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Azevedo NWTS Build and Review

I received an Azevedo NWTS module last week, and got around to building it today, following the clear instruction manual. More about this later. nwts-logo

NWTS is a "NTP to WiFi Time Synchonization" module, primarily intended for Nixie Clocks, but you could also use it for any other purpose where you want a reliable source of time, over a GPS like interface. Azevedo devices worked with Mr.Nixie to come up with a small, neat device that plugs into Mr.Nixie clocks as  well as PV Electronics clocks. It's not just limited to those clocks. It should work with any clock that uses the GPS NMEA protocol and standard electrical characteristics (and most clocks do).

Why not just use GPS?

I can answer that one: I live in a tall building, with poor line of sight access to a GPS signal. If I try really hard, and put the clock close to the window on the right side of the house, I can eventually get a GPS lock. It takes time, and it's not very reliable. If you're out in the country, it may be way easier to get a good signal, but in a densely populated part of town, it's a problem. At least it's a problem for me.

Apart from that, I don't want my clock near the window on the wrong side of the house. I want it to be where I am most of the time, and where I can see it.

So, in my house, I don't have a good GPS signal, but I do have a good WiFi network, and out there on the net there are NTP (Network time Protocol) servers, which are synchonized to the same atomic clocks as the GPS satellites.

Azevedo and Mr.Nixie came up with an idea to have a WiFi connected device, which pretends to be a GPS module. Neat... Problem solved!

 

Building the module

fiddly TO-92 pins

It's a cute little module, and the build was very straightforward using the excellent instructions. You can find the latest manual here. For me, the total build time was about 20 minutes (but I am quite fast). All of the components are through hole, and don't really require any special tools or skill. There is only one thing that requires extra care: the voltage regulator and the transistor have very small TO-92 pads, and you'll have to be careful not to make solder bridges on these.

ESP-8266 ESP-01

Apart from that the build is very straightforward and easy to follow. The component count is not huge, and all of the complexity is really on the tiny ESP-8266 module. The ESP-8266 is a tiny "maker" module which combines a micro-controller, (like the one in the clock itself, but more powerful), and a WiFi interface. The ESP-8266 is a miracle of modern electronics. The squiggle on the left of the board is the WiFi antenna, the black chip on the bottom is the controller, and the 8-legged chip above it is the flash EEPROM.

Here is a time lapse of the build process:

 

 

Using the module

After completing the build, I plugged in the module to one of my PV Electronics QTC clocks. Disappointment. Nothing happened. No time synchronization and no difference in the time the clock showed. The build had been so simple that I had skipped over the rest of the manual and had not bothered to read it. Everyone hates reading the manual, but this time I had to do it. There were two things to configure:

Because of where I live, I had never bothered to configure the clock with a GPS interface. Going into the clock configuration, I had to configure the "Radio time signal source" to use GPS (option "4" in my case), and set the baud rate of the interface to 9600 baud (option "1" in my case). Neither of these were the default settings, so you will need to do this step on your clock.

After that, I had to configure up the nwts module. To do this, you have to log into it with a phone, tablet or PC, and tell it the SSID ("WiFi name") and password of your home WiFi network. To do this, you have to connect to the WiFi access point provided by the nwts. I found the task of logging in the first time to be a little fiddly. At first my phone didn't want to connect to it and kept falling back to the WiFi network. After I told the phone to "forget" the home WiFi network it connected correctly and I was able to configure the unit.

After turning everything off and back on again, the tiny blue LED on the ESP-8266 started to blink correctly, and within two seconds, the time was synchronized on the clock!

Here is a video of the process of starting up the clock, and how quickly the time is synchronized:

 

 

Last impressions

I use the module on my clock now, simply because it's fast to synchronize and I don't need to touch the clock again. For me, GPS was not an option, as noted before, and I had stopped using the PV Electronics clock because it wasn't as accurate as the phone I carry around with me all the time. The phone is not as cool as the clock, but I don't need a clock that tells me the wrong time. I love the "fit and forget" nature of the module, and now that I have a cool clock that knows the time, I have put the PV Electronics clock back where it was in my living room.

If you want to get one of the Azevedo nwts modules, you have find them on Tindie or by clicking on this button:

 

get-nwts

 


Jeff Thomas GPSII - A little piece of history

Many people in the Nixie Clock Community have heard of Jeff Thomas. Some people even have one of his clocks. It was a Jeff Thomas clock which caused Brian Stuckey to start this site. Jeff was renowned for the quality of workmanship and the attention to detail, and the clocks were good, reliable and full of features.

A week or so ago, Bob, a member of the community approached me by email asking my opinion on a question which I couldn't really help him with at first. He had a spare GPSII clock and he wanted to sell it. Or perhaps he didn't. Or maybe he did after all... Clearly, this was not an easy decision to make. He had many questions, only some of which I could help with (ma answers in brackets):

  • Would this be a clock that someone was interested in? (Yes!)
  • Would I let him feature the clock on the site? (Yes, of course!)
  • Should he sell it? (Can't help on the one, sorry).
  • Is there a legal problem because of the potentially lethal nature of Nixie clocks? (Maybe, but people who come to a site like this should know about this sort of thing already).
  • How much should a clock like this go for? (Not sure, but they don't make them like this any more).

In the end, Bob has decided to let the clock go after all. He takes up the story himself...

Jeff Thomas built GPS-II Compact GPS Controlled Nixie Clock

Caution: Please be careful with the high voltages present on this clock. It has a simple Plexiglas cover as the only protection from the potentially lethal voltages required to run nixie tubes. I figure folks here on the nixie site are going to be careful with these voltages where the general population on eBay may not treat the clock with the respect due. Cautions apply to only run the clock with the cover in place and to keep the clock away from children, pets and others who may put fingers where they don’t belong!

 

Jeff Thomas GPS II

 

Moving on to the fun part, this is a very clean 2003 example of the Jeff Thomas / John Miktuk GPS-II Compact GPS Satellite Controlled Nixie Tube Clock.

The GPS-II is one of the nicest looking small GPS controlled clocks – at least to my eye. These Jeff Thomas / John Miktuk clocks are also relatively rare and are a part of Nixie clock history.

I’m the original owner of this clock and it was shipped direct to me by Jeff Thomas in 2003. It’s been well maintained and has lived in the same smoke free home since new. I run the Nixies at one of the lowest intensity settings and have the Nixies off much of the night. Note the lack of discoloration on the tubes…

Jeff Thomas GPS II Dimensions

I upgraded the processor with the most recent 2010 firmware from John Miktuk a few years back and recently replaced the original Trimble Lassen SK-8 GPS receiver to work around a problem that developed with all Lassen receivers of this vintage – more details on the receiver below.
The clock and its numerous features are well described by Jeff Thomas at the following link:   http://www.nixie.dk/~jthomas/gpsii.html

For those not familiar with this clock, here’s a list of key features from the manual:

  • Auto setting on power up (no battery backup needed)
  • Menu items are permanently stored in EEPROM.
  • 12 or 24 hours display.
  • Programmable display disable at night.
  • Adjustable display brightness level.
  • Safe 12vdc 300ma operation.
  • A professionally engineered product.
  • Variable Scrolling Information Display.
  • PM indicator for 12 hour display.
  • Digital Temperature sensor with quarter degree resolution.
  • Nine different Chime offerings (including Morse code)
  • Alarm clock feature.
  • Addressable colon indicators.
  • Leading zero blanking in 12hr display mode.
  • Automatic DST offset  -incl 2007 changes (USA, Europe, Australia, manual N and S hemisphere

The manual is available here: http://www.nixie.dk/~jthomas/GPSII_Operation.pdf

The Trimble GPS receiver update…

My GPS-II as originally supplied by Jeff came with a Trimble Lassen SK-8 GPS receiver and all was fine and good until February 13, 2016. On that date, the Trimble Lassen firmware created a date decoding error and the clock began to display the year as 1996. Not good. Here is one manufacturer’s description of the problem and their provision of revised application firmware to address the issue.

The manufacturer above was able to modify their firmware to fix the problem. Unfortunately, the GPS-II clock firmware is not public domain and is not available for me to fix the bug. I took an alternate approach adapting the GPS-II hardware to use a Garmin GPS18x LVC 5m integrated receiver.

The core of my modification is a printed circuit interface board that I designed and built to be a mechanical match to the original Trimble Lassen receiver. I changed out the GPS receiver board in the clock for my adapter, changed a jumper on the GPS-II to tell it to process NMEA sentences as provided by the Garmin receiver and the clock was back to displaying the correct date… with a more modern and more sensitive GPS receiver. As an aside, my adapter will support many 5V integrated receivers at both CMOS and true RS-232 levels. There’s also a jumper supplying an optional logic level inversion.

I’ve included a couple of photos showing the new black Garmin GPS18x receiver, my custom interface card, the original Trimble SK-8 receiver, and the original white puck GPS antenna. (I’ll include the original receiver and antenna with the clock just in case you ever want to display the wrong date…)
A point of pride… Jeff built beautiful clocks with meticulous workmanship throughout. It was my intent to match the quality of Jeff’s work with my surface mount adapter card. I like to think that I succeeded.

Jeff Thomas GPS II Internals

The new adapter card installed in the clock:


Single Digit IN-18 Clock

By vfdclock.jimdo.com

Single Digit IN-18 Nixie Clock

Under my desk there is a box of IN-18 tubes which I have been meaning to use for a while, some of the tubes are perched on the top of the box, threatening to fall out, and it really way time to do something with them. Browsing EBay lead me eventually to the fantastic array of gadgets on the vfd.jimdo.com site, and I just had to have one of the cute, beautifully designed Single Digit Nixie clocks that would fit with a tube from my overflowing box.

The ordering process went beautifully, and the assembled clock arrived within 2 weeks, well packed and in a small but sturdy cardboard box. The clock comes without a tube, but the process of fitting a tube is really straightforward, because there are pin sockets which seem to fit snugly, but without the idea that you are forcing the tube into the socket.

Single Digit IN-18 Nixie Clock as delivered

One of the beautiful things about this little clock is that it needs only a USB 5V supply to make it run. It is quite power efficient, and doesn't consume much energy, and doesn't get hot. While diplaying the time, it shows the tens or hours, hours, tens of minutes and minutes one after the other. To help you understand the time more easily, the single hours and single minutes also light up the right hand neon bulb as well.

Setting the options is a bit fiddly. Personally I had a bit of trouble understanding the menu structure, and had to keep reading it attentively to be able to set the clock, but that is the cost of having a clock with only a single digit and lots of options. Once the clock is set, you won't have to set it again very often, because the time is preserved by a battery driven Real Time Clock when there is no power. The time keeps counting even when the clock is turned off. You can see the data sheets in in English or in Chinese.


Black'n'Wood Review

179 EUR (Kit) & 50.34 EUR (Tubes)



Welcome to the Black’n’wood review. I’ve reviewed several other Nocrotec clocks before and this one comes to us from a combination of sources. Dieter of Nocrotec worked with YanZeYuan (严泽远) to develop the electronics for this device. The tubes are sold by Nocrotec.com and the kit components are sold though nixiekitworld.com.

The first thing that you notice is that this device uses end view tubes. The default set are  Chinese QS30-1 tubes. These are uncoated tubes with proper 5s and 2s. These are 30mm diameter tubes that use a standard base. Consequently, there are multiple tubes that can work as substitutes. For example, I have swapped out my tubes for the orange-coated GN-4 tubes (more on this later). Nocrotec has a list of substitutes that I have included at the bottom of this review for reference.

While we’re on the topic of tubes it is worth talking about viewing angle. Side view tubes typically have a wider viewing angle (both vertically and horizontally) than end view tubes. On end view tubes, the digits are stacked on top of each other in a small cylinder. This means that the numeral 9 is easier to see than a 6 because the 9 is at the front of the tube and the 6 is at the rear (digits are not stacked in numerical order). This clock is no exception. Because of this, the clock will ideally be mounted somewhere around eye level. I don’t consider this a problem because it is the nature of all tubes like this.

The enclosure clearly follows the design of some of the original Nocrotec clocks. The wooden base and metal plate look nearly identical to my X2000 [http://www.tubeclockdb.com/numitron-clocks/139-video-review-nocrotec-x2000.html]. I am a huge fan of this design; it gives the clock a nice luxury feel. The case itself is 287mm wide, 49mm deep, and 75mm tall (11.3” x  1.9” x 2.9”). The tubes protrude slightly but only by a few millimeters.

A small feature that I wanted to call out is the colon indicator tubes. They are not led; they are tiny neon bulbs. This was done to match the color of the nixie tubes but it also gives the device some subtle detail. For example, the top of the tubes are crimped and this causes the light pattern to be different from any led bulb. The tubes flicker somewhat; you can see the flow inside of the tube bouncing around. You don’t notice these details at first but when you start staring at them you quickly appreciate them.

The tubes are illuminated with blue LEDs which fade on/off every two seconds by default. You can order other colors (ocean green, deep green, white, purple) and if you don’t like the backlights, you can simply disable them. Earlier I mentioned that I swapped out the tubes with orange-coated GN-4s. The tubes are surrounded with foam padding to prevent light leakage from around the tube. With this surround and the orange coating, the backlight is almost completely blocked. Considering that orange and blue are opposites, this is not really surprising but it does mean that if you want to use the backlight feature, you should stick to uncoated tubes.

Keeping track of the time can be done a few different ways. The device comes with an internal crystal so you can simply set this clock like any other and let it run. You can also use a GPS receiver or a DCF77 receiver to set and maintain the time. The DCF77 and GPS options are external devices that you can purchase at a later time. Enabling them is as simple as changing a menu option on the device.

There is another interesting feature that may be of interest to some users. The Mini DIN connector can be uses to switch con and off other devices when then alarm sounds. You will need to add a relay to switch anything but the +5 V output may be interesting to some users.

Overall, this is a solid design. It offers a robust feature set and looks nice at the same time. I’ve been able to play with this clock for a few weeks and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Photos

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Black'n'Wood Nixie Clock

Tube substitutes

10TU26, 122P224, 154-0327-00, 1970-0002, 5031, 50347, 5037, 5092, 5092A, 6770, 6844A, 8037, 8037(B-5031), 8421, 8421(B-5092), 8421/5092, B-5031, B-5031/6844, B-50347, B-5037, B-5092, B-5092/8421, B-5092A, B-6844A, BD-302, CD102, CD18, CD24, CD26, CD32A, CK6844A, CK8037, CK8421, CV5278, CV9316, CV9732, F9057, F9057A, F9057AA, GN-3, GN-4, GN-4A, GN-4D, GN-4E, GN-4P, GNP-4A, GR10M, HB-106, JAN-6844A, JAN-8037, JAN-8421, JAN-CB-6844A, JAN-CZ-6844A, LC-511, LC-513, LC-513A, M2726-102500, M2726-102600, NE-50347, NL-5031, NL-50347, NL-5092, NL-6844, NL-6844A, NL-8037, NL-8421, ST12C, SZ1-1, SZ3-1, SZ-8, Z510M, Z520M, Z5600M, Z560M, ZM1020, ZM1020/01, ZM1022, ZM1022p

Links:




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