Behind The Pin: Logic Level Outputs

There is one thing that unites almost every computer and logic circuit commonly used in the hardware hacking and experimentation arena. No matter what its age, speed, or internal configuration, electronics speak to the world through logic level I/O. A single conductor which is switched between voltage levels to denote a logic 1 or logic zero. This is an interface standard that has survived the decades from the earliest integrated circuit logic output of the 1960s to the latest microcontroller GPIO in 2018.

The effect of this tried and true arrangement is that we can take a 7400 series I/O port on an 8-bit microcomputer from the 1970s and know with absolute confidence that it will interface without too much drama to a modern single-board computer GPIO. When you think about it, this is rather amazing.

It’s tempting to think then that all logic level outputs are the same, right? And of course they are from a certain viewpoint. Sure, you may need to account for level shifting between for example 5V and 3.3V families but otherwise just plug, and go, right? Of course, the real answer isn’t quite that simple. There are subtle electrical differences between the properties of I/O lines of different logic and microcontroller families. In most cases these will never be a problem at all, but can rear their heads as edge cases which the would-be experimenter needs to know something about.

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Glimmies, as logic

[Jacob Christ] writes in with a hack that’s going to be this summer’s fidget spinner. Why? The favourite toy of his youngster’s generation is a Glimmie. And while fidget spinners were useful for, well, spinning, the small animal-like Glimmie seems to have an unexpected property, they can function as logic gates.

They form an optical inverter, in their head is a phototransistor and in their belly an LED which goes on when the head is in the dark. He’s found through experimentation that they can be combined to form an AND gate, and thus a NAND gate with the addition of a further inverter.  Since all logic functions can be made from NAND gates, it should therefore be possible to go as far as to make any device based upon logic, even up to a fully functional computer. He estimates the cost of a single gate at $16.30. A computer would require in the region of 80,000 Glimmies to work, but maybe someone with deep enough pockets will be foolhardy enough to give it a try.

You can see the AND gate in action below complete with camera work from a youngster, and if unexpected logic gates are something that’s caught your attention you can take a look at the battery booster pack logic we brought you a while back.

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Cigar Box Synth is a Fun Time

It’s fair to say that the groovebox market has exploded. Store shelves are overflowing with the umpteenth releases from KORG’s Volca line and the latest Pocket Operators. These devices often feature a wide array of tones in an enticingly compact and attractive package, but is it possible to build something similar at home? As [lonesoulsurfer] relates, it certainly is.

The Cigar Box Synth is, well… a synth, built in a cigar box. Based upon a 555 & 556 timer, and a 4017 decade counter, it provides a wealth of beepy goodness all crammed into a neat wooden package. We dig the cigar box form factor, as it’s a readily available wooden box often finished in an attractive way, and readily reworkable for all kinds of projects.

Sound is controlled with three master potentiometers, and there are four separate potentiometers to set the note for each of the four steps in the sequence. While its melodic abilities are limited to just four notes, it’s certainly something fun to play with and can act as a great jumping off point for further electronic experimentation in this area.

It takes us back to our guide on building DIY logic-based synthesizers – read on!

The One-Transistor Flip-Flop

A flip-flop is one of the most basic digital electronic circuits. It can most easily be built from just two transistors, although they can and have been built out of vacuum tubes, NAND and NOR gates, and Minecraft redstone. Conventional wisdom says you can’t build a flip-flop with just one transistor, but here we are. [roelh] has built a flip-flop circuit using only one transistor and some bizarre logic that’s been slowly developing over on hackaday.io.

[roelh]’s single transistor flip-flop is heavily inspired by a few of the strange logic projects we’ve seen over the years. The weirdest, by far, is [Ted Yapo]’s Diode Clock, a digital clock made with diode-diode logic. This is the large-scale proof of concept for the unique family of logic circuits [Ted] came up with that only uses bog-standard diodes to construct arbitrary digital logic.

The single-transistor flip-flop works just like any other flip-flop — there are set and reset pulses, and a feedback loop to keep the whatever state the output is in alive. The key difference here is the addition of a clock signal. This clock, along with a few capacitors and a pair of diodes, give this single transistor the ability to store a single bit of information, just like any other flip-flop.

This is, without a doubt, a really, really weird circuit but falls well into territory that is easily understood despite being completely unfamiliar. The key question here is, ‘why?’. [roelh] says this could be used for homebrew CPUs, although this circuit is trading two transistors for a single transistor, two diodes, and a few more support components. For vacuum tube-based computation, this could be a very interesting idea that someone at IBM in the 40s had, then forgot to write down. Either way, it’s a clever application of diodes and an amazing expression of the creativity that can be found on a breadboard.

An 8-Bit ALU, Entirely From NAND Gates

One of the things that every student of digital electronics learns, is that every single logic function can be made from a combination of NAND gates. But nobody is foolhardy enough to give it a try, after all that would require a truly huge number of gates!

Someone evidently forgot to tell [Notbookies], for he has made a complete 8-bit ALU using only 4011B quad NAND gates on a set of breadboards, and in doing so has created a minor masterpiece with his wiring. It’s inspired by a series of videos from [Ben Eater] describing the construction of a computer with the so-called SAP (Simple As Possible) architecture. The 48 4011B DIP packages sit upon 8 standard breadboards, with an extra one for a set of DIP switches and LEDs, and a set of power busbar breadboards up their sides. He leaves us with the advice borne of bitter experience: “Unless your goal is building a NAND-only computer, pick the best IC for the job“.

We have covered countless processors and processor components manufactured from discrete logic chips over the years, though this makes them no less impressive a feat. The NedoNAND has been a recent example, a modular PCB-based design. TTL and CMOS logic chips made their debut over 50 years ago so you might expect there to be nothing new from that direction, however we expect this to be  well of projects that will keep flowing for may years more.

Via /r/electronics/.

Hackaday Links: December 17, 2017

Where do you go if you want crazy old electronic crap? If you’re thinking a ham swap meet is the best place, think again. [Fran] got the opportunity to clean out the storage closet for the physics department at the University of Pennsylvania. Oh, man is there some cool stuff here. This room was filled to the brim with old databooks and development boards, and a sample kit for the unobtanium Nimo tube.

The Gigatron is a Hackaday Prize entry to build a multi-Megahertz computer with a color display out of TTL logic. Now, all this work is finally paying off. [Marcel] has turned the Gigatron into a kit. Save for the memories, this computer is pretty much entirely 74-series logic implemented on a gigantic board. Someone is writing a chess program for it. It’s huge, awesome, and the kits should cost under $200.

What’s cooler than BattleBots, and also isn’t Junkyard Wars? BattleBots, but in drone form. Drone Clash was originally announced in March, but now they’re moving it up to February to coincide with the TUS Expo. What could be better than flaming piles of lithium?

The Atari Lynx went down in history as the first portable console with a color LCD. There was a problem with the Lynx; the display was absolutely terrible. [RetroManCave] found someone selling an LCD upgrade kit for the Lynx, and the results are extremely impressive. The colors aren’t washed out, and since the backlight isn’t a fluorescent light bulb (yes, really), this Lynx should get a bit more run time for each set of batteries.

Like dead tree carcasses? You need to butcher some dead tree carcasses. The best way to do this is on a proper workbench, and [Paul Sellers] is working on a video series on how to make a workbench. He’s up to episode 3, where the legs are mortised. This is all done with hand tools, and the videos are far more interesting than you would think.

If you need some very small, very blinky wearables, here’s an option. This build is literally three parts — an LED matrix, an ATtiny2313, and a coin cell battery. Seems like this could be an entry for the Coin Cell Challenge we have going on right now.

FPGA Clocks for Software Developers (or Anyone)

It used to be that designing hardware required schematics and designing software required code. Sure, a lot of people could jump back and forth, but it was clearly a different discipline. Today, a lot of substantial digital design occurs using a hardware description language (HDL) like Verilog or VHDL. These look like software, but as we’ve pointed out many times, it isn’t really the same. [Zipcpu] has a really clear blog post that explains how it is different and why.

[Zipcpu] notes something we’ve seen all too often on the web. Some neophytes will write sequential code using Verilog or VHDL as if it was a conventional programming language. Code like that may even simulate. However, the resulting hardware will — at best — be very inefficient and at worst will not even work.

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