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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)

Kit Reviews: Snootlab Power ScrewShield and I2C Power Protoshield

Hello Readers

In this article we will examine the first two products from a bundle sent for review by Snootlab, a Toulouse, France-based company that in their own words:

… designs and develops electronic products with an Open Hardware and Open Source approach. We are particularly specialized in the design of new shields for Arduino. The products we create are licensed under CC BY-SA v3.0 (as shown in documents associated with each of our creations). In accordance with the principles of the definition of Open Source Hardware (OSHW), we have signed it the 10th February 2011. We wish to contribute to the development of the ecosystem of “do it yourself” through original designs of products, uses and events.

Furthermore, all of their products are RoHS compliant and as part of the Open Hardware commitment, all the design files are available from the Snootlab website. First, let’s examine the Power Screwshield kit. This is a feature-laden prototyping shield suitable for Arduino Uno and compatible series boards. It can be used with the Mega, however not all of the I/O pins will be available.

Apart from obvious use as a prototyping shield, there are also three other useful features:

  • space for a 16-pin SOIC SMD part in the prototyping area;
  • a full line of screw terminals that connect to all the shield pin connections (in a similar way to the Wingshield Screwshield);
  • and a socket to allow power to be sourced from a standard computer ATX power supply, which brings 5V and 12V DC to the shield. I have never seen this implemented on a shield in the past – a very novel and useful idea.
If you are unfamiliar with the ATX power supply options, consider this image of the tronixstuff bench PC’s internals:
ldo3ss
The connector we would use is the one with the four round pins in a single row. In recent times using PC power supplies as bench power supply units has become quite common, so the designers at Snootlab have taken advantage of this in a very clever way by allowing their Power ScrewShield to use these power supplies. Assembly of the shield is simple and well documented. Although it is self-explanatory, you can download an illustrated guide from here. The kit is packaged in a reusable ESD bag:

bagss

Assembly of the shield is simple and well documented. Although it is self-explanatory, you can download an illustrated guide from here. The kit is packaged in a reusable ESD bag:

… which contains all the necessary parts:

partsss

… and a very high quality PCB:

pcbss

The PCB thickness is over 1mm, and as you can see from the image above the silk-screening describes all the areas of the PCB in a detailed manner. Note that this shield is much larger than a standard Arduino shield – this becomes obvious when compared with a standard prototyping shield:

pcbcompss

Assembly was very smooth and quick. There are a couple of things to watch out for, for example you need to slide the terminal blocks together so that they are flush on the sides, such as:

blocks

… if you want to enable the 12V DC rail from the ATX power lead, short out the jumper SJ1 with a blob of solder:

enable12vss

… when soldering the PC power connector, be sure to make the clamp bracket flush with the socket, for example:

atxss

… and finally, to enable use of the shield’s LED, you need to cut the track in this area on the underside of the PCB:

Although at first the introduction of another Arduino prototyping shield may not have seemed that interesting – this version from Snootlab really goes all out to cover almost every possible need in a shield all at the same time. Sure, it is a lot larger – but none of the board space is wasted – and those terminal blocks would be very hand for making some more permanent-style prototypes with lots of external wiring.  And the ability to accept power from a PC ATX-style power supply unit is certainly original and possibly very useful depending on your application. So if you need to create something that needs a lot of power, a lot of prototyping space, and a lot of wiring – this is the protoshield for you.

For the second half of the review we have the Snootlab I2C Power Protoshield. This is another example of an Arduino prototyping shield with some interesting twists. Apart from employing the same PC power connector as used with the Power ScrewShield, this shield is designed for hard-core I2C-bus enthusiasts. (What’s I2C? Check my tutorials). This is due to the 10-pin HE connector on the edge of the board – it contains pins for SCL, SDA, 3.3V, 5V and GND. With this you could use you own cable connections to daisy-chain other devices communicating via the I2C bus. Again, the shield is a kit and assembly was simple.

Like other Snootlab products, the kit arrives in a reusable ESD bag:

bag

… with a high-quality thick PCB that has a very detailed silk-screen layer:

pcb

… and all the required parts are included:

parts1

When soldering in the shield connectors, using another shield as a jig can save time:

headers

And we’re finished:

finished

One could also mount a small solderless breadboad on the I2C Power Protoshield:

finishedwithbreadboard

One great feature is the inclusion of an NCP1117DT33 3.3V 1A voltage regulator. Using this you can source 3.3 volts at up to one amp of current (only) when using the PC power supply connection. This is a great idea, as in the past it can be too easy to accidentally burn out the FTDI chip on an Arduino Duemilanove by drawing too much current from the 3.3V pin. The use of the external 3.3V supply is controlled by a jumper on the header pins here:

intext3v3

Finally, in the image above you can see the area for external I2C pull-up resistors. Generally with our Arduino the internal pull-up resistors in the microcontroller are adequate, however with many I2C devices in use (e.g. eight 24LC512 EEPROMS!) external pull-ups are required.

After examining the two shields I am impressed with the quality of the components and PCBs, as well as the interesting features described in the review. Theyare certainly unique and very much useful if required, especially the PC power supply connections. Support is available on the Snootlab website, and there is also a customer forum in French (use Google Translate). However the people at Snootlab converse in excellent English and have been easy to contact via email if you have any questions. Stay tuned for more interesting Snootlab product reviews.

Snootlab products including the I2C Power Protoshield and the Power ScrewShield are available directly from their website.

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 Snootlab]

Posted in arduino, kit review, microcontrollers, snootlabComments (13)


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