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Results – January 2012 Competition

Competition over!

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January 2012 Competition

Competition over.

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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)

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

Hello readers

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

High resolution photos are available on flickr.

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

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

Kit review: Freetronics KitTen Arduino-compatible board

Hello everyone

Within this article we are going to examine another new kit available from Freetronics, a company formed to provide many interesting Arduino-based products after the publication of the book “Practical Arduino” by Jonathan Oxer and Hugh Blemings – which in itself is a good read, there are many interesting projects to make and learn from.

Today we examine their answer to “is there a kit version of the TwentyTen Arduino Duemilanove-compatible board?” – by assembling their KitTen. Some people may be wondering why one would want to build a KitTen instead of an assembled unit. Personally I could think of the following reasons:

  • It’s fun to make something and see it work;
  • You can save over Au$10;
  • There are a lot more smoothing capacitors in the KitTen design than normal boards;
  • There is a dedicated 3.3V 100 milliamp power regulator (twice the current of the usual board’s 50mA supply)  – ideal for running thirsty shields that need a native 3.3V;
  • The board is for a project that needs to use a modified version of the TwentyTen/Duemilanove;
  • You want a board with a native serial instead of USB interface;
  • All that lovely prototyping area above the microcontroller;
  • The power light and LED for D13 are always visible due to their location on the edge of the PCB;
  • You could solder in your microcontroller to avoid theft – great for school and public use (Yes, this has happened)…

And so on. Moving forward, opening the KitTen package reveals the following:


Once again with a Freetronics kit, all instructions are included in colour, as well as the circuit schematic and another sheet explaining how the KitTen will work with Arduino systems and the specifications. The PCB is solder-masked and silk-screened with a very informative layout:


The rest of the included components shipped in an anti-static bag, including labelled resistors and an IC socket for the microcontroller:


By following the included detailed instructions, everything went well. The layout on the PCB is detailed with all component values, which makes life easier. Starting with the low-profile components:


… followed by higher-profile components such as the IC socket and capacitors:


… and finally the shield sockets. Instead of trying to balance them, it is a lot quicker to place the sockets on an existing Arduino shield, turn it over, drop the KitTen on top then solder the pins in:


Then finally we are finished:


There are a couple of things to watch out for when using your KitTen. The first is to make sure you have the power-select jumper fitted correctly:


Place it on the left pins (as above) to power your KitTen from the FTDI cable; place the jumper on the right pins to power from the DC socket. You should use a power supply of between 9 to 12 volts DC at one amp. The second item to take care with is the blue power LED. The supplied model was so bright it was like staring into the sun. You may wish to test your own one and possibly replace it for a duller version, or use some fine sandpaper to reduce the brightness of the included LED. To upload sketches to your KitTen you will need a 5 volt FTDI cable. As mentioned above, this can also power your board as well.

Overall, this is an excellent kit, and considering the price of doing it yourself – good value as well. To get your hands on this product– visit Freetronics’ website, or your local reseller.

Remember, if you have any questions about these modules please contact Freetronics via their website.

Higher resolution images available on flickr.

[Note – the kit assembled in this article was received from Freetronics for review purposes]

Posted in arduino, kit reviewComments (0)

Kit review – Sparkfun Frequency Counter kit

Hello everyone

Today we examine a kit that is simple to construct and an interesting educational tool – the Sparkfun Frequency Counter kit. This is a revised design from a kit originally released by nuxie1 (the same people who brought us the original function generator kit). As a frequency counter, it can effectively measure within the range of 1 to a claimed 6.5 MHz. Unfortunately the update speed and perhaps accuracy is limited by the speed of the microcontroller the kit is based upon – the Atmel ATmega328. Arduino fans will recognise this as the heart of many of their projects.

Interestingly enough the kit itself is a cut-down version of an Arduino Duemilanove-standard board, without the USB and power regulation hardware. The ATmega328 has the Arduino bootloader and the software (“sketch”) is open source (as is the whole kit) and easily modifiable. This means you can tinker away with your frequency counter and also use your kit as a barebones Arduino board with LCD display. More about this later.

This becomes more obvious when looking at the PCB:


It was a little disappointing to not find any power regulator or DC socket – you need to provide your own 5V supply. However Sparkfun have been “clever” enough to include a cable with JST plug and socket to allow you to feed the frequency counter from their function generator kit. In other words, buy both. Frankly they might as well just have produced a function generator with frequency counter kit all on one PCB. Anyhow, let’s get building.

The kit comes in a nice reusable stiff red cardboard box. One could probably mount the kit in this box if they felt like it. The components included are just enough to get by. The LCD is a standard 16 x 2 character HD44780-compatible display. (More on these here). It has a black on green colour scheme. You could always substitute your own if you wanted a different colour scheme:


An IC socket is not included. You will need to install one if you intend to reprogram the microcontroller with another Arduino board.

Assembly was quick and painless. I couldn’t find any actual step-by-step instructions on the internet (Sparkfun could learn a lot from adafruit in this regard) however the component values are printed on the PCB silk-screen; furthermore no mention of LCD connection, but the main PCB can serve as a ‘backpack’ and therefore the pins line up.

To make experimenting with this kit easier I soldered in some header pins to the LCD and matching socket to the main PCB; as well as adding pins for an FTDI cable (5V) to allow reprogramming direct from the Arduino IDE:


So there are in fact two ways to reprogram the microcontroller – either pull it out and insert into another Arduino board, or do it in-place with a 5V FTDI cable. Either way should be accessible for most enthusiasts. At this point one can put the screen and LCD together and have a test run. Find a nice smooth 5V DC power source (from an existing Arduino is fine), or perhaps plug it into USB via a 5V FTDI cable – and fire it up:


Well, that’s a start. The backlight is on and someone is home. The next step is to get some sort of idea of the measurement range, and compare the accuracy of the completed kit against that of a more professional frequency counter. For this exercise you can observer the kit and my Tek CFC-250 frequency counter measuring the same function generator output:

As you can see the update speed isn’t that lively, and there are some discrepancies as the frequencies move upward into the kHz range. Perhaps this would be an example of the limitations caused by the CPU speed. Next on the to-do list was to make the suggested connection between the function generator kit and the frequency counter. This is quite simple, you can solder the included JST socket into the function generator board, and solder the wires of the lead included with the frequency counter as such:


When doing so, be sure to take notice about which PCB hole is connected to which hole, the colours of the wire don’t match the assumed description on the function generator PCB. Furthermore, the voltage applied via the WAVE pin (the frequency source) should not fall outside of 0~+5V.

As mentioned earlier, this kit is basically a minimalist Arduino board, and this gives the user some scope with regards to modification of the software/sketch. Furthermore, the kit has been released under a Creative Commons by-sa  license. So you can download the schematic, Arduino sketch and EAGLE files and create your own versions or updates. If doing so, don’t forget to attribute when necessary.

Overall, this was anther interesting and easy kit to assemble. It is ideal for beginners as there isn’t that much soldering, they end up with something relatively useful, and if you have a standard Arduino Uno or similar board you can upgrade the firmware yourself.

However as a standalone frequency counter, perhaps not the best choice. Think of this kit as an educational tool – involving soldering, Arduino programming and learning how frequency counters work. In this regard, the kit is well suited.

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. Or join our Google Group.

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, KIT-10140Comments (2)

Project – ZIF socket Arduino-compatible board

In this tutorial we make an Arduino-compatible board that holds the microcontroller in a ZIF socket.

Updated 18/03/2013

Today we are going to make a different type of Arduino-compatible board, one that has a ZIF (“zero insertion force”) socket. Our reason for making this is simple – now and again you may need to program more than one bootrom with a sketch, for example if you were planning to make your own electronics kits that were based on the Arduino system. Your alternative would be to use a chip puller and constantly insert and remove microcontrollers from your usual Arduino or compatible board – which is bad for the board, bad for the chips (the friction and pressure on the legs, as well as possible static build-up), and bad for your wrist.

So here is our problem – we need a board with a ZIF socket:


The Eleven board is great, but we just cannot squeeze in the socket. So instead, let’s make our own. Like any project, the first thing to do is plan the circuit and make a schematic:


You have to hand it to the Arduino team, they have made things very easy for us. As we are not using this board for day to day use, all we need is enough circuitry to enable programming. In this case, the connection between the board and the PC will be made with an FTDI cable (these offer an interface between serial and the USB port):


Furthermore, we will use the 5 V power supply from the USB port via the FTDI cable as well. Easy! So now it is time to collect the required parts:


You will notice in the photo above there is a button, originally I was going to have a reset button, but after testing it proved unnecessary. Our required parts consist of:

  • one 28-pin ZIF socket, 0.3″ width (don’t fall into the trap of ordering the wide one)
  • An Arduino bootrom for testing, etc
  • one 16 MHz ceramic resonator (easier than using a crystal and two capacitors, timing is not critical as this is only a programming board)
  • 6-pin header strip to connect the FTDI cable to the board
  • an FTDI cable (the 5v one)
  • two 0.1uF ceramic capacitors
  • one 10k ohm resistor
  • some rubber feet (to protect your desk when using the board
  • some veroboard
  • hookup wire, some solder, and the usual tools

Before soldering away, it pays to test the circuit on a breadboard. At this stage you can test the operation, program the microcontroller, and test that microcontroller in another board:


Again, you can ignore the button. For testing purposes, I uploaded the “blink” sketch to the microcontroller, then tested that unit in the Eleven. The LED blinked as expected, so all was good. I repeated the process a few times, but uploaded a different sketch every second time, and re-inserted the bootrom between every upload. After ten cycles of doing this, I was confident with the design, so transferred the lot to the permanent veroboard:


The black marks on the board are to help me navigate, for example the arrow means the 5 V rail, etc. Now for the rear end:


There are high-resolution photos in flickr if you want to follow this design exactly.

Before using the veroboard, experience has taught me that they are always dirty and solder doesn’t take too well. If possible, try and clean your veroboard first with some cleaning spray, usually an aerosol package available from most electronics retailers. Or even just a damp cloth, then dry the board afterwards with a dry cloth. Moving on…

Before testing the completed board, please double check the routing and that you have cut the correct PCB tracks. If you are unsure about some solder joints, use the continuity function or resistance function of a multimeter to check for shorts between tracks.

After the board passed those tests, I stuck on the feet – and admired the finished product:


However, it was time to repeat the testing. If I may make a general observation, try and test things as you move along, step by step. For example, with this project, don’t skip the breadboarding step. It is important to check the design works. Don’t skip checking for solder bridges, or not double-check your routing. It is always much easier to fix a mistake when it has been made, then to have to troubleshoot a ‘completed’ project.

But at the end of the day, I now have something that is useful and will save me time during kit production (still in design stage people), making a few blinky offspring,  and prevent damaging my regular boards. High resolution images are available from flickr.

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, atmega328, COM-09420, freetronics, microcontrollers, projects, PRT-09175, tutorial, zif socketComments (6)

Kit Review – adafruit industries XBee adaptor kit

Hello readers

Today we are going to examine a small yet useful kit from adafruit industries – their XBee adaptor kit. The purpose of doing so was to save some money. How? I needed another XBee USB explorer board to connect a PC to an XBee (as we have done in Moving Forward with Arduino – Chapter Fourteen), but they are around Au$33. However I already have an FTDI USB cable, so all I really need is this kit, as it will work with the FTDI cable. So this saves me around $20.

As usual the adafruit kit packaging is simple, safe and reusable:


The components included are good as usual, including a great solder-masked, silk-screened PCB and an excess of header pins. Got to love a bonus, no matter how small:


This did not take very long to assemble at all. After checking the parts against the parts list, it was time to fire up the iron and solder away. As usual the kit is almost over-documented on the adafruit web pages. But that is a good thing…


Be careful when you place R3, make sure it doesn’t lean in towards the end of the IC too much, otherwise they could touch, or even worse – stop the IC from being seated properly:


Regular readers will know I get annoyed when IC sockets are not included with kits – but for the first time it is fine with me. If you use a socket, the IC will be elevated too much and stop the XBee from being inserted onto the board. But apart from R3 almost stopping the show, everything went smoothly. At the time you need to solder in the 2mm header socket strips for the XBee, the easiest way (if possible) is to seat an XBee in the sockets, then into the PCB:


Once you have followed the excellent instructions, the last thing to solder is the pins for the FTDI cable. You can either lay them out flat on the PCB, or insert them through the holes. This is my preferred way, and seating the lot in a breadboard to hold it steady is a good idea:


And finally, we’re finished:


A quick check with Windows to ensure everything is OK:

And we are ready for communications. This was a very simple and inexpensive board to assemble – and excellent value if you need USB connection to your PC and you already have an FTDI cable.

Well I hope you found this review interesting, and helped you think of something new to make with XBees. You can purchase the kit directly from adafruit industries.

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. Or join our new Google Group. 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 adafruit, kit review, part review, WRL-08687, xbeeComments (2)

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