Calibrating A VNA The Proper Way

Those of us who have bought cheap TinyVNA devices for our RF experimentation will be used to the calibration procedure involving short-circuit, 50 Ω, and open terminations, followed by a direct connection between ports. We do this with a kit of parts supplied with the device, and it makes it ready for our measurements. What we may not fully appreciate at the level of owning such a basic instrument though, is that the calibration process for much higher-quality instruments requires parts made to a much higher specification than the cheap ones from our TinyVNA. Building a set of these high-quality parts is a path that [James Wilson] has taken, and in doing so he presents a fascinating discussion of VNA calibration and the construction of standard RF transmission line components.

We particularly like the way that after constructing his short, load and open circuit terminations using high-quality SMA sockets, he put a custom brass fitting 3D printed by Shapeways on the end of each to make them easier to handle while preserving their RF integrity. If we’d bought a set of terminations looking like these ones as commercial products we would be happy with their quality, but the real test lay in their performance. Thanks to a friend he was able to get them tested on instruments with much heftier price tags, and found them to be not far short of the simulation and certainly acceptable within his 3 GHz range.

Curious about VNAs at the affordable end of the spectrum? We took a look at the TinyVNA, which while it is something of a toy is still good enough for lower frequency measurements.

Improve ATtiny Timing Accuracy With This Clock Calibrator

The smaller ATtiny microcontrollers have a limited number of pins, and therefore rely on an internal 9.6 MHz oscillator rather than an external crystal. This oscillator lacks the accuracy of a crystal so individual chips can vary over a significant tolerance from the nominal figure. Happily the resulting timing inaccuracies can be mitigated through a calibration process, and [Stefan Wagner] has incorporated this into his Tiny Calibrator. In addition, it also has the required charge pump circuitry to reset the internal fuses to rescue “bricked” ATtinys, thus allowing those little mistakes to be salvaged.

The board has its own larger ATtiny with a crystal oscillator and an OLED screen, allowing it to measure that of the test ATtiny and generate a correction factor which it applies to the chip. This process is repeated until there is the smallest possible difference from the standard. You can find the files for the hardware on EasyEDA, and the software in a GitHub repository.

It’s important to state that the result will never be as stable as a crystal so you’d be well advised not to put too much trust in those timers, but at least they won’t be as far off the mark as when shipped. All in all this is a handy board to have at hand should you be developing for the smaller ATtiny chips.

Be careful when chasing clock accuracy — it can lead you down a rabbit hole.

The Best Voltage And Current Reference This Side Of A Test Lab

When you measure a voltage, how do you know that your measurement is correct? Because your multimeter says so, of course! But how can you trust your multimeter to give the right reading? Calibration of instruments is something we often trust blindly without really thinking about, but it’s not always an impossible task only for a high-end test lab. [Petteri Aimonen] had enough need for a calibrated current source to have designed his own, and he’s shared the resulting project for all to see.

The cost of a reference source goes up with the degree of accuracy required, and can stretch into the many millions of dollars if you are seeking the standards of a national metrology institute, but fortunately [Petteri]’s requirements were considerably more modest. 0.02% accuracy would suffice. An Analog Devices precision voltage reference driving a low-offset op-amp with a driver transistor supplies current to a 0.01% precision resistor, resulting in a reference current source fit for his needs. The reference is available in a range of voltages, his chosen 2.048 volts gave a 2.048 mA current sink with a 100 ohm resistor.

In a way it is a miracle of technology that the cheapest digital multimeter on the market can still have a surprisingly good level of calibration thanks to its on-chip bandgap voltage reference, but it never hurts to have a means to check your instruments. Some of us still rather like analogue multimeters, but beware — calibration at the cheaper end of that market can sometimes be lacking.

RTFM: ADCs And DACs

It’s tough to find a project these days that doesn’t use an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) or digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for something. Whether these converters come as built-in peripherals on a microcontroller, or as separate devices connected over SPI, I2C, or parallel buses, all these converters share some common attributes, and knowing how to read the specs on them can save you a lot of headaches when it comes to getting things working properly.

There are some key things to know about these devices, and the first time you try to navigate a datasheet on one, you may find yourself a bit confused. Let’s take a deep dive into the static (DC) properties of these converters — the AC performance is complex enough to warrant its own follow-up article.

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Homebrew Calibration For Test Equipment

If you work for a large company, you probably have test equipment that is routinely calibrated. Some companies have their own metrology labs and others send out to an external lab. In a garage lab, you are less likely to do calibrations and — in our experience — that isn’t usually a problem. Still, it is nice to be able to do at least a sanity check on your gear. Also, if you buy old test gear and repair it, it would be nice to be able to check it, as well. [IMSAI guy] built his own little calibration setup, adding to it over the years, and he shares the details in a recent video, which you can see below.

The board started out simply as one voltage regulator and some 0.01% resistors. Over time, though, he added a few more bells and whistles. The setup isn’t going to rival a NIST-traceable lab setup, but for your garage it is perfectly fine.

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Drifting Instrument Presents Opportunity To Learn About Crystal Oscillators

Sure, we all love fixing stuff, but there’s often a fine line between something that’s worth repairing and something that’s cheaper in the long run to just replace. That line gets blurred, though, when there’s something to be learned from a repair.

This wonky temperature-compensated crystal oscillator is a good example of leaning toward repair just for the opportunity to peek inside. [Kerry Wong] identified it as the problem behind a programmable frequency counter reading significantly low. A TCXO is supposed to output a fixed frequency signal that stays stable over a range of temperatures by using a temperature sensor to adjust a voltage-controlled oscillator that corrects for the crystal’s natural tendency to vary its frequency as it gets hotter or colder. But this TCXO was pretty old, and even the trimmer capacitor provided was no longer enough to nudge it back in range. [Kerry] did some Dremel surgery on the case and came to the conclusion that adding another trim cap between one of the crystal’s leads and ground would help. This gave him a much wider adjustment range and let him zero in on the correct 10-MHz setting. [Mr. Murphy] still runs the show, though – after he got the TCXO buttoned up with the new trimmer inaccessible, he found that the frequency was not quite right. But going from 2 kHz off to only 2 Hz is still pretty good.

Whether it’s the weird world of microwave electronics or building a whole-house battery bank, it’s always fun to watch [Kerry]’s videos, and we usually end up learning a thing or two.

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Characterizing A Cheap 500MHz Counter Module

An exciting development over the last few years has been the arrival of extremely cheap instrumentation modules easily bought online and usually shipped from China. Some of them have extremely impressive paper specifications for their price, and it was one of these that caught the eye of [Carol Milazzo, KP4MD]. A frequency counter for under $14 on your favourite online retailer, and with a claimed range of 500 MHz. That could be a useful instrument in its own right, and with a range that significantly exceeds the capabilities of much more expensive bench test equipment from not so long ago.

Just how good is it though, does it live up to the promise? [Carol] presents the measurements she took from the device, so you can see for yourselves. She took look at sensitivity, VSWR, and input impedance over a wide range, after first checking its calibration against a GPS-disciplined standard and making a fine adjustment with its on-board trimmer.

In sensitivity terms it’s a bit deaf, requiring 0.11 Vrms for a lock at 10 MHz. Meanwhile its input impedance decreases from 600 ohms at the bottom of its range to 80 ohms at 200 MHz, with a corresponding shift in VSWR. So it’s never going to match a high-end bench instrument from which you’d expect much more sensitivity and a more stable impedance, but for the price we’re sure that’s something you can all work around. Meanwhile it’s worth noting from the pictures she’s posted that the board has unpopulated space for an SPI interface header, which leaves the potential for it to be used as a logging instrument.

We think it’s worth having as much information as possible about components like this one, both in terms of knowing about new entrants to the market and in knowing their true performance. So if you were curious about those cheap frequency counter modules, now thanks to [Carol] you have some idea of what they can do.

While it’s convenient to buy a counter module like this one, of course there is nothing to stop you building your own. We’ve featured many over the years, this 100MHz one using a 74-series prescaler or this ATtiny offering for example, or how about this very accomplished one with an Android UI?