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Kit review – the Freetronics CUBE4: RGB LED Cube

Introduction

LED cubes are a fascinating item, no matter where you come from the allure of blinking LEDs in various patterns is always attractive. And making your own is a fun challenge that most people can do after some experience with electronics hardware. However most people use single-colour LEDs, as wiring up RGB units triples the complexity of the circuit. Until now.

After much anticipation Freetronics have released their CUBE4 RGB LED cube kit – a simple to assemble and completely-customisable RGB LED cube:

cube4off

Unlike other cubes on the market, this one includes an on-board ATmega32u4 microcontroller with Arduino Leonardo-compatible bootloader and a microUSB socket (… and a lot more) – so you don’t need anything extra to get started. And this gives you many more options when you’re ready to expand. But first let’s put it together and then get it working. Furthermore, keep reading to find out how you can have a chance to win your own Cube4.

Assembly

Inside the box are all the parts needed for the kit, even a microUSB cable to power the Cube4 and also communicate with it:

parts

There’s 64 RGB LEDs in that bag, so get ready for some soldering. The base PCB is well laid out, labelled and gives you an idea for the expansion possibilities:

PCBtop

Plenty of room to add your own circuitry – and the bottom:

PCBbottom

As you can see in the image above, there’s an XBee-compatible pinout if you want to add communication via wirless serial link, plenty of prototyping space for your own additions and many other ports are brought out to open pads. There’s even a 5V supply pair to test LEDs, and a blue “power on” LED (which can be deactivated if necessary by cutting a track on the PCB).

The first job is to mount the LEDs on their plane PCBs – there are four, one for each horizontal plant. It’s very important to get the LEDs in the right way round, and there’s markers on the PCB that you can match up the longest leg of the LED with:

LEDinsertdirection

From experience I found it best to insert all the LEDs:

LEDsinserted

…and then do a final mass check of the alignment – which is easy if you hold the plane up to one side and compare the legs, for example:

checkLEDdirection

At this stage it’s a great idea to double-check your LED alignment. After a while you’ll have the LEDs soldered in and trimmed nicely:

LEDssoldered

The next step was getting the vertical sticks aligned in order to hold the LED planes (above). Each stick is for a particular spot on the PCB so check the label on the stick matches the hole on the PCB. It’s incredibly important to make sure you have them perfectly perpendicular to the PCB, so find something like a square-edge or card to help out:

alignstick

Once you have a row of sticks in you can start with a plane then insert a stick on the other side, for example:

firstplanerubberband

Note the use of the elastic band to hold things together – they really help. Then it’s a simple matter of adding the planes and holding it together with another band:

fourplanespresolder

… at which point you can do a final check that all the planes and sticks are inserted correctly. Then solder all the copper spots together and you’re done.

Don’t forget to turn the cube upside-down as there’s soldering to be done on the bottom of the planes as well:

solderupsidedownaswell

 Although it might look a little scary, the final assembly isn’t that difficult – just take your time so it’s right the first time. You can view the following video which describes the entire process:

Once you’re confident that all the soldering has been completed – double-check for joints that aren’t completely bridged with solder as they will affect the operation of the cube. Then you can plug in the USB cable and watch the preloaded test/demonstration sketch in action:

If all your LEDs are working, awesome. If not – check the soldering. If there’s still some rogues – check your individual LEDs. Some of you are probably thinking “well that isn’t too colourful” – the problem is the camera, not the Cube4. If you see it in real life, it’s much better.

Operation

There are two methods of controlling the Cube4. It is delivered with a preloaded sketch that runs the demonstration showed in the video above, and then accepts commands over a serial/USB connection. So you can simply plug it in, fire up a terminal program (or the Arduino IDE serial monitor) and send text commands to do various things. If you type “help ;” the syntax is returned which explains how you can do things:

helpscreen

This serial control mode allows control by any type of software that can write to a serial port. Furthermore any other external hardware that can create or introduce serial text can also control the Cube4. For example by mounting an XBee module underneath and linking it to the TX/RX lines gives you a wireless Cube4. By doing so you can control it with a Raspberry Pi or other system.

Furthermore the Cube4 is also an Arduino Leonardo-compatible board in the same way as a Freetronics LeoStick.  With the use of the Cube4 Arduino library you can then create your own sketches which can visualise data with very simple to use functions for the Cube4. There are some great example sketches with the library for some inspiration and fun. Over time I look forward to using the Cube4 in various ways, including adding an Electric Imp IoT device and making another clock (!).

More demonstrations

Check out this Argot IoT demonstration.

Conclusion

This is the most approachable RGB LED cube kit on the market, and also the easiest to use. You don’t need to understand programming to try it out – and if you do it’s incredibly versatile. A lot of work has gone into the library, API and hardware design so you’ve got an expandable tool and not just some blinking LEDs. For more information visit the Freetronics website.  Larger photos available on flickr. And if you made it this far – check out my new book “Arduino Workshop” from No Starch Press.

LEDborder

The CUBE4 in this review is a promotional consideration from Freetronics. 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, argot, cube, freetronics, jaycar, kit review, LED, leonardo, leostick, rgb, XC4274

Kit Review – SC/Jaycar Garbage and Recycling Reminder

Introduction

Every month Australian electronics magazine Silicon Chip publishes a variety of projects, and in January 2013 they published the “Garbage Recycling Reminder” by John Clarke. Jaycar picked it up and now offers a kit, the subject of our review. This kit solves the old but recurring (for some) problem – which bin to put out, and when!

The kit offers a simple way of keeping track of the bin schedule, and is suitable for up to four bins. With a simple user-interface consisting of a button and LED for each bin – once setup the reminder can easily be used by anyone. It allows for weekly, fortnightly and alternate fortnights – which is perfect for almost every council’s schedule.

Assembly

The kit arrives in typical Jaycar fashion:

and includes everything you need, including an enclosure, front panel sticker and battery:

 The PCB is well done, and routed nicely to fit inside the enclosure:

Now to get started. The instructions included are a reprint of the magazine article, and as Jaycar have modified the kit a little, their notes and photos are also included. However there isn’t anything to worry about.

Assembly is straight-forward, the only annoying thing was the assumption that the constructor will use off-cuts for jumper links. Instead – use your own header pins:

Furthermore, when soldering in the resistors and 1N914 diodes next to the LEDs – leave them floating so you can move them a bit to make way for the LEDs:

This is also a good time to check the buttons line up with the holes drilled into the front panel (a template is included with the instructions):

At this point you can fit the LEDs to the PCB, and carefully match it up with the drilled lid. You are supplied with a red, green, yellow and blue LED – which generally match the bin lid colours from various councils. Screw the PCB into the lid then solder the LEDs in – after double-checking they protrude out of lid. Then insert the battery and make a final test:

If you made it that far, you can apply the sticker included to illustrate the front panel. To save time we cut the sticker up for a minimalist look. However you now need to set-up the jumpers before closing the box up. There is a set of three pins for each bin, and a jumper can bridge the first two or last two pins, or none. If you don’t bridge them – that bin is weekly. If you bridge the first two – that bin is fortnightly from the setup day. If you bridge the last two – that bin is fortnightly from the next week, for example:

So you can easily set it up for a weekly bin and an alternating-fortnight pair of bins. Once you’ve setup the jumpers, screw up the box and you’re done.

Operation

Once you’ve set the jumpers up as described earlier, you just need to execute the programming function at the time you want the reminders to start every week. For example, if your weekly collection is 4 AM on a Thursday – do the programming around 5pm Wednesday night – that will then be the time the LEDs start blinking. When you put out the appropriate bin, press the button below the matching bin LED to stop the blinking. You can control the number of bins – so if you only have two bins, only two LEDs will activate. The blinking period is eighteen hours, and you can adjust the start time via the buttons.

How it works

The circuit is based around a Microchip PIC16LF88 and has an incredibly low current draw, around 15 uA when the LEDs aren’t blinking. This allows the circuit to run for over two years on the included 3v coin cell battery. The internal clock is kept accurate to around 10 minutes per year using an external 32.768 kHz crystal. After a period of use the battery voltage may drop to a level insufficient to adequately power the LEDs, so each one has a voltage doubler by way of a diode and capacitor – very clever. This ensures LED brightness even with a low battery. For complete details purchase the kit or a copy of the January 2013 edition of Silicon Chip.

Now it sits next to the kettle, waiting for bin night…

Conclusion

Personally I needed this kit, so I’m a little biased towards it. However – it’s simple and it works. Kudos to John Clarke for his project. You can purchase it from Jaycar and their resellers, or read more about it in the January 2013 edition of Silicon Chip. Full-sized images available on flickr. This kit was purchased without notifying the supplier.

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 electronics, garbage bin reminder, jaycar, KC5518, kit review, pic, silicon chip, tutorialComments (6)

Kit Review – Silicon Chip Low Capacitance Meter adaptor for DMMs

Hello readers

Time again for another kit review. In the spirit of promoting all things electronic and Australian, we’re going to look at a kit that was published in our electronics magazine Silicon Chip (March 2010) – their Low-capacitance meter adaptor for DMMs. Simply put, it converts capacitance (from a theoretical 1 picofarad) to millivolts, which you can then read with almost any digital multimeter. This is useful as even more expensive multimeters (such as my Fluke 233) only measure down to 1 nanofarad (1000 picofarads). Although this kit is available on the Australian market, the retailers will export to those abroad. If you are outside Australia and having trouble sourcing one, send me an email. Moving on…

Here is our unassuming finished product:

finishedss5

Please note that this is not an open-source product, so you need to either purchase the kit of parts, or a back-issue of Silicon Chip magazine, March 2010 for the schematic and instructions. Now it is time to get started. But before that, how does it work?

Without giving too much away, a very rough explanation would be that a square wave signal is formed, then cleaned up through a Schmitt trigger-inverter. This square wave is then split into two, one signal passing through the capacitor under test and some resistors, and the other signal passing through a calibration variable capacitor and the same value resistors – thereby both signals pass through two different RC circuits. Finally the two signals are fed through a XOR gate, which creates a series of positive pulses that are a function of the capacitor under test.

Kit assembly was not that difficult, like anything just take your time, read the instructions carefully, and don’t rush things. If you are happy with your through-hole soldering skills, and have a power drill, this kit will be easy for you to work with. Unusually for some kits, this one comes with almost everything you need:

partsss3

The quality of the included housing is very good, there are metal threaded inserts for the screws; and even through the ICs are simple 74xx-series, sockets have been included. Resistors are metal film, the trimpots are enclosed multiturns – all very nice. I am a little disappointed with the housing/adhesive label combination however, in the past various kits from Jaycar would have a box with a nice silk-screened, hole-punched front panel. Such is life. The PCB is solder-masked and silk-screened, however a little less denser than PCBs from other kit suppliers:

pcbss1

And thus brings a slight issue with the housing and the PCB – either the PCB is too wide, or the box is too narrow. A quick clip of the PCB with some cutters will fix that:

filedpcbss

The instructions are quite good – they are a reprint of the magazine article, and slightly modified by the kit production company. Furthermore, the silk-screening on the PCB makes things a breeze. The simple passives were easy to install, however take care not to overheat the variable capacitor, their casings can melt rather quickly:

resiscapsss

Following that, the ICs were inserted, and the rotary switch. From experience, one should trim the shaft down to about a 25mm length before soldering it into the board. Take very good care when placing the rotary switch, there is a lump on the switch which matches the small circle at 8 o’clock on the PCB diagram. Finally, don’t forget to alter the switch so it only has four selections. Soldering it in can look difficult, but is not. Just push it into the PCB, checking it is flush, even and all the way in. Then bend a couple of the pins over, invert the PCB and solder away – as such:

solderrotaryss

Now it is time to start on the enclosure. Each end has two banana-type sockets, the left are the full binding-post, and the right are just sockets. Carefully mark where you want to start the holes – the positions are vertically half-way, and horizontally 15mm in from the edge, however double-check yourself. Always check the fit of the socket while drilling, as it is easy to go too far and make the holes too large – at which point you’ll have to buy another enclosure. Once you have the sockets fitted – on the left:

left-endss

and on the right:

right-endss

… you will need to solder the socket rear to the PCB pins (left) and a small link to the PCB pins (right). It is important to get a good, solid connection – as these sockets may come under a lot of use later on. Next it is time to start on the housing. If you can, photocopy the label so you have a drilling template:

labelsss

You will notice in the above photo one of my favourite tools, a tapered reamer. Using that, you can carefully turn a small hole into a larger hole, without risking making a mess with a drill. Again, cut the rotary switch’s shaft before soldering:

drilledboxss

And as punishment for using twitter at the same time, I had ended up drilling the back instead of the front. D’oh. However cosmetic appearance is secondary to functionality, so all is well. Next was to install the PP3 battery snap. The battery will be a tight fit, so a length of heatshrink has been supplied in order to avoid the battery case shorting with the PCB pin:

pp3snapss

And finally we have finished soldering:

donesolderingss

Now it is time for calibration. And for me to get a little cranky, which is quite rare as I am somewhat easygoing. Calibration requires three 1% tolerance capacitors, 100 pF, 1000 pF and 10000 pF. And they are not included with the kit. And can not be purchased from any of the kit retailers. So they had to be ordered from Farn… element-14 at a reasonable expense. Considering the kit production company also imports, wholesales and retails electronic components, they could have bought a volume of these special capacitors and added a few dollars to the price of the kit. Such is life. So here are the little buggers:

calibrationcapsss

From top to bottom:

  • Silvered-mica 100 picofarad 1% tolerance, element-14 # 1264880, RS # 495745;
  • Polystyrene 1000 picofarad 1% tolerance, element-14 # 9520651, RS # 495868 (silvered mica) and
  • Polystyrene 10000 picofarad 1% tolerance, element-14 # 3358951, RS # 495953 (silvered mica)

However it is worth the effort to chase them down. There is no point using this kit if you calibrate with normal capacitors; their tolerance can be as much as 20 percent either way. Thankfully the calibration process is quite simple. You will need a small, plastic flat-blade screwdriver to make the adjustments, as your body has stray energy which can alter the capacitance measurements.

Before starting, connect your multimeter to the output sockets and set the range to millivolts – then adjust the variable capacitor until you have the meter display as close to zero as possible. This is used to ‘null out’ stray capacitance. Next, set the dial to A, connect the 100 pF capacitor to the input posts, and adjust VR3 until the meter displays one volt DC – this represents 100.0 picofarads:

cal1ss

I could not for the life of me get this to 1 volt. After fitting the case at the end, I tried again with the case on with the same result. It is very important to get the capacitor as close as possible to the binding posts, with such small values stray capacitance can affect the result. However in my line of work, one-tenth of a picofarad is not relevant. For now. Next, set the dial to B, connect the 1000 pF capacitor, and adjust VR2 until the meter displays 1 volt – this represents 1000 picofarads:

cal2ss

Excellent – spot on. Unfortunately the leads on my 10000 pF capacitor were not long enough to attach into the binding posts, so that step had to be passed. I will have to re-order the correct part next week and calibrate then. However the other two setting are basically working perfectly, which is a good indication for the general performance of the kit. Kudos to Jim Rowe from Silicon Chip magazine for this design. Before closing up the enclosure, I decided to wrap the battery with some paper, as having it  rub up against other parts is not a good idea:

battpaperss

Now for a test run – time to measure the smallest capacitors I have in stock, first a 4.7 picofarad ceramic:

4p7ss

and next, a 12 picofarad ceramic:

12p0ss

Excellent, we can call these readings a success. I was also quite amazed that the tolerance of the cheap ceramic capacitors was so low. Note that in real-life, you may not be able to have the capacitor under test directly connected to the binding posts. In these cases you will need a short set of heavy-gauge leads to the test capacitor. If you do this, you will need to adjust the variable capacitor to reset the display to account for stray capacitance in the leads.

In conclusion, this kit has proved very successful, with regards to assembly, the quality of components and instructions, and of course the final result. I made a few errrors with regards to the housing, but that didn’t affect the final result. And for less than fifty Australian dollars, I have a very low value capacitance meter. However in due course I would consider the purchase of a full LCR meter for greater accuracy and ease of frequent use (some can measure down to 0.1 picofarad). But for the time being, this has been an excellent, educational  and affordable solution. You can purchase the kit directly from Jaycar. High resolution images are available on flickr.

So 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.

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

Posted in capacitance meter, jaycar, KC5493, kit review, learning electronicsComments (2)


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