Big LED Clock Kit

A couple of months ago I was browsing Banggood and came across a stupid little clock kit that I felt drawn to for some reason. I suppressed the urge, but not before seeing if I could get the kit for cheaper on eBay (I couldn’t).

About a month ago, I was looking at Banggood again, and this time I gave into temptation and ordered the kit and it finally arrived, by way of Sweden!! a week or so ago and I assembled it yesterday.

I’m still not sure why I was so attracted to the kit, even now that I have it assembled and working on my desk, but I have an idea. I think a big part of the appeal is the minimalism of the device. From the front, all you see is the inch high LED digits. The circuitry is all on a board hidden behind the LED modules. The optional clear acrylic case is similarly minimal. It’s just six pieces of clear acrylic, with tabs and notches cut to interlock, holes for the six screws and slots for the six nuts that fasten it all together.



  • 1″ white digits (other colors available)
  • Clock (24hr/military time only, so far as I can tell)
  • Temperature, Centigrade only, alternates with time display
  • Alarm
  • 5v power with cord for powering from a USB connector
  • Battery backup for the clock.

The kit comes with all the thru-hole parts needed to assemble the clock and 8.5×11″ sheet of paper with the instructions printed on one side. The instructions are probably enough to build and operate the clock given some basic familiarity with assembling electronics, which is not to say that they couldn’t be better.


Assembling the kit is quite simple. There are about two dozen resistors of three different types to be added to the board, along with a with a diode. After placing and soldering these low-profile components, I added the six provided solid capacitors and the crystal, then the two IC sockets, six transistors, pezio buzzer, electrolytic capacitor, power socket, switches, and a surface mounted coin-cell holder.

The transistors proved just slightly tricky, because the provided transistors are in a TO-92 package, while the PCB is layed out for something with a wider lead spacing like a TO-126. The solution is simple, bend the leads to fit, but it’s a bit fussy.


Before finishing soldering the components, I partially assembled the case so I could check the distance between the back of the board and the notch cut in the case to provide direct exposure to the thermistor. Photos of the assembled clock on Bangood show the thermistor sticking out high above the case, which strikes me as ridiculous and unnecessary. I decided that ~1cm off lead between the board and the component was enough to position it in the cutout while remaining protected by the case. I bent the leads to be parallel to each other and perpendicular to the axis of the thermistor package, then 1-2mm from that bend, I bent both leads at another right angle, so the leads remained parallel in the same plane, and the thermistor was a elevated slightly above it. I then soldered the thermistor to the board so there was about 7mm from the PCB. I did something similar for the photoresistor, so it could face upward. I bent the leads a couple mm away from the package, and then soldered the leads so they protruded about 5mm from the board.

Once the components were all soldered, and the leads trimmed, I checked over the board and fixed a number of dodgy solder joints before adding the four 7-segment LED modules on the opposite side of the PCB.

The third digit brought unexpected difficulty. It is supposed to be rotated, so that the dot that usually sits at the lower right to serve as a decimal point, will instead sit at the top left, to serve as the top dot of a colon separating hours from minutes formed with analogous dot at the bottom of the previous digit. This rotation presented a problem, because the leads at the top and bottom edge of the LED packages are offset, rather than centered, and the PCB wasn’t laid-out to account for this. All the leads had to be bent to accommodate. Again, a relatively simple task, but fussy in practice, because of the need to maintain the spacing between the 5 leads on each side so they will slip into the holes on the PCB.


At this point, I fit the ICs to their sockets, powered up the clock, and found that it worked. Or should I say, mostly worked? The left-most digit didn’t light up. I tried resetting the device as described in the instructions, but it still didn’t work. I checked all the solder joints for the LED module, and they seemed Ok, but I touched some of them up with another pass of the soldering iron. I also consulted the schematic to figure which transistor is responsible for strobing the power to the module and checked/touched-up its leads. The first digit still wasn’t lighting up. It was time for bed.

After a good nights sleep, and breakfast out with friends, I returned to troubleshooting the clock. I spent 15 minutes or so using the continuity function on one of my multimeters to trace out part of the circuit and better associate the schematic with the actual layout of the PCB. In particular, I was interested in the portion of the circuit responsible for powering the problem LED module. I figured out the center pin on either side of the module provided +5v, and that there seemed to be good continuity between that and the collector lead of the controlling transistor (Q1). I also found that there was proper continuity from the base of the transistor to the associated resistor, and that the other end of the resistor was, indeed, connected back to an output pin on the microcontroller. Finally, the emitter was properly connected to the 5v supply.

Since everything seemed to be connected properly, I needed to look elsewhere to figure out why the clock wasn’t functioning properly. I thought, perhaps, one of the components was defective. Rather than going to the trouble of testing them individually, either in or out of circuit, I decided to power up the device again, and use an oscilloscope to inspect the signals at various points in the circuit, and compare them against the signals at analogous points for the other functioning digits. This would help me pinpoint the component in need of attention.

That was the idea, anyway. Once I powered the clock up again, the problem digit lit up. I’m not sure what happened. Perhaps my probing and shifted a faulty solder joint back into contact? I tried pushing on a few spots, to see if I could reproduce the problem, but nothing happened. In the end, I decided I had better problems to solve than chasing down an intermittent fault in a $12 clock kit, mounted it in the case, and called the project done.

Other Details


The PCB has some unpopulated areas. The documentation doesn’t say much about them, other than that they are “DIY” areas and no components should be installed. The schematic casts some light on what they are for. There are some headers for in-circuit-programming, and another which, I think, may be for resetting the MCU. There is also space for a relay, and an accompanying space for a connector/header for attaching the switched load. Given the design and clearances on the PCB, and the width of the associated traces, I’d guess that it is only suitable for switching low voltages at modest currents (~1A, tops). The firmware also seems to support this relay by allowing you to set an our to turn it on, and and hour to turn it off.

For what it is worth, the device uses a pre-programmed STC15F20EA_28 microcontroller in a DIP package. This MCU comes from STC Micro, in China. It has an implementation of the 80C51 CPU, along with 4K of flash, 256 bytes of SRAM, an 8-channel, 10-bit AD converter and 1K of EEPROM. This chip isn’t particularly hobbyist friendly, other than being inexpensive. Someone did create software for programming these chips called ‘stcdude.’ It is analogous to ‘avrdude’ used for programming Atmel avr microcontrollers. You’ll also need a compiler like SDCC (small device C compiler). That, and experience doing embedded development without much handholding. This isn’t an Arduino, nor is it Arduino compatible.

The MCU is complimented by a DS1302 clock chip (or something that functions like one), which stores the alarm settings, and keeps time on battery power when the external power isn’t connected.


I measured the power consumption using a USB meter, and it read 0.01-0.02a, or 10-20mA. In theory, you could probably run it for ~4 days off of a modest single-cell USB powerbank. In practice though, it probably doesn’t draw enough current to keep most USB power banks switched on.



I’ll give this kit a solid B overall. The kit and instructions are a B- because of the layout problems I mentioned above. The finished product is a B to a B+. It think it is attractive, and useful, but as an American, the fact that it only displays time in 24-hour mode and temperature in Centigrade undermines its utility somewhat.

I should also say that while the temperature seems accurate to within a degree or so, I have no idea how well it will keep time.

EDC 521 Voltage Source Stability and Accuracy


Last week, I cleaned up the used EDC 521 DC Voltage & Current Source I bought on eBay and ran it through some quick tests. The next day, I connected it up to one of my Keithley 2700 6.5 digit multimeters, started logging readings, and powered it up. Since then, I’ve been collecting voltage readings every 5 seconds so I could get a better sense of the device’s stability and accuracy.

The EDC 521 was set to 10.00000v and powered on.


Once the self-tests ran the output turned on. The initial voltage was only 9.99954v, but climbed quickly. After 15 minutes, it was up to 9.99981v and still rising gradually. At the end of the specified two hour warm-up period, it was 9.99986v, well within the specified tolerance of 0.000258v (0.002% of setting + 0.0005% of range + 3uV), as well as the DMMs uncertainty of 0.000350v 30ppm of reading + 5ppm of range.


After the initial warm-up, the voltage continued rising for another 5 hours, before leveling out at about 9.99989v.


The graph above shows the voltage over ~4 days following the two hour warm-up period. If we look at the stability once the voltage first leveled out ~7 hours after turn-on, we see that it lies between 9.99990v and 9.99994v, which works out to be about 4 parts per million (ppm), which is better than the specified 7.5ppm 8-hour stability and the 10ppm 24 hour stability for the source and ~14ppm 24-hour stability of the DMM.

I’d guess that some of the variation is due to temperature changes. The EDC 521 specifies a temperature coefficient of +- 5ppm/C°, and the DMM has a temperature coefficient of about 2ppm. Unfortunately, I didn’t start collecting temperature readings until yesterday afternoon. Once have accumulated a few days worth of readings, I’ll look at the relationship between temperature than the voltage reading.


The last thing I did was look at short term variation in readings. The graph above looks at a 4 hour period earlier today. The blue line is a moving average of 10 minutes of readings (~120 readings), the dark green shows the standard deviation in readings over the same window, and the light green bounds the average of the minimum and maximum readings over the same period.

It shows that the difference between minimum and maximum readings are ~6uV, which is  less than 1ppm. The DMM is only a 6.5 digit DMM, which means that the smallest reading on the 10v range is 10uV. When readings are taken using the GPIB or RS-232 interfaces, it does report an extra digit, which is useful for statistical purposes. In this case, I think its safe to say that the short term variation in readings is probably mostly down to the DMMs noise floor.

After looking over this data, my conclusion is that I got what I was hoping to get, a stable and accurate precision voltage source. Next step is to test the GPIB interface and use it to collect data across every available setting and range to check for linearity/accuracy and decide whether any adjustments are needed.

Keithley 2000 & 2700 Data Logging in Python

This is a simple, braindead, python script to get measurements from a Keithley 2000 & 2700 DMMs using VXI-11 and store them in a simple timestamped SQLlite database.

It’s not a general tool, but it should be easy enough to tweak it to dump to a text file, take different measurements, use different ranges, different intervals, different communications transports.

It doesn’t have enough error checking, and bug fixing, but it mostly works well enough. It recovers from (some) malformed readings. It doesn’t recover from other errors (mostly communication related)


  • OS X or Linux
    • It may work with Windows, but I haven’t tested it.
  • Python 2.7.x 
    • It may work with others, I haven’t tested it.
  • python-vxi11

How to use

The script takes voltage readings at ~10s intervals, on the 100v range, and stores them in a SQLlite3 DB called readings.sqlite3 in the current working directory. If you want different behavior, look through the source code and make the necessary changes.

You MUST edit the file to configure the name of your VXI-11 gateway and GPIB address(s) of the devices you want to poll.

Finally, run the script, ie:



Since this script doesn’t do much error checking, it occasionally dies. In my experience, when it dies, it is because of a communcations timeout. In such situations, restarting the script is often enough for hours more logging.

I usually run it in a shell loop, so it restart automatically after a delay:

while true; do python; sleep 150; done

If you modify this script to communicate with your Keithley 2000 DMM over RS-232 serial, be aware that a problems with hardware/firmware before ~2007 can result in frequent communication failures.

The simple workaround is to modify the RS-232 cable, or the DMM’s own RS-232 port, to ensure that the RTS pin (#7) is not connected.

Continue reading

HP 6114a Precision Power Supply First Look

I already have more working electronic lab equipment than I need, and more broken equipment than I can fix in the next month or so, but I still check eBay daily, and occasionally, I see a deal that is too good to pass up. This time, it was an Hewlett Packard 6114a power supply on sale for $75 + $19 shipping. The supply had been listed for $150, and I figured that if the seller was willing to cut the price in half, they might be willing to accept even less. I offered $55.

I’m really not sure what I was thinking. Part of me felt like getting the supply for $75 would be a great deal. Part of me thought that not getting it at all would be smart, since I didn’t need it, and had resolved not to take on other projects. Part of me wanted to see if I could get it for even less. In the end, it looks like the compromise I made was to try and serve all three, because I picked a price that was low enough that it might not be accepted, but high enough that I might end up with another piece of equipment. And so I did.

The HP 6114a was introduced in in the early 1970s and produced until at least the early 1990s. They typically go for something over $100 + shipping, so getting one for just under $75 would rate as a good but not great deal. From the photos in the listing, I thought I could make out enough of the serial number to tell that this example was made in 1981, a fact I confirmed once it arrived. It had the base single-turn potentiometer for the current control, rather than a 10-turn pot with a turn-counting dial, but I thought I could upgrade it myself for $10-20 in parts.

Physically it seemed in fair shape. There were some bent fins on the heatsink, and the front panel trim wasn’t seated properly, and might need to be bent back into shape. Most of the finish seemed to be in good shape. The condition of the front panel was harder to judge. It was hard to tell what was sticker residue and what was scratches in the finish.

The unit arrived from Nevada about three business days after I ordered it. It was packed in a stout cardboard box, and heavier than I expected. Inside I found it wrapped in a few sheets of thin foam, nestled in a reasonable amount of packing peanuts. I think there were enough peanuts to protect the instrument as shifted in the box transport, but I’m not 100% sure, because there was some damage to the front panel and its hard to tell if it was pre-existing, or it occurred during shifting.

HP 6144a Front Panel

There weren’t any big surprises after I got it unwrapped. Next step was to start taking it apart so I could figure why the top trim on the front panel wasn’t seated properly, and what I could do about it.

Along the way, I also performed an initial inspection of the electronics to look for damaged components, PCBs and interconnect wires.

I quickly spotted some damage to some of the pvc tubing used for cable management (above left). It looked like it had been scorched by an errant soldering iron, suggesting a previous repair. It took my a while to figure out that the site of the repair was (probably) right there in front of me. That a big resistor (above right) is not like all the other big resistors. It’s epoxy packaged. The rest are ceramic.


My deeper inspection showed that displaced top trim wasn’t bent, as I feared. The aluminum extrusion was in good shape, other some chips and gouges in the finish, some of which had cut into the underlying aluminum. With the top trim removed, I could take a closer look at the other components of the front panel.


The meter was in pretty good shape, but its grey plastic bezel, which also served to help retain the clear plastic lens piece, was broken in the lower left hand corner. I removed the bezel and glued the crack with some superglue. Once it was dry, and sanded it down and polished it with some nail files/polishers I got surplus from my wife. The crack is still visible if you look closely due to glue filling in fit is repaired and the profile and finish of the plastic is pretty close to what it originally was.


During initial inspection, I noticed a rattle as I turned the instrument over. As opened the chassis up, I was attentive to the source of the noise, but couldn’t pinpoint it. In the process of removing the meter bezel, I realized the loose part was in the meter. I desoldered the meter leads so I could inspect the meter more easily. As I did, the source of the rattle quickly revealed itself to be small screw and copper lock washer. Once I had the meter free of its leads, I removed a clear plastic clip holding the meter lens to the back of its housing and worked the lens loose. With it free, I could see the source of the loose parts, they were one of the pair fastening the printed meter dial to the frame of the brass meter mechanism. They’d somehow worked themselves loose.

The copper washer dropped out as soon as I opened the meter housing, but I lost track of the screw. It wasn’t on my workbench, and gentle tapping of the meter housing didn’t shake it loose. I went in search of a suitable tool for removing the recessed nuts at the back of the housing that hold the mechanism to the meter. The socket wrenches I had were too thick-walled, but a fine set of needle nose pliers ended up doing the job. I still couldn’t find the screw though. I pulled the internal leads free of the pins that passed through the housing so I could take a closer look. Perhaps the screw had found a spot inside the works of the mechanism? After 15-20 minutes, I concluded that it must have dropped out as I carried it in search of a wrench. After searching around on the floor around my chair for 10 minutes, I broadened my search area and almost immediately spotted it camouflaged in a dust bunny on the other side of the table, along the path I took to the basement to look for tools.

HP 6144 Voltage Control Sub-panel

After reassembling the meter, I decided to remove the one screw holding the voltage control subpanel to the chassis and take a closer look at it. That doesn’t look right, does it? That bow isn’t lens distortion, that’s bent aluminum. I can’t tell from the photos in the listing if the damage was already done, or if it happened in transit. One way or another, it looks like the result of sliding or being pushed face-first against something.

In preparation for repair, I desoldered the two leads connecting the voltage control to the main PCB. One connected into a PCB on the sub assembly and was easy to remove. The other connected directly to a lead on the potentiometer shown in the photo. It was a bit fussy. The leads from the pot are basically ~22 gauge wire with a hairpin bend at the end. To get the wire free, I ended up removing most of the solder with some desoldering wick, and then alternated between teasing the hairpin open and working the wire free. All in all, it was fussier than I would have liked, and I ended up scorching some of the plastic potentiometer housing when I accidentally touched it wit the side of the soldering iron. In retrospect, i should have removed the knob and unscrewed the pot from the front panel before trying to desolder the lead.

With the assembly free, I removed the knob and retaining nut on the potentiometer, then I heated the aluminum carefully with a hair dryer so it was easier to pull the thinner front sheet with the labeling free of the the thicker extrusion so that I could get to the screws holding the decade switches.

HP 6114a Voltage Control Subpanel Repair

With the bent extrusion isolated, I used a hammer and a few hardwood blocks to carefully beat it back into some semblance of flat. I think I did a pretty good job.


I also spent some time cleaning the stickers and adhesive off the remainder of the front panel. I started by peeling off what I could, which revealed some writing with permanent marker. Isopropyl Alcohol on some cotton balls and a little elbow-grease took care of all the adhesive and faded the permanent marker.

I used an old “drafting” eraser to rub out the last remnants of the magic marker and a few persistent spots. I think its looking pretty good. There are a few tiny scrapes in the white panel, and a few more in the grey strip at the bottom that I think I’ll leave be. Some of the lettering on the white panel is a little worn. I might try touching that up.


The most glaring problem is the missing HP logo badge that is supposed to fit over those two holes in the upper left of the panel. Given the vintage of this supply, I think the original logo badge had charcoal and gray with a chrome border. Anyone happen to have any spares?

Next step, I think is to put it back together and check to see how it works.


HP 6177C DC Current Source Troubleshooting/Repair

I picked up a Hewlett Packard 6177C DC Current Source on ebay for less than $75 shipped. This is a precision constant-current source that can deliver 0-500mA at up to 50V.

IMG_7318The seller described the unit as used with responsive controls and indicators. When I received it, I could see that while in generally good physical shape the upper right portion of the front panel was more bent/buckled than I could make out in the eBay photos.

So, first thing I did was partially disassemble the unit to fix the front panel.

Once I got it back together, I did some quick functional tests and found that the current output was consistently 1/10th the expected value. In the 500mA range with the current pot set to maximum, it produces a max of 53mA of current, on the 50mA range, it produces 5.3mA, and on the 5mA range, 0.53mA. This behavior doesn’t vary noticeably between shorting the outputs and having a 30 Ohm load. With a suitably high resistance, the voltage will hit >50v, provided the current doesn’t exceed ~50mA.

So, next step was to look at the service manual and work through the troubleshooting steps.

First thing is to check some voltage rails.  These all checked out, though a few were out of spec on ripple.

Next is to go through the problem isolation procedure, which starts with checking the guard voltage to see if it varies between 0 and -1V. Nope! In each range it maxes out at… ~100mV, or 1/10th of the expected value. Notice a pattern forming?

I started to work through the guard supply troubleshooting instructions, but I got hung up. After disabling the main supply, as instructed and checking a few voltages, it wasn’t clear to me whether I should go immediately through the subsequent steps, or reverse the change and proceed from there. Subsequent instructions just raised more questions.

I asked for guidance in the EEVBlog forum, and while waiting for a response, worked to better acquaint myself with the schematic and theory of operation of the device.

I’m still not sure what to do, and rather than pushing forward, I realize that I already have other incomplete projects that need my attention, I’ve gathered everything up into a bin and put this one on the shelf, for now.


Dismal Ebay AVR DDS Signal Generator

Months ago, I bought a $15 AVR-based DDS signal generator kit from eBay. I didn’t have high expectations, but I thought it would give me a capability I didn’t currently have, and give me the chance to practice soldering.

It was immediately clear upon opening the package that it was at least half a failure, because it was fully assembled. For this, I got a partial refund, making it a ~$10 fully-assembled DDS signal generator.

It sat a few months while I acquired, refurbished, diagnosed, and ultimately repaired a used Power Designs TP340A three output bench power supply that I could use to provide the +15, -15 and +5V needed to power it.

Once I had it powered up and hooked to the scope, it took me 5-10 minutes to figure out how the thing worked. The digital controls are a little odd, but easy to figure out. The outputs and analog controls are a little fussier. Ultimately though, I figured out that the leftmost BNC is for a high-speed square-wave output. The right BNC is for the synthesized DSS output, the leftmost potentiometer is for amplitude, the right for DC offset.


It didn’t take too much longer to see how badly this thing sucks. At first glance the 2 KHz  sine wave doesn’t look too bad

DS1Z_QuickPrint34If you look closely though, you see some consistent glitches. This thing generates an analog value by switching resistors using the AVRs GPIO pins. My guess is that this glitch is caused by one or more out of tolerance resistors.


Looking even more closely, you can start to see high-frequency noise. In his Youtube review (embedded below), Electron Update notes that this noise has a frequency of 1MHz and believes that this is probably noise from the digital section.

The 2KHz square wave isn’t too great. The rise and fall times are rather significant relative to the on/off times.


At 20KHz, the square wave is a sloppy triangle. Note too that the peak-to-peak amplitude is only 6.56v vs the 18.2 it delivers at 2Khz.


The “high speed” 20KHz sine isn’t very good either. The waveform is nearly identical to that of the 20KHz square wave, and like the square wave, the peak-to-peak voltage of ~6.6v is a fraction of the 17.8v excursion at 2KHz.

Of course, 20KHz isn’t really high-speed at all. Its at the top end of the human auditory range. The device actually supports up to ~65KHz. It doesn’t get better.  The truth is, the waveforms go to hell before 10KHz.


My device seems to be based on the AVR DDS signal generator V2.0 software and hardware from 2008, with minor revisions to the hardware for manufacturability.

Electron Update did a review/analysis of a similar device based on the same design on his youtube channel.

The design has some fundamental limitations, thought it isn’t clear if some of my problems are specific to my unit.



Power Designs TP340A Repair/Refurb

I picked up an old Power Designs TP340A bench power supply on eBay. The TP340A is a three channel (or “source) power supply. Source A & B have identical specs, providing up to 1A from 0-32v DC. They can be operated independently, or in tracking mode to provide positive and negative voltages. The third source only covers from 0-15v, but can deliver 5A at up to 6V and 2A at up to 15V. I bought it to power projects as I teach myself more about electronics. Little did I know what I was in for.

It showed up well-packed in great physical shape. There were a few scuff marks on the case where it had probably been pushed up against another piece of equipment, and some stickers and a few scuffs on the face plate, but otherwise, it looked nearly new.

When I took it apart, I found the insides were in similar condition.

On closer inspection though, I noticed something that wasn’t quite right

Bad C104 is Bad

The 100 uF 25V Sprague electrolytic capacitor in postion C104 looked like it had a bad inner seal. I decided not to power up the PSU until I’d replaced this cap.

The other two channels have the same type of capacitor in the same position in the circuit. They looked Ok, but I decided they should be replaced too, and while I was at it, I figured I’d also order replacements for the other big electrolytic caps. This decision proved to be a mixed bag.

The visually intact sibling 100 uF Sprague caps proved dead when I tested them after replacing them. On the other hand, the other electrolytics were still in spec. Which is more than can be said about some of their replacements.

After replacing all the caps, I powered things up and was greeted by a wretched buzzing metallic groan . I quickly switched the power off and gathered my wits, such as they were. Then I turned it on again for long enough to twiddle some of the knobs, things still weren’t right, but I had slightly more information. I switched it off again, thought for a minute, and switched it on again. This time the horible groan was joined by a ffffffssstPOPffffff. I switched it off, but there was another ffffffssstPOPffffff. I’d put two of the capacitors in backwards and they’d vented.

I replaced the vented caps with the originals getting the polarity right this time, so I could see if I’d done the thing permanent harm. Happily, the horrid groaning sound didn’t return the next time I switched the power on. It didn’t work though.

It didn’t take long to find them problem, I’d turned the voltage and current limit knobs the wrong way. After correcting that problem, I found that all the channels of the supply were fully functional, though things didn’t seem quite right. In tracking mode, source B didn’t respond at all until the voltage was up to about 8V and then started dropping off as it was turned up past 16v.

I started going through the troubleshooting steps in a PDF copy I’d found of the operating manual, but that’s going to be the subject of another post.

Tektronix Mainframes

I’ve been looking into old Tektronix osciloscopes and related gear lately, and I thought I should write-up some of what I learned.

Last year, I posted a few installments in my saga of figuring out what to buy for my first osciloscope. I ended up with a Rigol DS1074Z, and while I haven’t gotten a lot of use out of it, yet, when I have used it, its saved me a lot of troubleshooting time.

Recently though, I’ve been looking for ways to address some of the limitations of my scope. In particular, I’d like to be able to do low-noise differential measurements on one or more channels. In part, this allows more flexibility in using all my scope channels to look at power supply circuits. It can also be useful for looking at power supply output noise and ripple.

One approach is to use the math function of the oscilloscope to calculate a differential between two of the input channels. This has its uses, but suffers from slow-update speeds and the fact that some of the signals I’m looking for are already at the limit of the DS1074z’s resolution.

Another approach is external differential probes. Unfortunately, these are expensive. New they start at $300 or so. Used are a little better, starting at $100, but most seem targeted at high-voltage rather than high-sensitivity use.

This brings me to the Tektronix gear. I’m less interested in the 7000 and 5000 series scopes themselves, than in all the various modular “plug-ins” (particularly high-sensitivity differential amplifiers) Tektronix developed for them. Tektronix also sold a line of stand-alone chassis called the TM500 and TM5000 series, and an accompanying line of plug-in modules.

Now, the first thing you need to know is something I was lucky to figure out before buying anything on ebay, which is that, while the plug-ins for the 7000 series, the 5000 series, and the TM500 and TM5000 series all appear to have superficially similar form-factors, they are incompatible. You can’t use a module intended for a scope in the stand-alone TM500 or TM5000, or vice-versa. Nor can you use a module for a 5000 series scope in a 7000 scope, or vice-versa. There are other important distinctions too.

Within the 5000-series of scopes and modules, there is a distinction between “slow” (~2MHz bandwidth) and “fast” (50MHz bandwidth). You can use slow modules in fast scopes, but you can’t use fast modules in slow scopes.

Within the 7000-series, which cover an even wider range of bandwidths from 25MHz all the way up to 1GHz, most scopes are compatible with most plug-ins, according to Tektronix.

For the stand-alone mainframes, modules for the TM500 will work in the TM5000, but the reverse isn’t always (usually?) true.

My inclination is to get a 4-slot stand-alone chassis like the TM504 to save space and minimize shipping costs. Unfortunately, it seems that the AM502 differential amplifier module is rather rare and relatively expensive. There is just one on eBay at the moment and only a few in the available history of past sales, and the prices seem to start at $100.

Meanwhile, there are multiple examples of the equivalent 7A22 or 5A22N modules for the 7000 and 5000 series scopes, with prices starting below $50. The necessary scope and chassis can be had for as little as $100 or so more, about 2x what a TM500 chassis might go for, with the downside of added shipping costs and the (possible) upside of a second scope. Moreover, there are apparently pass-thru outputs so would still have the option of using any modules I acquire with my existing digital scope. I’m also interested in other modules, like function generators.

The smartest thing, at this point, would be to put this project on hold and finish up the half-dozen Keithley 197A multimeters I’m in the process of restoring and repairing, or the Power Designs TP340A I’m in the middle of fixing (destroying?). If wisdom prevails, I’ll have this post to remind me of what I’ve learned, should I ever come back to the idea of buying some old Tek modules.

To that end, here are some of the resources I found useful in researching this:

USBHV, because why not have a USB-powered 2000V source?

In the last 5 years or so, USB has emerged as THE standard power source for portable electronics, and a host of other low powered devices.

GNEMCO_05Today, I happened to stumble upon an early example called the USBHV on eBay. The USBHV is a USB powered high-voltage source from EMCO High Voltage, released in 2009. The USBHV was positioned as a compact, USB-programmable (and powered) high-voltage source for research use. From what I’ve been able to tell, there was actually a line of products, differentiated by positive or negative voltage, and maximum voltage, with the option of 200V,  500V, 1000V, 1250V and 2000V at up to 1W of output (USB can deliver 2.5W). My guess is that they had a board with a USB controlled AD/AD converter for setting and reading back voltage, and mounted one of their standard high-voltage power modules.

The present-day EMCO High Voltage website only has one tiny reference to the product, a link to a generic form for information on off-catalog products, so no datasheets, manuals or software.