Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Akafugu Nixie Clock

I like Nixie tubes, especially when they are used in clocks, like this one I built a while ago. Although almost all Nixie clocks look the same, sometimes there is one that catches the eye. Such as the case of Agafuku Nixie Clock, designed in (and shipped from) Japan. The first thing to notice is that the final clock built from this kit is complete with enclosure, a rare find in the world of Nixie clock kits. Then, there is the look: simple, yet elegant, compact, yet functional. Obviously, I wanted one. Per, from Akafugu Corporation, graciously accepted to barter their Nixie clock kit for my Wise Clock 4 kit. Following is my brief review.

The Akafugu Nixie clock kit looks professional starting with the box. Here are a few photos to prove that, taken as I was opening the package.

I was surprised to find a power adapter included!

The clock's electronics are distributed onto three PCBs, shown in the photo below:
  • the power board (on the left), containing the 5V regulator and the high voltage switching-mode power supply; this board is SMD-only and all parts are pre-soldered;
  • the control board (on the right), which contains the microcontroller and the Nixie driver; this board is mainly through hole, the sole SMD component (pre-soldered) being the RTC (DS3231);
  • the display board (middle of the photo), designed to fit IN12 Russian Nixie tubes; this board also has some SMD parts pre-soldered (LEDs, connectors etc).

Remarkable and original is the fact that two of the PCBs are actually part of the enclosure: the power board is the back panel, the display board being the front panel. For the back panel, this is pulled off by using only SMDs, with no traces or pads on the outside part of the board. Did I mention that the power board comes with all (SMD) parts already soldered?

The inclusion of the boards as part of the case is a novel approach, worth applying to future projects, with obvious advantages (reduces the number of fasteners/screws/standoffs, eliminates the attachments between the PCBs and the front/end panels etc).

I assembled the clock following the detailed instructions provided. Most of the required soldering is on the control board. Some attention must also be paid to positioning of the Nixie tubes on the display board before soldering them. After about an hour of work I had the Akafugu Nixie clock up and running. The result is shown in the photos below.

Beside being a cool geeky gadget, Akafugu Nixie clock can also be used as a functional alarm clock. The clock's functions are set by using the rotary encoder. Each tube can be lit up by an RGB LED (placed right under). The software, Arduino-compatible, is open source and can be modified using the Arduino IDE, then uploaded through the 6-pin FTDI interface/connector.

An improvement I would do is to allow for the easy replacement of the Nixie tubes, in case one gets burnt out (as it could happen with tubes, in general). This can be achieved by soldering tube socket pins on the display board instead of soldering the tubes directly to the board. I am sure Akafugu thought of this already, but they may have opted against it because it makes the Nixies stick out a bit more. I was actually going to follow up myself with this improvement, but the socket pins I found are too thick (~2mm) to go through the 1.5mm holes.

Overall, I was impressed with how nicely designed and well engineered this clock is. As a kit maker myself, I can appreciate the amount of work that went into creating this kit, from designing the hardware, to choosing the components, to cramming them all in such a compact space, to writing the software. Kudos for making it so easy to assemble, even by a beginner, with spectacular results.

For someone who likes Nixie clocks, the Akafugu Nixie clock is definitely a must-have.
Those who like clocks should add the Akafugu Nixie clock to their collection.
Those who like electronic kits will find the Akafugu Nixie clock kit inspirational.