Hackaday Links: March 13, 2016

Way back in 2014, Heathkit was a mystery. We knew someone was trying to revive the brand, but that was about it. Adafruit pulled out all the stops to solve this mystery and came up with nothing. The only clue to the existence of Heathkit was a random person who found a geocache in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Since then, Heathkit has released an odd AM radio kit and $150 antenna. These offerings only present more mysteries, but at least [Paul] was finally rewarded for finding the Heathkit geocache. Heathkit sent [Paul] the AM radio kit. He says it’s neat and well documented.

[David] is doing his masters thesis on, “The motivation of the maker community”. That means empirical data, and that (usually) means surveymonkey. You can take his survey on the motivations of the maker community here.

America’s best loved companies, Verizon and Makerbot, together at last.

The BeagleBone Black was launched in 2013. The BeagleBone Green – a Seeed joint – showed up last August. The BeagleBone Blue, released just a few months ago, is a collaboration between the UCSD engineering department and TI. Now there’s the BeagleBone Enhanced. Yes, they should have picked another color. Perhaps ecru. The BB Enhanced sports one Gigabyte of RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, two USB ports and two USBs via an expansion header, optional serial NOR Flash for a bootloader, optional six-axis gyro, and optional barometer.

Atmel is changing a few AVRs. There is a new die for the ATMega 44, 88, 168, and the ‘Arduino chip’, the ATMega328. Most of the changes are relatively inconsequential – slightly higher current consumption in power save mode – but one of these changes is going to trip up a lot of people. The Device ID, also known as the source of the avrdude: initialization failed, rc=-1 error, has changed on a lot of chips.

Makeit Labs in Nashua, New Hampshire has a problem. They were awarded $250,000 in tax credits to help them move and renovate. Sounds like a very good problem, right? Not so: they need to sell these tax credits before the end of the month, or they lose them. They’re looking for a few businesses in New Hampshire to buy these tax credits. From [Peter Walsh]: “Under the credit program, a typical business donating $10,000 would save $9,000 on their state and federal taxes! That $10,000 donation would cost them only $1006!” Does that make sense? No, it’s taxes, of course not. If you’re a business in New Hampshire and are looking to reduce your tax burden, this is the solution.

So I mentioned MRRF, right? You should go to MRRF. It’s next weekend.

When Are 8 Bits More Than 32?

Whenever we write up a feature on a microcontroller or microcontroller project here on Hackaday, we inevitably get two diametrically opposed opinions in the comments. If the article featured an 8-bit microcontroller, an army of ARMies post that they would do it better, faster, stronger, and using less power on a 32-bit platform. They’re usually right. On the other hand, if the article involved a 32-bit processor or a single-board computer, the 8-bitters come out of the woodwork telling you that they could get the job done with an overclocked ATtiny85 running cycle-counted assembly. And some of you probably can. (We love you all!)

redblue_pillWhen beginners walk into this briar-patch by asking where to get started, it can be a little bewildering. The Arduino recommendation is pretty easy to make, because there’s a tremendous amount of newbie-friendly material available. And Arduino doesn’t necessarily mean AVR, but when it does, that’s not a bad choice due to the relatively flexible current sourcing and sinking of the part. You’re not going to lose your job by recommending Arduino, and it’s pretty hard to get the smoke out of one.

But these days when someone new to microcontrollers asks what path they should take, I’ve started to answer back with a question: how interested are you in learning about microcontrollers themselves versus learning about making projects that happen to use them? It’s like “blue pill or red pill”: the answer to this question sets a path, and I wouldn’t recommend the same thing to people who answered differently.

For people who just want to get stuff done, a library of easy-to-use firmware and a bunch of examples to crib learn from are paramount. My guess is that people who answer “get stuff done” are the 90%. And for these folks, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to recommend an Arduino variant — because the community support is excellent, and someone has written an add-on library for nearly every gizmo you’d want to attach. This is well-trodden ground, and it’s very often plug-and-play.

Continue reading “When Are 8 Bits More Than 32?”

Bye-bye ATmega328P, Hello 328PB!

We never have enough peripherals on a microcontroller. Whether it’s hardware-driven PWM channels, ADCs, or serial communication peripherals, we always end up wanting just one more of these but don’t really need so many of those. Atmel’s new version of the popular ATmega328 series, the ATmega328PB, seems to have heard our pleas.

We don’t have a chip in hand, but the datasheet tantalizes. Here’s a quick rundown of the new features:

  • Two more 16-bit timer/counters. This is a big deal when you’re writing code that’s not backed up by an operating system and relies on the hardware for jitter-free timing.
  • Two of each USART, SPI, and I2C serial instead of one of each. Good when you use I2C devices that have limited address spaces, or when you need to push the bits out really fast over SPI.
  • Ten PWM channels instead of six. This (along with the extra 16-bit timers) is good news for anyone who uses PWM — from driving servos to making music.
  • Onboard capacitive sensing hardware: Peripheral Touch Controller. This is entirely new to the ATmega328PB chip, and looks like it’ll be interesting for running capacitive sense buttons without additional ICs. It relies on Atmel’s QTouch software library, though, so it looks like it’s not a free-standing peripheral as much as an internal multiplexer with maybe some hardware-level filtering. We’ll have to look into this in detail when we get our hands on one of the chips.

So what does this mean for you? A quick search of the usual suspects shows the chips in stock and shipping right now, and there’s an inexpensive dev kit available as well. If you write your own code in C, taking advantage of the new features should be a snap. Arduino folks will have to wait until the chips (and code support) work their way into the ecosystem.

Thanks [Peter van der Walt] for the tip!

Microchip To Acquire Atmel for $3.56 Billion

Just last week, there was considerable speculation that Microchip would buy Atmel. The deal wasn’t done, and there was precedent that this deal wouldn’t happen – earlier this year, Dialog made an approach at Atmel. Now, though, the deal is done: Microchip will acquire Atmel for $3.56 Billion.

There are three main companies out there making microcontrollers that are neither ancient 8051 clones or ARM devices: TI’s MSP430 series, Microchip and Atmel. Microchip has the very, very popular PIC series microcontrollers, which can be found in everything. Atmel’s portfolio includes the AVR line of microcontrollers, which are also found in everything. From phones to computers to toasters, there’s a very high probablitiy you’re going to find something produced by either Atmel or Microchip somewhere within 15 feet of your person right now.

For the hobbyist electronic enthusiast, this has led to the closest thing we have to a holy war. Atmel chips were a little easier (and cheaper) to program, but were a little more expensive. Microchip’s chips have a very long history and proportionally more proper engineers who are advocates. PIC isn’t Arduino, though, a community that has built a large and widely used code base around the AVR family.

Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel follows several mergers and acquisitions in recent months: NXP and Freescale, Intel and Altera, Avago and Broadcom, and On Semiconductor and Fairchild. The semiconductor industry has cash and wants to spend it. What this means for the Atmel product line is left to be seen. The most popular micros probably won’t be discontinued, but if you’re using unpopular Atmel micros such as the ATtiny10 you might want to grab a reel or two before they’re EOL’d.

 

SPI: Let Go and Use the Force

Take a leap the next time you use SPI and don’t poll for the busy flag. “What, are you crazy? That’s the whole point of the busy flag! It’s a quick check to make sure you don’t kill a byte waiting to be shifted out!” Sure, we thought the same thing, but the other side of the coin is that it takes time to check the busy flag, and that’s time he could be transmitting data. [bigjosh2] calculates that his technique saves 20% of those wasted cycles in this particular case. And he’s “using the force” only because he’s a Jedi master able to rely on the cycle count of a chunk of assembly code.

He’s working with an AVR processor, and pumping out bits to drive the vintage LED display pictured above. The ancient chips don’t have buffered SPI so he has to blank the display while shifting new data in to prevent it from glitching. Because the display blank during the SPI transmission, the slower it goes, the dimmer the lights.

He attacks the problem with synchronous code. It takes 2 cycles for the hardware SPI to send each bit, so he twiddles his thumbs (that’s exactly what he wrote in his code comments) for 16 cycles before reloading the SPI register with his next value. This leaves it up to faith in the silicon that the shifting will always take the same number of cycles, but the nice thing about hardware is that it’s deterministic. He ends up killing a few cycles in order to save time by not polling the busy flag.

Still need a crash course in what SPI actually does? [Bil Herd] has you covered with this SPI communication demo.

Atmel Introduces Rad Hard Microcontrollers

The Internet is full of extremely clever people, and most of the time they don’t realize how stupid they actually are. Every time there’s a rocket launch, there’s usually a few cubesats tucked away under a fairing. These cubesats were designed and built by university students around the globe, so whenever a few of these cubesats go up, Internet armchair EEs inevitably cut these students down: “That microcontroller isn’t going to last in space. There’s too much radiation. It’ll be dead in a day,” they say. This argument disregards the fact that iPods work for months aboard the space station, Thinkpads work for years, and the fact that putting commercial-grade microcontrollers in low earth orbit has been done thousands of times before with mountains of data to back up the practice.

For every problem, imagined or not, there’s a solution. Now, finally, Atmel has released a rad tolerant AVR for space applications. It’s the ATmegaS128, the space-grade version of the ‘mega128. This chip is in a 64-lead ceramic package, has all the features you would expect from the ATmega128 and is, like any ‘mega128, Arduino compatible.

Atmel has an oddly large space-rated rad-hard portfolio, with space-grade FPGAs, memories, communications ICs, ASICs, memories, and now microcontrollers in their lineup.

While microcontrollers that aren’t radiation tolerant have gone up in cubesats and larger commercial birds over the years, the commercial-grade stuff is usually reserved for low Earth orbit stuff. For venturing more than a few hundred miles above the Earth, into the range of GPS satellites and to geosynchronous orbit 25,000 miles above, radiation shielding is needed.

Will you ever need a space-grade, rad-hard Arduino? Probably not. This new announcement is rather cool, though, and we can’t wait for the first space grade Arduino clone to show up in the Hackaday tips line.

Mergers and Acquisitions: Dialog Buys Atmel

Dialog Semiconductor has announced their acquisition of Atmel for $4.6 Billion.

In recent years, semiconductor companies have been flush with cash, and this inevitably means consolidation. NXP and Freescale merged in March. In June, Intel bought Altera for $16.7 Billion just a week after Avago bought Broadcom in the largest semiconductor deal ever – $37 Billion.

The deal between Dialog and Atmel is not very big; the combined revenue of both companies should be $2.7 Billion, not even in the top-20 semiconductor companies by revenue. However, Atmel is an extremely big player in the Internet of Things and the nebulous ‘maker’ market. Dialog’s portfolio is complementary to Atmel’s, focusing on mobile platforms such as smartphones, e-readers, and tablets. The future is in the Internet of Things, and Dialog wants to get in on the ground floor.

Dialog’s current portfolio is focused mainly on mobile devices, with Bluetooth wearables-on-a-chip, CODEC chips for smartphones, and power management ICs for every type of portable electronics. Atmel’s portfolio is well-established in automotive, smart energy metering, and the maker movement. While the Arduino may be Atmel’s most visible contribution to the industry, the Arduino itself is just a fraction of Atmel’s sales in this space. Atmel parts can already be found Internet of Things products like the LightBlue Bean (an 8-bit AVR), and the Tessel 2 Internet of Things board (a 32-bit Atmel ARM).

Curiously, neither Dialog nor Atmel have many sensor or MEMS products, and the future of wearables, portable electronics, and the Internet of Things will depend on these sensors. STMicroelectronic produces both the microcontrollers and sensors that are packed into phones. TI is nearly a full-stack hardware company, able to produce everything that will go into a wearable or Internet of Things device, all the way from the power regulator to the microcontroller. Although this may be seen as a shortcoming for Dialog and Atmel, both companies combined are still many times smaller than the likes of Avago/Broadcom or NXP/Freescale there’s plenty of room for more acquisitions to round out their future needs.

As for what changes will come to Dialog and Atmel’s portfolio, don’t expect much. Unlike the NXP and Freescale merger where both companies have a lot products that do pretty much the same thing, the portfolios of Dialog and Atmel build on each other’s strengths. You’ll have your 8-bit AVRs for a few more decades, and with Dialog’s focus on connectivity, we can expect even more tools for building the Internet of Things.