Putting a Poor Man’s Vector Analyzer Through Its Paces

If anything about electronics approaches the level of black magic, it’s antenna theory. Entire books dedicated to the subject often merely scratch the surface, and unless you’re a pro with all the expensive test gear needed to visualize what’s happening, the chances are pretty good that your antenna game is more practical than theoretical. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — hams and other RF enthusiasts have been getting by with antennas that work without really understanding why for generations.

But we’re living in the future, and the tools to properly analyze antenna designs are actually now within the means of almost everyone. [Andreas Spiess] recently reviewed one such instrument, the N1201SA vector impedance analyzer, available from the usual overseas sources for less than $150. [Andreas]’s review does not seem to be sponsored, so it seems like we’re getting his unvarnished opinion; spoiler alert, he loves it. And with good reason; while not a full vector network analyzer (VNA) that will blow a multi-thousand dollar hole in your wallet, this instrument looks like an incredible addition to your test suite. The tested unit works from 137 MHz to 2.4 GHz, so it covers the VHF and UHF ham bands as well as LoRa, WiFi, cell, ISM, and more. But of course, [Andreas] doesn’t just review the unit, he also gives us a healthy dose of theory in his approachable style.

[The guy with the Swiss accent] has been doing a lot of great work these days, covering everything from how not to forget your chores to reverse engineering an IoT Geiger counter. Check out his channel — almost everything he does is worth a watch.

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Crowdfunding Is Now A Contract Between Company And Backer

Kickstarter is not a store. Indiegogo is not a store. Crowdfunding is not buying something — you’re merely donating some money, and you might get a reward for your pledge. Caveat emptor doesn’t apply, because there is no buyer, and no one can figure out what the correct Latin translation for ‘backer’ is. These are the realities that have kept Indiegogo and Kickstarter in business, have caused much distress in people who think otherwise, and have been the source of so, so many crowdfunding follies.

Now, finally, crowdfunding is being legally recognized as a store. The Register reports a court in England has ruled against Retro Computers Ltd and said it had formed a contract of sale with crowdfunding backer Rob Morton. For one person, at least, for one of their pledges, Indiegogo is a store.

The crowdfunding campaign in question is the Retro Computers’ Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega Plus, a small device not unlike the Commodore 64 direct to TV joysticks. The Spectrum Vega simply plugs into your TV, reads an SD card, and plays old ‘speccy games. Clive Sinclair, the genius who brought us the Spectrum, strange flat CRTs, and a host of other inventions, was involved in this campaign. In the years since the campaign ended, there have been numerous updates and Retro Computers still says they intend to deliver the device. Morton, apparently fed up with the delays, brought a suit against Retro Computers for the grand sum of £584: £85 for the Spectrum pledge, £5 for shipping, and the remainder for travel expenses and lost wages for the court date.

District Judge Clarke of Luton County Court heard the case and ruled against Retro Computers, finding there was a contract of sale between Morton and Retro Computers Ltd.. Evidence included a number of copies of Morton’s order, a document the judge pointed out as saying ‘this order’ and not ‘this pledge’. Additionally, the judge found the fine print on Indiegogo does not negate a contract of sale; there was still an implied agreement between Morton and Retro Computers, and Retro Computers had breached the contract by not delivering a Spectrum.

It should go without saying that this finding does not apply to every project on Indiegogo, it does not apply to Kickstarter, and nor does it apply to every crowdfunding campaign. This does not even apply to all backers of the Spectrum Vega Plus. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of backers for crowdfunding projects that haven’t received what they paid for, and if nothing else this story gives just a little bit of satisfaction to anyone that’s still waiting on an undelivered product.

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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