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Hackaday Links: June 26, 2022

Head for the hills!! We’re all doomed! At least that’s the impression you might get from the headlines about the monster Earth-facing sunspot this week. While any sunspot that doubles in size within a matter of days as AR3038 has done is worth looking at, chances are pretty low that it will cause problems here on Earth. About the best this class of sunspot can manage is an M-class solar flare, which generally cause radio blackouts only at the poles, and may present a radiation problem for the crew of the ISS. So no, this sunspot is probably not going to kill us all. But then again, this is the 2020s, and pretty much everything bad seems like it’s possible.

Speaking of bad outcomes, pity the poor Sonos customers and their ongoing battle with the company’s odd “glitches.” For whatever reason, customers have been getting shipments of Sonos products they never ordered, with at least one customer getting over $15,000 worth of products shipped. The customer reports ordering five Sonos items, but the company saw fit to fill the order six times, stuffing their apartment with goods. Sonos doesn’t appear to be doing much to make it right; while offering the customer free shipping labels to return the goods, they were expected to schlep the packages to a UPS store. And then there’s the money — Sonos charged the customer for all the unordered goods, and won’t issue a refund till it’s all returned.

If you’ve ever wondered exactly what the signals going up and down your cable line look like, you’ll want to check out this video from Double A Labs. Using an RTL-SDR dongle and some spectrum analyzer software they probed the RF signals on the cable, with some fascinating results. The first 11 minutes or so of the video are devoted to setting up the hardware and software, although there is some interesting stuff about broadband network architecture right up at the start. The scans are interesting — you can clearly see the 6-MHz quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) digital channels. We were surprised to learn that these start at just about the FM broadcast band — about 108 MHz. There were a couple of little surprises hiding in the spectrum, like two unmodulated analog TV carriers in one spot, and the fact that there are over 400 virtual channels jammed into 41 6-MHz QAM channels. Broadband indeed.

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AppCAD Does Transmission Lines

Broadcom and Agilent are perhaps not household words in every household, but among those who work with RF, they are common enough names. An Agilent developer wrote AppCAD to help with common RF design computations and now works for Avago who bought Broadcom. But whoever’s branding is on it, you can download the tool from Broadcom or check out the latest beta version. Then watch [IMASI Guy’s] video below on how to use part of it.

What can it do? According to the website:

  • S-Parameter Analysis and Plotting
  • Active Circuit Bias Design
  • Cascade Noise and IP3 Analysis
  • Transmission Line Analysis
  • Signals and Systems
  • Complex Math Engineering Calculator

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New HackadayU Classes: Antenna Basics, Raspberry Pi Pico, And Designing Complex Geometry

Get ’em while they’re hot: a new session of HackadayU just opened with classes from three fantastic instructors and seats are filling up fast.

Introduction to Antenna Basics — Instructor Karen Rucker teaches the fundamentals of antenna design as if it were your first year on-the-job. She’ll cover the common types of antenna designs and the fundamentals of radio frequency engineering that go into them. Begins Thursday, May 6th.

Raspberry Pi Pico and RP2040 – The Deep Dive — Instructor Uri Shaked guides the class through the internals of the RP2040 microcontroller, covering system architecture, hardware peripherals, and dipping into some ARM assembly language examples. Begins Wednesday, May 5th.

Designing with Complex Geometry — Instructor James McBennett helps you up your 3D modelling game with a course on using complex geometries in Grasshopper3D (part of Rhino3D). Dive into Non-uniform rational B-spline (NURBS) and go from simple shapes to incredibly complex objects with a bit of code. Begins Tuesday, May 4th.

Each course includes five weekly classes beginning in May. Being part of the live class via Zoom offers interactivity with the instructor and other attendees. All tickets are “pay-as-you-wish” with a $20 suggested donation; all proceeds go to socially conscious charities.

For the benefit of all, each class will be edited and published on Hackaday’s YouTube channel once this session has wrapped up. Check out our playlists for past HackadayU courses, or watch them all in one giant playlist.

You might also consider becoming an Engineering Liaison for HackadayU. These volunteers help keep the class humming along for the best experience for students and instructors alike. Liaison applications are now open.

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Fail Of The Week: How Not To Design An RF Signal Generator

We usually reserve the honor of Fail of the Week for one of us – someone laboring at the bench who just couldn’t get it together, or perhaps someone who came perilously close to winning a Darwin Award. We generally don’t highlight commercial products in FotW, but in the case of this substandard RF signal generator, we’ll make an exception.

We suppose the fail-badge could be pinned on [electronupdate] for this one in a way; after all, he did shell out $200 for the RF Explorer signal generator, which touts coverage from 24 MHz to 6 GHz. But in true lemons-to-lemonade fashion, the video below he provides us with a thorough analysis of the unit’s performance and a teardown of the unit.

The first step is a look at the signal with a spectrum analyzer, which was not encouraging. Were the unit generating a pure sine wave as it should, we wouldn’t see the forest of spikes indicating harmonics across the band. The oscilloscope isn’t much better; the waveform is closer to a square wave than a sine. Under the hood, he found a PIC microcontroller and a MAX2870 frequency synthesizer, but a conspicuous absence of any RF filtering components, which explains how the output got so crusty. Granted, $200 is not a lot to spend compared to what a lab-grade signal generator with such a wide frequency range would cost. And sure, external filters could help. But for $200, it seems reasonable to expect at least some filtering.

We applaud [electronupdate] for taking one for the team here and providing some valuable tips on RF design dos and don’ts. We’re used to seeing him do teardowns of components, like this peek inside surface-mount inductors, but we like thoughtful reviews like this too.

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A Microwave Erector Set

RF design isn’t always easy, especially at higher frequencies. Despite improvements in simulation tools, there’s still no substitute for prototyping and trying out different things. That wasn’t so bad when that meant nailing some nails in a piece of wood and wiring up discrete components. But at today’s microwave frequencies and with today’s IC packaging that simply doesn’t work. Solving this problem is what drives a company called X-Microwave. They have a standard grid pattern PCB for a wide range of RF circuits and accessories to tie them all together. Probably the best way to get a feel for the system is to watch the simple video below. There’s also a free simulator tool worth taking note of that you’ll see in a bit.

Before you get too excited, we’ll warn you that while this stuff is cheap if you need it, it isn’t an impulse buy. The baseboards and probes (the connectors) run from $150 to $300. You can get kits, too, but a bare-bones two-port system is going to start at about $550, which is about $100 off the component parts and includes some extras. Then you need less expensive parts to make the boxes around things if you need them. Oh. Then you also need the PCBs which are not cheap, either. Their prices vary widely as you’d expect, but — for example — we saw amplifiers as low as $80 and as high as nearly $1000. So a complete system could get pretty pricey.

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Real World RF Filter Design And Construction

We bet when [devttyS0] made his latest video about RF filter design (YouTube, embedded below), he had the old saying in mind: in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is. He starts out pointing how now modern tools will make designing and simulating any kind of filter easy, but the trick is to actually build it in real life and get the same performance. You can see the video below.

One of the culprits, of course, is we tend to design and simulate with perfect components. Wires have zero resistance, capacitance, and inductance. Inductors and capacitance have no parasitic elements in our rosy design world. Even the values of components will vary from their ideal values and may change over time.

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Hackaday Links: October 9, 2016

Atari is back! That’s what some dude says. There are no real details in that post, other than ‘Atari is Back!’

The ESP32 is coming, and it’s going to be awesome. Espressif has just released an Arduino core for the ESP32 WiFi chip. The digitalRead, digitalWrite, SPI, Serial, Wire, and WiFi “should” work. If you’re looking for ESP32 hardware, they’re infrequently available and frequently out of stock. Thankfully, stock levels won’t be the Raspberry Pi Zero all over again until someone figures out how to run an NES emulator on the ESP32.

Tiny, cheap ARM boards would make for great home servers if they had SATA or multiple network interfaces. Here’s a Kickstarter for a board with both. It’s based on an ARM A53 with multiple Ethernets, mini PCIe, enough RAM, and SATA. It’s a board for niche use cases, but those uses could be really cool.

You’re not cool or ‘with it’ until you have a PCB ruler. That’s what all the hip kids are doing. For wizards and dark mages out there, a simple PCB ruler isn’t enough. These rare beasts demand RF rulers. There’s some weird stuff on these rulers, like Archemedian spiral antennas and spark gaps. Black magic stuff, here.

Some dude with a camera in the woods did something. Primitive Technology, the best example of experimental archaeology you’ve ever seen, built a spear thrower. You can throw a ball faster with a lacrosse stick than you can with just your hands, and this is the idea behind this device, commonly referred to as an atlatl. You can hunt with an atlatl in some states, but I have yet to see a video of anyone taking down a deer with one of these.

Think we’re done spamming the Hackaday Superconference yet? YOU’RE WRONG. The Hackaday Superconference is the greatest hardware conference of all time until we do this whole thing again next year. Get your tickets, look at the incredible list of speakers, book your flights, and be in Pasadena November 5-6.