Monday, September 16, 2013

More open source VFD clocks

I just finished assembling the latest version of akafugu VFD clock, the "MK2". Per, from akafugu, generously sent me the board for testing/review. It comes will all SMD components pre-soldered, and the processor pre-programmed. The rest of the components, all through-hole, I sourced on my own.
Here is a photo of the kit as I put it together (I forgot to include the through-hole resistors though).

Assembling was straightforward thanks to the combination of good board design and easy-to-follow instructions. The result is shown in the photo below.

MK2 has some improvements over version 1:
- newer processor (Atmega32U4, as the one used in Leonardo);
- 5V power source (vs 9V previously);
- direct sketch upload from Arduino IDE (no hacking required);
- integrated support (on-board 24LC256 eeprom) for four-letter-word feature;
- all SMD parts (quite a few actually) come pre-soldered;
- directly compatible with the existing (version 1) VFD display shields;
- better clearance with the VFD display shield (because parts are shorter in height).

In conclusion, MK2 is another winner for akafugu.

I also recently assembled the Ice Tube clock from adafruit. I bought the PCB(s) a while ago (when they were still available for sale on adafruit site) and I sourced the parts on my own. I followed the legendary assembly instructions, but things did not go without a glitch for me. Here is what I learned in the process:
  • The Ice Tube clock is not Arduino-compatible as I initially thought (see here). It cannot be programmed from the Arduino IDE and it does not have an FTDI interface/connector. The processor (I used Atmega328, but ATmega168 should work with the base software too) uses the internal 8MHz oscillator and an external 32kHz crystal. This crystal, in conjunction with TIMER2 (see file iv.c), is the heart of the clock "mechanism". (More details on the design can be found here.)
  • The high voltage for the tube is produced with impulses generated from an output pin of the processor (instead of using an external chip, like may other designs). Therefore, high voltage is not there until the chip is correctly programmed.
  • Programming the chip was a bit of a challenge; I used the makefile to build the hex file from the source, but programmed the chip with avrdude directly, as shown in this screenshot (click for bigger picture).

  • IV-18 tubes bought on ebay, even when they are new (with the wire terminals intact) can be defective. Out of the 5 tubes I got, 4 had a blackened spot on the back and one had a white spot, as shown in the photo below. Guess which one did not work.

  • Inserting all 24 wire terminals of the IV-18 tube in their holes is a challenge. I would much rather prefer the solution adopted by akafugu in their VFD clock, with half terminal holes, opening in a big empty circle (as shown below, photo from akafugu).

  • IC sockets, particularly PLCC28, although bought from digikey, can be "defective". Unlike the DIP IC sockets which press each IC pin on two sides, the PLCC28 sockets actually press against the IC pins on one (external) side only. It took me many minutes to figure out that the tube was not lighting up because one socket pin was loose and did not make contact with the IC's pin.
  • MAX6921 VFD driver used in the Ice Tube clock is more than twice as expensive as HV5812 VFD driver used in MK2. Yet, adafruit's Ice Tube Clock is still the cheapest complete (including enclosure) VFD clock kit out there.

Overall, building the Ice Tube clock was a pleasant and rewarding experience, which I recommend to kit-builders at any level. This clock looks compact, sleek, stylish, and stands out in my clock collection.

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