Atmel Removes Full-Swing Crystal Oscillator

It is one of our favorite chips, and the brains behind the Arduino UNO and its clones, and it’s getting a tweak (PDF). The ATmega328 and other megaX8-series chips have undergone a subtle design change that probably won’t affect you, but will cause hours of debugging headaches if it does. So here’s your heads-up. The full-swing oscillator driver circuitry is being removed. As always, there’s good news and bad news.

The older ATmega chips had two different crystal drivers, a low-power one that worked for lower speeds, and higher-current version that would make even recalcitrant crystals with fat loading capacitors sing. This “full-swing” crystal driver was good for 16 MHz and up.

The good news about the change is that the low-power crystal driver has been improved to the point that it’ll drive 16 MHz crystals, so you probably don’t need the full-swing driver anymore unless you’re running the chip at 20 MHz (or higher, you naughty little overclocker).

This is tremendously important for Arduinos, for instance, which run a 16 MHz crystal. Can you imagine the public-relations disaster if future Arduinos just stopped working randomly? Unclear is if this is going to ruin building up a perfboard Arduino as shown in the banner image. The full-swing oscillator was so robust that people were getting away with a lot of hacky designs and sub-optimal loading capacitor choices. Will those continue to work? Time will tell.

The bad news is that if you were using the full-swing oscillator to overcome electrical noise in your environment, you’re going to need to resort to an external oscillator instead of a simple crystal. This will increase parts cost, but might be the right thing to do anyway.

Whenever anyone changes your favorite chip, there’s a predictable kerfuffle on the forums. An Atmel representative said they can get you chips with the full-swing driver with a special order code. We’re thinking that they’re not going to let us special order ten chips, though, so we’re going to have to learn to live with the change.

The ATmega328 has already gotten a makeover, and the new version has improved peripheral devices which are certainly welcome. They don’t have the full-swing oscillator onboard, so you can pick some up now and verify if this change is going to be a problem for you or not. We don’t have any of the new chips to test out just yet.

Thanks to [Ido Gendel] for tipping us off to the change in our comment section! If you have any first-hand experience with the new chips, let us know in the comments and send in a tip anytime you trip over something awesome during your Internet travels.

Improving the RTL-SDR

The RTL-SDR dongle is a real workhorse for radio hacking. However, the 28.8 MHz oscillator onboard isn’t as stable as you might wish. It is fine for a lot of applications and, considering the price, you shouldn’t complain. However, there are some cases where you need a more stable reference frequency.

[Craig] wanted a stable solution and immediately thought of a TCXO (Temperature Compensated “Xtal” Oscillator). The problem is, finding these at 28.8 MHz is difficult and, if you can find them, they are relatively expensive. He decided to make an alternate oscillator using an easier-to-find 19.2 MHz crystal.

Continue reading “Improving the RTL-SDR”

Oscillator Design by Simulation

[Craig] wanted to build a 19.2 MHz crystal oscillator. He knew he wanted a Pierce oscillator, but he also knew that getting a good design is often a matter of trial and error. He used a 30-day trial of a professional simulation package, Genesys from Keysight, to look at the oscillator’s performance without having to build anything. He not only did a nice write up about his experience, but he also did a great video walkthrough (see below).

The tool generates a sample schematic, although [Craig] deleted it and put his own design into the simulator. By running simulations, he was able to look at the oscillator’s performance. His first cut showed that the circuit didn’t meet the Barkhausen criteria and shouldn’t oscillate. Unfortunately, his prototype did, in fact, oscillate.

Continue reading “Oscillator Design by Simulation”

Strobe Light Slows Down Time

Until the 1960s, watches and clocks of all kinds kept track of time with mechanical devices. Springs, pendulums, gears, oils, and a whole host of other components had to work together to keep accurate time. The invention of the crystal oscillator changed all of that, making watches and clocks not only cheaper, but (in general) far more accurate. It’s not quite as easy to see them in action, however, unless you’re [noq2] and you have a set of strobe lights.

[noq2] used a Rigol DG4062 function generator and a Cree power LED as a high-frequency strobe light to “slow down” the crystal oscillators from two watches. The first one he filmed was an Accutron “tuning fork” movement and the second one is a generic 32,768 Hz quartz resonator which is used in a large amount of watches. After removing the casings and powering the resonators up, [noq2] tuned in his strobe light setup to be able to film the vibrations of the oscillators.

It’s pretty interesting to see this in action. Usually a timekeeping element like this, whether in a watch or a RTC, is a “black box” of sorts that is easily taken for granted. Especially since these devices revolutionized the watchmaking industry (and a few other industries as well), it’s well worthwhile to take a look inside and see how they work. They’re used in more than just watches, too. Want to go down the rabbit hole on this topic? Check out the History of Oscillators. Continue reading “Strobe Light Slows Down Time”

Crystal Radio: It’s a Match!

A crystal radio is often a kid’s first introduction to building something electronic. [Billy Cheung] is a crystal radio builder who wants to “make crystal radios as easy to use as regular radios.” He’s built many sets, but his latest is one that not only fits in a matchbox, but uses the matchbox as a variable tuning inductor.

There’s no oatmeal box in this design and just a few components. The matchbox contains some ferrite rods and two different windings. By moving the inner part of the matchbox, you can tune different stations. Although the design calls for two fixed capacitors [Billy] found he had enough self resonance (presumably from stray capacitance) that omitting them didn’t hurt his reception of strong signals.

Continue reading “Crystal Radio: It’s a Match!”

Everything You Wanted to Know About Oscillators

Ever wonder how a crystal oscillator works? How does that little metal can with a sliver of quartz start vibrating to produce a clock signal for just about everything we use, while doing it in the accuracy range in the parts per million and cost practically nothing?

Well [Craig] decided its about time for an in depth tutorial  that covers everything you need to know to understand, design, and construct your very own. Wrapped up in a 41 minute video, [Craig]  covers the absolute basic theories and designs, math, datasheet explanation of crystals, and even a practical example of a Pierce crystal oscillator, suitable for use in a HF transceiver. Now you can make your own for your own application no matter if you’re just trying to save a pin on your favorite micro, or making a radio transceiver.

With this wealth of knowledge, whether you are learning for the first time, or just need a refresher, you should join us after the break, kick back and check out this highly informative video.

Continue reading “Everything You Wanted to Know About Oscillators”

Retrotechtacular: Crystals Go to War

More than one of our readers suggested we highlight this beautifully-shot process documentary about the laborious and precise manufacturing of piezoelectric quartz crystals in the early 1940s. Just a few years later, Bell Labs would perfect a method of growing synthetic crystals, sending droves of brave men and daintily-handed women from the Reeves Sound Laboratories to the unemployment line.

Early radio equipment relied upon tuned or L-C circuits for clocking. These were prone to drift by a few kHz, which prompted the use of crystal oscillators for stable frequencies in the 1920s. The lives of our armed forces and those of our WWII allies depended on reliable communication equipment, so the crystal oscillators they used were top shelf, produced by hand from Brazilian crust.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Crystals Go to War”