Tag Archive | "compatible"

Review – Iteaduino Lite “nearly 100% Arduino-compatible” board


Over the last year there have been a few crowd-funded projects that offered very inexpensive Arduino-compatible boards. Frankly most of them weren’t anything out of the ordinary, however one of them is quite interesting due to the particular design of the board, and is the subject of this review.

An established company Iteadstudio ran a successful Indiegogo campaign last December to fund their Iteaduino Lite – Most inexpensive full-sized Arduino derivative board”. Having a spare US$5 we placed an order and patiently waited for the board. Being such a low price it was guaranteed to raise the funding – but was it worth the money? Or the effort? Possibly.

The board

In typical fashion the board arrived in bare packaging:

Iteaduino Lite arrived

 The Iteaduino Lite isn’t that surprising at first glance:

Iteaduino Lite bare top

To the new observer, it looks like an Arduino board of some sort. Nice to see all those GPIO pins with double breakouts. No surprises underneath:

Iteaduino Lite bottom

The URL on the bottom is incorrect, instead visit http://imall.iteadstudio.com/iteaduino-lite.html. Looking at the board in more detail, there are some interesting points of difference with the usual Arduino Uno and compatibles.

The USB interface is handled with the Silabs CP2102 USB to UART bridge IC:

Iteaduino Lite CP2102 USB

The next difference is the power circuitry – instead of using a linear voltage regulator, Itead have used a contemporary DC-DC converter circuit which can accept between 7 and 24V DC:

Iteaduino lite power supply

Furthermore, the entire board can operate at either 5V or 3.3V, which is selected with the slide switch in the above image. Finally – the microcontroller. Instead of an Atmel product, Itead have chosen the LogicGreen LGT8F88 microcontroller, a domestic Chinese product:

Iteaduino Lite LGT8F88A MCU

And there are only two LEDs on the Iteaduino Lite, for power and D13. The LED on D13 ins’t controlled via a MOSFET like other Arduino-compatibles, instead it’s simply connected to GND via a 1kΩ resistor.

Getting started with the Iteaduino Lite

The stacking header sockets will need to be soldered in – the easiest way is to insert them into the board, use an shield to hold them in and flip the lot upside down:

Iteaduino lite stacking headers

Which should give you neatly-installed headers:

Iteaduino Lite ready to use

Watch out for the corners of the board, they’re quite sharp. Next, you need to install the USB driver for the CP2102. My Windows 7 machine picked it up without any issues, however the drivers can be downloaded if necessary.

Finally a new board profile is required for the Arduino IDE. At the time of writing you’ll need Arduino IDE v1.0.5 r2. Download this zip file, and extract the contents into your ..\Arduino-1.0.5-r2\hardware folder. The option should now be available in the Tools > Board menu in the IDE, for example:

Iteaduino Lite Arduino IDE

From this point you can run the blink example to check all is well. At this point you will realise one of the limitations of the Iteaduino Lite – memory. For example:

Iteaduino Lite Arduino IDE memory

You only have 7168 bytes of memory for your sketches – compared to 32, 256 for an Arduino Uno or compatible. The reason for this is the small capacity of  …

The LogicGreen LGT8F88 microcontroller

This MCU is a Chinese company’s answer to the Atmel ATmega88A. You can find more details here, and Itead also sells them separately. The LGT8F88 offers us 8Kbyte of flash memory of which 0.7KB is used by bootloader, 1 KB of SRAM and 504 bytes (count ’em) of EEPROM. Apparently it can run at speeds of up to 32 MHz, however the LGT8F88 is set to 16 MHz for the Iteaduino Lite.

According to Logic Green, their LGT8F88 “introduce a smart instruction cache, which can fetch more instructions one time, effectively decrease memory accessing operations“. So to see if there’s a speed bump, we uploaded the following sketch – written by Steve Curd from the Arduino forum. It calculates Newton Approximation for pi using an infinite series:

For a baseline comparison, an Arduno Uno R3 completes the calculations in 5563 ms:

Iteaduino Lite Uno speed test

… and the Iteaduino Lite completed it in 5052 ms:

Iteaduino Lite speed test

So that’s around a 10% speed increase. Not bad at all. The LGT8F88 also has the requisite GPIO, SPI, and I2C available as per normal Arduino Uno boards. You can download the data sheet with more technical details from here. Frankly the LGT8F88 is an interesting contender in the marketplace, and if Logic Green can offer a DIP version at a good price, the ATtiny fans will have a field day. Time will tell.

Power Circuit

The DC-DC circuit promises 5V output, with up to 24V DC input – so we cranked the input to 24V,  put a 1A load on the 5V output – and put the DSO over 5V to measure the variations – with a neat result:

Iteaduino lite PSU test

So no surprises there at all, the Iteaduino Lite gives you more flexible power supply options than the usual Arduino board. However an eagle-eyed reader notes that a few of the capacitors are only rated at 25V – especially the two right after the DC socket/Vin. You can see this in the schematic (.pdf). So take that into account, or drop your Vin to something more regular such as below 12V.


The Iteaduino Lite is an interesting experiment in bargain Arduino-compatible boards. However we say “why bother?” and just get a Uno R3-compatible board.

At the end of the day – why bother with this board? For a little extra you can get boards with the ATmega328P or 32U4 which gives you 100% compatibility. Nevertheless, this was an interesting experiment. Full-sized images are available on flickr. And if you enjoyed this article, or want to introduce someone else to the interesting world of Arduino – check out my book (now in a third printing!) “Arduino Workshop”.

visit tronixlabs.com

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, or join our forum – 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 arduino, iteaduino, LGT8F88, review, tronixstuffComments (0)

Tutorial – Arduino and the MAX7219 LED Display Driver IC

Use the Maxim MAX7219 LED display driver with Arduino in Chapter 56 of our Arduino Tutorials. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here.


Sooner or later Arduino enthusiasts and beginners alike will come across the MAX7219 IC. And for good reason, it’s a simple and somewhat inexpensive method of controlling 64 LEDs in either matrix or numeric display form. Furthermore they can be chained together to control two or more units for even more LEDs. Overall – they’re a lot of fun and can also be quite useful, so let’s get started.

Here’s an example of a MAX7219 and another IC which is a functional equivalent, the AS1107 from Austria Microsystems. You might not see the AS1107 around much, but it can be cheaper – so don’t be afraid to use that instead:

MAX7219 AS1107

 At first glance you may think that it takes a lot of real estate, but it saves some as well. As mentioned earlier, the MAX7219 can completely control 64 individual LEDs – including maintaining equal brightness, and allowing you to adjust the brightness of the LEDs either with hardware or software (or both). It can refresh the LEDs at around 800 Hz, so no more flickering, uneven LED displays.

You can even switch the display off for power saving mode, and still send it data while it is off. And another good thing – when powered up, it keeps the LEDs off, so no wacky displays for the first seconds of operation. For more technical information, here is the data sheet: MAX7219.pdf. Now to put it to work for us – we’ll demonstrate using one or more 8 x 8 LED matrix displays, as well as 8 digits of 7-segment LED numbers.

Before continuing, download and install the LedControl Arduino library as it is essential for using the MAX7219.

Controlling LED matrix displays with the MAX7219

First of all, let’s examine the hardware side of things. Here is the pinout diagram for the MAX7219:

MAX7219 pinout

The MAX7219 drives eight LEDs at a time, and by rapidly switching banks of eight your eyes don’t see the changes. Wiring up a matrix is very simple – if you have a common matrix with the following schematic:

LED matrix pinoutsconnect the MAX7219 pins labelled DP, A~F to the row pins respectively, and the MAX7219 pins labelled DIG0~7 to the column pins respectively. A total example circuit with the above matrix  is as follows:

MAX7219 example LED matrix circuit

The circuit is quite straight forward, except we have a resistor between 5V and MAX7219 pin 18. The MAX7219 is a constant-current LED driver, and the value of the resistor is used to set the current flow to the LEDs. Have a look at table eleven on page eleven of the data sheet:

MAX7219 resistor tableYou’ll need to know the voltage and forward current for your LED matrix or numeric display, then match the value on the table. E.g. if you have a 2V 20 mA LED, your resistor value will be 28kΩ (the values are in kΩ). Finally, the MAX7219 serial in, load and clock pins will go to Arduino digital pins which are specified in the sketch. We’ll get to that in the moment, but before that let’s return to the matrix modules.

In the last few months there has been a proliferation of inexpensive kits that contain a MAX7219 or equivalent, and an LED matrix. These are great for experimenting with and can save you a lot of work – some examples of which are shown below:

MAX7219 LED matrix modules

At the top is an example from tronixlabs.com, and the pair on the bottom are the units from a recent kit review. We’ll use these for our demonstrations as well.

Now for the sketch. You need the following two lines at the beginning of the sketch:

The first pulls in the library, and the second line sets up an instance to control. The four parameters are as follows:

  1. the digital pin connected to pin 1 of the MAX7219 (“data in”)
  2. the digital pin connected to pin 13 of the MAX7219 (“CLK or clock”)
  3. the digital pin connected to pin 12 of the MAX7219 (“LOAD”)
  4. The number of MAX7219s connected.

If you have more than one MAX7219, connect the DOUT (“data out”) pin of the first MAX7219 to pin 1 of the second, and so on. However the CLK and LOAD pins are all connected in parallel and then back to the Arduino.

Next, two more vital functions that you’d normally put in void setup():

The first line above turns the LEDs connected to the MAX7219 on. If you set TRUE, you can send data to the MAX7219 but the LEDs will stay off. The second line adjusts the brightness of the LEDs in sixteen stages. For both of those functions (and all others from the LedControl) the first parameter is the number of the MAX7219 connected. If you have one, the parameter is zero… for two MAX7219s, it’s 1 and so on.

Finally, to turn an individual LED in the matrix on or off, use:

which turns on an LED positioned at col, row connected to MAX7219 #1. Change TRUE to FALSE to turn it off. These functions are demonstrated in the following sketch:

And a quick video of the results:

How about controlling two MAX7219s? Or more? The hardware modifications are easy – connect the serial data out pin from your first MAX7219 to the data in pin on the second (and so on), and the LOAD and CLOCK pins from the first MAX7219 connect to the second (and so on). You will of course still need the 5V, GND, resistor, capacitors etc. for the second and subsequent MAX7219.

You will also need to make a few changes in your sketch. The first is to tell it how many MAX7219s you’re using in the following line:

by replacing X with the quantity. Then whenever you’re using  a MAX7219 function, replace the (previously used) zero with the number of the MAX7219 you wish to address. They are numbered from zero upwards, with the MAX7219 directly connected to the Arduino as unit zero, then one etc. To demonstrate this, we replicate the previous example but with two MAX7219s:

And again, a quick demonstration:

Another fun use of the MAX7219 and LED matrices is to display scrolling text. For the case of simplicity we’ll use the LedControl library and the two LED matrix modules from the previous examples.

First our example sketch – it is quite long however most of this is due to defining the characters for each letter of the alphabet and so on. We’ll explain it at the other end!

The pertinent parts are at the top of the sketch – the following line sets the number of MAX7219s in the hardware:

The following can be adjusted to change the speed of text scrolling:

… then place the text to scroll in the following (for example):

Finally – to scroll the text on demand, use the following:

You can then incorporate the code into your own sketches. And a video of the example sketch in action:

Although we used the LedControl library, there are many others out there for scrolling text. One interesting example is Parola  – which is incredibly customisable.

Controlling LED numeric displays with the MAX7219

Using the MAX7219 and the LedControl library you can also drive numeric LED displays – up to eight digits from the one MAX7219. This gives you the ability to make various numeric displays that are clear to read and easy to control. When shopping around for numeric LED displays, make sure you have the common-cathode type.

Connecting numeric displays is quite simple, consider the following schematic which should appear familiar by now:

MAX7219 7-segment schematic

The schematic shows the connections for modules or groups of up to eight digits. Each digit’s A~F and dp (decimal point) anodes connect together to the MAX7219, and each digit’s cathode connects in order as well. The MAX7219 will display each digit in turn by using one cathode at a time. Of course if you want more than eight digits, connect another MAX7219 just as we did with the LED matrices previously.

The required code in the sketch is identical to the LED matrix code, however to display individual digits we use:

where A is the MAX7219 we’re using, B is the digit to use (from a possible 0 to 7), C is the digit to display (0~9… if you use 10~15 it will display A~F respectively) and D is false/true (digit on or off). You can also send basic characters such as a dash “-” with the following:

Now let’s put together an example of eight digits:

and the sketch in action:


We have only scratched the surface of what is possible with the MAX7219 and compatible parts. They’re loads of fun and quite useful as well. And finally a plug for our own store – tronixlabs.com – which along with being Australia’s #1 Adafruit distributor, also offers a growing range and Australia’s best value for supported hobbyist electronics from DFRobot, Freetronics, Seeedstudio and much much more.

visit tronixlabs.com

Posted in arduino, as1107, COM-09622, LED matrix, lesson, max7219, part review, tronixlabs, tronixstuff, tutorial

Initial Review – Goldilocks Arduino-compatible with ATmega1284P


In March this year we discussed a project by Phillip Stevens to crowd-fund an Arduino-compatible board with an ATmega1284p microcontroller – the “Goldilocks”. After being funded at a rapid rate, and subjected to some community feedback – the boards have now been manufactured and delivered to those who pledged. If you missed out – there’s some more available for direct sales. We ordered five and now have them for the subject of this review – and two to give away. So let’s examine the board and see what’s new.

What is it?

After hitting the limits of the Arduino Uno with respect to SRAM, CPU speed and not wanting to lose compatibility with existing projects by changing platforms, Philip decided to shift the MCU up to the ATmega1284P. This offers eight times the SRAM, four times the flash memory and EEPROM – and is also clocked at 20 MHz instead of the usual 16 MHz on Unos, etc. After the original design was announced, it was the victim of some pretty heavy feature-creep – however with Freetronics as the manufacturing partner the final result is a nicely-finished product:

freetronics goldilocks

Now let’s rip open the packaging and examine the board in greater detail. From the images below you can get the gist of things… starting with the top you can see the ATmega1284P next to the microSD card socket. There’s a JTAG connector for the 1284P on its left – and below that a 32.768 kHz crystal for RTC use. And like other Freetronics boards a large prototyping area has been squeezed in below pins D0~7 that also has the power and I2C lines at the edge. Furthermore note that all I/O pins are brought out to separate holes in alignment with the header sockets. And my favourite – a switch-mode power supply circuit that can offer up to 2A of current – great for GSM shields.

freetronics goldilocks top

Another point of interest is the ATmega32U2 microcontroller which is for USB duties – however it can be used as a separate “board” on its own, with a separate reset button, ICSP breakout and the ports are broken out logically:

freetronics goldilocks atmega32u2

Furthermore the 32U2’s SPI bus can be wired over to the main 1284P to allow communication between the two – simply by bridging the provided pads on the PCB you can join them. Also on the bottom you can see how each I/O pin can be disconnected from the I/O areas and thus diverted if necessary. It really is a testament to the design that so much of the board is customisable, and this attention to detail makes it stand apart from the usual Arduino-compatibles out there.

freetronics goldilocks bottom

One thing that did strike me was the retina-burning intensity of the onboard LEDs – however you can disable them by cutting the provided track on the PCB. For a complete explanation of the hardware side of things, check out the user guide.

Using the Goldilocks

One of the main goals was to be Arduino Uno R3-compatible, and from initial examination this is certainly the case. However there are a couple of differences, which you can find out more about in the user guide. This is not the first board for an Arduino user, but something chosen after getting some experience. Installation was very easy, it should be plug-and-play for the non-Windows crowd. However if you’re part of the silent majority of Windows users then the required U2duino Programmer.inf file for the Device Manager will be found in the production_firmware folder of the software download available on the product page. Furthermore no matter your OS – don’t forget to install the Arduino IDE Goldilocks board profile.

Before getting too excited and uploading your sketches, you can examine the the ATmega1284p bootloader monitor which allows for memory dumps, port testing, and more. Simply connect up your board, load the Arduino IDE, select the board and COM: port then open the Serial Monitor. By sending “!!!” after a board reset, a simple menu appears – which is shown in the following video:

Now for a quick speed test. We’ll use a sketch written by Steve Curd from the Arduino forum. It calculates Newton Approximation for pi using an infinite series:

The Goldilocks was compared with a standard Arduino Uno, with the following results (click image to enlarge):

goldilocks Uno speed test

 As you can see from the results below, the Goldilocks theoretical extra 4 Mhz of speed is shown in the elapsed time between the two boards – 4433 ms for the Goldilocks vs. 5562 ms for the Uno, a 25.4% increase. Looking good. We’ll leave it for now – however for more information you can review the complete user manual, and also discuss Goldilocks in the Freetronics customer forum.


Two of our twitter followers will be randomly selected on the 14th of September, and will each receive one Goldilocks board. So follow us on @tronixstuff for a chance to win a board, and also keep up with news, new articles and items of interest. Board will be delivered by Australia Post standard air mail. We’re not responsible for customs or import duties, VAT, GST, import duty, postage delays, non-delivery or whatever walls your country puts up against receiving inbound mail.


The Goldilocks is the board that can solve many problems – especially when you’ve outgrown your Uno or similar board. We look forward to using it with larger projects that burn up SRAM and exploring the possibilities of using the two microcontrollers at once. There’s a whole bundle of potential – so congratulations to Phillip Stevens, Freetronics and all those who pledge to the funding and supported the project in general. And to join in – you can get your own from Freetronics. Full-sized images are on flickr. And if you made it this far – check out my new book “Arduino Workshop” from No Starch Press.

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 arduino, atmega1284p, atmel, freetronics, review, tronixstuff

Review – LBE “Magpie” Arduino-compatible board

In this article we review the “Magpie” Arduino Uno-compatible board from Little Bird Electronics.


We have a new board to review – the “Magpie” board from Little Bird Electronics in Australia. It seems that a new Arduino-compatible board enters the market every week, thanks to the open-source nature of the platform and the availability of rapid manufacturing. However the Magpie isn’t just any old Arduino Uno knock-off, it has something which helps it stand out from the crowd – status LEDs on every digital and analogue I/O pin. You can see them between the stacking header sockets and the silk-screen labels. For example:


and for the curious, the bottom of the Magpie:


At first glance you might think “why’d they bother doing that? I could just wire up some LEDs myself”. True. However having them on the board speeds up the debugging process as you can see when an output is HIGH or LOW – and in the case of an input pin, whether a current is present or not. For the curious the LEDs are each controlled by a 2N7002 MOSFET with the gate connected to the I/O pin, for example:


An LED will illuminate as long as the gate voltage is higher than the threshold voltage – no matter the status of the particular I/O pin. And if an I/O pin is left floating it may trigger the LED if the threshold voltage is exceeded at the gate. Therefore when using the Magpie it would be a good idea to set all the pins to LOW that aren’t required for your particular sketch. Even if you remove and reapply power the floating will still be prevalent, and indicated visually – for example:


Nevertheless you can sort that out in void setup(), and then the benefits of the LEDs become apparent. Consider the following quick demonstration sketch:

… and the results are demonstrated in the following video:

Apart from the LEDs the Magpie offers identical function to that of an Arduino Uno R2 – except the USB microcontroller is an Atmel 16U2 instead of an 8U2, and the USB socket is a mini-USB and not the full-size type.  For the curious you can download the Magpie design files from the product page.


Another Arduino-compatible board. Having those LEDs on the board really does save you if in a hurry to test or check something.

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.

 The Magpie board used in this article was a promotional consideration supplied by Little Bird Electronics.

Posted in arduino, clone, compatible, magpie, review, tronixstuff, tutorial, unoComments (5)

Introducing Goldilocks – the Arduino Uno-compatible with 1284p and uSD card

[Update 19/08/2013 – Exciting! Boards are shipping this week – review to follow!]

[Update 19/03/2013 – the project is now fully funded. Initial review here!]


It’s a solid fact that there are quite a few variations on the typical Arduino Uno-compatible board. You can get them with onboard wireless, GSM, Zigbee and more – however all with their own issues and specific purposes. But what if you wanted a board that was physically and electrically compatible with an Arduino Uno – but with much more SRAM, more EEPROM, more flash, more speed – and then some? Well that (hopefully) will be a possibility with the introduction of the “Goldilocks” board on Pozible by Phillip Stevens.

What’s Pozible?

Pozible is the Australian version of Kickstarter. However just like KS anyone with a credit card or PayPal can pledge and support projects.

What’s a Goldilocks board?

It’s a board based around the Atmel ATmega1284p microcontroller in an Arduino Uno-compatible physical board with a microSD card socket and a few extras. The use of the ‘1284p gives us the following advantages over the Arduino Uno, including:

  • 16 kByte SRAM = 8x Uno SRAM – so that’s much more space for variables used in sketches – great for applications that use larger frame buffers such as Ethernet and image work;
  • 2 kByte EEPROM = 2 x Uno EEPROM – giving you more space for non-volatile data storage on the main board;
  • 128 kByte flash memory = 4 x Uno – giving you much, much more room for those larger sketches;
  • Two programmable USARTS – in other words, two hardware serial ports – no mucking about with SoftwareSerial and GSM or GPS shields;
  • Timer 3 – the ‘1284p microcontroller has an extra 16-bit timer – timer 3, that is not present on any other ATmega microcontroller. Timer 3 does not have PWM outputs (unlike Timer 0, Timer 1, and Timer 2), and therefore is free to use as a powerful internal Tick counter, for example in a RTOS. freeRTOS has already been modified to utilise this Timer 3;
  • JTAG interface – yes – allowing more advanced developers the opportunity to debug their code;
  • better PWM access – the 1284p brings additional 8-bit Timer 2 PWM outputs onto PD, which creates the option for 2 additional PWM options on this port. It also removes the sharing of the important 16-bit PWM pins with the SPI interface, by moving them to PD4 & PD5, thus simplifying interface assignments;
  • Extra I/O pins – the 1284p has additional digital I/O pins on the PB port. These pins could be utilised for on-board Slave Select pins (for example), without stealing on-header digital pins and freeing the Arduino Pin 10 for Shield SPI SS use exclusively;

Furthermore the following design improvements over an Arduino Uno:

  • adding through-holes for all I/O – allowing you to solder directly onto the board whilst keeping header sockets;
  • replicate SPI and I2C for ease of use;
  • microSD card socket – that’s a no-brainer;
  • link the ATmega16u2 and ATmega1284p SPI interfaces – this will allow the two devices to work in concert for demanding multi-processing applications, involving USB and other peripherals;
  • Fully independent analogue pins, including seperate AVCC and GND – helps reduce noise on the ADC channels for improved analogue measurement accuracy;
  • move the reset button to the edge of the board – another no-brainer
  • clock the board at 20 MHz – that’s an extra 4 MHz over a Uno. And the use of a through hole precision crystal (not a SMD resonator) allows the use of after market timing choices, eg 22.1184 MHz for more accurate UART timings.

What does it look like? 

At the moment the board mock-up looks like this:

If funding is successful (and we hope it will be) the Goldilocks will be manufactured by the team at Freetronics. Apart from being a world-leader in Arduino-compatible hardware and systems, they’re the people behind the hardware for Ardusat and more – so we know the Goldilocks will be in good hands.

Will it really be compatible?

Yes – the Goldilocks will be shipped pre-programmed with an Arduino compatible boot-loader, and the necessary Board description files will be available to provide a 100% compatible Arduino IDE experience.


If you think this kind of board would be useful in your projects, you want to support a good project – or both, head over to Pozible and make your pledge. And for the record – I’ve put my money where my mouth is 🙂

Please note that I’m not involved in nor responsible for the Goldilocks project, however I’m happy to promote it as a worthwhile endeavour. 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 arduino, atmega1284p, compatible, freetronics, goldilocks, pozible, tronixstuff

Exploring the TI Stellaris platform with Energia Arduino-compatible IDE


In the same manner as their MSP430 development board, Texas Instruments also have another LaunchPad board with their powerful Stellaris LM4F120H5QR microcontroller. It’s an incredibly powerful and well-featured MCU – which offers an 80 MHz, 32-bit ARM Cortex-M4 CPU with floating point, 256 Kbytes of 100,000 write-erase cycle FLASH and many peripherals such as 1MSPS ADCs, eight UARTs, four SPIs, four I2Cs, USB & up to 27 timers, some configurable up to 64-bits.

That’s a bucket of power, memory and I/O for not much money – you can get the LaunchPad board for around $15. This LaunchPad has the in-circuit debugger, two user buttons, an RGB LED and connectors for I/O and shield-like booster packs:

and the other side:

However the good news as far as we’re concerned is that you can now use it with the Energia Arduino-compatible IDE that we examined previously. Before rushing out to order your own Stellaris board, install Energia and examine the available functions and libraries to make sure you can run what you need. And if so, you’re set for some cheap Arduino power.


Installation is simple, just get your download from here. If you’re running Windows 7 – get the USB drivers from here. When you plug your LaunchPad into the USB for the first time, wait until after Windows attempts to install the drivers, then install drivers manually after download via Device manager … three times (JTAG, virtual serial port and DFU device). Use the debug USB socket (and set the switch to debug) when installing and uploading code. If you get the following warning from Windows, just click “Install this driver software anyway”:

Once the drivers are installed, plug in your LaunchPad, wait a moment – then run Energia. You can then select your board type and serial port just like the Arduino IDE. Then go ahead and upload the “blink” example…


Awesome – check out all that free memory space. In the same manner as the MSP430, there are some hardware<>sketch differences you need to be aware of. For example, how to refer to the I/O pins in Energia? A map has been provided for front:


… and back:


As you can imagine, the Stellaris MCUs are different to an AVR, so a lot of hardware-specific code doesn’t port over from the world of Arduino. One of the first things to remember is that the Stellaris is a 3.3V device. Code may or may not be interchangeable, so a little research will be needed to match up the I/O pins and rewrite the sketch accordingly. For example, instead of digital pins numbers, you use PX_Y – see the map above. So let’s say you want to run through the RGB LED… consider the following sketch:

Which simply blinks the red, green and blue LED elements in series. Using digital inputs is in the same vein, and again the buttons are wired so when pressed they go LOW. An example of this in the following sketch:

And for the non-believers:

Where to from here? 

Sometimes you can be platform agnostic, and just pick something that does what you want with the minimum of time and budget. Or to put it another way, if you need a fast CPU and plenty of space but couldn’t be bothered don’t have time to work with Keil, Code Composer Studio, IAR etc – the Energia/Stellaris combination could solve your problem. There’s a growing Energia/Stellaris forum, and libraries can be found here. At the time of writing we found an I2C library as well.

However to take full advantage of the board, consider going back to the TI tools and move forward with them. You can go further with the tutorials and CCS etc from Texas Instruments own pages.

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 arduino, arm cortex, energia, launchpad, lesson, LM4F120H5QR, MSP430, product review, software review, stellaris, TI, tiva-c, tutorialComments (2)

Exploring the TI MSP430 platform with Energia Arduino-compatible IDE


Over the last year or so Texas Instruments have been literally pushing their MSP430 development platform hard by offering an inexpensive development kit – their LaunchPad. For around ten dollars (not everyone could get it for $4.30) it includes a development board with flash emulation tool and USB interface, two of their microcontrollers, crystal, USB cable and some headers. It was (is?) a bargain and tens of thousands of LaunchPads were sold. Happy days.

However after the courier arrived and the parcel was opened, getting started with the LaunchPad was an issue for some people. Not everyone has been exposed to complex IDEs or university-level subjects on this topic. And to get started you needed to use a version of Code Composer Studio or IAR Embedded Workbench IDEs, which scared a few people off. So those LaunchPads went in the cupboard and gathered dust.

Well now it’s time to pull them out, as there’s a new way to program the MSP430 using a fork of the Arduino IDE – Energia. Put simply, it’s the Arduino IDE modified to compile and upload code to the LaunchPad, which makes this platform suddenly much more approachable.

Getting Started

You’ll need to download and install the appropriate USB drivers, then the IDE itself from here. To install the IDE you just download and extract it to your preferred location, in the same manner as the Arduino IDE. Then plug your LaunchPad into the USB. Finally,  load the IDE. Everything is familiar to the Arduino user, except the only surprise is the colour (red as a nod to TI perhaps…):


Looking good so far. All the menu options are familiar, the files have the .ino extension, and the preferences dialogue box is how we expect it. Don’t forget to select the correct port using the Tools > Serial port… menu. You will also need to select the type of MSP430 in your LaunchPad. At the time of writing there is support for three types listed below (and the first two are included with the LaunchPad v1.5):

  • MSP430G2553 – <=16 MHz, 16KB flash, 512b SRAM, 24 GPIO, two 16-bit timers, UART, SPI, I2C, 8 ADC channels at 10-bit, etc. Cost around Au$3.80 each**
  • MSP430G2452 – <=16 MHz, 8KB flash, 256b SRAM, 16 GPIO, one 16-bit timer, UART, I2C, 8 ADC channels, etc. Cost around Au$2.48 each**
  • MSP430G2231 – <=16 MHz, 2KB flash, 128b SRAM, 10 GPIO, one 16-bit timer, SPI, I2C, 8 ADC channels, etc. Cost around Au$3.36 each**

** One-off ex-GST pricing from element14 Australia. In some markets it would be cheaper to buy another LaunchPad. TI must really be keen to get these in use.

There are some hardware<>sketch differences you need to be aware of. For example, how to refer to the I/O pins in Energia? A map has been provided for each MSP430 at the Energia wiki, for example the G2553:


As you can imagine, MSP430s are different to an AVR, so a lot of hardware-specific code doesn’t port over from the world of Arduino. One of the first things to remember is that MSP430s are 3.3V devices. Code may or may not be interchangeable, so a little research will be needed to match up the I/O pins and rewrite the sketch accordingly. You can refer to pins using the hardware designator on the LaunchPad (e.g. P1_6) or the physical pin number. For example – consider the following sketch:

You could have used 2 (for physical pin 2) instead of P1_0 and 14 (physical pin … 14!) instead of P1_6. It’s up to you. Another quick example is this one – when the button is pressed, the LEDs blink a few times:

Due to the wiring of the LaunchPad, when you press the button, P1_3 is pulled LOW. For the non-believers, here it is in action:

So where to from here? There are many examples in the Energia IDE example menu, including some examples for the Energia libraries. At the time of writing there is: Servo, LiquidCrystal, IRremote, SPI, wire, MSPflash and Stepper. And as the Energia project moves forward more may become available. For help and discussion, head over to the 4-3-Oh forum and of course the Energia website. And of course there’s the TI MSP430 website.


Well that was interesting to say the least. If you have a project which needs to be low-cost, fits within the specifications of the MSP430, has a library, you’re not hung up on brand preference, and you just want to get it done – this is a viable option. Hopefully after time some of you will want to work at a deeper level, and explore the full IDEs and MSP430 hardware available from TI. But for the price, don’t take my word for it – try it yourself. 

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 arduino, energia, I2C, LCD, lesson, MSP430, MSP430G2231, MSP430G2452, MSP430G2553, TI, tutorialComments (14)

Arduino, Android and Seeedstudio Bluetooth Bee


In this article we examine the Seeedstudio “Bluetooth Bee” modules and how they can be used in a simple way in conjunction with Android devices to control the Arduino world.  Here is an example of a Bluetooth Bee:

For the curious, the hardware specifications are as follows:

  • Typical -80dBm sensitivity
  • Up to +4dBm RF transmit power
  • Fully Qualified Bluetooth V2.0+EDR 3Mbps Modulation
  • Low Power 1.8V Operation, 1.8 to 3.6V I/O
  • UART interface with programmable baud rate
  • Integrated PCB antenna.
  • XBee compatible headers

You may have noticed that the Bluetooth Bee looks similar to the Xbee-style data transceivers – and it is, in physical size and some pinouts, for example:

The neat thing with the BtB (Bluetooth Bee) is that it is compatible with Xbee sockets and Arduino shields. It is a 3.3V device and has the same pinouts for Vcc, GND, TX and RX – so an existing Xbee shield will work just fine.

In some situations you may want to use your BtB on one UART and have another for debugging or other data transport from an Arduino – which means the need for a software serial port. To do this you can get a “Bees Shield” which allows for two ‘Bee format transceivers on one board, which also has jumpers to select software serial pins for one of them. For example:

Although not the smallest, the Bees Shield proves very useful for experimenting and busy wireless data transmit/receive systems. More about the Bees Shield can be found on their product wiki.

Quick Start 

In the past many people have told me that bluetooth connectivity has been too difficult or expensive to work with. In this article I want to make things as simple as possible, allowing you to just move forward with your ideas and projects. One very useful function is to control an Arduino-compatible board with an Android-based mobile phone that has Bluetooth connectivity. Using the BtB we can create a wireless serial text bridge between the phone and the Arduino, allowing control and data transmission between the two.

We do this by using a terminal application on the Android device – for our examples we will be using “BlueTerm” which can be downloaded from Google Play – search for “blueterm” as shown below:


In our Quick Start example, we will create a system where we can turn on or off four Arduino digital output pins from D4~D7. (If you are unsure about how to program an Arduino, please consider this short series of tutorials). The BtB is connected using the Bees shield. This is based on the demonstration sketch made available on the BtB Wiki page – we will use commands from the terminal on the Android device to control the Arduino board, which will then return back status.

As the BtB transmit and receive serial data we will have it ‘listen’ to the virtual serial port on pins 9 and 10 for incoming characters. Using a switch…case function it then makes decisions based on the incoming character. You can download the sketch from here. If you were to modify this sketch for your own use, study the void loop() section to see how the incoming data is interpreted, and how data is sent back to the Android terminal using blueToothSerial.println.

Before using it for the first time you will need to pair the BtB with your Android device. The PIN is set to a default of four zeros. After setting up the hardware and uploading the sketch, wait until the LEDs on the BtB blink alternately – at this point you can get a connection and start communicating. In the following video clip you can see the whole process:

Where to from here?

There are many more commands that can be set using terminal software from a PC with a Bluetooth adaptor, such as changing the PIN, device name and so on. All these are described in the BtB Wiki page along with installation instructions for various operating systems.

Once again I hope you found this article interesting and useful. The Bluetooth Bees are an inexpensive and useful method for interfacing your Arduino to other Bluetooth-compatible devices. For more information and product support, visit the Seeedstudio product pages.

Bluetooth Bees are available from Seeedstudio and their network of distributors.

Disclaimer – Bluetooth Bee products used in this article are promotional considerations made available by Seeedstudio.

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 android, arduino, bluetooth, cellular, INT119B2P, lesson, seeedstudio, tutorial, WLS125E1P, xbee

RF Wireless Data with the Seeedstudio RFbee


In this article we examine the Seeedstudio RFbee Wireless Data Transceiver nodes. An RFbee is a small wireless data transceiver that can be used as a wireless data bridge in pairs, as well as a node in mesh networking or data broadcasting. Here is an example of an RFbee:

You may have noticed that the RFbee looks similar to the Xbee-style data transceivers – and it is, in physical size and some pinouts, for example:


However this is where the similarity ends. The RFbee is in fact a small Arduino-compatible development board based on the Atmel ATmega168 microprocessor (3.3V at 8MHz – more on this later) and uses a Texas Instruments CC1101 low-power sub1-GHz RF transceiver chip for wireless transfer. Turning over an RFbee reveals this and more:

But don’t let all this worry you, the RFbee is very simple to use once connected. As a transceiver the following specifications apply:

  • Data rate – 9600, 19200, 38400 or 115200bps
  • Adjustable transmission power in stages between -30dBm and 10 dBm
  • Operating frequency switchable between 868MHz and 915MHz
  • Data transmission can be point-to-point, or broadcast point-to-many
  • Maximum of 256 RFbees can operate in one mesh network
  • draws only 19.3mA whilst transmitting at full power

The pinout for the RFbee are similar to those of an Xbee for power and data, for example:

There is also the ICSP pins if you need to reprogram the ATmega168 direcly with an AVRISP-type programmer.

Getting Started

Getting started is simple – RFbees ship with firmware which allows them to simply send and receive data at 9600bps with full power. You are going to need two or more RFbees, as they can only communicate with their own kind. However any microcontroller with a UART can be used with RFbees – just connect 3.3V, GND, and the microcontroller’s UART TX and RX to the RFbee and you’re away. For our examples we will be using Arduino-compatible boards. If Arduino is new to you, consider our tutorials first.

If you ever need to update the firmware, or reset the RFbee to factory default after some wayward experimenting – download the firmware which is in the form of an Arduino sketch (RFBee_v1_1.pde) which can be downloaded from the repository. (This has been tested with Arduino v23). In the Arduino IDE, set the board type to “Arduino Pro or Pro Mini (3.3V, 8MHz) w/ATmega168”. From a hardware perspective, the easiest way to update the firmware is via a 3.3V FTDI cable or an UartSBee board, such as:


You will also find a USB interface useful for controlling your RFbee via a PC or configuration (see below). In order to do this,  you will need some basic terminal software. A favourite and simple example is called … “Terminal“. (Please donate to the author for their efforts).

Initial Testing

After connecting your RFbee to a PC, run your terminal software and set it for 9600 bps – 8 – None – no handshaking, and click the check box next to “+CR”. For example:


Select your COM: port (or click “ReScan” to find it) and then “Connect”. After a moment “OK” should appear in the received text area. Now, get yourself an Arduino or compatible board of some sort that has the LED on D13 (or substitute your own) and upload the following sketch:

Finally, connect the Arduino board to an RFbee in this manner:

  • Arduino D0 to RFbee TX
  • Arduino D1 to RFbee RX
  • Arduino 3.3V to RFbee Vcc
  • Arduino GND to RFbee GND
and the other RFbee to your PC and check it is connected using the terminal software described earlier. Now check the terminal is communicating with the PC-end RFbee, and then send the character ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’. Note that the LED on the Arduino board will blink one, two or three times respectively – or five times if another character is received. It then reports back “Blinking completed!” to the host PC. For example (click to enlarge):

Although that was a very simple demonstration, in doing so you can prove that your RFbees are working and can send and receive serial data. If you need more than basic data transmission, it would be wise to get a pair of RFbees to experiment with before committing to a project, to ensure you are confident they will solve your problem.

More Control

If you are looking to use your RFbees in a more detailed way than just sending data at 9600 bps at full power, you will need to  control and alter the parameters of your RFbees using the terminal software and simple AT-style commands. If you have not already done so, download and review the RFbee data sheet downloadable from the “Resources” section of this page. You can use the AT commands to easily change the data speed, power output (to reduce current draw), change the frequency, set transmission mode (one way or transceive) and more.

Reading and writing AT commands is simple, however at first you need to switch the RFbee into ‘command mode’ by sending +++ to it. (When sending +++ or AT commands, each must be followed with a carriage return (ASCII 13)). Then you can send commands or read parameter status. To send a command, just send AT then the command then the parameter. For example, to set the data rate (page ten of the data sheet) to 115200 bps, send ATBD3 and the RFbee will respond with OK.

You can again use the terminal software to easily send and receive the commands. To switch the RFbee from command mode back to normal data mode, use ATO0 (that’s AT then the letter O then zero) or power-cycle the RFbee.

RFbee as an Arduino-compatible board with inbuilt wireless

As mentioned previously the RFbee is based around an Atmel ATmega168 running at 8MHz with the Arduino bootloader. In other words, we have a tiny Arduino-compatible board in there to do our bidding. If you are unfamiliar with the Arduino system please see the tutorials listed here. However there are a couple of limitations to note – you will need an external USB-serial interface (as noted in Getting Started above), and not all the standard Arduino-type pins are available. Please review page four of the data sheet to see which RFbee pins match up to which Arduino pins.

If for some reason you just want to use your RFbee as an Arduino-compatible board, you can do so. However if you upload your own sketch you will lose the wireless capability. To restore your RFbee follow the instructions in Getting Started above.

The firmware that allows data transmission is also an Arduino sketch. So if you need to include RF operation in your sketch, first use a copy of the RFBee_v1_1.pde included in the repository – with all the included files. Then save this somewhere else under a different name, then work your code into the main sketch. To save you the effort you can download a fresh set of files which are used for our demonstration. But before moving forward, we need to learn about controlling data flow and device addresses…

Controlling data flow

As mentioned previously, each RFbee can have it’s own numerical address which falls between zero and 255. Giving each RFbee an address allows you to select which RFbee to exchange data with when there is more than two in the area. This is ideal for remote control and sensing applications, or to create a group of autonomous robots that can poll each other for status and so on.

To enable this method of communication in a simple form several things need to be done. First, you set the address of each RFbee with the AT command ATMAx (x=address). Then set each RFbee with ATOF2. This causes data transmitted to be formatted in a certain method – you send a byte which is the address of the transmitting RFbee, then another byte which is the address of the intended receipient RFbee, then follow with the data to send. Finally send command ATAC2 – which enables address checking between RFbees. Data is then sent using the command

Where data is … the data to send. You can send a single byte, or an array of bytes. length is the number of bytes you are sending. sourceAddress and destinationAddress are relevant to the RFbees being used – you set these addresses using the ATMAx described earlier in this section.

If you open the file rfbeewireless.pde in the download bundle, scroll to the end of the sketch which contains the following code:

This is a simple example of sending data out from the RFbee. The RFbee with this sketch (address 1) sends the array of bytes (testdata[]) to another RFbee with address 2.  You can disable address checking by a receiving RFbee with ATAC0 – then it will receive any data send by other RFbees.

To receive data use the following function:

The variable result will hold the incoming data, len is the number of bytes to expect, sourceAddress and destinationAddress are the source (transmitting RFbee) and destination addresses (receiving RFbee). rssi and lqi are the signal strength and link quality indicator – see the TI CC1101 datasheet for more information about these. By using more than two RFbees set with addresses you can selectively send and receive data between devices or control them remotely. Finally, please note that RFbees are still capable of sending and receiving data via the TX/RX pins as long as the sketch is not executing the sendTestData() loop.

I hope you found this introduction interesting and useful. The RFbees are an inexpensive and useful alternative to the popular Xbee modules and with the addition of the Arduino-compatible board certainly useful for portable devices, remote sensor applications or other data-gathering exercises.

For more information and product support, visit the Seeedstudio product pages.

RFbees are available from Seeedstudio and their network of distributors.

Disclaimer – RFbee products used in this article are promotional considerations made available by Seeedstudio.

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 arduino, education, lesson, RF, rfbee, seeedstudio, tutorial, wireless, WLS126E1P, xbee

Results – February 2012 Competition

Competition over.

Posted in competition

Is this the world’s smallest Arduino-compatible board?

Introducing the Freetronics LeoStick – one very small Arduino Leonardo-compatible** board, in the format of a typical USB memory stick – the board for integration into smaller projects, on-the-go fun when travelling, or minimalism-enthusiasts:

Whether or not the LeoStick is the world’s smallest Arduino-compatible board – it’s pretty darn tiny – for example:

Note that the length includes the USB plug extrusion on the PCB. A lot of small boards on the market may consider themselves to be fully Arduino-compatible, but with a few minor or major caveats – such as not having full USB interface, or using a cut-down MCU such as an ATtiny, or offer less current handling ability. After comparing their specifications with the LeoStick, you can see how much has gone into such a small board:

  • Native USB port built-in, no need for any USB or FTDI cables
  • Two Full Color RGB LEDs on-board! Drive different colored outputs and fun feedback from your sketch right away. One RGB LED is completely programmable, the other does Power, USB RX and TX indication, the RX and TX LEDs can also be controlled.
  • On-board Piezo speaker element, play sounds, tunes and beeps. Can also be used as a knock/vibration sensor
  • Same I/O pins. The LeoStick provides all the same header connections as larger boards, you can connect all the same sensors, actuators, and other inputs and outputs as typical Arduino models.
  • Breadboard compatible, has 0.1″ pitch pads and header pins can be fitted underneath
  • 500mA polyfuse and protection on the USB port
  • ATmega32U4 microcontroller, Arduino compatible with on-board USB, 32K Flash, 2.5K RAM, 1K EEPROM at 16MHz
  • ISP 6-pin connector for advanced programming of the ATmega32U4 MCU

Here is the underside of the LeoStick , showing the piezo speaker:

And here is a quick video of the LeoStick in action:

** Although this is a newly-released product, it does rely on a modified beta version of the upcoming Arduino Leonardo bootloader. There are some known issues with Windows 7 64-bit drivers and some library functions don’t work perfectly yet. Any firmware or Arduino Leonardo compatible support should not be considered to be final release firmware or in any way an official Arduino. At Freetronics’ request, please don’t hassle the Arduino team with support or requests related to this board – they’re solely the responsibility of Freetronics.

Nevertheless there is a growing and vibrant support forum where you can see examples of the LeoStick in action and discuss other subjects and issues. The LeoStick is also a very complete ATmega32U4 breakout and USB board by itself and the LeoStick can be programmed directly from the supplied standard ISP header by AVR Studio, Mac OSX-AVR, avrdude, WinAVR etc.

The LeoStick  is also new to us here as well, and we look forward to integrating it into projects in the near future, as well as having a board to experiment with when travelling. As we always say – if it meets your needs or you want to try something new, you could do a lot worse than getting yourself a LeoStickIf you are interested in learning how to use Arduino in general – check out our tutorial here. For more discussion and support information for the LeoStick consult the forum or product web page.

Disclaimer – The LeoStick board reviewed in this article was a promotional consideration made available by Freetronics

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, or join our 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 arduino, freetronics, leonardo, leostick, review

February 2012 Competition

Competition over

Posted in competition

Results – January 2012 Competition

Competition over!

Posted in competitionComments (0)

Review – Digilent chipKIT Uno32

In this review we consider a Digilent chipKIT Uno32 development board made available by element14.


This is a development board that is based on the Arduino Uno, however uses a Microchip PIC32MX320F128 microcontroller instead of the Atmel ATmega328 we are used to:

Digilent’s decision to use the PIC32 introduces some interesting changes to the Uno format, and the largest change to take note of is the clock speed – 80 MHz instead of the Uno’s 16 MHz. That certainly took my attention, and we can see this demonstrated shortly.

When shipped the board arrives alone in a cardboard box, without a USB cable:

All documentation is found on the Digilent website. There is also a support forum to discuss libraries, IDE updates and so on. The board itself is quite familiar upon initial inspection:

You can see that Arduino shield will physically fit onto the board, and the extra I/O pins are accessed through the second rows of jumpers inside the board. With some crafty PCB creation skills you could make your own Uno32 shields, or consider one of the boards available from element14 or Digilent.

As for the other specifications of the Uno32:

  • Clock speed – 80 MHz
  • 128K flash program memory
  • 16K SRAM data memory
  • I/O pins – 42 (12 used as analogue inputs or digital I/O)
  • Five PWM pins
  • FTDI chip for USB interface
  • Two user LEDs
  • Same form factor as Arduino Uno boards, which allows physical shield compatibility
  • Five interrupt pins
  • On board real-time clock (external crystal required)

You will need a new IDE, and you can download Uno32-modified versions of the Arduino v22 and v23 IDE from here for Windows, MacOS and 32-bit Linux (no 64-bit…). The bootloader is preinstalled on the Uno32 and after installing the special IDE it works just as our normal Arduinos do in terms of editing and uploading sketches. The board also is compatible with the Microchip MPLAB IDE and PICkit3 in-circuit debugger if you want to use the Uno32 as a normal PIC32 development board. There is a row of holes between the USB socket and the DC socket that will need header pins soldered in for PICkit3 use.

Speed comparison

Naturally you want to see the speed test. The following sketch was run on an Arduino Uno and the Uno32 boards using IDE v1.0 for the Uno and the MPIDE v23 for the Uno32:

And here are the results of running the sketch four times on each board:


Well that’s pretty impressive – over sixty times faster than the Arduino Uno. Therein lies the major reason to use this board over the Uno. The eagle-eyed among you may have also noticed the difference in the compiled binary sketch size – 6432 bytes for the Uno32 vs. 2540 bytes for the Arduino Uno. That’s interesting.

Nevertheless there are many things to take note of when moving from Arduino to Uno32, or in other words – you can’t just swap out an Arduino Uno for an Uno32, recompile and run your sketch at the faster speed. The Microchip PIC32 is very much a different beast to the Atmel AVRs we’re used to, so it is important that you understand the differences in hardware and software to take advantage of the Uno32. So let’s run through those  now.

Power Differences

The Uno32 is a 3.3V board due to the PIC32. You can still power it via USB, or connect between 7~15 VDC to the power socket on the board. You can change a jumper and feed 5V directly into the board bypassing the 5V regulator. External power is regulated to 5V then to 3.3V. From a total of 1A current, the PIC32 uses 75mA, so you can draw up to 925mA from the 5V bus or 425mA from the 3.3V bus (or a mixture from both). It would pay to determine your current load before testing to avoid damaging the board, however  the  manual notes that the regulators will become hot at high current loads but do have thermal protection. Finally there is also a jumper that chooses between a 5V or 3.3V voltage feed to the shields. As always, consult the manual first.

I/O Differences

Although the PIC32 being a 3.3V part, the manual states that the digital I/O pins are 5V tolerant, so applying 5V to a digital input won’t damage the PIC32. Logic on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. According to the manual a digital ‘high’ when sourcing 12mA of current will only reach close to 3.3V. This may be too low in some situations so check your threshold voltages when choosing external parts. Furthermore, the analogue reference voltage (AREF) is restricted to 3.3V.

One stand-out difference is that you can only source 18mA from a digital pin, which is OK if you’re blinking some LEDs. However for logic output to keep the voltage range below 0.4V for ‘low’ and above 2.4V for ‘high’ the current must be restricted to -12~+7mA – another different limitaion. Finally, the maximum current you can source over all the I/O pins at once is 200mA.

There are two UARTs, number one where we expect it (D0/D1) and another on pins 39 and 40. I2C is on A4/A5 but needs to be activated with a jumper. Note that unlike an Arduino there aren’t any inbuilt pull-up resistors for the I2C bus, so add your own. There is also an SPI bus at the usual position (D10~13) and interestingly you can change the board between SPI master and slave via another set of jumpers. There are five pulse-width modulation outputs, however one is on D10 which is also part of the SPI bus. Finally there are five hardware interrupt pins.

Shield Compatibility  

Arduino shields will physically fit onto the Uno32 – but you need to be aware of the I/O differences listed above, the voltage and current specification and also the software side of things. Again – do your research before making the commitment to the hardware.

Software Compatibility

The Uno32 is compatible with a variety of Arduino sketches, but not all. This in a large part is due to the libraries which will need to be sourced from the community or rewritten yourself if not provided with the MPIDE software. There is a community on the support forum which is contributing their own, such as the real-time clock library – but again, research needs to be done before use. When trying to use an existing Arduino sketch and hardware, you will need to spend some time checking for compatibility. Again – it’s much easier to design a new project around the Uno32 than rejig an existing one.

Open Source? 

One of the things many people love about the Arduino ecosystem is that the entire system is open source hardware and software. Without causing a pro/con argument about software licensing you should note that not all of the software toolchain for the Uno32 is open, nor the USB or TCP/IP stack. There is some interesting discourse about this here.


A lot of work needs to be done to ensure compatibility with existing Arduino applications. The Uno32 is tempting due to the raw clock-speed increase, however the sketch/library and hardware differences may introduce a few road blocks. However, when designing a project from scratch and understand the licensing limitations, the Uno32 would be great as you know what you have to work with – a much faster board with much more I/O. And it is very inexpensive, less than ~$35. You can order your new Uno32 from element14.

Finally, if you’re looking for a very inexpensive PIC32 development board to use with Microchip MPLAB, the Uno32 is a great deal that can possibly interface with a wide variety of shields from the Arduino world.

Disclaimer – The Chipkit Uno32 board reviewed in this article was a promotional consideration made available by element14.

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, or join our 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 arduino, chipkit, digilent, microchip, PIC32MX320F128, review, uno32Comments (6)

January 2012 Competition

Competition over.

Posted in competition

Initial Review: Akafugu Akafuino-X Microcontroller Board

Hello Readers

Time to get back to work for 2012 and in doing so we review another interesting product from a new company based in Japan – akafugu. From their website:

Akafugu Corporation is a small electronics company that operates out of Tokyo, Japan. We specialize in fun and easy to use electronic gadgets. Our goal is to provide products that not only make prototyping faster and easier, but are also perfect for incorporation in finalized products.

And with this in mind we examine the Akafuino-X microcontroller board:


The observant among you will notice the similarity to our usual Arduino Uno and compatible boards. However there are some differences which bring changes and improvements over the original Arduino design. The biggest point of difference is the microcontroller, the Akafuino uses an Atmel XMega32A4. The benefit of this over the normal ATmega328 is:

  • Speed! 32 MHz – twice as fast as the ATmega328;
  • Two-channel DAC (digital to analogue) converter – output analogue signals between 0V and Vcc straight from the board. A library is included with the new IDE to control them. The DAC uses digital pins seven and eight;
  • Not one, two or even four, but five UARTs;
  • Two I2C buses;
  • Sixteen PWM pins – great for LED effects…

Thankfully the designers have detailed the extra I/O pins and other useful information on the rear of the board:


Other changes include:

  • It’s a 3.3V board – so no 5V supply for you. However the inputs are tolerant to 5V;
  • On-board real time clock. You can also add an optional 32.768 kHz crystal to increase accuracy – see the space on the board near the reset pin;
  • A very refreshing red colour (note that ‘aka(i)’ ** is red in Japanese) and a happy puffer fish (‘fugu’) on the silk-screening 🙂
  • And libraries for other Akafugu products such as the TWI Display module are available.

Getting started is easy, however due to the difference in hardware the Arduino IDE needs modification. But don’t panic – instead of modifying your existing v1.0 Arduino IDE – download and install the Akafuino-X version from here and run your usual and the Akauino-X IDE on the same machine (it’s ok to do this). You should also review the usage instructions here and note that this is a derivative of the v1.0 IDE. Furthermore at the time of writing the software side of things is still in beta, and can be monitored via Github – however don’t let this put you off, as the Akafuino-X has a lot of potential.

If you find any bugs in use the issue tracker in Github to let the team know.

In the meanwhile we’ve conducted a quick speed test – by running the same sketch on an Arduino Uno and also the Akafuino-X. The test is a whole lot of multiplication, nothing too scientific. At the end the duration of the exercise is shown in milliseconds. Here’s the code:

And here are the results of running the sketch four times on each board:


Our Akafuino-X beta only took 2704ms versus the Arduino Uno taking 4212ms. Very good so far.

Update! The team at akafugu have been experimenting with overclocking the Akafuino-X. And also check out the errata page

So there you have it, another contender in the Arduino-compatible board stakes. Considering the extra  I/O, PWM and bus connectivity the Akafuino-X is a very capable board. I look forward to the evolution of the IDE and will return with the Akafuino-X in an upcoming project. And we also have one to give away. So stay tuned! In the meanwhile the Akafuino-X and other goodies are available directly from akafugu.jp

Disclaimer – The parts reviewed in this article are a promotional consideration made available by akafugu.

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, or join our 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.

** Yes I know it’s an i-type adjective

Posted in akafugu, akafuino, arduino, product review, review, XMega32A4Comments (6)

Review – nootropic design defusable clock kit

Hello Readers

In this review we examine an interesting, fun and possibly a prankster’s delight – the “Defusable Clock Kit” from nootropic design. The purpose of this kit is to construct a clock that counts down in a similar method to “movie-style” bombs, and it has terminals to connect four wires to the board. When the countdown timer is beeping away, you need to choose which wire to cut otherwise the “bomb” (alarm) goes off.

Furthermore, it also functions as a normal clock with an alarm, so you can use it daily normal activities. And finally it is based on the Arduino system which allows the kit to be reprogrammed at a later date. Now let’s move forward by examining kit construction.


The kit arrives in a re-sealable antistatic pouch that can be reused without any effort:


Detailed instructions can be found on the product website. The kit has a very clear and well-detailed silk screen on the PCB:

All the parts required are included, as well as an IC socket for the microcontroller:

Moving forward, the first parts to solder in are the resistors:

… then to the other lower-profile components:

… and the rest:

Which leaves us with the final product:

The clock is designed around simple Arduino-compatible circuitry, so if you wish to alter the firmware for the clock or upload your own sketch, you will need to fit the six-way header pins (in order to connect a USB-FTDI cable). As the pins are horizontal and tend to fall over, it’s easier to solder the first pin from the top of the PCB to hold it in place:

… then turn the PCB over and solder the rest.


Power is supplied via the DC socket on the PCB, and converted to 5V with a typical 7805 regulator. Therefore your input voltage can range between normal levels of 9~12VDC. Once the power is connected you can set the time for the clock and alarm for normal use. However if you feel like some sweat-inducing excitement, connect four wires each between the terminal blocks at the top of the PCB. Then press the red button to start the ten-second countdown. You can also increase or decrease the countdown time.

Your chances of defusing it in time can be quite low – by cutting one wire you can defuse it, by cutting two other wires nothing will happen and the clock keeps ticking – and by cutting the final wire… well, it’s all over. The wires are randomly chosen each time so you can’t predict which will be the correct wire. (Unless you change the firmware). Now let’s see the clock in action:

At this juncture it would be appropriate to warn the users of this kit not to … well, misuse the clock. To be honest I’m surprised such a kit originated from the US in the first place, but then again it never hurts to have a sense of humour. But seriously, to the untrained eye or casual security guard – this kit will look pretty damn real. So no making any mock explosive models with Play-Doh or metal cylinders and leaving them on the train or bus or under someone’s toilet seat. Then again, that would be good for a laugh – so please keep it at home, not in the railway station.

Further expansion

As mentioned earlier this kit is Arduino (Duemilanove) compatible, you can upload new sketches using a 5V FTDI cable or swapping the microcontroller over in another Arduino-style board. You have four LEDs, a 4-digit 7-segment LED module, a buzzer, and four digital I/O pins via the terminal block on the top-right of the PCB which could control external devices. Furthermore you can download and examine the clock sketch to modify or deconstruct it to determine the operation.


Apart from the laughs and possible mayhem you could cause with this, the kit is easy to assemble and works as described. It would make a great present to get someone interested in electronics, or help them with soldering practice. Furthermore it is certainly unique, and would be fun at parties and other events. High-resolution images available on flickr.

To order your own nootropic design defusable clock kit, head over to tronixlabs.com – offering a growing range and Australia’s best value for supported hobbyist electronics from adafruit, DFRobot, Freetronics, Seeed Studio and much more.

visit tronixlabs.com

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, or join our forum – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website.

Posted in arduino, bomb, defusable, kit review, notropics, timer, tronixlabsComments (1)

September 2011 Competition

Competition over!

Posted in competition

Product Announcement: The Zigduino

Hello readers

Recently the people at Logos Electromechanical have announced their new product – the Zigduino.

The Zigduino is an Arduino-compatible microcontroller platform that integrates an 802.15.4 radio on the board. The radio can be configured to support any 802.15.4-based protocol, including ZigBeeRoute Under MAC/6LoWPAN, and RF4CE. It uses a reverse polarity SMA connector (RP-SMA) for an external antenna. This allows the user to use nearly any existing 2.4 GHz antenna with it. The Zigduino runs on 3.3V, but all I/O pins are 5V compatible.

Pictured below is a production Zigduino kit with all components:

Thankfully all that SMD word is done for you. The only soldering required is the aerial socket, Arduino headers and the DC socket. All the components shown in the image above are included with purchase. The Zigduino specifications include (from the website):

Microcontroller Atmega128RFA1
Operating Voltage 3.3V
Input Voltage (recommended) 7-18V
Input Voltage (maximum) 6-30V (transients to -20V and +60V)
Digital I/O Pins 14 + 3 auxiliary
PWM Output Pins 6
Analog Input Pins 6 (0-1.8V)
I/O Protection ±30V transient
-2.5V to +5.8V continuous
DC Current per I/O Pin 20 mA
DC Current for 5V Pin 250 mA
DC Current for 3.3V Pin 200 mA
Flash Memory 128 KB of which 2 KB is used by the bootloader
Clock Speed 16 MHz
RF transmit power +3.5 dBm
Receiver sensitivity -100 dB
Antenna gain 2 dBi
Current Draw 30 mA (transmitting, USB, no I/O connections)
15 mA (transmitting, no USB, no I/O connections)
6 mA (radio off, no USB, no I/O connections)
250 μA (sleep)


  • Compatible with any shield that supports 3.3V logic
  • Compatible with existing Arduino libraries that do not use hard-coded pin definitions
  • Compatible with Arduino IDE with updated compiler, avr-gcc-4.3.3 or later.



The Zigduino can be powered through the USB connection or with an external power supply. The power source with the highest voltage is selected automatically.

External power can be supplied via a wall wart or a battery. It can be connected with a 2.1mm center-positive plug inserted into the power jack. Alternately, external power can be connected through the GND and VIN pins of the POWER header.

The board will operate correctly on an input voltage between 6V and 30V. It will survive transients as large as -20V or +60V. However, higher supply voltages may cause excessive heat dissipation at higher current draws. The input voltage regulator has integral overtemperature protection, so you can’t permanently damage the board this way. However, the board may not work correctly under these circumstances.

The power pins are as follows:

  • VIN — The input voltage to the Arduino board when it is running from external power, i.e. not USB bus power.
  • 5V — The regulated 5V used to power 5V components on the board and external 5V shields. It comes either from the USB or from the VIN via the 5V regulator. Maximum current draw is 250 mA.
  • 3V3 — The regulated 3.3V supply that powers the microcontroller. It is derived from the 5V bus via a second regulator. Maximum current draw is 200 mA.
  • GND — Ground pins.


The ATmega128RFA1 has 128 KB of flash memory, of which 2 KB is occupied by the bootloader. It also has 16 KB of SRAM (the most of any Arduino-compatible board) and 4 KB of EEPROM, which can be accessed through the EEPROM library.

Input and Output

Each of the 14 digital pins of the Zigduino can be used as an input or output, using pinMode(), digitalWrite(), and digitalRead(). Each pin operates at 3.3V and can source or sink 10 mA. Each also has an internal pullup, which is disabled by default. Each pin is protected against ±30V spikes and can tolerate continuous 5V input.

The six analog input pins, labeled A0 – A5, are likewise protected against ±30V spikes and can tolerate continuous 5V input. Each provides 10 bits of resolution and measures 0 – 1.8V. It is possible to change to a lower top voltage through use of the AREF pin and the analogReference() function.

A key design goal of the Zigduino is maintaining compatibility with existing shields to the greatest extent possible. The ATmega128RFA1’s peripherals are arranged slightly differently than the corresponding peripherals on the ATmega328 used in the stock Arduino. Therefore, in order to provide the desired shield compatibility, there are three solder jumpers provided on the back of the board. They function as follows:

  • Digital pin 11 can be set as either SPI MOSI or a PWM output. Neither option is selected as shipped. SPI MOSI is also available on the SPI connector at all times along with SCK and MISO.
  • Analog pin 4 can be set as either A4 or I2C SDA. Neither option is selected as shipped. Both I2C pins are available on the I2C connector.
  • Analog pin 5 can be set as either A4 or I2C SCL. Neither option is selected as shipped. Both I2C pins are available on the I2C connector.

The following additional special functions are available:

  • Serial: 0 (RX) and 1 (TX) — Used to transmit and receive TTL serial data. These pins are connected to the corresponding pins on the FTDI USB interface chip.
  • PWM: 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, and 11 — Provides 8-bit PWM output with the analogWrite() function. Pin 11 must be selected for PWM operation with the solder jumper on the back of the board.
  • SPI: 11 (MOSI), 12 (MISO), 13 (SCK) — These pins support SPI communications using the SPI library. Pin 11 must be selected for SPI operation with the solder jumper on the back, or SPI must be accessed with the SPI connector.
  • LED: 13 — This is the built-in LED on digital pin 13. When the pin is high, the LED is on.
  • External Interrupts: 2, 3, 6, and 7 — These pins can be configured to trigger and interrupt on a low value, high value, or an edge. See the attachInterrupt() function for details. The two I2C pins can also be used as interrupts.
  • I2C: A4 (SDA) and A5 (SCL) — These pins support I2C communications using the Wire library. They must be selected for I2C operation with the jumpers on the back or I2C must be accessed through the I2C connector. They can also be configured as interrupts.

This is one very capable Arduino-compatible board and sure to find many uses. For updates and new ideas consider following the Logos Electromechanical blog page.  Furthermore associated Zigduino files can be found on Github.

So if you are looking to expand into the world of personal-area networks, Zigbee wireless and so on –  you could do very well by considering a Zigduino or two. For more information, questions, support, and to purchase visit the product website, Seeed Studio or lipoly.de

Posted in 802.15.4, arduino, Atmega128RFA1, review, wireless, xbee, zigduino

Review: The Gravitech Arduino Nano family

Hello Readers

In this article we will examine a variety of products received for review from Gravitech in the United States – the company that designed and build the Arduino Nano. We have a Nano and some very interesting additional modules to have a look at.

So let’s start out review with the Arduino Nano. What is a Nano? A very, very small version of our Arduino Duemilanove boards. It contains the same microcontroller (ATmega328) but in SMD form; has all the I/O pins (plus two extra analogue inputs); and still has a USB interface via the FT232 chip. But more on that later. Nanos arrive in reusable ESD packaging which is useful for storage when not in use:

Patriotic Americans should note that the Nano line is made in the USA. Furthermore, here is a video clip of Nanos being made:

For those who were unsure about the size of the Nano, consider the following images:

You can easily see all the pin labels and compare them to your Duemilanove or Uno board. There is also a tiny reset button, the usual LEDs, and the in circuit software programmer pins. So you don’t miss out on anything by going to a Nano. When you flip the board over, the rest of the circuitry is revealed, including the FTDI USB>serial converter IC:

Those of you familiar with Arduino systems should immediately recognise the benefit of the Nano – especially for short-run prototype production. The reduction in size really is quite large. In the following image, I have traced the outline of an Arduino Uno and placed the Nano inside for comparison:

So tiny… the board measures 43.1mm (1.7″) by 17.8mm (0.7″). The pins on this example were pre-soldered – and are spaced at standard 2.54mm (0.1″) intervals – perfect for breadboarding or designing into your own PCB –  however you can purchase a Nano without the pins to suit your own mounting purposes. The Nano meets all the specifications of the standard Arduino Duemilanove-style boards, except naturally the physical dimensions.

Power can be supplied to the Nano via the USB cable; feeding 5V directly into the 5V pin, or 7~12 (20 max, not recommended) into the Vin pin. You can only draw 3.3V at up to 50 mA when the Nano is running on USB power, as the 3.3V is sourced from the FTDI USB>serial IC. And the digital I/O pins still allow a current draw up to 40 mA each. From a software perspective you will not have any problems, as the Nano falls under the same board classification as the (for example) Arduino Duemilanove:

Therefore one could take advantage of all the Arduino fun and games – except for the full-size shields. But as you will read soon, Gravitech have got us covered on that front. If the Arduino system is new to you, why not consider following my series of tutorials? They can be found here. In the meanwhile, to put the size into perspective – here is a short video of a Nano blinking some LEDs!

Now back to business. As the Nano does not use standard Arduino shields, the team at Gravitech have got us covered with a range of equivalent shields to enable all sorts of activities. The first of this is their Ethernet and microSD card add-on module:

and the underside:

Again this is designed for breadboarding, or you could most likely remove the pins if necessary. The microSD socket is connected as expected via the SPI bus, and is fully compatible with the default Arduino SD library. As shown in the following image the Nano can slot directly into the ethernet add-in module:

The Ethernet board requires an external power supply, from 7 to 12 volts DC. The controller chip is the usual Wiznet 5100 model, and therefore the Ethernet board is fully compatible with the default Ethernet Arduino library. We tested it with the example web server sketch provided with the Arduino IDE and it all just worked.

The next add-on module to examine is the 2MOTOR board:

… and the bottom:

Using this module allows control of two DC motors with up to two amps of current each via pulse-width modulation. Furthermore, there is a current feedback circuit for each motor so you measure the motor load and adjust power output – interesting. So a motorised device could sense when it was working too hard and ease back a little (like me on a Saturday). All this is made possible by the use of the common L298 dual full-bridge motor driver IC. This is quite a common motor driver IC and is easy to implement in your sketches. The use of this module and the Nano will help reduce the size of any robotics or motorised project. Stay tuned for use of this board in future articles.

Next in this veritable cornucopia of  add-on modules is the USBHOST board:

turning it over …

Using the Maxim MAX3421E host controller IC you can interface with all sorts of devices via USB, as well as work with the new Android ADK. The module will require an external power supply of between 7 and 12 volts DC, with enough current to deal with the board, a Nano and the USB device under control – one amp should be more than sufficient. I will be honest and note that USB and Arduino is completely new to me, however it is somewhat fascinating and I intend to write more about using this module in the near future. In the meanwhile, many examples can be found here.

For a change of scene there is also a group of Xbee wireless communication modules, starting with the Xbee add-on module:

The Xbee itself is not included, only shown for a size comparison. Turning the module over:

It is nice to see a clearly-labelled silk screen on the PCB. If you are unfamiliar with using the Xbee wireless modules for data communication, you may find my introductory tutorial of interest. Furthermore, all of the Gravitech Nano modules are fully software compatible with my tutorial examples, so getting started will be a breeze. Naturally Gravitech also produce an Xbee USB interface board, to enable PC communication over your wireless modules:

Again, note that the Xbee itself is not included, however they can be supplied by Gravitech. Turning the board over reveals another highly-detailed silk screen:

All of the Gravitech Xbee modules support both series 1.0 and 2.5 Xbees, in both standard and professional variants. The USB module also supports the X-CTU configuration software from Digi.

Finally – leaving possibly the most interesting part until last, we have the MP3 Player add-on board:

and on the B-side:

The MP3 board is designed around the VS1053B MP3 decoder IC. It can also decode Ogg Vorbis, AAC, WMA and MID files. There is a 3.5mm stereo output socket to connect headphones and so on. As expected, the microSD card runs from the SPI pins, however SS is pin 4. Although it may be tempting to use this to make a home-brew MP3 player, other uses could include: recorded voice messages for PA systems such as fire alarm notices, adding sound effects to various projects or amusement machines, or whatever else you can come up with.

Update – We have examined the MP3 board in more detail with a beginner’s tutorial.

The Arduino Nano and related boards really are tiny, fully compatible with their larger brethren, and will prove very useful. Although this article was an introductory review, stay tuned for further projects and articles that will make use of the Nano and other boards. If you have any questions or enquiries please direct them to Gravitech via their contact page. Gravitech products including the Arduino Nano family are available directly from their website or these distributors.

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts, follow on twitterfacebook, or join our Google Group.

[Disclaimer – the products reviewed in this article are promotional considerations made available by Gravitech]

High resolution photos are available on flickr.

Otherwise, have fun, be good to each other – and make something! 

Posted in arduino, ethernet, gravitech, microcontrollers, mp3, nano, part review, xbeeComments (0)

May 2011 Competition Results

Competition over!

Posted in competitionComments (0)

Kit review – nootropic design Digit Shield

Hello readers

Time once again to examine another kit. This week we have the nootropic design Digit Shield for Arduino Uno/Duemilanove and compatible boards. Although a finger can be called a digit this shield is not some sort of biotechnological experiment – instead it gives us four seven-segment LED displays to show various forms of numerical data from our Arduino sketches.

Although many people may be tempted to use a standard LCD unit, there are a few advantages to using an LED display – such as digit size, enhanced readability in daylight, and LED displays are generally much more robust than LCDs. Therefore there should be many uses for the Digit Shield. Furthermore, the people at nootropic design have been awesome as they support the Open Hardware Definition 1.0, and the Digit Shield design files have been made available under Creative Commons attribution-share alike.

First let’s run through construction, then operation with some demonstrations. The kit arrives in a nice reusable bag with a pointer to the online instructions:


Kit construction was relatively simple thanks to the excellent instructions by nootropic design. All the parts required for completion are included, except for IC sockets:


My demonstration kit included green LED displays, however it is also available in red-orange, depending on the retail outlet you choose. Once again the PCB is well laid out, with a good solder mask and a nicely labelled silk screen on top:


Now to start soldering. The process is nothing out of the ordinary, and should take around half an hour at the most. First in are the resistors:


Notice how the current-limiting resistors for the LED segments will be under the LED displays. So now we solder in the LED modules and create a resistor jail:


Now for the shift register and BCD to decimal ICs. I found inserting them a little tricky due to my large hands and the LED display already being in place, so it would be easier to fit the ICs before the LED modules:


This leaves us with the transistors, capacitors, header sockets and the reset button:


After soldering the reset button, you may need trim down the solder and legs (as shown below) otherwise there is a possibility they will rub the DC input socket on the Arduino board:

Finally the shield pins are fitted and the shield is ready:


The next task is to download and install the Digit Shield’s Arduino library. The latest version can be found here. Extract the folder into your

folder, then restart the Arduino IDE software.  A quick test of the shield can be accomplished with the SimpleCounter sketch available from the inbuilt examples. To find this, select File>Examples>DigitShield>SimpleCounter in the Arduino IDE, and upload the sketch. Hold onto the desk as you watch some numbers increment:

Using the shield in your own sketch is quite simple. Instead of reinventing the wheel there is an excellent explanation of the various functions available on the lower section of this page. A very useful feature is when the shield cannot display a number – it shows all four decimal points instead. The only slight criticism that comes to mind is the inability to directly display hexadecimal digits A~F, as the LED units lend themselves nicely to doing so; or the option of controlling each LED segment individually with a simple function. So let’s see if that is possible…

One of the joys of open hardware is the fact we can get the schematic, see how it works and attempt to solve such dilemmas ourselves. For those without software that can read Cadsoft EAGLE files, here is the schematic in .pdf format. The section we need to see is how the LED segments are driven. Look for the 74HC595 and 74LS247 ICs. Serial data is shifted out from the Arduino digital pins to the 74HC595 shift register. (For more information about how 74HC595s work with Arduino please visit this tutorial).

Outputs A~D (Q0~Q3) represent binary-coded decimal output and the outputs E~H (Q4~Q7) control the transistors which select the current digit to use. The BCD output is fed to the 74LS247 BCD to seven-segment drive IC. Although this is a very useful IC, it can only display the decimal digits and a few odd characters (see page two of the data sheet.pdf). So this leaves us unable to modify our sketches or the shield library to solve our problem. Such is life!

Perhaps the people at nootropic design can consider a change in the hardware for the next version to incorporate such requirements. However there are several projects available in the Digit Shield’s website that may be of interest, including a way to daisy-chain more than one shield at a time.

Nevertheless the Digit Shield is a simple kit that makes displaying Arduino-generated numerical data simple and clear. Furthermore lovers of blinking LEDs will have a ball. For further questions about the Digit Shield contact nootropic design or perhaps post on their forum.

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts, follow me on twitter or facebook, or join our Google Group for further discussion.

High resolution images are available on flickr.

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

Posted in arduino, kit review, notropicsComments (13)

May 2011 Competition

Competition over!

Posted in competitionComments (0)

Various 555 Timer circuits

Hello readers

The purpose of this article is to follow on from our explanation of the 555 timer IC by demonstrating some simple yet interesting, noisy and plain annoying uses of the 555. They are by no means that complex, and intended to help move theory into practice.

Button de-bouncer

De-bouncer? How does one bounce a button in the first place? Many years ago I bounced a button on the arcade Sonic the Hedgehog – hit it so hard it popped out and bounced over the table… But seriously, when working with digital logic circuits, you may need to use  a momentary button to accept user input. For example, to pulse a trigger or so on. However with some buttons, they are not all that they seem to be. You press them once, but they can register multiple contacts – i.e. register two or more ‘presses’ for what seems like only one press. This could possibly cause trouble, so we can use a 555 timer monostable circuit to solver the problem. In our de-bounce example, when the button is pressed, the output is kept at high for around half a second. Here is the schematic:


What we have is a basic monostable timer circuit. For my example the output delay (t) is to be half a second. The formula for t is: t=1.1xR1xC1. The closest resistor I had at hand was 2k ohms, so to find the required value for C1, the formula is rearranged into: C1=t/(1.1xR1). Substituting the values for t and R1 gives a value of C1 as 227.274 uF. So for C1 we have used a 220 uF capacitor.

Now for a visual demonstration of the de-bouncer at work. In the following video clip, the oscilloscope is displaying the button level on the lower channel, and the output level on the upper channel. The button level when open is high, as the 555 requires a low pulse to activate. The output level is normally low. You can see when the button is pressed that the button level momentarily drops to low, and then the output level goes high for around half a second:

Make some noise

As we know the 555 can oscillate at frequencies from less than 1Hz to around 500 kHz. The human ear can theoretically hear sounds between (approximately) 20 and 20 kHz. So if we create an astable timing circuit with an output frequency that falls within the range of the human ear, and connect that output to a small speaker – a range of tones can be emitted.

The circuit required is a standard 555 astable, with the output signal heading through a small 8 ohm 0.25 watt speaker and a 4.7 uF electrolytic capacitor to ground. The capacitor stops any DC current flowing to ground, without this we will overload the current-handling ability of the 555. (I couldn’t help myself by trying it without the capacitor – pulled 550 mA from the 555 before it stopped working…). To choose the values of R1 and C1 to emit out required frequency, the following formula is used: f (frequency) = 1.4 / {(R1 + [2 x R2]) x C1}. To cover the range required, a 100k ohm trimpot was used for R1. Here is the resulting schematic:


The input voltage can fall within the specification of the 555, however for optimum results a supply of between 5 and 9 volts DC should be used. In the following demonstration, we used a 9V supply. The purpose of the video is to learn the relationship between the tones and their frequencies. You can see the frequency on my old counter and hopefully hear the result:

Our next example is to create a  siren effect, using two 555 circuits – one for a low frequency and one for a high frequency. To determine the value for R1 for the low and high frequency, I used the previous circuit and chose two tones that were quite different, and measured the resistance of the trimpot (R1) at those frequencies. My R1 value for the ‘low’ tone is 82k ohm and 36k ohm for the ‘high’ frequency.

The switching between low and high frequency will be handled by a 4047 multivibrator – the Q and Q outputs will control NPN transistors. The transistors are used as switches to allow current to flow from the supply to the 555 high or low tone circuit. We use this method as the 4047 is not able to source enough current to drive the 555 circuits. Here is the schematic:


Don’t forget to connect pin 14 of the 4047 to supply voltage. This circuit has been tested with a supply voltage between 5 and 12 volts. As the supply voltage increases, so does the amplitude of the square wave emanating from the 555 output pins, which in turn in creases the volume of the siren. At 5 volts, the entire circuit drew only 20 milliamps. Speaking of which, you can listen to a recording of the output here. If you wish to alter the time for each tone, adjust the value of what is the 47k ohm resistor on pins 2 and 3 of the 4047.

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Posted in 4047, 555, arduino, COM-09273, education, learning electronics, lesson, tutorialComments (0)

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