress: NodeMCU V3 Dev Board

Still waiting on this one. Looks about as skinny as the Wemos, but with more pins. Doesn’t seem to have the auto reset/programming feature.

Breadboard Compatibility

You may wonder why breadboard compatibility is important – the answer is because your projects will end up looking like this:

Messy breadboard

Portable cinema

So for a long time I’ve been trying to build a portable, battery-powered outdoor cinema. Why, you ask? So we can watch movies when we go hiking, in the park, anywhere!

What is a Portable Cinema?

At its most simple, a portable cinema is just these three things:

  • A tiny battery powered projector
  • A battery powered speaker
  • A collapsible projection screen

The projector

Aaxa P3 Pico Projector

After a lot of looking around, I ended up settling on the AAXA P3 Pico Projector. They’re 720p resolution, 50 lumen brightness, 1:1000 contrast ratio, and can playback from USB thumbdrive or HDMI, which were my minimum desired specs. The P3 also has the benefit of 16:9 aspect ratio (no wasted pixels!), and a sick little remote control that gives you all sorts of functions, like flip-horizontal, so you can use it for rear projection.

If you have a bit more cash to throw around, consider the P4-X, which bumps up to 95 lumens, 1:2000 contrast ratio, a better focus adjustment knob, and a more standardised 12V 1.5A power supply – the P3 is 5V 3A.

Unfortunately, neither of these projectors have the battery capacity to last for an entire movie, so they need more power.

At first, I considered opening up the P3 and replacing the little 3.7V 3000mAh LiPo inside it with a much larger one, but after having a poke around inside, I decided it would be too dodgy, and probably wouldn’t play nice with the charging circuit in the P3. Anyway, when the P3 is running off internal batteries, its brightness drops down to a scant 10 lumens.

A 5V 3A external battery pack

Don’t buy this for an AAXA P3 Projector!

So I started looking for off-the-shelf battery packs, and stumbled across this BiXPower battery pack on Amazon. Its specs (5V, 3A max current draw) fit the bill, and the 13600mAh capacity is more than enough, so I bought it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work – when connected to the projector, it caused it to flicker terribly.

So my next solution was to build my own power supply.

Building your own 5V 3A power supply

I already had one of these enormous ridiculously cheap 14.8V 5000mAh LiPo batteries lying around, so all I needed was a DC regulator to drop the voltage down to 5V.

LM2596 DC-DC converter

Fortunately, there’s plenty of options out there. The LM2596 voltage regulator chip is a good option, and there’s plenty of modules that use it for sale on DealExtreme, eBay, etc. I went with something similar to this one that has a built in voltmeter, which is SUPER handy because you can switch between it showing you the source (battery) voltage, and the output voltage, which you set by adjusting the big blue trimpot. Also, the components look to be relatively high quality – notice the capacitors either side of the board are 50V ones, whereas on most boards they’re 35V. This is important because the projector draws something like 12W of power, which is a fair bit for the poor little chip. You’ll need to attach a big heatsink to the back, and maybe even a tiny little one to the front of the LM2596.

Wired up with big LiPo battery

Throw in some beefy wire, some high voltage connectors and a dinky little DC jack that plugs into the P3 and you’re done.

One thing to note is that during testing, I set the voltage to 5.1V, and DAMMIT, the screen of the projector flickered. I thought the regulator wasn’t able to provide enough power, but then I slowly cranked it up to about 5.6V and the flicker disappeared. Your milage may vary – be careful about delivering anything more than spec voltage to a device!

A Battery Powered Speaker

Logitech Wireless Boombox

As much as I’d like something monstrous – with split speakers so you can sit them either side of the screen – you can’t really beat the Logitech Wireless Boombox for price, size, weight and performance. If you want something a little smaller, consider its little brother the Wireless Speaker Z515.

Collapsible Projection Screen

I would have thought there’d be something you could buy off the shelf to fit this description, but there just isn’t. The first time I used my projector outdoors, we set up our Coleman Event 14, which is a massive gazebo thing with huge vertical side walls that are just perfect for projecting onto. However, weighing in at 17kg, it’s not exactly portable.

One thing I did notice though, is that the Event 14 walls are EXCELLENT projection fabric – they’re ever so slightly silvered on one side (presumably for sun protection) which is perfect for projecting onto. They also work amazingly well for rear-projection, giving a clear, crisp and very bright image.

So, with that in mind, I decided to buy an extra wall from my local camping store (for like $20) and make my own screen.

DIY Projection Screen

I already had a bundle of one metre lengths of 20mm PVC pipe left over from my Fig Rig project, so I bought a bunch of T, L and straight connectors from the hardware store and assembled a 2m x 1m frame. I also used some extra lengths to get it off the ground. The best part is that because the screen will hold it together, you don’t need to glue it – which means you can disassemble it for transport.

I then cut the Event 14 wall into a 2m x 1m rectangle and sewed the sides in to make a thick ~5cm hem so that the “screen” ends up being a bit smaller than the frame. Obviously you can make it any size you want, just make sure your aspect ratio stays near 16:9.

Once the hems were sewn, I punched a MOTHERLOAD of eyelets into the perimeter of the screen, about 10cm apart. This took forever! I just used some cheapo eyelets that I picked up at Bunnings for $7, and they worked fine. The hardest part was making the initial hole for each eyelet to go through.

After that horrible experience, the screen is basically complete. The only thing to do now is to lace the screen onto its frame using some elastic cord. I used about six metres (the circumference of my screen) of some 2.5mm black stuff I found at Spotlight. The idea with lacing the screen to the frame with elastic cord is that it makes the screen stay completely taut across its entire surface. If you get any bulges or slack bits, you can just shuffle the cord around until they disappear.

The Finished Product

Everything you need for portable projection

Now that I have a portable cinema setup, I’m keen to run some “movies in the park” nights – rock up to a park somewhere, have a BBQ and then setup the screen and projector!

Remind me to upload some photos…