Some things are designed in hell, should they stay in hell? Banggood is flooded with affordable gadgets and interesting kits featuring overly photoshopped pictures. It’s not the first time I couldn’t resist the temptation and ended up with something cool. At least that’s what I thought so… While I still love the panel to bits, it comes with a warning.
Note: Banggood no longer offers this, but I replaced the links with the same panel available from AliExpress.
To buy, or not to buy?
I honestly can’t make up my mind at this point. Part of me, wants to recommend this panel to anyone looking for a pretty cool gadget to go on their desk, shelf or display cabinet. The other part, just want to curse it back to hell. Since I’ve gone there and back again, the least I can do is give you a fair warning.
The good stuff
And what’s not to like? A handsomely looking RGB LED panel made out of 256 individually addressable WS2812b hidden behind perfectly diffused acrylic glass. It’s not just a pretty panel though! It’s a DIY SMD kit that will also teach you how to solder various components and use them to drive various animations.
The panel supports the following modes:
- Clock (with Real Time Clock)
- Microphone-based Audio FFT
- 3.5mm jack-based Audio FFT
- random animations
- various colour effects for all of the above
All of that is delivered to you in pieces, powered by USB cable and once assembled it will look as cool as this:
In use, even when disconnected, the panel retains the correct time thanks to included RTC and internal CR2032 battery. There is a potentiometer to control the displayed effects and change the colours and animations of these effects.
And most importantly, there is an audio FFT analyser that displays a beautiful graph of the sound around the unit. It’s sensitive and pretty. And you could see it in action in most of my recent videos in the background.
The LED matrix isn’t actually a true matrix. It’s a very long LED strip divided into 8 sections (32 LEDs each). It’s not an issue, but it’s good information for anyone looking to repurpose or troubleshoot this thing.
The bad stuff
The reality looks a bit less polished. The acrylic panels are made of thin and fragile plastic glass that will break quicker than you can whisper “I don’t have patience for this”. Aligning all the T-joints of the wobbly acrylic parts is like taking your first yoga class – you are trying your best, but things simply don’t bend the way they should.
The soldering instructions are bare. It’s enough for someone who feels at home with through-hole soldering, but if you hoping to learn the craft from the scratch, this kit isn’t for you. Troubleshooting can be also a nightmare. Without help, a dedicated forum or support, you are on your own if something goes sideways.
Don’t even try this without a hotplate or heat gun. I was very eager to try my MiniWare Hotplate (review) properly. It’s an awesome device for a kit like this. Perfect in size, capable – and very useful. You could also get away with a heat gun. If all you have is a soldering iron – even a fancy one like TS80P, or the latest one TS101 (review), avoid it or go shopping.
I had a great time assembling the mainboard. The variety of the components kept things challenging, and interesting and filled my time well. With help of the hotplate, tweezers, solder paste and flux I was getting all done quickly and swiftly.
Don’t be me, and pay extra attention to the main IC. Trying to reflow it at suboptimal lighting conditions, I mistook the moulding mark for an orientation dot and re-flowed it in an incorrect orientation. Thankfully, this IC is hard to kill and I got there in the end.
The 256 RGB LED matrix will test your patience and will to live. Every LED and capacitor needs to be carefully placed on the board and re-flowed flawlessly. 50 LEDs in, the experience was about as engaging as binge-watching a 2-star show on Netflix with 5 more seasons to go. With the help of my hotplate, it took me about 3h in total to complete the matrix. Then another 30 min to identify cold joints on a couple of LEDs.
If your matrix isn’t filling all LEDs identify the last working LED in the strip (bending the PCB gently helps) and investigate the joints on that LED and the next one. If you find issues with continuity, you will have to reflow that part of the PCB.
But… I can’t help but love it
I don’t know if that’s just Stockholm syndrome now. After being trapped with it for hours, I like this thing despite all the flaws and the hellish time it put me through. It works great as a light feature in my videos, I can use it as a colourful background to my b-roll shots and claim all the bragging rights for building it from scratch.
I also have even bigger plans for it! Just don’t expect them to materialise any time soon. First, I really need to get a 5mm perspex glass to mount it all better. This fruit of my hard work deserves proper attention. I probably end up 3D printing a stand and the enclosure for the electronics on one of my printers (Ender 3 or Ender 3 v2).
Lastly, I would love to add some ESP32-based brains and display stuff like the number of my subscribers on various social media during my videos, or perhaps moderated tweets and whatnot! I have a way to implement this without killing the original functionality – so watch this space!
Personally, I’d love a version where the LED matrix is already assembled, but I’ll be first to admit that thanks to repetition I feel more confident working with SMD components. Do you have the patience to go through this yourself, then you can grab it on AliExpress for roughly £35? Would you settle for another kit? Let me know if you found something even more hellish/entertaining than my SMD kit in this Reddit thread.
💳📈 – See the transparency note for details.