Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Field Guide to Arduino

via SparkFun Electronics Blog Posts

With Arduino Day fast approaching, we’re doing a lot of thinking on everyone’s favorite development board. We’re practically up to our knees in Arduino here at SparkFun, so it can be easy to forget that not everyone is familiar with it, especially in all of its varied forms. So, in an effort to help you identify these species, we’ve decided to step back and take a 30,000-foot view at the world of Arduino. What follows is a handy field guide to help you navigate the woods and plains of Arduinostan… Arduinoland? The People’s Republic of North Arduino. We can workshop the name later. For now? You’d best familiarize yourself with its wild inhabitants:

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LCARS touchscreen interface for your Raspberry Pi

via Raspberry Pi

I was invited to a dinner at Queen’s College in Cambridge a few weeks ago. I got talking to another attendee, and said enthusiastically:

“Do you know, I don’t think I’ve been here since I was an undergraduate. Back then I was here every week.”


“No. This is where the Star Trek society met.”

My mother despaired of me: a 21-year-old woman who had a giant crush on a yellow android, went around in public with a communicator keyring that went “burbleburble” and wore a Bajoran earring. (Everything turned out OK in the end.)

So this project…let’s say it really appealed to me.

screenshot (1)

REAL nerds know it stands for Library Computer Access/Retrieval System.

This is the first finished, publicly available LCARS interface we’ve seen for the Pi (and it works with a touchscreen as well); Toby Kurien has made this adaptable for any project you’re running on your Raspberry Pi, so you can substitute your own retro-future display for whatever dull desktop you’ve been using up until now. Everything you need is on Toby’s GitHub. Toby’s using one of our official displays here, and the finished product looks (and sounds) great.

Raspberry Pi Star Trek LCARS interface using PyGame

Utilising the Raspberry Pi official touch screen to create a Star Trek style interface for home automation or other projects. The interface is built using Python and the PyGame library Code available at:

While Toby’s using this interface to monitor and control different parts of his automated house, he’s made it easy for you to swap in your own project. Go and take a look at the code, and report back if you end up using it!

This is not a Rob Z post, but I am going to pretend it is.



The post LCARS touchscreen interface for your Raspberry Pi appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

When Difference Matters: Differential Signaling

via hardware – Hackaday

We have talked about a whole slew of logic and interconnect technologies including TTL, CMOS and assorted low voltage versions. All of these technologies have in common the fact that they are single-ended, i.e. the signal is measured as a “high” or “low” level above ground.

This is great for simple uses. But when you start talking about speed, distance, or both, the single ended solutions don’t look so good. To step in and carry the torch we have Differential Signalling. This is the “DS” in LVDS, just one of the common standards throughout industry. Let’s take a look at how differential signaling is different from single ended, and what that means for engineers and for users.

Single Ended

Single Ended: TTL, CMOS, LVTTL, Etc. Single Ended and Sources of Noise

Collectively, standards like TTL, CMOS, and LVTTL are known as Single Ended technologies and they have in common some undesirable attributes, namely that ground noise directly affects the noise margin (the budget for how much noise is tolerable) as well as any induced noise measured to ground directly adds to the overall noise as well.

By making the voltage swing to greater voltages we can make the noise look smaller in proportion but at the expense of speed as it takes more time to make larger voltage swings, especially with the kind of capacitance and inductance we sometimes see.



Enter Differential Signaling where we use two conductor instead of one. A differential transmitter produces an inverted version of the signal and a non-inverted version and we measure the desired signal strictly between the two instead of to ground. Now ground noise doesn’t count (mostly) and noise induced onto both signal lines gets canceled as we only amplify the difference between the two, we do not amplify anything that is in common such as the noise.


There are various standards with the more common ones being Low Voltage Differential Signaling EIA/TIA-644 (LVDS), Current Mode Logic (CML) and Low Voltage Positive Emitter Coupled Logic (LVPECL). Other examples of Differential Signaling in general include the older RS-422/485 which was used to extend the range of the common single ended signaling known as RS-232, (the “standard” serial port).

LVDS is also used in Serial ATA (SATA), Firewire, gigabit Ethernet and PCIe as well as often being used to communicate to LCD panels. CML is the underlying technology of HDMI and uses current flow instead of voltage as the name implies.

A quick way to demonstrate an LVDS signal is to utilize the fact that the outputs of many FPGA’s and CPLD’s are programmable as to the type of interface standard.

CPLD/FPGA as a Demo

First we create a quick counter right off of the 25Mhz master clock, I used a schematic entry for the top level:


I created lots of different outputs to give myself options while making the video but ultimately just used a clocked version of the 25Mhz.

Next we go to the Assignment Editor for the part and simply select LVDS as the pin type. By selecting one pin it automatically assigns the pair to complete the Differential path.

FPGA2In this CPLD there is really just one differential standard to select (LVDS complete). Other CPLDs/FPGAs may have a wider selection and may require the use of external resistors or other components depending on the device and selected standard. They may also require the use of the same standard in a block of pins or along one whole side of the part.

The Schematic

FPGA3Shown here is the PCB schematic showing the pin assignment with the insert showing the ribbon cable pin-out for differential signals. Note the ground connections interspersed between differential pairs on the 30 pin ribbon cable connector.


The LVDS standard is to develop 350mv across the resistor at the end of the path known as the termination resistor. This value is chosen to best match the impedance of the signal path, with values between 100-120 Ohms typical for cables and PCB layout. As speeds go up we get real serious about calculating and controlling the impedance throughout the entire path.

twisted-pairOn the example on the workbench shown here there is no receiver, just the termination resistor. At these speeds and in this type of application it is best to dispense with a long ground lead on the scope probe, the slid-on ground clip is shown here instead.


Scoping It

Using the oscilloscope’s built in math function I can simulate what happens in a differential receiver by subtracting one signal from another. Anything common to both, sometimes called common mode noise or a common mode component, is canceled out by this subtraction. In the case where radiated noise is impinged upon both conductors equally , the noise cancellation works well. To this end, techniques such as twisting the cable conductors is common, with the more twists per inch offering better noise reduction but with increased cost, weight, and reduction in flexibility.


Seen here the individual traces are shown and then overlaid, and then the difference taken, with the final reconstructed waveform in red.

Some Standards

Some of the common differential standards.



Bear in mind that we are talking about just the physical signaling here and does not cover encoding scheme where transitions are minimized, or the clock and signaling is embedded in the data flow.

To optimize high speed performance or to assist in converting from one standard to another, DC blocking may be employed through use of capacitors in series with the data stream. DC blocking also allows the receiver to operate right in the DC bias area that is best for it to reduce noise and things like “jitter” which is a variable delay in the signal.


AC Decoupling



Removing the DC component, i.e. AC coupling the signal, comes at a price however. AC coupling requires that the signal always be seen as in motion or making transitions on a regular basis.

In the case of an encoding scheme that represents a logical “1” by a transition of the signal and a “0” by no transition, AC coupling then requires that a minimum of transition occur every so often so that the DC baseline of the signal doesn’t drift off. Without AC transitions coupling through the series capacitors driving the input fro8b-10bm a high to a low, the voltage would decay and drift towards a unusable value.


An 8b/10b encoding scheme uses 10 bit symbols to represent 8 bits of data while “stuffing” some transitions into the flow so that too much time doesn’t pass without a transition. Telco’s have been using the schemes for many years for sending information over long distances of twisted pair wire using differential signals.

Off the Shelf

There is wide range of discrete drivers and receivers in the various technologies and as you would expect, the vendors’ web pages provide excellent product selection tools. In the old days we had to read or at least glance at every databook on the subject at least once and then narrow down the search by carefully digesting the specifications. Here is TI’s excellent selector that also includes what used to be National Semi:


As you would expect in this day there is a large amount of data available on the Internet. One of my favorites is the LVDS Owner’s Manual which is available from many vendors. I keep a printed copy of this in my lab.

Hopefully this starts to put a tool in your toolbox: If you need to go fast, far or through a noisy environment then consider Differential Signaling.

Filed under: Featured, FPGA, hardware

#FreePCB via Twitter to 2 random RTs

via Dangerous Prototypes

BP-600x373 Every Tuesday we give away two coupons for the free PCB drawer via Twitter. This post was announced on Twitter, and in 24 hours we’ll send coupon codes to two random retweeters. Don’t forget there’s free PCBs three times a every week:

  • Hate Twitter and Facebook? Free PCB Sunday is the classic PCB giveaway. Catch it every Sunday, right here on the blog
  • Tweet-a-PCB Tuesday. Follow us and get boards in 144 characters or less
  • Facebook PCB Friday. Free PCBs will be your friend for the weekend

Some stuff:

  • Yes, we’ll mail it anywhere in the world!
  • Check out how we mail PCBs worldwide video.
  • We’ll contact you via Twitter with a coupon code for the PCB drawer.
  • Limit one PCB per address per month please.
  • Like everything else on this site, PCBs are offered without warranty.

We try to stagger free PCB posts so every time zone has a chance to participate, but the best way to see it first is to subscribe to the RSS feed, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

1″ 100W hot-plate for SMT reflow

via Dangerous Prototypes


kevinhub88 over at the Black Mesa Labs writes:

Black Mesa Labs has been using a $20 hot plate for a year now for soldering QFN ICs to PCBs. Only issue so far has been the size ( 10″x10″x3″ ) and thermal mass of the thing as it consumes precious microscope work area and unfortunately stays quite hot for 30+ minutes after a quick 4 minute reflow job. BML boards are mostly 1″x1″, so a 800W hot plate with a 6″ diameter heating surface is overkill for most jobs.
Wanting something much smaller for a typical BML PCB – stumbled across this 24V DC heating element on Amazon for only $14. It is rated for 24V at 5-7 ohms ( or 4.8Amps ). A surplus 19.5V DC 5A laptop power brick laying around BML seemed like a perfect match for this element. BML has safety rules avoiding designs above 48V – so the 100Watt 20V DC supply coupled with the 24V element seemed like a great way to make a lot of heat in a small surface area in a short amount of time.

Details at Black Mesa Labs project page.

The Fellowship of the Things: Episode 6 – Bluetooth Fitness Bracer

via SparkFun Electronics Blog Posts

Welcome back to a new episode of The Fellowship of the Things! This time around, I’m making a wearable fitness tracker I’m calling the Fitness Bracer. The Bracer uses the new Simblee BLE LilyPad board to track total steps, take your heart rate, give you info about the last time you were active, and keep track of your calories for the day. All this can be seen on an app hooked up to your phone via Bluetooth! Check it out:

You can find the wishlist of parts I used here, and the code, 3D print files, embroidery design, fritzing files, and hardware layout diagram here. Let me know what you think, share any cool ideas you have, or tell me about projects you’ve made like this in the comments!

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