Spectrum Analyzer Basics – Workbench Wednesdays

element14 Presents
2019-10-09

A spectrum analyzer displays signals in the frequency domain. To use one, you only need to know about four controls: reference level, center frequency, and resolution bandwidth. In this episode, see how to use a spectrum analyzer and determine the transmitting frequency of a device.

The example device is my microphone transmitter. It operates around 500 MHz with FM modulation. You’ll see how I step through the spectrum analyzer controls to find the exact frequency. At the end of the episode, I show some advanced measurements you can do with a modern spectrum analyzer. My favorite one is the demodulation. (more…)

Electronic Load Basics on Workbench Wednesdays

element14 Presents on YouTube
2019-09-18

During the Bench Power Supply basics video, I made use of my electronic load. An electronic load can sink current from power sources such as power supplies or batteries. Loads are useful to test a power supply’s design margin or verify a battery’s capacity. See how three different instrument options from ultra low-end to midrange to high-end compare. After this element14 Presents Workbench Wednesday video, you will understand how to use modes on an electronic load like constant current and constant resistance to make different measurements.

In the video, I compare three different types of tools: a $50 battery tester from eBay, BK Precision 8540 Electronic Load, and a high-end Rohde & Schwarz NGM202. They are all capable of acting as a constant current sink. In other words, you program the current and let the supply under test run. In the case of batteries, this mode is useful to test battery life. The 8540 and NGM202 both feature other capabilities like constant resistance which, as you can imagine, acts as an electronic resistor. The cool thing about using an electronic load as a power resistor is that some of them are capable of sinking up to 10s of amps.

After submitting the video to the producers, I realized I focused very heavily on batteries. More often, you use an electronic load to test power supply boards or modules. I wish I had shown those more, but it didn’t seem like it was missing until the end. So maybe in the future I can convert tools for measuring DC/DC power supplies? However, I did cover one topic significant to me. I show just how bad 9V batteries are, a topic which I like to come back to often. So I made sure to show off just how bad they work when driven past 100 mA. (It is terrible!)

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Bench Power Supply Basics | Workbench Wednesdays

element14 Presents on YouTube
2019-08-28

A bench power supply makes powering circuits easy and safe. Learn how to adjust basic controls like voltage. Finally, see how “current limiting” works (and why you should use it.) See how you can use built-in series or parallel tracking to increase a bench power supply’s voltage or current output. Last, if you are in the market for a power supply, do not forget to add some leads like mini-grabbers, alligator clips, and banana plugs.

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Semiconductor Measurements | Workbench Wednesdays Review

element14 Presents on YouTube
2018-08-07

When it comes to transistors, there are only so many things a multimeter can measure. The DCA Pro from PEAK Electronics makes short work of testing parts like a transistor. This small device can determine pinout, component type, and essential parameters in a matter of seconds. Not only that, but it can be connected to a (Windows) PC and draw parameter curves. Check out the video review to see how the device and software works. Then head over to the element14 page where you can download a zip file full of example parts I measured for you. The free to download software can open them.

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7+ Python Engineering Modules for Electronics Engineers

Python is everywhere. Its capabilities continue to grow. Not only can you create simple scripts, but you can create full-blown applications with it. The core has been scaled down to run on 32-bit microcontrollers like the ESP32 and Adafruit Feather M0. You can even use Python engineer modules to design stuff like circuits. There are electronics Python modules that create schematics, simulate circuits, and make solving math a cinch. Here are some of the modules I found that make Python usable for (electronics) engineering.

Up front, make sure you have a functioning Python environment. Update the package manager “pip” since all of these electronics python modules rely on it. Speaking of dependences, you may need to also install third-party libraries for some of them. From what I can tell, these all should be platform independent. However, I only tested these electronic modules with 64-bit Windows.

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Hakko FX-888D Review

Pablo looks at one of the most popular soldering stations

My friend Pablo recently upgraded his firestarter iron to a Hakko FX-888D. Because of its popularity and his relative newness to the iron, I asked if he’d like to write up a review for it. You can follow him on twitter.

01-Hakko Iron and StandJust based on the color, the Hakko FX-888D seemed, at first, like it was a toy compared to other electronic tools and equipment. The color does make it easy to spot even if you are buried in a project. You can quickly find it because it stands out. The outside seems like plastic, but it is made from or encased in metal. Knowing that it was only a plastic enclosure made me feel like this will be with me for a long time.

I love how the iron holder is separate from the base. It easily can be placed anywhere in the work area. Also, keeping the base unit in one spot makes life so much easier. It gives the iron itself enough room so nothing nearby can accidentally be melted or burned by the iron.

The iron holder also has a convenient area for a cleaning wire and a cleaning sponge. I only wish that the opening for the cleaning wire was a bit bigger. As is, I regularly clean the tip using the same spot. Having the removable bottom makes it so easy to clean all the solder junk that collects at the bottom from the cleaning wire. If only the rubber legs were a bit wider, they would help keep the iron holder from sliding around my desk. (This could be just because of the type of tabletop I have it sitting on.)

Removable FX-888D tray

Removable FX-888D tray

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Measuring ESR with the PEAK ESR70 | Workbench Wednesdays Review

element14 Presents on YouTube
2019-06-25

There are three capacitor measurements you need to know how to make: capacitance, leakage current, and equivalent series resistance. Capacitance is easy to measure if you have a current limited supply or can use a resistor. Apply a voltage, then time how long it takes to charge-up. You might need to use an oscilloscope or even an Arduino for the second part.  Leakage current is the easiest of the three, apply a voltage (ideally through a resistor) for a few minutes, and then measure the current. ESR requires some special tricks. Since it is the resistance of the “wires” connecting to the capacitive element’s anode and code, you have to measure resistance without charging up the capacitor. (Otherwise, you get leakage.)

In the post Measuring Aluminum Electrolytic Capacitor’s ESR, I go through those methods in more detail. I also introduce the PEAK Electronics ESR70. It’s a pocket-sized instrument that measures both Capacitance and ESR. There’s a button you can touch, or it detects when a new capacitor is connected. Check out my Workbench Wednesdays review where I go into depth about how the meter works (and whether or not I like it.) Oh one bonus feature, it works while in-circuit!

As of this post, it has been almost six years since I first wrote about capacitors on my blog. The article was the Arduino GSM Shield’s capacitor has a serious design flaw. Wow, how time passes.

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Raspberry Pi 4 Armchair Datasheet Evaluation

Are the performance improvements possible?

With the introduction of the Raspberry Pi 4, I dug into the announcement and datasheet while waiting for mine to arrive. Well, “datasheet” might be an exaggeration, but there is a list of the Raspberry Pi 4 tech specs available. That link gives a bullet item list of the main specs. In this post, I focus on these four:

  • Broadcom BCM2711, Quad core Cortex-A72 (ARM v8) 64-bit SoC @ 1.5GHz
  • Up to 4GB LPDDR4-2400 SDRAM (depending on model)
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 2 USB 3.0 ports; 2 USB 2.0 ports.

There is a lot of very cool stuff on this $35 board. (Amazing they have kept that price point!) Or even the 4 GB $55 board. Adding Bluetooth 5, H.265 AND H.264 decoding, USB-C connector (Power), and changing the SoC to a 28 nm process are all significant improvements.

But, being an engineer and a person on the Internet, I am required to nitpick, and armchair engineer this (now) released product (that I haven’t touched yet.) Without doubt there will be a number of benchmarks posted along with the release of the Pi 4. And I expect many of those only benchmark individual components. For example, I already saw graphs on the Gigabit Ethernet speed and USB 3.0 throughput, but not at the same time. As you will see in my datasheet evaluation, using two USB devices at the same time has a performance penalty.

First, what is new with the SoC?

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Introducing Bit Preserve

Recreating vintage schematics with KiCad

Bit Preserve Banner

A project I work on in my spare time is creating a portable Apple II. Like many of my projects, one leads into another. I started out wanting to make a mobile Apple II, and now I’m working on a project called Bit Preserve. How did I get from one project to the next? Well, as I looked into how to make a portable Apple II, I realized a significant issue. The original Apple II logic board has almost 80 ICs. Being a design from 1975, they are all through-hole packages. The good news is that except for the ROM chips, they are all off-the-shelf components. But such a size means it might be impossible to turn it into something handheld. I almost abandoned the project. Then, I learned about a chip included in the Apple IIgs. The name of the ASIC is “MEGA II.” (Nothing to do with Arduino.) It is a chip that integrates all of those off-the-shelf chips into an 84 pin package.

As I dove deeper into the project, I realized I needed other support chips to make the MEGA II useful. There is a decent book that discusses the technical details of the Apple IIgs, but it does not get into chip or board level design. For that detail, I had to look at the original schematics. While I am ecstatic that someone archived these original documents as PDFs, I quickly became frustrated. Sometimes the scan quality is not very good, and it is nearly impossible to search for symbols across multiple pages. I thought to myself, “There has got to be a better way!”

Bit Preserve on GitHub

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Bald Engineer’s ESD Must-Haves | Workbench Wednesdays

element14 Presents on YouTube
2019-06-04

Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) damage can occur without you knowing it. That’s bad. However, the good news is that with little effort you can prevent it. Duratool has a kit of the most common ESD tools for any electronics workbench. It includes a large mat, grounding cable, wrist strap, ESD-safe cleaner, and a simple electronic tester. Don’t get shocked by ESD; add these simple tools to prevent it.

This review is on a kit that includes:

  • Large ESD Mat
  • Ground Cable
  • Wrist Strap
  • Wrist Strap Tester
  • ESD Mat Cleaner

Even if you aren’t interested in ESD, you might want to watch the first 30 seconds. 🙂

More info on element14