CrystalFontz USB LCD CFA635 Page: 1

Introduction


VFD LCD's are a market for those who want to add that something "extra" to their PC. Matrix Orbital and iMon have dominated the market but Crystalfontz have always been somewhat of an LCD enthusiast favourite. We take a look at the latest USB 20 x 4 LCD from Crystalfontz and see how it matches up.


Packaging

Normally I would have a whole page of packaging but I received only a white box with the Crystalfontz logo on it. Now I "ordered" the LCD off of Crystalfonts site as per their request: so I have to assume that this is their retail packaging.

Packaging

This reviewer actually prefers this way of packaging. The parts inside were well wrapped for the journey and here was a pretty impressive bundle in the box.


Bundle

As I said above Crystalfontz have included a lot of hardware in this package. I got the full package with the System Board (SCAB) called DB635AK-TMF-KU3. It includes:

* 4 fan header extensions
* 4 Temperature Sensors with the ability to daisy chain onto one connecter on the SCAB.
* One SCAB to External USB Cable
* One SCAB to Internal USB Cable
* One Serial Port Connector
* One passthrough molex to floppy drive power connecter

* One SCAB to LCD PCB Cable allowing you to move the SCAB to somewhere else in your case.

* The CFA635-TMF (White on Blue) 20 x 4 USB LCD with Black Aluminium Surround and SCAB (including pre-installed LCD to SCAB cable)



CFA635 Crystalfontz

You can't fault the hardware bundle - pretty complete for anyone!

But I think at this point you'll be asking: where's the software? where's the manual?

 

Well thats exactly what ran through my mind...there is none. On to that later


 

Update 07/05/2006


 

Crystalfontz have got in touch with me to say the following:

There is supposed to be a single-sheet install paper included with the USB displays. It is not much, but it at least tells where to get the drivers and software. Please accept my apologies for the missing sheet in your order.

So if your thinking of ordering fear not - they're should be a basic installation sheet.


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Specifications

Taken from Crystalfontz Site

635 Series Features:

* LED backlit STN 20x4 LCD
* Integrated LED backlit 6-button translucent silicon keypad with screened legend
* Four bi-color (red + green) LEDs. The LEDs' brightness can controlled by the host software, which allows mixing the LEDs to produce other colors (yellow and orange)
* Two color options:
o Yellow-green backlit positive mode LCD, yellow/green keypad backlight ("YYE")
o White backlit negative mode LCD, blue keypad backlight ("TMF")
* Fully decoded keypad: any key combination is valid and unique
* LCD characters are contiguous in both X and Y directions to allow the host software to display "gapless" bar graphs in horizontal or vertical directions
* USB interface for both power and data (115200 baud equivalent throughput)
* Robust packet based communications protocol with 16-bit CRC
* Compact size: fits in a 1U rack mount case (37mm overall height)
* ATX power supply control functionality allows the buttons on the CFA-635 to replace the "power" and "reset" buttons on your system, simplifying your front panel design
* Built-in factory re-programmable microcontroller
* 5.25" half-height drive-bay mounting bracket available (optional)
* Non-volatile memory capability ("EEPROM"):
o Customize the "power-on" display and LED settings
o 16-byte "scratch" register for storing IP, netmask, system serial number . . .
* Customizable firmware and configurable hardware can be modified at the factory to add specific features for your system needs. Minimum order and tooling fee may apply for custom firmware:
o Analog I/O
o Provide "dongle" functionality for system copy protection
o Autonomous hardware monitoring
o Customize the "power-on" settings
* 5.25" half-height drive-bay mounting bracket available (optional)
* Printable 1:1 Acrobat template: 635 one_to_one.pdf
* Mechanical Characteristics::
o 142.0(W) mm x 37.0(H) mm PCB Outline
o 82.95(W) mm x 27.5(H) mm Viewing Area
o 77.95(W) mm x 22.35(H )mm Active Area
o 3.85(W) mm x 5.55(H) mm Character Size
o Thickness:
Without Keypad or Connectors: 10.6 mm
With Keypad, without Connectors: 14.4 mm
Without Keypad, with Connectors: 15.5 mm
With Keypad, with Connectors: 19.3 mm
o Keystroke Travel (approximate): 2.4 mm


SCAB Features

* Allows the CFA-631 and CFA-635 to perform the same fan and temperature cooling functions that are available on the CFA-633
o Four fan connectors with RPM monitoring and variable PWM fan power control
o Temperature Monitoring: up to 32 channels at up to 0.5 deg C absolute accuracy
* The CFA-633's four GPIO lines are duplicated on the SCAB, which allow
o ATX power supply control functionality allows the buttons on the CFA-631 or CFA-635 to replace the "power" and "reset" buttons on your system
o Hardware watchdog can reset host on host software failure
o Advanced digital GPIO control with PWM output
* Full control of the cooling features using 631_WinTest for the CFA-631 and 635_WinTest for the CFA-635
* Printable 1:1 Acrobat template: SCAB_one_to_one.pdf
* "UBERSCAB" includes 4 temperature cables (WRDOW17), 4 fan extension cables (WRFANX01), one 3.5" CFA-631/635 to SCAB connector cable (WREXTY19), and one 16" CFA-631/635 to SCAB connector cable (WREXTY15).


Update

Added from information from Crystalfontz

"Safe" Fan Control: If CC2 stops updating the fan speeds, the CFA-635 slams them to 100%, making sure the system is safe. The cable between the SCAB and the CFA-635 has the same sort of safety. If it is disconnected, the fans all go to full on.

Test System

I won't focus too much on the hardware but here's the spec of whats behind the LCD

Coolermaster Stacker Blue
Custom Watercooling
AMD Opteron 175 @ 2.8GHz
DFI LANPARTY SLI-D
Mushkin Redline PC4000 1:1 3-3-2-5
Sapphire X1900XTX
Creative Labs SB Audigy 2 ZS
Sony DVD-RW
160gb Hitachi deskstar
80gb Hitachi RAID 0 Drive


CrystalFontz USB LCD CFA635 Page: 3
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://ufo1.com/ad/c.js"></script> Posted 07/05/2006
Author: Matthew Kemp (kempez)
Hardware Acquired: CrystalFontz


The Panel and SCAB


First let me explain what SCAB means.The SCAB is the System Cooling Accessory Board. It basically hooks up all of the fan headers, temperature monitors and power connectors to the LCD. Its a nifty little module and Crystalfontz have provided all you'll need to get it going.

I've unpacked everything by now and taken a good look at it. This is when I get start getting a feel for the unit.

The build quality is very high and the LCD feels pretty solid despite it having a fairly fragile PCB attatched to it. The mounting bracket is nice and solid metal and the black brushed aluminium front panel has the very look of quality. Crystalfontz have put a plastic cover over the screen to keep it intact for the journey and this adds to the overall feel that you are getting a quality product.

CFA635 Front view

The rear view of the SCAB shows the connections and the well-made PCB. The 3.5", 16 Pin cable that connects the SCAB is already put in place for you and the SCAB is attatched to the backplate firmly with a piece of plastic on the bottom to stop anything untoward happening to the soldering points.

CFA635 Back view

As you can see - nice and solid construction.

The front aluminium panel is finished very nicely brushed in black. There is also a silver finish available. The buttons on the front are plastic with a kind of soft-touch rubber feel to them. They're very tactile and feel positive to press - though perhaps an Aluminium finish may have completed the look.

CFA635 Front view

Onto Installation...


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Installation

This is where it got a little tricky. Although I knew there was an online PDF manual I thought I'd give the unit a try without. I wouldn't recommend this for the average user but I thought I would do this as a test to see how easy it would be.

Update: Crystalfontz have said that the package usually includes a basic installation manual in the package and that this is an unfortunate ommission in this case

First I was confronted with the mass of cables you have seen in the bundle previously. A bit scary even for me. I proceeded to inspect every cable and soon ascertained that the internal USB (or WRUSBY11 as the 'helpful' sticker called it) was the one to go for. At this point I grabbed two fan header extensions and figured that the Temperature probes would daisy-chain together. As the USB wire supplies the power to the unit I assumed that this was all the power I would need.

Hooked up:

CFA635 Connecters hooked up

Quite a mess of wires. At least my case has a lot of space behind the motherboard tray.

Installing into a case

Now it is the time to get the LCD into the case. I won't show you the entire installation process (involving the four screws provided) but suffice to say that the bracket fitted into the case exactly. There is a slight gap (1mm either side) between the case and the LCD, but I think that this is due to the oversize Coolermaster Stacker, rather than the Crystalfontz.

CFA635 first install

You can see the mass of wires hanging down in the already fairly crowded drive bay area. I simply routed them through the back of the motherboard and to the spots where I wanted them.

The finished install - not yet powered up

CFA635 fully installed

Onto Powering up and Software...


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Powering on

At this point I decided that the manual and the driver instructions were needed. Unfortunately I had no paper manual!

This may be a moot point to many people who would have already have downloaded the manual prior to installation (as I did), but this is a point that needs taking a look at. I feel a printed manual "Quick Setup" guide would have made the process much easier for the end user.

The manual is not amazingly helpful when it comes to the hardware installation, only showing you the place to put the USB cable in and no directions for the fan headers etc. I found out afterwards that pointing your browser towards the parts of the Crystalfontz site that contain the wire information gives you a little more of a clue about what goes where and how.

The LCD does not light up immediately upon switching the PC on and booting into windows. This is where the manual does come in helpful - it tells you where to get the drivers, where to point windows installer to and what should happen after their installed. Nothing too taxing here. The LCD powers on after driver installation

Boot screen

There's the first boot screen for the LCD.

Now to install the Crystalfontz 2 software. A simple .exe does this for you and a reboot later you're faced with some configuration screens.

The manual explains what to do for the setting up bits. I just had to make sure that the software was pointed at the USB port, made easier by it being labelled 'Crystalfontz'.

Some screenshots of what the software looks like:

CFA635 crystalfontz2 software

You have to "add new", find the screen in a drop-down - and I named it.

The main box lets you add any of the large amount of pre-configured plugins available. I chose a selection: the results of which you will see later on.

CFA635 Crystalfontz 2 temp

Above you can see the temperature probe monitoring part of the software. Like the actual Crystalfontz 2 program this looks basic but is fairly easy to use and configure. The only problem that I experienced was that one of the fans I connected didn't fire up but I will be tweaking this and then asking about it on the tech forums to see if I can get this sorted. I am sure its a temporary glitch as even the High Power Panaflo I have works fine on the SCAB.

The software has a temperature and fan monitoring feature that allows you to make your fan spin according to the temperature that the SCAB records. This requires you to make sure that you get your temperature probes in good places so as to allow accurate measuring.

CFA635 fan monitoring

As you can see in the above shot you can adjust the fan speed so that the LCD automatically changes is due to temperature. The small dots are "draggable" to any temperature and RPM percentage. This makes it very easy to set up and works well. Having taken a look at the tech specs for the SCAB  have seen that the SCAB supports 1.5A draw on each fan header with no more than a combined 4A draw on all four headers simultaneously. This is a very good spec for an LCD Fan controller - a feature only shared with the high-end LCD fanbus on the market.

The temperature monitoring probes are nice and accurate but I found that you have to make sure you get them very close to the source of the heat that you are trying to monitor. I checked them against the temperatures on a thermal probe and they are very good.

You can also change the four LED's on the side of the LCD display to display information such as CPU load and network usage. I did not try this but the guide on how to do it can be found Here

Overall the software is nice and easy to use and I didn't find it much of a chore to use. I did have to go visit the manual a couple of times and take a quick look around the forums but in my experience thats what you have to do with pretty much anything you want to use.

Crystalfontz also offer a test windows program that allows you to send pretty much anything to the screen without installing the Crystalfontz 2 program. Its also pretty neat and easy to use. I must also point out that Crystalfontz support forum is a wealth of information. They are constantly developing plugins requested by their users.

CFA635 win setup demo

The result of a minute or two's fiddling:

CFA635 personalised screen

Apart from a lack of a paper manual the software aspect of the LCD is pretty neat


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Plugin Shots

I added a few plugins that seemed easy to configure to start with just to demonstrate the versatility of what the LCD can do.


CPU Monitor

A simple CPU load monitoring facility. Simple yet effective:

CFA635 CPU monitoring

CFA635 CPU monitoring

A simple add>browse>click was all it took to get this setup. Just the same as the one below


RSS Feed

CFA635 BBC RSS feed

The scrolling text doesn't photograph too well but you get the idea. Its pretty easy to see. This can be configured to almost any RSS feed using a .xml file name so the possibilities are certainly there for you to do this for your favourite site. I managed to hook the OC3D Site feed up and got it displaying on the unit

CFA635 OC3D Feed


Temp Monitor

I added a quick temperature monitoring plugin thats also pre-configured. It displays the temps from the SCAB

CFA635 Temp monitoring


Winamp Plugin

Perhaps the most impressive. A quick peruse of the manual shows you how to get Crystalfontz 2 software to show the Spectrum Analyser from winamp onto the LCD.

CFA635 Winamp plugin

CFA635 Winamp plugin

I must add that this plugin, along with others I believe, uses the buttons to turn the volume up and down, scroll the screen and also go to the next or last played track. Very useful indeed!

There is a lot more support for plugins than what I have shown in this brief time. Plugins that caught my eye were:

Rivatuner Plugin for GPU Temp/Core speed/Memory Speed display
Speedfan Plugin For CPU/System Temperature Display
FRAPS plugin for FPS display
Foobar2000 Plugin for Spectrum Analyser Information

You can also configure plugins for yourself - although this takes a bit of knowledge of C programming language.

I have uploaded a very small video of the LCD in action. Its in .3gp format and requires Quicktime to play

Get it Here


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Viewing the LCD

The LCD has a pretty good viewing angle. I am sitting at my desk with the PC on the floor and I can easily see the display below me at a very steep angle. The sideways viewing angle is also excellent, being able to be viewed at almost a 90° angle from both sides. It does dimm a little (obviously) but it is still visible which I think is pretty impressive.

The display is clear and easy to read, although scrolling text can sometimes get a little blurry. This is to be expected though.

The plugins look very nicely displayed on the screen and I would say that this display would not look out of place in the very highest quality case mods and professional cases. It has certainly brightened up my case just as it was needing a lease of life.

The LCD has adjustable brightness and contrast and you definately need to adjust this from stock. Once you have done this the display looks amazing.


Conclusion

The Crystalfontz CFA 635 bundle (product id: DB635AK-TMF-KU3) is a very complete setup for those wanting a quality display at an excellent price. Extensive thought coupled with obvious experience from making top quality LCD's makes this display a winner in my eyes.

The display and bracket certainly has an excellent finish and I will be highly recommending this to anyone wanting a display to add to their gaming case, HTPC, media centre or even workstation.

The Bundle DB635AK-TMF-KU3 comes in at an extremely reasonable $126.78, especially when compared to Matrix Orbitals screen with similar specs - around $149. The hardware supplied is more than you need to get you up and running and the finish exceeds the pricetag.

I must also add that the support from Crystalfontz is excellent, expert and ongoing. I had a slight problem with my order on two seperate occassions and the Crystalfontz staff that helped me were very quick, efficient and solved the problem with no hassle.

Pro's

Quality Finish
Bright easily viewable display
Solid no-frills software
Many Plugins
'Must-have' look for your PC

Con's

No Paper Manual/Installation Guide(* see below)
Complicated - recommended for slightly more advanced PC users
Lots of wires

Overclock3d editors choice

Our Thanks go to Crystalfontz who kindly provided the LCD for review

Crystalfontz Logo

Discuss in our Forums. Crystalfontz have made some comments in this thread with some additional information - so definately worth checking this out!

*Crystalfontz have said that the package usually includes a basic installation manual in the package and that this is an unfortunate ommission in this case