Tag Archive | "breadboard"

Experimenting with Surface-Mount Component Prototyping

Experimenting with hand-soldering SMT components.

Updated 18/03/2013

Now and again I have looked at SMT (surface-mount technology) components and thought to myself “I should try that one day”. But not wanting to fork out for a toaster oven and a bunch of special tools I did it on the cheap – so in this article you can follow along and see the results. Recently I ordered some ElecFreaks SOIC Arduino Mega-style protoshields which apart from being a normal double-sided protoshield, also have a SOIC SMT pad as shown below:

First up I soldered in two SOIC format ICs – a 555 and a 4017:

These were not that difficult – you need a steady hand, a clean soldering iron tip and some blu-tac. To start, stick down the IC as such:

… then you can … very carefully … hand-solder in a few legs, remove the blu tac and take care of the rest …

The 4017 went in easily as well…

…however it can be easier to flood the pins with solder, then use solder-wick to soak up the excess – which in theory will remove the bridges between pins caused by the excess solder. And some PCB cleaner to get rid of the excess flux is a good idea as well.

Now to some smaller components – some LEDs and a resistor. These were 0805 package types, which measure 2.0 × 1.3 mm – for example a resistor:

The LEDs were also the same size. Unlike normal LEDs, determining the anode and cathode can be difficult – however my examples had a small arrow determining current flow (anode to cathode) on the bottom:

Another way is to use the continuity function of a multimeter – if their output voltage is less than the rating of the LED, you can probe it to determine the pins. When it glows, the positive lead is the anode. Handling such small components requires the use of anti-magnetic tweezers – highly recommended…

… and make holding down the components with one hand whilst soldering with the other much, much easier. Unlike normal veroboard, protoshield or other prototyping PCBs the protoshield’s holes are surrounded with a “clover” style of solder pad, for example:

These solder pads can make hand-soldering SMT parts a little easier. After some experimenting, I found the easiest way was to first flood the hold with solder:

… then hold down the component with the tweezers with one hand while heating the solder with the other – then moving and holding one end of the component into the molten solder:

The first time (above) was a little messy, but one improves with practice. The clover-style of the solder pads makes it easy to connect two components, for example:

With some practice the procedure can become quite manageable:

As the protoshields are double-sided you can make connections between components on the other side to keep things neat for observers. To complete the experiment the six LEDs were wired underneath (except for one) to matching Arduino Mega digital output pins, and a simple demonstration sketch used to illuminate the LEDs, as shown below:

For one-off or very low-volume SMD work these shields from elecfreaks are quite useful. You will need a steady hand and quite a lot of patience, but if the need calls it would be handy to have some of these boards around just in case. For a more involved and professional method of working with SMT, check out this guide by Jon Oxer.

In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column? And join our friendly Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in 555, education, elecfreaks, learning electronics, SMD, soldering, tutorialComments (6)

The world’s smallest oscilloscope??

Hello readers

Today we examine a tiny and fascinating piece of test equipment from Gabotronics – their XMEGA Xprotolab. Sure, that sounds like a lot – and it is. Yet the functionality of the Xprotolab is inversely proportional to its physical size. Try to imagine having an oscilloscope, arbitrary waveform generator, logic analyser and a spectrum analyser – including a display – in a package no larger than 25.4 x 40.6 mm (1″ x 1.6″) in size. Well imagine no more as here it is:


As described above, this tiny marvel of engineering has the following functions:

  • Two analogue oscilloscope channels with a maximum sampling rate of 2 million samples per second;
  • Analogue bandwidth of 320 kHz at 8-bits resolution;
  • Buffer size of 256 samples;
  • Fast fourier-transform;
  • Analog and external digital triggering;
  • Maximum input voltage of +/- 10V;
  • Automatic average and peak-to-peak measurements;
  • Logic analyser with eight channel maximum simultaneous monitoring;
  • Firmware is user upgradable;
  • Can also be used as a development board for the XMEGA microcontroller (extra items required);
  • When powered from a USB cable, the board can supply +/-5V and +3.3V into a solderless breadboard.

The OLED screen is very clear and precise, which considering the size of 0.96″ – very easy to read. One can also set the display mode to invert which changes the display to black on white, bringing back memories of the original Apple Macintosh:


Using the Xprotolab took a little getting used to, however after pressing menu buttons for a few minutes I had it worked out. The more sensible among you will no doubt read the instructions and menu map listed at the website. Having the dual voltmeter function is quite useful, it saved me having to mess about with a couple of multimeters when trying to debug some analogue circuits I’m currently working with.

The display can be as complex or as simple as you choose, for example when working with the oscilloscope you can disable one channel and shift the waveform so it occupies the centre of the screen. Or when working with the logic analyser, you can choose to only select the channels being monitored, instead of filling the screen with unused logic lines.

There are a couple of things to take care with. When inserting the Xprotolab into your breadboard, be careful not to put pressure on the OLED display when pushing down; when removing it from the breadboard, try and do so evenly with the help of an DIP IC puller.

Generally in my reviews there is a video clip of something happening. Unfortunately my camera just isn’t that good, so below is the demonstration clip from the manufacturer:

As you can see the Xprotolab would be quite useful for monitoring various signals whilst prototyping, as you can just drop it into a breadboard. Furthermore, if your required range is measurable the Xprotolab saves you having to look back-and-forth between a prototype and the display from a regular oscilloscope as well.

As the purchase price is relatively cheap compared against the time and effort of trying to make an OLED display board yourself, one could also plan to build an Xprotolab into a final design – considering a lot of measurement and display work is already done for you it could be a real time-saver. The Xprotolab can run from a 5V supply and only draws a maximum of 60 milliamps. Product support is quite extensive, including source code, schematics, videos, a user forum and more available from the product page.

In conclusion the Xprotolab is genuinely useful, inexpensive and ready to use out of the box. It would make a useful piece of test equipment for a beginner or seasoned professional, and also integrates well into custom projects when required.

Remember, if you have any questions about the Xprotolab,  please contact Gabotronics via their website.

[Note – the Xprotolab reviewed in this article was received from Gabotronics for review purposes]

Posted in gabotronics, oscilloscope, part review, review, xmega, xprotolabComments (8)

Kit Review – MDC Bare-bones Board Kit (Arduino-compatible)

Hello readers

Today we continue to examine Arduino-compatible products by assembling an interesting kit from Modern Device Company – their “Bare Bones Board” (to be referred to as BBB). The BBB kit is an inexpensive way to take advantage of the Arduino Duemilanove-compatible platform, and also fills some gaps in the marketplace. Unlike the usual Arduino and compatible boards, the BBB does not maintain the recognisable form factor – that is, you cannot use the variety of Arduino shields. However, the BBB does have all the input and output connections, just in different positions.

So why would you use this kit? If you are looking to create a more permanent Arduino-based project that did not require a shield, and you are in a hurry – the BBB could be easily integrated into your design. Money is saved by not having the usual USB connection, so uploading your sketch is achieved using a 5V FTDI cable or using another Arduino board as the programmer.

Furthermore, the PCB is designed in a way that allows you to plug the BBB into the side of a solderless breadboard, which allows prototyping more complex Arduino-based circuits very easy. But more about that later. For now, let’s have a look at construction. An excellent set of instructions and a guide to use is available for download here.

In the spirit of saving money, the kit arrives in a plastic bag of sorts:


And upon emptying the contents, the following parts are introduced:


Regular readers would know that the inclusion of an IC socket makes me very happy. The PCB is thicker than average and has a great silk-screen which makes following instructions almost unnecessary. One of the benefits of this kit is the ability to connect as little or as many I/O or programming pins as required.

And for the pins A0~A5, 5V, GND and AREF you are provided with header pins and a socket, allowing you to choose. Or you could just solder directly into the board. These pins are available on the bottom-left of the PCB. However there was one tiny surprise included with the parts:


This is a 15uH SMD inductor, used to reduce noise on the analog/digital section. According to the instructions, this was originally required with Arduino-style boards that used the ATmega168 microcontroller – however the BBB now includes the current ATmega328 which does not require the inductor. However, it is good to get some SMD practice, so I soldered it in first:


Well it works, so that was a success. Soldering the rest of the main components was quite simple, thanks to the markings on the PCB. The key is to start with the lowest-profile (height) components (such as that pesky inductor) and work your way up to the largest. For example:


As you can see from the PCB close-up above, you can have control over many attributes of your board. Please note that the revision-E kit does include the ATmega328 microcontroller, not the older ‘168. For more permanent installations, you can solder directly into I/O pins, the power supply and so on.

Speaking of power, the included power regulator IC for use with the DC input has quite a low current rating – 250 mA (below left). For my use, this board will see duty in a breadboard, and also a 5V supply for the rest of the circuit, so more current will be required. Thankfully the PCB has the space and pin spacing for a 7805 5V 1A regulator (below right), so I installed my own 7805 instead:


Finally, to make my Arduino-breadboarding life easier I installed the sockets for the analogue I/O, the DC socket and a row of header pins for the digital I/O. Below is my finished example connected into a breadboard blinking some LEDs:


In this example, the board is being powered from the 5V that comes along the FTDI cable. If doing so yourself, don’t forget that there is a maximum of 500 mA available from a USB port. If you need more current (and have installed the 7805 voltage regulator) make use of the DC socket, and set the PCB power select jumper to EXT. For a better look at the kit in action, here is a short video clip:

As you can see from the various angles shown in the video, there are many points on the PCB to which you can use for power, ground, I/O connection and so on. As illustrated at the beginning of this article, a variety of header pins are included with the kit. And please note that the LED on the board is not wired into D13 as other Arduino-type boards have been… the BBB’s LED is just an “on” indicator.

However if you are using this type of kit, you most likely will not need to blink a solitary LED. However some people do use the D13 LED for trouble-shooting, so perhaps you will need it after all. Each to their own!

In conclusion, the BBB is another successful method of prototyping with the Arduino system. The kit was of a good quality, included everything required to get working the first time, and is quite inexpensive if you have a 5V FTDI cable or an Arduino Duemilanove/Uno or compatible board for sketch uploading.

Once again, thank you for reading this kit review, and I look forward to your comments and so on. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts, and if you have any questions – why not join our Google Group? It’s free and we’re all there to learn and help each other.

High resolution photos are available on flickr.

[Note – this kit was purchased by myself personally and reviewed without notifying the manufacturer or retailer]

Posted in arduino, bare bones board, kit review, learning electronics, microcontrollers, modern devicesComments (4)

Initial review: mbed LPC1768 Development Board

In this article we review the mbed NXP LPC1768 development board and the mbed system in general.


Today we will examine the mbed NXP LPC1768 development board. The goal of the mbed system is to “provide(s) a platform for microcontroller hardware, tools, libraries and resources designed to enable rapid prototyping with microcontrollers.” (http://mbed.org/handbook/About). Personally I also see this as a good option for a “next step” for those who have outgrown their Arduino – the mbed offers much more processing power, a similar development environment and similar hardware ease of use. A great way to move from 8-bit to 32-bit power…

The NXP LCP1768 MCU on our mbed board offers the following specifications:

  • a Cortex-M3 core running at 96MHz
  • 512kb flash memory and 64kb RAM
  • powered via USB or 4.5~9V DC applied straight to the board
  • Real time clock (requires external battery backup if necessary)
  • Loads of I/O options, including:
  • USB serial
  • I2C
  • Ethernet on board
  • SPI
  • serial I/O
  • Control-area network (CAN) bus
  • 3.3v digital logic, 40mA per digital pin with a total maximum of 400 mA
  • analog and digital I/O pins

For a full description and data sheet, please visit: http://mbed.org/handbook/mbed-NXP-LPC1768.

Although a small project started by two ARM employees, the mbed has proven to be a worthy product to allow people of generally all skill levels access to powerful microcontrollers without a lot of the inherent complications. It does this in two ways:

Firstly, the hardware is very simple and designed for ease of use. The LPC1768 is mounted on a small board to convert it to a DIP format, making breadboard easy. The designers have also thought to include four blue LEDs for digital output and a nice large reset button. Interface with the PC is via USB. The mbed appears as a USB flash drive to your computer’s operating system, and compiled programs are downloaded as a single .bin file into the mbed.

Secondly, the development environment. Unlike other MCU products on the market, mbed is a completely online development environment. That is, in a manner very similar to cloud computing services such as Google Docs or Zoho Office. However there are some pros and cons of this method. The pros include not having to install any software on the PC – as long as you have a web browser and a USB port you should be fine; any new libraries or IDE updates are handled on the server leaving you to not worry about staying up to date; and the online environment can monitor and update your MCU firmware if necessary. However the cons are that you cannot work with your code off-line, and there may be some possible privacy issues. We will examine the online environment later on.

Preparing and using the mbed is incredibly simple. The designers have certainly exceeded their goal of providing a rapid prototyping environment. The process from opening the box to running your first program is (as always) quite simple.

The initial packaging is clear and inviting, and includes a getting started document, USB cable, a laminated hardware pinout card (very useful) and a bumper sticker (!):



The mbed unit itself is compact yet not too small:


The underside contains the USB interface and flash drive controllers:


The initial setup requires registration with the mbed online environment. This is done by plugging in your mbed to the USB, and visiting the web page URL stored in the mbed’s flash drive:


This will take you to the login page where you can create a new user profile:


The serial number of the mbed is recognised and linked to your user account. This means you do need to own an mbed to explore the depths of the online services available, and also serves to keep the mbed online ecosystem free of spammers and whatnot. After registration, you will be presented with the “getting started” page, which contains links to the function references, tutorials, FAQs, user forums, user-contributed content and more. All is revealed by exploring the links from this page.

After signing up, you can create a profile page which is public. This also contains tabs that contain notes, published (programs you make public) and libraries (that you have made public) Initially I thought the profile page would be private, or limited to other mbed owners, but this is not the case. From this page you can create notebook files, view your past activity and display published programs and libraries.

For example, I created a test notebook page and someone left a comment on it twenty minutes later. So be careful if you have some secrets – instead, you could cut and paste work to and from the IDE. However if you accidentally publish something it can be deleted, but remember that the internet is written in ink, not pencil.

However don’t let privacy worries put you off – just be careful not to write anything or publish programs you want to keep secret. Furthermore, as said earlier –  having an online IDE has a few advantages – you don’t need to install anything on your PC apart from an up to date web browser. This means you can work on programs from other computers with ease. Bored at work? Using a locked-down hotel or  school computer? You can still work on your mbed programs!

The openness of the mbed environment does create a positive, helpful environment similar to that found in the open-source community – there are many libraries that have been submitted that allow connection to various pieces of hardware such as LCD screens, bluetooth, Wii controllers, motors, servos, sensors and so on – as well as libraries for pachube, twitter, HTTP client and server access, and much more. These are found in the environment’s “Cookbook” section. If something interesting is on the market, there may very well be an mbed library to work with it.

The IDE is quite clear and straightforward. The program editor maintains colour-context, line numbering, support auto-formatting, and you can import or export code using the standard copy and paste keyboard shortcuts.


You can have multiple folders open at once, where each folder contains one program, the standard mbed function library and others you may have imported. Furthermore, there is also a very clear function reference for the standard mbed library available within the IDE – very useful. Programs are written in C++, and the online IDE takes care of everything – leaving you with only the .bin file to upload to the mbed. If you are new to programming or a little rusty with C++, books with unfortunate titles such as “C++ for Dummies” may prove useful.


You can also import libraries published by other mbed users into your own projects. Details of these published libraries (and programs) are listed in the mbed online environment. The speed of development is demonstrated very well in this video from the mbed team:

The support options are very good, including a members-only forum, loads of information, the Cookbook, a wiki for publishing user-contributed libraries and resources, and other FAQs and so on. If you have a question I am sure it could be answered very quickly.  When it comes time to compile and run your program, after a successful compile your computer will download a single .bin file, which is then copied over to your mbed. Then by pressing the reset button on the mbed, the program is stored into the MCU and executed. You can store more than one .bin file on the mbed, however the latest file (by time stamp) is only executed.

Overall the mbed is a refreshingly-easy point of entry to microcontrollers. The ability to quickly prototype an idea into reality is really not difficult, and those with some C++ experience (or willing to learn) will make use of the mbed environment in no time at all. And if you decide to move your prototype into production, details and schematics are provided to help implement the nxp LPC1768 into your designs. Frankly, for fast prototyping at work, or just fun for anyone interested in electronics, the mbed offers a simple yet powerful way of getting things done.

The mbed board used in this review was a promotional consideration from RS. You can purchase an mbed directly from your local RS distributor.

In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column? And join our friendly Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in learning electronics, lesson, LPC1768, mbed, microcontrollers, product review, review, tronixstuff, tutorialComments (10)

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