Review: Calculator Kit Is Just A Few Hacks From Greatness

While most people are satisfied with a calculator application on their smartphone these days, there’s still something to be said for the old fashioned desk calculator. Maybe it’s the fact the batteries last long enough that you can’t remember the last time you changed them, or the feel of physical buttons under your fingers. It could even be the fact that it keeps your expensive smartphone from needing to sit out on the workbench. Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon to see a real-life calculator (or two) wherever solder smoke tends to congregate.

Which is precisely the idea behind this DIY calculator kit. Available from the usual overseas retailers for about $15 USD, it has some hobbyist-oriented features such as the ability to decode resistor color bands, convert hexadecimal numbers, and calculate resistor values for driving LEDs. If you’re going to keep a knock-around calculator on your bench, why not build the thing yourself?

Given the dual nature of this product, a DIY electronics kit and a functional desk calculator for electronic hobbyists, it seems only appropriate to review both aspects of it individually. Which is good, since there may be more to this product than just the sum of its parts.

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Gigatron Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, June 24 at noon Pacific for the Gigatron Hack Chat with Walter Belgers!

There was a time when if you wanted a computer, you had to build it. And not by ordering parts from Amazon and plugging everything together in a case — you had to buy chips, solder or wire-wrap everything, and tinker endlessly. The process was slow, painful, and expensive, but in the end, you had a completely unique machine that you knew inside out because you put every bit of it together.

In some ways, it’s good that those days are gone. Being able to throw a cheap, standardized commodity PC at a problem is incredibly powerful, but that machine will have all the charm of a rubber doorstop and no soul at all. Luckily for those looking to get back a little of the early days of the computer revolution or those that missed them entirely, there are alternatives like the Gigatron. Billed as a “minimalistic retro computer,” the Gigatron is a kit that takes the builder back even further in time than the early computer revolution since it lacks a microprocessor. All the logic of the 8-bit computer is built up from discrete 7400-series TTL chips.

The Gigatron is the brainchild of Marcel van Kervinck and Walter Belgers. Tragically, Marcel recently passed away, but Walter is carrying the Gigatron torch forward and leading a thriving community of TTL-computer aficionados as they extend and enhance what their little home-built machines can do. Walter will stop by the Hack Chat to talk all things Gigatron, and answer your questions about how this improbably popular machine came to be.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 24 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
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Catch The Old School BASIC Bug With This Computer Kit

Does the complexity of modern computing ever get you down? Do you find yourself longing for the old days, where you could actually understand what your desktop machine’s hardware and software was doing at any given moment? You aren’t alone, but unfortunately running a 40+ year old computer as your daily driver isn’t really a viable option.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t have options. [Kostas] writes in to tell us about the “CB2 micro”: a diminutive open source retrocomputer kit that can be built in as little as 30 minutes thanks to its through-hole construction and exceptionally low parts count. When completed the miniature computer is an all-in-one BASIC development platform; just connect up a display and a PS/2 keyboard, and you’ve got everything you need to write you own programs or run games and applications developed by the community. You don’t even need a floppy, as the ATmega644P powered board has enough internal flash to store eight programs for easy access through its graphical menu system.

Main menu of the CB2 micro

For many in the audience, a cheap little board that you can assemble yourself and use as a stand-alone BASIC experimentation platform is appealing enough. But thanks to a collection of hardware add-on boards, the CB2 micro can be augmented with some interesting capabilities.

Some are fairly obvious such as adding additional flash storage or RAM, but you can also run the computer on AA or AAA batteries, or add an S-Video port. [Kostas] even explains how to assemble a special serial cable that allows you to network multiple boards together. If you take the plunge and start building your own hardware modules, the sky’s the limit.

Of course, purists may balk because the CB2 micro isn’t using a “real” computer processor. Fair enough. For those that want a more authentic retro experience, you could always pick up a kit like the RC2014, or go all out and cram a Z80 into an Altoids tin so you can carry it around with you.

Finally Your Air Drumming Has An Outlet

Two engineering students are hard at work on this air drum which they hope will help disabled people and people in nursing homes. Though, we think it just looks fun!

Each board is its own module consisting of the electronics and 3D printed cases. The modules each contain an arduino mini, IR sensor, and LEDs. They share power, audio, and communicate with an i2c bus. Two modules are special, one holds the power system and the other a Raspberry Pi. The units can be put together in different configurations. Finally, they are capped with speaker units.

The demo shown in the video, which you can see after the break, looks fun. The response time is pretty fast and it looks like you can measure all sorts of parameters. This can then be translated into different velocities, pitches, and instruments. It’s somewhere between a theremin and a drum kit, very cool.

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Review: OSEPP STEM Kit 1, A Beginner’s All-in-One Board Found In The Discount Aisle

As the name implies, the OSEP STEM board is an embedded project board primarily aimed at education. You use jumper wires to connect components and a visual block coding language to make it go.

I have fond memories of kits from companies like Radio Shack that had dozens of parts on a board, with spring terminals to connect them with jumper wires. Advertised with clickbait titles like “200 in 1”, you’d get a book showing how to wire the parts to make a radio, or an alarm, or a light blinker, or whatever.

The STEM Kit 1 is sort of a modern arduino-powered version of these kits. The board hosts a stand-alone Arduino UNO clone (included with the kit) and also has a host of things you might want to hook to it. Things like the speakers and stepper motors have drivers on board so you can easily drive them from the arduino. You get a bunch of jumper wires to make the connections, too. Most things that need to be connected to something permanently (like ground) are prewired on the PCB. The other connections use a single pin. You can see this arrangement with the three rotary pots which have a single pin next to the label (“POT1”, etc.).

I’m a sucker for a sale, so when I saw a local store had OSEPP’s STEM board for about $30, I had to pick one up. The suggested price for these boards is $150, but most of the time I see them listed for about $100. At the deeply discounted price I couldn’t resist checking it out.

So does an embedded many-in-one project kit like this one live up to that legacy? I spent some time with the board. Bottom line, if you can find a deal on the price I think it’s worth it. At full price, perhaps not. Join me after the break as I walk through what the OSEPP has to offer.

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There Are 200 Electronic Kits In That Box

If you grew up in the latter part of the 20th century, you didn’t have the Internet we have today — or maybe not at all. What you did have, though, was Radio Shack within an hour’s drive. They sold consumer electronics, of course, but they also sold parts and kits. In addition to specific kits, they always had some versions of a universal kit where lots of components were mounted on a board and you could easily connect and disconnect them to build different things. [RetoSpector78] found a 200-in-1 kit at a thrift store that was exactly like the one he had as a kid and he shares it with us in the video below.

This was a particularly fancy model since it has a nice looking front panel with a few knobs and displays. The book shows you how to make the 200 different projects ranging from metronomes to rain detectors. The projects really fell into several categories. There were practical circuits like radio receivers, test equipment, and transmitters. Then there were games or circuits even the manual called “silly.” In addition, there were circuits to build simply to understand how they work, like flip flops or counters.

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Retrotechtacular: Remembering Radio Shack P-Box Kits

If you are under a certain age, you probably associate Radio Shack with cellphones. While Radio Shack never gave us access to the variety and economy of parts we have today, they did have one thing that I wish we could get again: P-Box kits. The obvious questions are: What’s a P-Box and why do I want one? But the kit wasn’t to make a P-Box. P-Box was the kind of box the kit came in. It was like a piece of perfboard, but made of plastic, built into a plastic box. So you bought the kit — which might be a radio or a metal detector — opened the box and then built the kit using the box as the chassis.

The perfboard was pretty coarse, too, because the components were all big discrete components. There was at least one that had an IC, but that came premounted on a PC board that you treated like a big component. One of my favorites was a three-transistor regenerative shortwave receiver. In those days, you could pick up a lot of stations on shortwave and it was one of the best ways at the time to learn more about the world.

On the left, you can see a picture of the radio from the 1975 catalog. You might think $7.95 is crazy cheap, but that was at least a tank full of gas or four movie tickets in those days, and most of us didn’t have a lot of money as kids, so you probably saved your allowance for a few weeks, did chores, or delivered papers to make $8.

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