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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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:
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.
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 PM2422A was made in always had a service manual available for them. This one has a chunky 62 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 want to have a look at the manual, it is here: https://www.tubeclockdb.com/downloads/Philips_PM2422A_ENG.pdf
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...