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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:

pcbss

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:

partsss

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:

lcdsocketss

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:

itworksss

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:

boardsss

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)

Kit review – Sparkfun Function Generator

Hello readers

[10/09/2011 Update – It would seem that this kit has been discontinued – most likely due to the unavailability of the XR2206 function generator IC – which is a damn shame as it was a great kit. If you are ‘feeling lucky’ eBay seems to have a flood of them. Purchase at your own risk!]

Time for another kit review (anything to take the heat off from the kid-e-log!). Today we will examine the Sparkfun Function Generator kit. This is based from an original design by Nuxie and has now been given a nice thick red PCB and layout redesign. Although quite a bare-bones kit, it can provide us with the following functions:

  • sine waves
  • triangle waves
  • a 5V square wave with adjustable frequency

There are two frequency ranges to choose from, either 15~4544Hz or 4.1~659.87kHz. Your experience may vary, as these values will vary depending on the individual tolerance of your components.  The coarse and fine adjustment potentiometers do a reasonable job of adjustment, however if you were really specific perhaps a multi-turn pot could be used for the fine adjustment. With the use of a frequency counter one could calibrate this quite well.

The maximum amplitude of the sine and triangle waves is 12V peak to peak, and doing so requires a DC power supply of between 14~22 volts (it could be higher, up to 30 volts – however the included capacitors are only rated for 25V). However if you just need the 5V square-wave, or a lower amplitude, a lesser supply voltage such as 9 volts can be substituted. After running the generator from a 20V supply, the 7812 regulator started to become quite warm – a heatsink would be required for extended use. The main brains of the generator are held by the Exar XR2206 monolithic function generator IC – please see the detailed data sheet for more information.

Now what do you get? Not much, just the bare minimum once more. Everything you need and nothing you don’t …

bagpartsss

Upon turfing out the parts we are presented with:

thepartsss

Not a bad bill of materials – nice to see a DC socket for use with a plug-pack. Considering the XR2206 is somewhat expensive and rare here in the relative antipodes, an IC socket would be nice – however I have learned to just shut up and keep my own range in stock now instead of complaining. Having 5% tolerance resistors took me as a surprise at first, but considering that the kit is not really laboratory-precision equipment the tolerance should be fine. One could always measure the output and make a panel up later on.

Once again, I am impressed with the PCB from Sparkfun. Thick, heavy, a good solder mask and descriptive silk-screen:

pcbss

Which is necessary as there aren’t any instructions with the kit nor much on the Sparkfun website. The original Nuxie site does have a bit of a walk through if you like to read about things before making them. Finally, some resistors and capacitors included are so small, a decent multimeter will be necessary to read them (or at least a good magnifying glass!).

Construction was very simple, starting with the low-profile components such as resistors and capacitors:

resiscapsss

followed by the switches, terminal blocks, IC sockets and the ICs:

icsss

and finally the potentiometers:

potsss

The easiest way to solder in the pots while keeping them in line was to turn the board upside down, resting on the pots. They balance nicely and allow a quick and easy soldering job. At this point the function generator is now ready to go – after the addition of some spacers to elevate it from the bench when in use:

finishedss

Now for the obligatory demonstration video. Once again, the CRO is not in the best condition, but I hope you get the idea…


Although a very simple, barebones-style of kit (in a similar method to the JYETech Capacitance meter) this function generator will quickly knock out some functions in a hurry and at a decent price. A good kit for those who are learning to solder, perhaps a great next step from a TV-B-Gone or Simon kit. And for the more advanced among us, this kit is licensed under Creative Commons attribution+share-alike, and the full Eagle design files are available for download – so perhaps make your own? High resolution images are available on flickr.

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

 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 education, kit review, KIT-10015, learning electronics, oscilloscope, test equipment, XR2206Comments (0)


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