Accurate timing is one of the most basic requirements for so much of the technology we take for granted, yet how many of us pause to consider the component that enables us to have it? The quartz crystal is our go-to standard when we need an affordable, known, and stable clock frequency for our microprocessors and other digital circuits. Perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at it.
The first electronic oscillators at radio frequencies relied on the electrical properties of tuned circuits featuring inductors and capacitors to keep them on-frequency. Tuned circuits are cheap and easy to produce, however their frequency stability is extremely affected by external factors such as temperature and vibration. Thus an RF oscillator using a tuned circuit can drift by many kHz over the period of its operation, and its timing can not be relied upon. Long before accurate timing was needed for computers, the radio transmitters of the 1920s and 1930s needed to stay on frequency, and considerable effort had to be maintained to keep a tuned-circuit transmitter on-target. The quartz crystal was waiting to swoop in and save us this effort.
It’s obvious this was a controversial product, and maybe the Hackaday verdict had been a little summary based on the hammer aspect of the story. So to get further into what all the fuss had been about I ordered a Pi Zero and the solderless pin kit to try for ourselves.
If you have a traditional regulated power supply that you want to make adjustable, you’ll have somewhere in the circuit a feedback line driven by a potential divider across the output. That divider will probably incorporate a variable resistor, which you’ll adjust to select your desired voltage.
The problem with using a standard pot to adjust something like a power supply is that a large voltage range is spread across a relatively small angle. The tiniest movement of the shaft results in too large a voltage change for real fine-tuning, so clearly a better means of adjustment is called for. And in many cases that need is satisfied with a ten-turn potentiometer, simply a pot with a 10 to 1 reduction drive built-in.
If you’re making a circuit that is designed to plug into a breadboard, you have a problem. Those 0.1″ header pins are square, and the metal leaf contacts inside a solderless breadboard will eventually get bent out of shape. You only need to look at the breadboards in a university electronics lab for evidence of this.
The solution to this problem is to make pins that are as similar as possible to the leads on DIP chips. They should be flat, of course, and it would be nice if they didn’t have those plastic spacers and didn’t present a blob of solder on the top side of the chip.
Flip-Pins are the answer. Think of them as standard pin headers, but meant for breadboard applications, and having a great aesthetic for your projects. They’re designed to look as much like standard IC pins as possible, and have the same thickness (0.020″) as standard DIP leads.
The application of Flip-Pins is a lot like soldering standard 0.1″ pin headers. The pins ship in neat little plastic retainers and can be tacked onto a PCB with just a little bit of solder. There’s a datasheet, and models for Altium, KiCad, and Eagle.
Flip-Pins grew out of another project, the OSHChip, to create an all-in-wonder chip containing an ARM microcontroller, radio, and a crossbar so any pin can be mapped to any peripheral. The OSChip itself is very cool, but one question constantly asked of the creator of this neat chip was, ‘where did you get those pins?’ From a factory. Now you can buy these pins from Evil Mad Scientist and Tindie. They’re a bit pricey, but they do look great.
When looking across the discrete components in your electronic armory, it is easy to overlook the humble diode. After all, one can be forgiven for the conclusion that the everyday version of this component doesn’t do much. They have none of the special skills you’d find in tunnel, Gunn, varicap, Zener, and avalanche diodes, or even LEDs, instead they are simply a one-way valve for electrical current. Connect them one way round and current flows, the other and it doesn’t. They rectify AC to DC, power supplies are full of them. Perhaps you’ve also used them to generate a stable voltage drop because they have a pretty constant voltage across them when current is flowing, but that’s it. Diodes: the shortest Hackaday article ever.
Not so fast with dismissing the diode though. There is another trick they have hiding up their sleeves, they can also act as a switch. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, after all a quick look at many datasheets for general purpose diodes should reveal their description as switching diodes.
So how does a diode switch work? The key lies in that one-way valve we mentioned earlier. When the diode is forward biased and conducting electricity it will pass through any variations in the voltage being put into them, but when it is reverse biased and not conducting any electricity it will not. Thus a signal can be switched on by passing it through a diode in forward bias, and then turned off by putting the diode into reverse bias.
Everyone has a chip-of-shame: it’s the part that you know is suboptimal but you keep using it anyway because it just works well enough. Maybe it’s not what you would put into a design that you’re building more than a couple of, but for a quick and dirty lashup, it’s just the ticket. For Hackaday’s [Adam Fabio], that chip is the TIP120 transistor. Truth be told, we have more than one chip of shame, but for audio amplification purposes, it’s the LM386.
The LM386 is an old design, and requires a few supporting passive components to get its best performance, but it’s fundamentally solid. It’s not noise-free and doesn’t run on 3.3 V, but if you can fit a 9 V battery into your project and you need to push a moderate amount of sound out of a speaker, we’ll show you how to get the job done with an LM386.
If your introduction to digital electronics came more years ago than you’d care to mention, the chances are you did so with 5V TTL logic. Above 2V but usually pretty close to 5V is a logic 1, below 0.8V is a logic 0. If you were a keen reader of electronic text books you might have read about different voltage levels tolerated by 4000 series CMOS gates, but the chances are even with them you’d have still used the familiar 5 volts.
This happy state of never encountering anything but 5V logic as a hobbyist has not persisted. In recent decades the demands of higher speed and lower power have given us successive families of lower voltage devices, and we will now commonly also encounter 3.3V or even sometimes lower voltage devices. When these different families need to coexist as for example when interfacing to the current crop of microcontroller boards, care has to be taken to avoid damage to your silicon. Some means of managing the transition between voltages is required, so we’re going to take a look at the world of level shifters, the circuits we use when interfacing these different voltage logic families.