Recently, my current soldering station, which has served me well for many years, started to have issues with its heating element. Just as I started to look at my options of upgrading, fixing, or otherwise dealing with the problem, Cody from Circuit Specialists offered me a chance to take their CSI Premier 75W soldering station for a test drive.

As part of this exercise, I decided to spice things up a little and perform a teardown to give everyone a good look at the core of the device that makes our hearts solder melt.

The CSI Premier soldering station uses a Hakko-style handle and soldering tips. This makes it very easy to interchange with widely available components that are out on the market. In a pinch, you can usually find tips down at your local Microcenter or Fry's Electronics. The devices come in at a base price of $59. The best prices that I could find at Amazon on "equivalent" Weller WES51 or Hakko FX-888D products were $91.63 and $96.72, respectively. While I state that they are the "equivalent" products, the previously mentioned devices are not as feature rich or as easy to use as the CSI Premier unit (with the Hakko unit having a rather awful, unintuitive user interface—sorry Hakko).

So, what makes the CSI Premier soldering station stand out above its entry-level Weller and Hakko counterparts? Well, the Weller unit has an analog user interface. There is some beauty to this in that all you need to do is turn a knob to set the temperature, but there are no pre-set temperatures to be had. The real advantage it is simple and functional. By comparison, the Hakko unit moved from having an analog knob to a digital push-button interface with pre-set temperatures. While this may seem a fantastic improvement, it only has two buttons that have to be used to enable all the functions, and these buttons are poorly labelled. Think of it as being like trying to set a digital alarm clock from the 1980s. There used to be a YouTube video showing you how to use the Hakko interface, but it's no longer available (when you need a video to tell you how to change your soldering iron's temperature, you know that things are getting silly).

The CSI Premier, on the other hand, has a relatively intuitive user interface. All the basic functions are controlled via a push-button-knob and three buttons. The knob, as one would expect, controls the temperature. The other three push buttons are for individual temperature pre-sets. The push-button in the knob itself enables other features such as changing the display from °C to °F, setting the timer pre-set for the sleep function and automatic shutdown, as well as various calibration offsets.

I am particularly keen on the automatic shutdown feature as I have a 3-year-old child in the house and he loves to play with Daddy's tools. (Obviously the auto-shutdown is just an extra layer of precaution—the responsibility to prevent any accidents falls on the adults).

It's nice to know that I can instruct the device to shut down after a predetermined time to help prevent any burn accidents. Obviously, this is not the first line of defence, but it is nice to have a second line of defence when trying to maintain safety. There is another reason this is important to the end-user, and that is tip life. While your tip sits doing nothing at high temperatures, it oxidises at a faster rate than it would at room temperature. By reducing the temperature, or even shutting off when not in use for an extended period, this will increase tip life. For a person that uses the device every day, this means a reduction in the rate of tip changing. For the hobbyist, it means you can go longer before you end up hunting around your workshop desperately trying to remember where you stashed your replacement tips (or, alternatively, going to your local electronics store and getting a new tip while also spending a bunch of money on other to...y...ools that you did not plan on buying).

Now we've considered the features the user sees from the outside, let's turn our attention to what is on the inside that makes this device tick. Getting inside was as easy as removing four Phillips-head screws from the bottom of the unit. Once inside we discover that the majority of the volume (and weight) is dominated by a transformer. This transformer has taps two different voltage levels, one to power the soldering iron itself and the other to drive the onboard logic.

CSIPremier 01 (cr) Figure 1: CSI Premier ready for open-heart surgery (Source: Adam Carlson)

Taking a closer look at the front panel, you can see that this is where most of the magic happens. Much of the electronics is composed of surface mount components, though there are some through-hole devices on the board as well. All the surface mount components seem to be well soldered on, but a significant amount of the through-hole devices were lacking in the amount of solder required to make a good soldering joint.

The important through-hole components, such as the optocoupler and the triac, seemed to have good solder connections (an interesting fact is that there were two unpopulated locations on the board for an extra optocoupler and triac), but the screen and buttons were not soldered well. One other thing that was interesting was the fact that, from the transformer to the main control board, it appears that they were intended to have some sort of quick release connector, although—in this case—only half of the connector (the male side) was used with wires from the transformer being soldered to these connectors. I find this an interesting solution as I imagine that having only half the connectors added cost to the unit if they were just going to solder the wires. It seems to me that it would have been better to just solder the wires straight to the board. I am guessing that there was just a shortage of female connectors at the time of the build of this particular unit.

CSIPremier 02 (cr) Figure 2: CSI Premier front panel PCB (Source: Adam Carlson)

To sum up my experience with the CSI Premier 75W soldering station, this is a low-cost unit that has a lot of features. It does have what I would consider minor issues with regard to documenting features as well as less-than-great through-hole soldering. I've spoken with the vendor, and they say that they've already been working this issue with the manufacturer. Despite these minor issues, at its price, I think that this device has a lot of very compelling features. I do not think that any of the issues would hold me back from purchasing it. It is what I would expect in a device of this price point, and at that, I think its feature-set helps it stand out from its peers.

Adam Carlson is a lead engineer at GE Aviation.

First published by EE Times U.S.