Nixie-based tube clocks

Overview

 This clock was kindly supplied by Millclock for review, so many thanks to them for sending the clock to me. Previously we reviewed one of the simpler clocks produced by Millclock (the IN-12 Walnut clock) and this time we're looking at the other end of the range.

The Nixie Six is a six digit IN-14 clock with compact digits and a whole load of features. The version I have comes in a formed black acrylic case, with a sturdy transparent base plate, neon separators, and an external 12V power supply. The appearance is pleasing:

 

Nixie Six Front

 

The power supply has a slightly smaller than usual jack, but is a standard DC jack, and has quite a short lead, but I'm sure that you can find a supply with a longer lead if you need it. For most purposes, the lead supplied will be adequate.

The unit has GPS time synchronisation, meaning that it keeps good time. The GPS antenna unit has a very long lead on it, meaning that you can easily and unobtrusively mount the antenna in the vicinity of a window, which is a pre-requisite for good time synchronisation.

Whereas the IN-12 clock gave the impression of being a pre-production unit, the Nixie Six is very definitely a mature production design. There are no rough corners or loose ends, and everything fits properly and clearly a lot of time has gone into making it a polished unit. Indeed, the clock version number, printed on the bottom of the PCB is v2.0.1, again with the slightly strangely motto "properly assembled in UKRAINE". I do understand why Millclock is trying to say with this motto, and I do know that I am being somewhat facetious, but in English it just sounds a bit strange. I wonder what the difference in assembly would be if it was "improperly assembled". Would that mean that it is assembled by children? Or by slaves? Or perhaps by adults, but with their trousers down? Or all three? I know that Millclock are trying to say "assembled in the UKRAINE with care and attention, using state of the art technology and tools, great quality control and an eye for detail", but somehow "PROPERLY ASSEMBLED IN UKRAINE" has a better right to it,

 ProperlyAssembled

The pitch of the tubes is quite tight, with only about 1mm between adjacent tubes in the digit pairs. This gives the clock a very "upright" appearance, especially because of the relatively large base height. The mixture of the black acrylic and transparent acrylic base work well. One slight improvement that I would suggest to Millclock: It would be good to have some rubber feet on the bottom of the acrylic base: acrylic scratches easily and the beautiful finish will deteriorate quickly if it is left as a raw acrylic on any hard, rough surface.

 

Packing and delivery

The clock arrived very quickly and was well packed,with no damage to the unit at all, and with very little risk of being damaged, even given the fragile nature of the IN-14 tubes and the fairly large size of the assembled clock. The box it came in was a sturdy "Ukraine Post" official box, and priority postage was used. Note that the cost of the postage is in the price.

 

Using the Nixie Six

The first thing to say about the Nixie Six is that it works well, keeps time reliably, and is in no way "needy". I have been using it for a couple of months, and it has never put a foot wrong. It's totally silent in operation, and has been a "fit and forget" experience. The GPS unit means that it tells the right time and you won't need to fiddle or adjust the clock at all. Even changes to Daylight Savings Time (DST) are automatic if you are in Europe or the US, or in a country that follows either of these DST change standards.

The GPS time is backed up by a battery powered Real Time Clock (RTC), and so the clock can run even there is currently not any GPS signal available. As with all GPS devices, it can take a couple of minutes to sync the time the first time, because the inbuilt GPS receiver has to understand where it is, and which of the GPS satellites are in the sky above it.

If you don't have the GPS version, there is the possibility to fine adjust the RTC unit, in units of about 5 seconds per day. RTCs are usually very accurate, but even these can drift over time or under certain circumstances, and the adjust feature allows you to correct this.

The manual is much longer and more detailed than with the very simple IN-12 4 digit clock, covering five A4 pages, and the specifications and the usage of the clock are covered. The main "settings" are laid out in an easy to use table, and the clock has three buttons ("menu", "+" and "-"):

Menu

 A feature that I do like, is that the neon colons flash can be set to one of seven different modes:

1 - slow flash: One second on, one second off

2 - fast flash: 0.5 second on, 0.5 second off

3 - fast burst flash: two rapid flashes at the beginning of each second

4 - medium burst flash: two medium flashes at the beginning of each second

5 - "ping pong right": both separators on, but the brightness switches between the left and right separator (right colon mostly bright)

6 - "ping pong left": both separators on, but the brightness switches between the left and right separator (left colon mostly bright)

7 - "ping pong alternate": As "ping pong" but the bias changes each second (alternating between left and right bias).

 

This clock won't give you "feature overload", the ones the clock offers will cover the vast majority of user wishes, and you won't have to get exasperated by wading through the manual to fine what you want. It is mostly very intuitive. 

 

Inside the clock

Millclock didn't know that I was going to tear the clock down, but I think it is worth having a look inside it to see what you are getting. In general, if you are scared to have your clock torn down, then don't send it in!

The case comes apart quite easily and non-destructively, meaning that it will be a fairly simple task to change the RTC battery if you need to in the future. The clock itself is a two board design, one board housing the driver, and the other board holding the tubes, the separators and the RGB back lights.

 

 Two Board Design

 

The internals are really clean and professional. The board is well laid out, logically divided and neat and tidy. The tubes are all perfectly aligned, and have been clearly inserted using a jig, or by someone with a good level of skill.

The clock uses an STM32F103C8 controller, which is a powerful ARM Cortex-M3 device with 64kB of flash and a maximum clock speed of 72MHz, but in the case of this clock, it is using it with a 32.768kHz external crystal for the inbuilt RTC and probably uses the internal RC oscillator running at 8MHz for the control circuitry. The RTC consumes just 1.5uA when the clock is off, so a standard CR1220 battery with a capacity of 36mAh will last about 24000 hours, or about 1000 days. However, the 32.768kHz crystal is not temperate compensated, and therefore the need for the RTC calibration. I would complain about this if the clock did not have the GPS antenna, but it does have GPS, and is unlikely to give you any problems in practical use.

The display is multiplexed using a K155ID1, and uses classic NPN-PNP discrete drivers for the anodes, using SOT-23 transistors marked 1D (NPN) and 2D (PNP), presumably the MMBTA92 which has a voltage rating of 300V, or the KST93. 

The tubes are mounted close to the display board, with just enough clearance under them to allow the SMD 5050 RGB LEDs to be mounted. The RGB LEDs, which are divided into three sets of two RGB LEDs, one for each pair of digits, using NPN transistors marked 1GW, which is a general purpose SOT-23 NPN transistor.

 

Conclusion

Millclock are following a strategy which I think is the right for them to build a brand over the long term: Offer high quality items at the price which allows you to guarantee the quality. Millclock clocks are not cheap, but if you want to have a no-nonsense, "get-it-done" clock, you will not be disappointed if you buy Millclock.

Buyers of luxury items (and let's face it, Nixie clocks are luxury items: a $3 LED or LCD clock will tell the time just as well) forgive the price if the quality is there, but will not forgive failure and unreliability. From this point of view, I think Millclock are on the right path, and the Nixie Six is good choice.

Millclock offer a one year warranty, and will give you a 10% discount if you mention this article!

 

Links

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Price $164.99, including shipping

Manufacturer: Millclock

Millclock are based in Ukraine and offer a range of assembled clocks and thermometers, as well as some kits. We're going to focus on an assembled clock in this review, which is one of the more simple clocks available from Millclock.

One point before we start about the kits: There's been some negative press about the kits, but you should take that with a pinch of salt; The complaints were that the assembly was difficult because the components used are SMD (Surface Mount Devices), but that's entirely clear from looking at the pictures on the site. The complaints are a little unfair, and the Millclock site states that there is some assembly skill needed.

However, we're talking about a fully assembled and tested item in this review: The IN-12 Nixie Tube Clock With Walnut Wood Enclosure.

Walnut IN-12 

 

Ordering, delivery, unboxing

The package arrived quickly from the Ukraine; the shipping costs part of the price, and the priority postage that Millclock uses means that you won't have to wait very long for the clock to arrive. The clock itself was well packed and in perfect condition, well padded with polystyrene against the worst that a postal service can do. Inside the box, there was a power supply, the clock unit, and a very short instruction sheet, which covered half a side of paper. Clearly there isn't a lot to configure in this clock.

A 12V 1A power supply with a EU plug on it was in the box, and all you need to do to get the clock going is to plug it in and set the time! Very easy indeed.

 

Overall impressions

The clock is very small, and is quite a triumph of miniaturization. The front panel is barely larger than the 4 IN-12 tubes, and the depth of the unit front to back is slightly larger than the height. There are two buttons on the top of the case, and a small hole in the top. This is for cooling on the pre-production unit, but will be removed for the mass production, because the clock does not produce very much heat. 

The case is entirely in wood, and nicely finished, with an etched logo on the back panel, which  is a nice touch. The rounded corners and the grain of the wood give the clock a nice feel. The unit is comfortingly heavy in the hand. In the front between the hours and the minutes, there is a single small neon indicator.

The unit measures 113mm wide, 44mm high and 44mm deep, and weighs about 160g. The new international Nixie measurement standard of a 100g Toblerone, which is 210mm, so that means that it's just over 0.5T wide in the new units.

There were a couple of slight problems in the final assembly of the case, but I think there are because the unit I have is an early pre-production model. They are not very serious problems: The back panel is glued on, and it does not look to be easy to change the battery. Some screws would have been a better solution, because eventually the battery will need to be replaced.

Also, on the review unit, the power lead is very short, it is only xx cm, and this means it's sometimes difficult to find a good location for the clock close enough to a power outlet. The power adaptor is glued directly into the case, and it's not possible to change it. The application of the glue was not very pretty.

Operation of the clock is quite straightforward, justifying the single page of instructions. It covers all the normal functions of a small clock. You can set the time and date, you can set the time format to 12 hour or 24 hour mode, you can turn on or off the back light, and you can set whether you want to have the date displayed. It's that simple!

Clearly, inside this clock there is a small SMD PCB which holds the electronics and the tubes. Measuring an IN-12 against the unit we can see that it looks like the tubes are mounted directly on the board, and that is not going to leave much room for electronics. My statement about the miniaturization seems to be true. 

 

 Operation

The operation is super simple, and it's perfect for a small, easy "fit and forget" clock that you might keep in an office or a bedroom. The left hand button is the "menu" button, to move between menus when you are setting the clock, and the right hand button, adjusts the setting, or shows the date when you are in normal time mode. Each time the date is shown, the display does a little scroll through animation, which also serves as a rudimentary anti cathode poisoning.

The menu is easy to understand. First press the "menu" button (the left one), and the neon stops flashing. This is an indication that you are in setting mode. Then you can press the "adjust" button (the right one) to change the settings. After you have set the hour, press the "menu" button again to move onto the minutes, and again you can press the "adjust" button to set the minutes. When you move onto the minutes, the neon stays on. This is the clock's way of telling you that you are in setting mode, and you are working on the right hand pair of digits, in this case, the minutes.

Pressing the "menu" button again takes you into the date settings. The neon is off, so we are working on the first two digits, which is the day of the month. Set this, and then press the "menu" button again, and the neon shows us that we are looking at the right hand digits, which is the month.

Press the "menu" button again, and now we move onto the year. The next option is the 12 hour or 24 hour mode. "00" means we are in 24 hour mode, which is the default, and "01" is 12 hour mode.

The next pair of options is the back light which can be "01", meaning back light on, which is the default, or "00" meaning back light off. It would be nice if the back light was turned on or off when you change the setting, but it only sets the back light LEDs once you exit the settings mode. The next setting is whether to show the date by default. This means that every so often the date will be shown automatically. "01" means show the date (the default) and "00" means do not show the date.

You will notice that there is no option to set the seconds, because this is done automatically when you exit settings mode. When you finish the setting up, the seconds are set to "00" automatically. 

IN-12 tubes are super robust, so the anti cathode poisoning isn't really that necessary.

The time is battery backed, meaning that if you turn it off, it still keeps time perfectly. It's not using something like a super-capacitor, which will keep the time for a few minutes, it has a battery so that it will keep counting time as long as the battery runs, and the life of these batteries is usually measured in years. Millclock tell me that the life of the battery is rated as 10 years.

 

Conclusion

Millclock LogoThis is an excellent tiny little clock, pretty much the smallest enclosed clock that you can make with the hardy IN-12 tubes. It doesn't have a lot of functions, but the ones it has are dead easy to use, and cover what you want for a clock in an office or a bedroom. It has all the beauty of Nixies, in a small, modern package, with a high quality case. I think it's a little pricey for what it is, but bear in mind that the cost includes priority shipping and some high quality materials.

There are one or two little finishing touches which it would be nice to take care of (the glued back to the case and the missing strain relief around the short cable), but apart from that, it's a high quality, uncomplicated, accurate clock.

There is also a "dark chocolate" version available.

The guarantee is 1 year.

All in all, a nice little clock. 

 

Bonus

There is also a tear down of the clock. Bear in mind that this is a pre-production version of the clock, and the electronics looks pretty complete, but there are a few little rough edges in the case and construction. The teardown video is here:

Links

Is this (click on the image to see the full resolution picture of the madness):

 

KABTronics TubeClock

 

I'll be testing myself against it in a fight to the death:

  • 215 Transistors
  • 518 Diodes
  • 472 Resistors
  • 101 Capacitors
  • 10" x 14" Printed Circuit Board with silk screen symbols indicating component locations

Who will win? (My money is on the clock).

Links

KABTronics web site

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.

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