Review: Transistor Tester

Amazon has been getting creepier and creepier lately with their recommendations.  Every time I log in, I’m presented with a list of new Blinky LEDs, Raspberry Pi accessories, Arduino shields, and the like. It’s as if they know me. Their customer database paid off when it recommended a $22 transistor / component tester. I’ve been seeing those testers around quite a bit lately. Curiosity got the better of me and my mouse found its way to the “Buy it now with one click” button. Two days later I had a “SainSmart Mega328 Transistor Tester Diode Triode Capacitance ESR Meter MOS/PNP/NPN L/C/R” in my hands.

I’m going to get the obvious out of the way. This thing is built cheap – as cheap as the factories can make it. My particular unit arrived with the LCD flapping in the breeze, hanging on by its flex cable. Fitting the LCD back into the acrylic backlight frame revealed a slightly worrisome twist in that same flex. Thankfully nothing was actually damaged, though I do want to give the flex cable some protection in the future. More on that later. The circuitry was open for all the world to see on the bottom of the tester. The heart of the unit is an ATmega328. Supporting it are a few transistors and a handful of passives.

I didn’t have huge expectations for the tester, but I hoped it would at least power up.  Hooking up a 9 volt battery and pressing the magic button brought the tester to life. Since I didn’t have anything in the socket, it quickly lit up and displayed its maker information – “91make.taobao.com”, and “By Efan & HaoQixin”, then it informed me that I had “No, unknown, or damaged part”.

I had a few resistors lying around the bench (doesn’t everyone?) so I put one in. The tester read it as 9881 ohms. Sure enough, it was a 10K 5% resistor.  Capacitors – ceramic disc, electrolytic, and surface mount all worked as well. The tester even provided ESR values. The real test would be a transistor. I pulled an old  2N2222 in a TO-18 metal can, and popped it in the tester. The damn thing worked – it showed the schematic symbol for an NPN transistor with Collector, Base, and Emitter connected to Pins 1,2,and 3 respectively. Flipping the pins around and re-testing worked as well. The tester showed hFe as 216, and forward voltage as 692 mV, both reasonable numbers for a 2N2222.

triacThe tester worked surprisingly well – it was able to correctly identify BJTs, FETs, even esoteric parts. The only thing it balked on was a linear voltage regulator, which showed up as two diodes. Regulators are a bit more than a simple device though, so I can’t blame the tester there.  The values returned were all reasonable as well. While I don’t have a calibrated lab to check against, the numbers lined up with my Fluke meter.

So what exactly is driving this little tester? There are about 20 versions of it on the market, all of them from China. 91make is a seller on taobao.com, often referred to as “China’s ebay.” 91make’s front page features no less than 7 versions of the transistor tester, with various cases and LCDs. Some digging turned up the history on this device. It turns out the transistor tester is an open source hardware project (translated) originally created by [Markus Frejek], and built upon by [Karl-Heinz Kubbeler] and a number of others. The Subversion repository  for the project shows it is quite active, with the most recent check-in only a few hours ago. The project is also well documented. The English PDF is 103 pages, explaining theory of operation, the circuit itself, and the software. The document even explains some of the shortcomings of the Chinese versions of the tester, including using a zener diode where the original schematic calls for a precision 2.5V reference. Yes, it will work, but it won’t be as accurate as the original.

The devs also don’t officially support the clones which I can understand, considering the quality and changes in design each manufacturer is baking in to their own version. There is  a huge thread on the EEVblog forum covering these testers. Some can be modified to be closer to the official version. In fact, with an ISP tool the intrepid hacker can update the firmware to the current rev from [Karl-Heinz’s] repository.

So the final verdict on this tester is that it is a thumbs up with a small caveat. These testers are built down to a cost (and that cost is as close to zero as possible). They’re great for sorting parts, but they’re no substitute for a higher quality measuring device. I’d also love to see a version that supports the original developers.

Interactive Software to Solve Crosstalk Problems

A link to this video demonstrating PCB cross-talk ended up in my mailbox the other day as I tend to stay on the mailing lists of the some of the high end CAD companies. There are some really interesting and powerful “mega-tools” that do things like plot noise density for decoupling analysis and extremely high speed timing analysis, though the costs of these tools are commensurate with their capabilities. This one is part of the Mentor Graphics PCB Simulation software.

The tool shown does the math needed to predict the induced voltage noise (cross-talk) generated by the proximity of noise sources to the noise susceptible elements, and the tool does so interactively. This is remarkable… in the past we would calculate some examples of trace width, spacing, and the type of signals involved, and then generate some rules of thumb that we tried to apply during the layout process. It was an educated guess that was sometimes not as close as we would have liked.

Virtual Scope Showing Predicted Crosstalk
Virtual Scope Showing Predicted Cross-talk

 

The cool part of this software is the interactive nature. One can learn the effects of placement on cross-talk in real time, which helps build an intuitive understanding.

I will add the standard disclaimer that a tool is exactly that, a tool, and it only represents an approximation of real life at best. It’s tempting to design to the tool itself, and many engineers have learned the limitation of a tool the hard way. Instead think of the tool as another opinion, or as mentioned, a learning aid to gather an intuitive feel for the effects of placement on circuit performance.

“Easy Bake” Vacuformer

One of our favorite things about Hackerspaces is people tend to spend a lot of time building tools, or repairing/upgrading older ones. This is a case of the former. The vacuum former.

[Adam] wrote in to tell us about this vacuum forming machine which he and few other members built for FizzPOP, a hackerspace in Birmingham, England. The device is used to suck hot sagging plastic around a mold. This is accomplished in two parts, the vacuum table and the heating mechanism to put the sheet of plastic into that sagging state.

vacuum-forming-signThe vacuum part of these tools has been easy to DIY for a long time. Pegboard makes for a very good table surface, with some type of vacuum motor (usually a shopvac or two) in an enclosure below the surface. This design adheres to that common formula.

On the other hand, the heating mechanism is more difficult to solve. The plastic is unwieldy and fragile when hot so a frame is very common. Following the example of commercially available models, the FizzPOP crew built a frame that slides along four vertical rails (envision table legs) extending above the vacuum surface. These legs also hold up the heating element. Often this is a nichrome wire array, but not this time. They went with an array of 70 halogen bulbs in a 10×7 orientation. A PCB was milled for each, with a system of bus-bars connecting them all. The trial run showed that the intensity of the bulbs made hotspots directly below each. But a bit more testing helped them solve the issue by keeping the frame further from the array in the heating phase.

The team’s 13-seconds of fame are found after the break. A black sheet of High-Impact Polystyrene (HIPS) is formed around a compilation of tools spelling out the name of the hackerspace.

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An Improved Table Saw Fence With Threaded Rod

Back in the bad old days, table saw fences were terrible. You would have to measure the top and bottom of the fence before each cut, just to make sure the fence was square to the blade. In the 1970s, [Bill Biesemeyer] invented a better table saw fence, one that was always square, and included a measuring tape, right on the table saw.

[Jer] wanted an upgrade for his table saw and came up with what might be the next evolution of the table saw fence. It will always produce a square cut, but unlike the 1970s version, this fence has repeatability. If you rip a board to 1″, move the fence, come back to it after a month, and try to rip another board to 1″, those two boards will be exactly the same width.

The secret to this repeatability is a threaded rod. On the front of the fence is a big, beefy piece of threaded rod with 16 threads per inch. On the fence itself is two nuts, cut in half, welded to the guide, with a lever and cam to lock them in place.

When the lever is up and the nuts are disengaged from the threaded rod, the fence easily moves from one side of the table to the other. When the fence is locked down, it locks to the nearest 16th of an inch, and only the nearest 16th of an inch. While that may seem a little large for a relatively expensive tool, this is wood we’re talking about here. There’s not much reason to make the resolution of this fence any smaller; wait until the humidity changes and you’ll have a piece of wood that’s the desired dimension.

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DIY Automatic Chain Cleaning Machine

Spring is here and it’s time to pull the bikes out of the shed. One think that is often overlooked is bicycle maintenance. No one wants to be that guy walking his bike home after a part failure renders the bike unrideable. One portion of proper bike maintenance is cleaning the chain. A contaminated bike chain can wear quicker, not be as flexible, hinder shifting and increase wear to the drivetrain cogs. Tired of sitting there cleaning his chain with a tooth brush, [Ally] built a washing machine for bike chains.

This machine is quite simple, it’s a plastic box full of turpentine and dish detergent. The chain is submerged in the liquid and a lid is put on the box. At the local hobby store, [Ally] purchased a small gearbox and motor assembly. Powered by a 5vdc wall wart, the output shaft of the gearbox spins a crank that in-turn agitates the box, chain and cleaning liquid. After about 5 minutes the chain is free of grit and gunk. Not bad for a few dollars, spare parts and a little bit of time. Check out the video of it in action after the break.

While you’re waiting for your chain to be cleaned you should work on making your bike pedal in both directions.

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Showing an AVR Programmer Who’s Boss

[Bogdan] makes a good point. When you use a dev board you get programming, debugging, power sourcing, and usually a UART. When you go to the trouble of hooking up a programmer why don’t you get the same thing? Astutely, he points out that all you usually get with programmers is programming. So he set out to add features to the hardware he uses to program XMEGA.

The first part of the trick hinges on his use of PDI programming. This is slightly different from ISP programming. Both use a six-pin connector cable but with PDI two of these pins are unused. He took this opportunity to reroute the chip’s TX and RX pins through the cable, which now gives him an avenue to use a UART-to-USB adapter without adding any cables to his target board. Rather than add a second USB cable he rolled a USB hub into the mix. An LM1117 regulates the 5V USB rail down to 3.3V as a source for the target board.

The programmer being used is an Atmel ICE. As you might imagine he didn’t want to make permanent alterations to it. His modifications are all handled externally, with one IDC cable connecting the programmer to his added circuitry and another headed off to the target board. For now he’s jumpering RX/TX to the programming header but plans to route the signals on future PCBs.

Homemade 3D Carving Duplicator

[Frank] is a guitar builder and has to make a quantity of acoustic guitar bridges that wouldn’t make sense to do manually by hand each time. He wanted a way of duplicating bridges quickly and precisely but he didn’t want to go to a CNC machine. Instead, he build a 3D duplicating machine.

The machine has 3 perpendicular axes, just like a milling machine. Mounted to the Z Axis is an air powered spindle that can reach 40,000 RPM. All 3 axes are moved by the operators hands. Normally, free-hand cutting something like this would be very difficult. [Frank’s] solved this in his machine by using a stylus that is offset from the cutting bit. The stylus is the same effective length and diameter of the cutting bit and is guided over a finished bridge pattern. While the stylus is tracing the pattern, the spindle and bit are removing material from a bridge blank. The stylus is continually moved over the entire pattern bridge until the spindle is finished carving out a new bridge out of the blank.

To aid in lifting the heavy Z Axis and spindle, [Frank] added a counter balance to make tracing the pattern extremely easy. Once the new bridge is carved, it only requires minor sanding to remove the tool marks before being installed on a guitar! [Frank] admits his linear bearings and rails are very rigid but also very expensive. If you’re interested in a less-expensive 3D duplicator, check out this project.