Lamp Analysis Tells Sad Truth Behind The Marketing Hype

Here in the northern hemisphere, winter has wrapped us in her monochromatic prison. A solid deck of gray clouds means you need a clock to tell the difference between night and day, and by about the first week of February, it gets to feeling like you’ll never see a blue sky again. It’s depressing, to be honest, and the lack of sunlight can even lead to a mood disorder known as SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.

SAD therapy is deceptively simple — bright full-spectrum light, and lots of it, to simulate the sun and stimulate the lizard brain within us. Not surprisingly, such lights are available commercially, but when [Justin Lam] bought one to help with his Vancouver blues, he decided to analyze the lamp’s output to determine whether the $70 he spent paid for therapy or marketing.

The initial teardown was not encouraging, with what appeared to be a standard CFL “curly fry” light with a proprietary base in a fancy plastic enclosure. With access to a spectrometer, [Justin] confirmed that not only does the SAD light have exactly the same spectrum as a regular CFL, the diffuser touted to provide “full UV protection” does so simply by attenuating the entire spectrum evenly so that the UV exposure falls below the standards. In short, he found that the lamp was $70 worth of marketing wrapped around a $1.50 CFL. Caveat emptor.

Hats off to [Justin] for revealing the truth behind the hype, and here’s hoping he finds a way to ameliorate his current SAD situation. Perhaps one of these DIY lamps will be effective without the gouging.

Tapping into a Ham Radio’s Potential with SDRPlay

Software-defined radios are great tools for the amateur radio operator, allowing visualization of large swaths of spectrum and letting hams quickly home in on faint signals with the click of a mouse. High-end ham radios often have this function built in, but by tapping into the RF stage of a transceiver with an SDR, even budget-conscious hams can enjoy high-end features.

With both a rugged and reliable Yaesu FT-450D and the versatile SDRPlay in his shack, UK ham [Dave (G7IYK)] looked for the best way to link the two devices. Using two separate antennas was possible but inelegant, and switching the RF path between the two devices seemed clumsy. So he settled on tapping into the RF stage of the transceiver with a high-impedance low-noise amplifier (LNA) and feeding the output to the SDRPlay. The simple LNA was built on a milled PCB. A little sleuthing with the Yaesu manual — ham radio gear almost always includes schematics — led him to the right tap point in the RF path, just before the bandpass filter network. This lets the SDRPlay see the signal before the IF stage. He also identified likely points to source power for the LNA only when the radio is not transmitting. With the LNA inside the radio and the SDRPlay outside, he now has a waterfall display and thanks to Omni-Rig remote control software, he can tune the Yaesu at the click of a mouse.

If you need to learn more about SDRPlay, [Al Williams]’ guide to GNU Radio and SDRPlay is a great place to start.

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Cleaning up a Low-Cost Buck-Boost Supply

Cheap DC-DC converters have been a boon on the hobbyist bench for a while now, but they can wreak havoc with sensitive circuits if you’re not careful. The problem: noise generated by the switch-mode supply buried within them. Is there anything you can do about the noise?

As it turns out, yes there is, and [Shahriar] at The Signal Path walks us through a basic circuit to reduce noise from DC-DC converters. The module under the knife is a popular buck-boost converter with a wide input range, 0-32 VDC output at up to 5 amps, and a fancy controller with an LCD display. But putting the stock $32 supply on a scope reveals tons of harmonics across a 1 MHz band and overall ripple of about 66 mV. But a simple voltage follower built from a power op-amp and a Zener diode does a great job of reducing the spikes and halving the ripple. The circuit is just a prototype and is meant more as a proof of principle and launching point for further development, and as such it’s far from perfect. The main downside is the four-volt offset from the input voltage; there’s also a broad smear of noise at the high end of the spectrum that persists even with the circuit in place. Centered around 900 MHz as it is, we suspect a cell signal of some sort is getting in. 900 kHz.

If you haven’t checked out the videos at The Signal Path, you really should. [Shahriar] really has a knack for explaining advanced topics in RF engineering, and has a bench to die for. We’ve covered quite a few of his projects before, from salvaging a $2700 spectrum analyzer to multiplexing fiber optic transmissions.

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Cascade LNAs and Filters for Radioastronomy with an SDR

It may not be the radio station with all the hits and the best afternoon drive show, but 1420.4058 MHz is the most popular frequency in the universe. That’s the electromagnetic spectral line of hydrogen, and it’s the always on the air. But studying the H-line is a non-trivial task unless you know how to cascade low-noise amplifiers and filters to use an SDR for radio astronomy.

Because the universe is mostly made of hydrogen, H-line emissions are abundant, and their distribution can tell us a lot about the structure of galaxies. The 21-cm emission line is so characteristic and so prevalent that we used it as a unit of measurement on the plaques aboard the Pioneer probes as well as in the instructions for playing back the Voyager recordings. But listening in on 21-cm here on Earth requires a special setup, which [Adam (9A4QV)] describes in a detailed paper on the subject (PDF). [Adam] analyzes multiple configurations of LNAs and filters, both of which he sells, to determine the optimum front-end for 21-cm work. His analysis is a good primer on LNAs and explains why the front-end gear needs to be as close to the antenna as possible. Using his LNAs and filters and an SDR dongle, a reasonable 21-cm rig can be had for about $200 or so, less the antenna. He promises a follow-up paper on homebrew 21-cm antennas; we’ll be looking forward to that.

Not keen on the music of the spheres and prefer to listen to our own spacecraft instead? Then read up on the Deep Space Network and how you can snoop in.

A Multicore ZX Spectrum

From the blog of [telmomoya] we found his latest project: a hardware based multicore solution for a ZX Spectrum Emulator. It’s not the first time we feature one of his builds, last year we was working on a ARM Dual-Core Commodore C64. Luckily for Speccy fans, it seems a ZX Spectrum project was just unavoidable.

At its heart is the EduCIAA NXP Board, a Dual Core (M4 & M0) 32-bit microcontroller, based on the NXP LPC4337. It’s an Argentinan-designed microcontroller board, born from an Argentinian academic and industry joint venture. [telmomoya] took advantage of  the multicore architecture by running the ZX Spectrum emulator on M4 core and generating the VGA signals with M0 core. This guarantees that the VGA generation, which is rather time-sensitive, remains isolated from emulation and any task running on other core. The VGA sync is via polling and using DMA GPIO the RGB signals can be up to 256 colors. To store the 48 kb VGA frames one AHB32 and one AHB16 memory IC are used.

On the software side, [telmomoya] adopted Aspectrum, a ZX Spectrum Emulator fully written in C, modified to his needs. Overall, the project faced many challenges and issues, like COLOR VGA generation (with GPIO DMA), TFT SPI low fps, Inter Process Communications and bus sharing.

Can you try to name all the games in the demonstration video?

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Power For An Amstrad Spectrum

If you were an American child of the early 1980s then perhaps you were the owner of a Commodore 64, an Apple II, or maybe a TRS-80. On the other side of the Atlantic in the UK the American machines were on the market, but they mostly lost out in the hearts and minds of eager youngsters to a home-grown crop of 8-bit micros. Computer-obsessed British kids really wanted Acorn’s BBC Micro, but their parents were more likely to buy them the much cheaper Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Sinclair Research was fronted by the serial electronic entrepreneur [Clive Sinclair], whose love of miniaturization and ingenious cost-cutting design sometimes stretched the abilities of his products to the limit. As the 8-bit boom faded later in the decade the company faltered, its computer range being snapped up by his great rival in British consumer electronics, [Alan Sugar]’s Amstrad.

The Amstrad Spectrums replaced the rubber and then shaky plastic keys of the Sinclair-era machines with something considerably more decent, added joystick ports and a choice of a built-in cassette deck or one of those odd 3″ floppy disk drives for which Amstrad seemed to be to only significant customer. For that they needed a more capable power supply offering a selection of rails, and it is this unit that concerns us today. [Drygol] had a friend with an Amstrad-made Sinclair 128K Spectrum +2 with a broken power supply. His solution was to wire in a supply retrieved from a small form factor PC that had all the requisite lines, and for safety he encased it in an improbably huge piece of heat shrink tubing.

Wiring a PSU to a DIN plug for a retro computer is not an exceptional piece of work in itself even if it’s tidily done and nice to see older hardware brought back to life. What makes this piece worth a look instead is the teardown of what is a slightly unusual footnote to the 8-bit home computer story. We’re shown the familiar Z80 and support chips with the Spectrum edge connector and modulator on a through-hole board with a piece of cutting edge tech for a 1980s home computer, a single SMD chip unusually mounted nestled in a hole cut in the board.

Amstrad eventually stopped making Spectrums in the early 1990s, having also tried the Sinclair name on a spectacularly awful PC-compatible home computer. [Clive Sinclair] continued to release electronic products over the following decades, including a portable computer, the last of his trademark miniature radio receivers, and an electric bicycle accessory. Amstrad continue to make computers to this day, and [Alan Sugar] has achieved fame of a different sort as host of the UK version of The Apprentice. He has not yet become Prime Minister.

We’ve featured another Amstrad Spectrum +2 losing its tape deck for a slimmer machine. On that note, the Spectrum wasn’t Amstrad’s only entry in the 8-bit market, and we’ve also shown you a compact clone of their CPC464. As for [Drygol], he’s featured here several times. His mass-restoration of Commodore 64s for instance, or bringing a broken Atari ST back from the dead.

Making a Spectrum Analyzer the Wrong Way on an ATtiny85

Everyone’s a critic, but it’s hard to argue with success. And that’s exactly what [agp.cooper] has with his ATtiny85-based spectrum analyzer devices.

The “normal” way to build a spectrum analyzer is to collect a bunch of samples and run a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) on them all in one shot. As the name implies, the FFT is fast, and the result is the frequency components of the sampled data. [agp.cooper]’s “wrong” way to do it takes the Goertzel algorithm, which is used for detecting the intensity of a particular frequency, and scanning across the frequency range of interest. It’s a lot slower than a single FFT but, importantly for the ATtiny85 that he implements this on, it’s less demanding of the RAM.

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