Intelligent 7-Segment Display

Time for another project with a super-low-cost microcontroller. But what to design? Ever since seeing a project where a $0.03 MCU controls $40 worth of intelligent RGB LEDs, I have been wondering whether this is the right place to use these devices. At this price point, doesn’t it seem to make more sense to dedicate one MCU to one LED each and use it to implement a fancy node-controller? It has always appealed to me to design my own protocol. However, just copying a WS2812 RGB LED or similar seemed to be a bit pointless…

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What made the 1960s CDC6600 supercomputer fast?

Anybody who has ever taken an advanced computer architecture class has heard of the CDC6600, which was the world’s fastest computer from 1964 to 1969. It was the machine that put Seymour Cray on the map as a supercomputer architect. The design of the machine is well documented in a book by James Thornton, the lead designer, and is therefore publically accessible. Among several architectural concepts that later found use in RISC, the CDC6600 is known for introducing the Scoreboard. Which is, along with Tomasulo’s algorithm, one of the earliest concepts for out-of-order processing.

Besides the architectural progress, the CDC6600 was impressive for its clock speed of 10 MHz. This may not sound much, but consider that this was a physically very large machine entirely built from discrete resistors and transistors in the early 1960s. Not a single integrated circuit was involved. For comparison, the PDP-8, released in 1965 and also based on discrete logic, had a clock speed of 1.5 MHz. The first IBM PC, released 20 years later, was clocked at less than half the speed of the CDC6600 despite being based on integrated circuits. The high clockrate is even more impressive when comparing it to more recent (hobbyist) attempts to design CPUs with discrete components such as the MT15, the Megaprocessor or the Monster6502. Although these are comparatively small designs based on modern components, none of them get to even a tenth of the CDC6600 clock speed.

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A LED-Candle based on the 3 cent MCU

After having reviewed sub $0.10 microcontrollers recently, it’s time for some projects using the Padauk PFS154 and PMS150C. Considering my previous investigation of electronic and non-electronic candles, it appears only natural to chose this as a target for the lowest cost microcontrollers.

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The “terrible” 3 cent MCU – a short survey of sub $0.10 microcontrollers.

Like many others, I was quite amazed to learn about a microcontroller sold for only 0.03 USD via the EEVblog last year. How was this possible? Many assumed this was a fire sale of an old product. Digging a bit further, it became apparent that there is an entire market segment of ultra-low-cost microcontrollers. Almost all of them are products of rather unknown companies from China or Taiwan. This write up summarizes my findings in this rather peculiar niche.

We already learned that there is a large variety of very powerful $1.00 microcontrollers, but what about the $0.10 MCU? Are they indeed all “terrible”, as suggested elsewhere?

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SK9822 – a clone of the APA102?

Two years ago I took a deeper look into the APA102. Although it was more expensive than the common WS2812, and harder to come by, it had some intriguing properties. The main benefits are a timing-insensitive  SPI interface, allowing easy interfacing to standard periphery, and a much higher PWM frequency of >19kHz, making the APA102 almost flicker free.

So much about that. Considering how things with LEDs from China go, it should not take too long for clones to appear? Indeed! Recently, several comments showed up on my blog, reporting about issues with APA102 LEDs they bought. It quickly turned out that these were SK9822, APA102 clones from the same company that already brought the SK6812 to us, a WS2812 clone.

One of these people was Mike. He developed the Weblight, a WebUSB controlled RGB LED. The prototype (shown below, red pcb) worked well, but when he commissioned a small production run (black pcb), the LED started to show odd update behavior. Mike was nice enough to share a couple of boards with me for further investigation.

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DICE10 – electronic dice controlled by two GPIO.

Yay,  another mini-project with the ATtiny10!

dice10

A while ago I devised a scheme to drive an electronic dice with only two IO lines. I finally found the time and motivation to build up a small design using this as an entry for the hackaday 1k compo. Please find project details on the hackaday.io page or the github repository.

dice10_withtext

Gluon – developing a bootloader for the ATtiny104

The ATtiny102 and ATtiny104 are Atmels newest addition to the AVR ATtiny family. They are a bit different to most of the other devices in that family, since they are based on the AVRTINY CPU core, which was so far only used in the ATtiny4/5/9/10/20/40. I have previously done several projects on the ATtiny10, so I was naturally excited to see another addition to this family. Both new devices are clearly targeted at the lower end, with only 1kb of flash.

Two interesting new features compared to the ATtiny10 are self-programming capability and an integrated UART. Naturally, this asks for a serial bootloader. Since no bootloader is available for this device I set out to work to work on one.

The current state can be found at the Github repository linked below.

Gloun Github repository

Right now it is able to upload and execute user programs on ATtiny104 and ATtiny85, but it is far from being optimized. I stopped working in Gluon for various reasons, but may be picking it up again at some point.