Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Kit review – Freeduino v1.22 Arduino-compatible

Hello readers

Time again for another kit review. Today we will examine the Freeduino Arduino Duemilanove-compatible board in a kit. It is always interesting to see how the different types and makes of Arduino-compatible boards present themselves, so this is review is an extension of that curiosity. This kit was originally designed by NKC Electronics and released under a Creative Commons license.

The packaging can either be classed as underwhelming or environmentally-friendly, as the kit arrives in several plastic resealable bags. Upon emptying them out we are presented with the following, the parts:

and the PCB:

Hopefully you noticed what ends up being the key features of this kit – the pre-soldered FTDI IC and mini-USB socket. This means the Freeduino can be used with a USB cable (not included) and not an expensive FTDI cable. The PCB itself is very solid, has a very description silk-screen layer with all the component positions labelled, is solder-masked, and has nice rounded corners.

Reviewing the included parts did make me wonder why the supplier has used 5% carbon-film resistors and ceramic capacitors instead of polyesters (except for one). It turns out that Seeedstudio (the distributor for my example kit) claim 5% resistors are easier to read. More likely an excuse to save a few cents.

Question – What does the acronym FTDI mean?

Furthermore, this one missed out on the polyfuse for USB overcurrent and short-circuit protection. And whether or not the larger tolerances affect the operation of the board, the cheaper components make the finished product look very 1977. However on a brighter note, and IC socket is included.

Assembly was quick and simple. There are excellent online instructions published by the Freeduino creator NKC available here. However you can also follow the silk-screen labels on the PCB as well. A good method is to start with the lowest-profile compontents, such as resistors and capacitors:

… then followed by the capacitors, crystal, LEDs and reset button:

Notice how the ceramic capacitors lead-spacing is too narrow for the holes on the PCB – this makes me think that the distributor has skimped out on the final product and been too lazy to update the PCB layout. The ATmega168 label is an example of this. Moving forward, the voltage regulator and sockets. The easiest way to solder in the shield sockets is to place them into the pins of an Arduino shield and solder – as such:

And there you have it, one Freediono v1.22 Arduino Duemilanove-compatible board:

The image above also displays another bugbear with this kit – the LED placement. When you have a shield inserted, all of the LEDs are covered up. Furthermore, unlike other Arduino board kits (such as the Freetronics KitTen) you are stuck with the maximum current output of 50mA for the 3.3V rail as there isn’t a dedicated 3.3V voltage regulator on board. Finally, the power switching between USB and the DC socket is controlled with a jumper and header pins between the USB socket at the 7805 voltage regulator.

Although I might have sounded a little harsh about this kit, it is relatively inexpensive, easy to assemble, and has the USB interface onboard. These are all good things. However the PCB layout could have been improved by correctly spacing the holes for the ceramic capacitors, and moving the LEDs to the end of the board so they are visible with shields inserted. What’s the point of having all those LEDs if you cannot see them…

So if you really get the urge to make your own board with the USB interface, or want to give someone some reasonable soldering practice, this isn’t a bad choice at all. Otherwise get a KitTen or save time and buy an Eleven.

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts, follow me on twitter or facebook, or join our Google Group for further discussion.

High resolution images are available on flickr.

[Note - The kit was purchased by myself personally and reviewed without notifying the manufacturer or retailer]

Otherwise, have fun, be good to each other – and make something! :)

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