Nixie-based tube clocks

It’s been a while since I’ve done a review so let’s jump right in. This, is the IN-18 Blue Dream from Nocrotec.com and NixieKitWorld.com.  This device is only sold as a kit so keep that in mind when ordering the device.

The Display

This device uses 6x IN-18 tubes to show the time. I particularly like IN-18’s because they are large and they are still relatively easy to find on eBay. They also seem to have a relatively good life as well; I have a set on IN-18s that have been on continuously for almost 5 years and show no signs of dimming.

Below the tubes are 2x SMD blue LEDs per tube. If you are looking at the clock face on, the LEDs are on the left and right sides of each tube.

Between the HH MM and SS are two sets of neon tube colon indicators. They are stacked vertically in small glass envelopes. The entire enclosure looks like a miniature test tube and is about the width of a felt tip pen. Since these are neon tubes as well, they emit the same color light that the nixie tubes do so they are a near perfect match. Some clocks use orange LEDs which are an okay substitute but the neon tubes on this device look very nice.

Display Effects

The first thing that jumped out at me when I first turned on this clock was how vibrant the blue LEDs are. They actually pulse with the time and throw off a significant amount of light when they are set to their brightest. There are 10 brightness levels that are user adjustable.

  • 0 – off
  • 1-3 – dim glow
  • 4-10 – pulsing

The colon indicators have a similar setting to the LED under lighting. They can be set to:

  • Always Off
  • Always On
  • Fast Flashing
  • Slow Pulsing

The IN-18s also have a set of transition effects as well. The digits can be set to simply switch between values, to fade smoothly, or to do a modified roulette effect. The roulette effect is interesting because normally you would expect it to count sequentially 1.2.3.4..etc. Instead, it illuminates the digits based in the order that they are stacked. This effect emphasizes the depth of a nixie tube and adds a feeling of randomness to the effect. I particularly like this effect and it is the default one that I use.

Time Reference

This device has a built in real-time clock. It can be set through the menu and the drift can be adjusted as well to ensure long-term accuracy of the device. However, this device supports several other options.

DCF – if you live in Germany, you can purchase a DCF receiver. The receiver is a little black box that plugs in to the back of the device and sets the time automatically.

GPS – You can buy a commercial GPS receiver and connect it to the back of the device. This option is great because it works worldwide and all you need to do is adjust the UTC offset in the menu.

Other Features

The power supply uses an efficient push-pull method that is absolutely silent. Some switch mode power supplies generate a high frequency hiss but that is eliminated in this design.

The display is directly driven and this has a few advantages over multiplexed displays. Each tube is run at it’s rated current (6 mA) to ensure full brightness and a long tube life. This also means that no “blue spots” appear in the tube.

Build Quality / Enclosure

Of course this is a kit and it’s up to you to do a good job assembling it ☺ However, the finished product looks very professional. The stainless steel base and bottom give a nice weight to the clock. For comparison, my NixiChron is slightly larger but this device weighs more.

On the rear of the device, there are three buttons, a power connector, and a connector for the DCF

The tubes are not soldered to the board. They are socketed which makes replacing the tubes easier and also ensures that you can straighten any crooked tubes.

There are no surface mount parts for you to assemble. All of the SMD work has been done leaving you with only through hole components.

Overall

There are few clocks that I keep on my desk and this is one of them. I really like this clock and the feature that I like the best is the modified roulette transition. The IN-18 Blue Dream is a solid design.

Photos

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

IN 18 Nixie Clock

Links

I just found this awesome little clock from Kosbo.com. It is actually a PCB that mates with a vintage panaplex style pinball display. There is one for sale on eBay and one for sale on Kosbo.com. Based on the website description, it looks like it uses similar software to his other clocks (based on the display mode / setup mode control scheme.). Check out the links below for more information.

Pinball Panaplex 7 segment clock

Pinball Panaplex 7 segment clock

Pinball Panaplex 7 segment clock

Pinball Panaplex 7 segment clock

Pinball Panaplex 7 segment clock

Features:

  • Unique 7 digits Nixie Clock on the market !
  • Fully assembled and tested Nixie Clock
  • 5 levels display brightness
  • Based on rare  PinBall Display
  • Displays Time, 2 Alarm clock sets and Date
  • Accurate & calibrated time clock source from internal crystal
  • Integrated 2 Alarm Clocks
  • Easy control with only 2 buttons or via serial interface
  • Uses standard 9V or 12V wall plug Power Supply
  • Internal backup battery for power failure protection
  • Will generate alarm buzz even main power is off !!!
  • Precision Seconds setup
  • Internal buzzer for Alarm1 and Alarm2
  • Separate Alarm1 and Alarm2 trigger outputs
  • High efficiency integrated on board DC-DC converter

Links:

Here is a video of the new wireless GPS link in action:

Links:

$549 USD w/GPS and Case

Video Review:

Text Review:

Let’s start with a story.  The Four Letter Word machine was invented in 1973 by Raymond Weisling.  The device was simple – it used 4x B7971 tubes to display random for letter words.  Of course, the draw to a device like this is that occasionally, one of the results would appeal to the prurient interests of a viewer.  This was not lost on Playboy who actually featured one of Ray’s creations in a 1973 issue.

Around 2006, Ray apparently decided to revive his creation and start selling them through his former website, zetalink.biz, as kits for hobbyists.  Unfortunately, he did not actually ship all of his orders and appears to have scammed several members of the nixie community out of several hundred of dollars each.  On list of people who never received a unit were Peter Hand and Jeff Thomas.

Pete had purchased one of Ray’s kits to give it as a gift for his daughter.  After waiting for a year and a half, it became apparent that he was not going to get the device and so he decided to engineer his own version.  In fact, he made two versions – a B7971 version (that also supports the planar neon ZM1350 tubes) as well as a smaller VFD version (see more here.)

In the last year, Jeff modified Pete’s design (with his permission) and added features like a GPS time base and a nice enclosure (designed by Jürgen Grau).  Now, 38 years after the original Four Letter Word machine was released, you can buy a complete device, including tubes, from a reputable seller.

Okay, sorry for the long story.  Let’s get to the review.

The device itself is shockingly small.  Every component is surface mount and Jeff went though great lengths to make this this device small.  The device is only about 3/4 inches thick or roughly an inch if you include the rubber feet.  The PCB is a slick bright red with white silkscreen printing and all of the internal components are visible.  The case has Jürgen’s trademark sandwich design and rounded corners for fasteners and rubber feet.  Ultimately, users are drawn to the tubes and not to the PCB but for those who really like to tinker or see how things work, everything is there for you to see.

The settings on the clock are adjusted one of two ways.  Some functions, like setting the time and tube brightness, are set via menu options.  There are MENU and SET buttons on the back that make this process pretty intuitive.  There is also a set of dipswitches on the device which control things like the frequency of obscenities as well as disables the time display and what transition effects are used between words.

The actual function of the GPS received in this device is a little bit different from some of Jeff’s other designs.  With something like the NixiChron, the device captures the time from the GPS signal and you program in a time zone and DST offset.  With this device, you set the hours and the device captures the MM portion of the signal to provide a steady time base.  I like this solution simply because it is easier than programming in the time zone and DST offset, DST start dates, and DST end dates.  At first it took a little getting used to but since filming the review, I can appreciate the logic of this solution.

As far as the dictionary goes, there are basically three classes of entries.  There are basic four letter words, acronyms, and obscenities.  After watching the device, it appears that some of the words may not actually be in English (I had to look a few of them up to confirm this).  As far as the rudeness goes, you can choose anything from never sear (called “swear like a nun”) to frequently (called “swear like a trooper”).  Switching between modes is as simple as flipping a switch on the back.

Lastly, and this is hard to quantify, is the uniqueness factor of the device.  I’ve been a clock collector for a while and my office is full of nixie clocks.  Still, this device always commands my attention.  I actually had to move it off of my desk because I spent more time watching it than reading my corporate finance textbook.  Whenever anyone enters my office, this device is one of the first things they are drawn to.

The bottom line:

B797s are getting progressively harder to find.  They cost between $80 and $100 USD on eBay and I can’t see them getting cheaper.  There are other devices for the B7971 tubes (like the Mod_6 and Cogwheel System) but this is the only four letter word machine.  If you want one of these, this is probably one of your only chances other than buying one second hand from another collector.  The device may seem expensive at $549 but remember, that $400 of that is for the tubes and the remaining $149 covers the engineering, the enclosure, the GPS receiver and the incredible team effort that went in to this.

Photos:

FLW four Letter Word Nixie zetalink.biz

FLW four Letter Word Nixie zetalink.biz

FLW four Letter Word Nixie zetalink.biz

FLW four Letter Word Nixie zetalink.biz

FLW four Letter Word Nixie zetalink.biz

FLW four Letter Word Nixie zetalink.biz

FLW four Letter Word Nixie zetalink.biz

FLW four Letter Word Nixie zetalink.biz

Links:

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