In the post today a new piece of equipment arrived from a friend of mine in the Netherlands, who spends far too much time in electronic junk yards, fishing for equipment to make things out of. He recently found an original Philips PM2422A multimeter with ZM1000 tubes. He was kind enough to send it to me. This is the opening of the package and the testing to make sure that it had arrived safely.
The meter uses 3 ZM1000 tubes, a "half digit" tube, capable of displaying a "1", and another small tube, capable of displaying a "-". I have no idea what the "half tubes" are. Here is a picture of the ZM1000 tubes in their original location:
The "half tubes" can be seen to the right of the three ZM1000s: there is a tall thin one, which shows the "1", and a round one (with the yellow wire) which is the "-".
There is also plenty of dust in there as well.
Here's the video of the unboxing:
One thing that manufacturers of today should take notice of, is that equipment of the era the PM2422 was made in always had a service manual available for them. This one has a chunky 63 page manual that explains everything about the way the unit works, as well as detailed instructions how to maintain and trouble shoot the unit. Try finding a piece of equipment with that level of detail today.
If you can read German, and want to have a look at the manual, it is here: https://www.electronica-pt.com/esquema/func-download/51797/chk,aab933119adc0413658e45ce6d9e4ff3/no_html,1/
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:
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,
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.
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.
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 "-"):
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.
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.
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.
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!
This is an IV-11 VFD clock kit, which I bought while I was looking around for a Vacuum Fluorescent Display clock kit. I was only half impressed by it. Most of all I was impressed by how fast it arrived, but not much else.
Well, it arrived really quickly. I was frankly shocked how quickly this kit arrived from China. Oh, we in the western world can only dream of a postal service as good as that which Hong Kong Post delivers, day after day, after day, after day, week after week, year after year. A box arrived two or three days after I ordered from the other side of the world. Wow!
Less than 3 days, here's the proof:
No real instructions. No help. You are on your own. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, lest ye be adept in the art of electrickery! Seriously, this kit is not for you unless you have constructed at least a couple of other clocks previously. There is no help available, and you really are on your own. You need to know how to use a meter and your head, and you'll be OK, in the end.
I'm not sure that the seller even really understands what he is selling. I have the suspicion that the whole kit might not be above board.
The candy shop LEDs certainly qualify as ugly in my book. It's like being stranded in Walt Disney's wet dream. There's no subtlety here. It's just... PURPLE, then GREEN then RED and then some BLUE. And BIG. However, I suppose we all need some more colour in our lives...
Dmitry at Magictale Electronics recently sent me the Luminardo to review (well, not that recently any more, sorry Dmitry...), and it's a clock that is worth a closer look because of the time and effort that Dmitry put into creating it. It is clearly a labor of love, and ultimately that has been it's downfall.
Unfortunately, you can't buy one of these, because Dmitry is not selling them any more, because he just can't get the price down enough to make it an interesting proposition with a reasonable price. This is the last one.
The Luminardo is a small format VFD clock with bang up to date electronics, which is based on the Arduino, and really it is more of a device platform than a clock as such. The code is all in a GitHub repository, and it is all compatible with the normal Arduino IDE. There's even an Arduino compatible port on the back of the clock, so you can just plug the Luminardo in to your computer to flash new firmware on it right away. In the repository are also the hardware files, and the Luminardo is therefore an open hardware and open source project. Nice!
If making a board for the Luminardo is too much, you can just go over to Magictale's Tindy account and pick up the board. If you have a look on the Magictale site, there is an abundance of information and downloads there. Sometimes it is hard to find what you are looking for, because there is simply so much information there. It's a sort of Geek Ulysses, a huge stream of consciousness, a fire-hose of ideas from the clearly (over?) active mind of the creator.
I had to wait a long time to get my hands on one for review: it had to come from Australia, and it had to be built before sending it. When it came, it arrived in a small box, well packed and protected. Unwrapping it revealed a cute white package in a carefully designed 3D printed case:
The Luminardo is a long term personal project that Magictale has been pursuing for quite a while now. I quizzed Dmitry about the price that he would sell it for if he was going to sell it, but he explained that he couldn't get the production cost down enough to make it viable to sell it, because the cost in time and parts was just too high to make it something that is viable as a commercial product. I believe this without hesitation: The amount of work that has gone into this clock must be enormous. Apart from the 8 digit, 15 segment display, the clock literally bristles with sensors:
- The PIR detector on the top turns the clock on when you walk into the room
- There is a speaker in the left with a hole in the front panel to let the sound out
- Below that there is an LDR
- On the right there is an RGB LED
- and below that an IR sensor
Round the back, there is even more:
- On the left the is a temperature sensor
- Just above it there is a connector for an external sensor for outdoor temperature measurements
- Below that, a standard 6-pin ICSP port
- An exposed I2C connector
- A serial port 1
- A serial port 0 which is also used by onboard USB-to-serial converter
- A USB host interface with type 'A' receptacle
- A USB-to-serial interface with type 'B' mini receptacle
- On the side, a power barrel jack
- On top of the case there is a hole for accessing a reset micro switch.
The assembly is made of two PCBs. Firstly a motherboard with CPU, peripherals and power source unit, and secondly a display module, the two are interconnected with a 14-pin header. The original idea was to make display panels interchangeable to take advantage different types of VFDs, with different number of digits/symbols and segments. The boards are detailed SMD boards, with a high density, and must be a trial to assemble.
The unit can be powered by a single power source, either through the power barrel jack on the side or through the mini USB connector. The relatively high and filament voltages needed by VFD are generated internally. The VFD power supply design doesn't have notorious shortcuts like powering filament with DC or using a software driven high voltage generator or using a charge pump which by its nature can't provide constant voltage level. Instead, a high voltage generator circuitry has a feedback and a pulse filament drive is used, eliminating typical issues like brightness gradient and dependency between brightness and total number of segments being lit. Still, the solution is simple, inexpensive and doesn't use custom made transformers.
As for the electronic components, the circuitry uses highly a available and extremely popular buck boost switching regulator MC34063 and a mono audio amplifier which are unlikely going to become obsolete in foreseeable future, and even if they do, they could be easily substituted with something else. The VFD glass is controlled by a specialised driver which does the multiplexing, controls dimming and has a convenient SPI-like serial interface, such driver is often used in modern DVD players. The VFD panel has a power down mode allowing significantly reduce power consumption and prolong VFD glass lifetime.
The heart of the motherboard is an ATMEGA with 128 Kb of program memory onboard making plenty of room for experimentations. The board has a battery backed dedicated real time clock chip which doesn't loose track of time even during power outages. It also provides 56 bytes battery backed RAM with unlimited number of read/write cycles which is very convenient for keeping user settings, for example, alarm time.There is also a conventional FTDI-based USB-to-Serial converter for flashing applications and serial debugging, just like a typical Arduino. Besides, there is a USB host functionality based on MAX3431E chip which has a mature software support by opensource library https://github.com/felis/USB_Host_Shield_2.0 evolved over the years. While the ATMEGA clearly doesn't have capabilities to work with web cameras it can easily handle such things as Bluethooth dongles or USB flash drives so it is really easy to turn the clock into a datalogger or control it by an Android phone. The board has two power rails, 5V and 3.3V with most of the logic and the micro using 3.3V. Both rails are available on an external expansion header along with the SPI interface theoretically making a provision for a third board-shield in between the two boards, however, the current design of the case doesn't accommodate for it.
The case is also a little work of art. It's clearly 3D printed, but has curves and recesses, bezels and details that tell you someone spent a long time on it. The PIR sensor on the top of the unit is half hidden and does not call attention to itself. Even though the PIR sensor is recessed, it still has a wide field of view, and the clock wakes up before you are fully in the room.
One really nice feature is the software controlled remote control unit. When the clock starts up, it prompts you to set up the remote control by displaying "RCSETUP" if the Infra-red sensor detects any signal during this time, it goes into "learn" mode.
This means you can use pretty much any remote control you have laying around, and teach the clock the buttons you will be using. Gone are the days when losing the remote control was a big problem. That's a really nice feature!
With a totally normal USB cable you can link up the Luminardo to you Arduino IDE, and after you install a hardware definition file into the IDE, the Luminardo appears in the IDE as a device in the "Tools > Boards" menu. You can make changes to the code and upload it in a matter of seconds. This makes the development cycle with the Luminardo very direct and quick. Have an idea, code it, upload it, test it all in a few seconds.
It's a lovely little clock, and it's a real shame that it is over-engineered to the point of being impossible to mass produce. I mean this in terms that to be able to market a product with this level of sophistication, the price is going to have to be well up in the $250+ range. I paid $150 for mine, which was the review price, therefore basically cost price. By the time that support, returns profit and administration, fees, shipping and all the rest of the costs of production are factored in, the price will certainly end up at least double the cost, so around $300.
It is a shame. This is a really neat little clock, but unfortunately, it does not have a future at the moment, primarily because it is over-specified and over-engineered.