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The folks at Antipasto are running an interesting contest to show why their sensor breakout boards are a useful idea. Whether you agree with all of their sentiments or not (the part about not needing to understand datasheets made me cringe), I think they have a good point about using the right tools to make your job easier:

There’s a point to this contest, and this is it:

Open Source Hardware and Physical Computing is done by people like me, DIY’ers who typically have day jobs, and do hobby projects at night and on weekends. I do my work in my own time, and I don’t have time to fiddle around with spec sheets for hours just to get a sensor up and running.

DIY projects live and die by the clock. I call it the Race Against the Physical Computing Clock. If there’s a portion of the project that takes too long, or is too complex, or requires me to read a 15 page PDF specification sheet in order to figure it out, the project will die.

Learning not to build everything myself has been a struggle for me, but has certainly paid off when it helps me finish a project that would otherwise languish on my already crowded shelves. What are your experiences? Do you roll all of your own circuit boards, or use prefabbed modules whenever possible?


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Comments

  1. Toaste says:

    15 Pages?! Seriously?

    The datasheet for the Atmega320 in an arduino is 448 pages. Most microcontrollers are at least a few hundred pages.

    It sounds like somebody needs to learn how to read a datasheet. It’s supposed to serve as a reference. Search for the particular hardware feature (timers, input capture interrupts, ADC, etc) you’re working with, read 3-5 pages, and you can go play. If you’re trying to read it cover to cover, you’re doing it wrong.

    Breakout boards are handy. They keep you from having to design a PCB and either etch it or get it fabbed (and probably rework your first one with tiny wires to fix a few things). They also greatly expand the library of parts you can use on protoboard or solderless breadboards. They can indeed save tons of time prototyping and debugging a project.

    That said, fear of datasheets shouldn’t be a reason to buy them.

  2. strougly says:

    I think this is really a question of how quickly you can internalize the information you need to in order to get an electronic component working. There is no doubt (in my mind) that data sheets are required to exist. They provide a technical document that one can refer to if needed, but is that level of detail really needed when you’re trying to just get something working?

    I’m a complete novice and I’ve only begun learning and playing around with electronics. Learning to read data sheets is a necessary skill that I must develop, but does it really need to be this way? I would much prefer to have a ‘cheat sheet’ that tells me the most relevant information distilled down to its useful essence in order for me to get up and running with a piece of electronics. If I really need to know a technical detail, or the cheat sheet doesn’t cover some feature that I need to know, then I’m happy that the data sheet is there, but from a novice’s perspective, having to wade through what seems like a bunch of irrelevant information is a barrier to understanding.

    For example, reading the data sheets for peltier devices, all I really need to know is what voltage and amperage I need to pump through the device to get a corresponding temperature change. All that information is there in the data sheet, but now I have to wade through their terminology and try and pick out the relevant information. Or, more likely, try to find a tutorial online that distills that information for me. I’ll get through it, reading data-sheets is a necessary skill that I will begrudgingly learn, but it would be so much nicer if I could just get a quick overview, even just a ‘hello world’ circuit that takes it through its paces that I could expand on.

    Electronics isn’t for people with EE degrees anymore. The internet has provided availability of previously hard to find electronics components and the information on how to use them. Shouldn’t the presentation of how to use them also change to reflect the audience that’s using them? In some sense, this is why the arduino has been so successful, not because its made avr’s available, but because its made them accessible.

  3. Carnes says:

    I can agree on the datasheets, they are made for engineers and no other group. Sometimes the sales pitch pdf page makes for better reading than the actual datasheet pdf. Ok, so +5v here, ground here, 3rd pin gives me analog output voltage, great. I’m talking about the Sharp IR sensors but those datasheets are actually fantastic. Like this one here: http://www.sparkfun.com/datasheets/Sensors/Infrared/gp2y0a02yk_e.pdf

    Page 6 even has advice on how to use it. “WHAT!? Engineers don’t need advice!”

    I’m coming from a programming background so hear me out. When you are working with your arduino, do you need to read through the entire source code for say the “digitalWrite” command just to learn how to type digitalWrite(pin,HIGH); ?

    Here is the source for digitalWrite, btw:
    void digitalWrite(uint8_t pin, uint8_t val)
    {
    uint8_t timer = digitalPinToTimer(pin);
    uint8_t bit = digitalPinToBitMask(pin);
    uint8_t port = digitalPinToPort(pin);
    volatile uint8_t *out;

    if (port == NOT_A_PIN) return;

    // If the pin that support PWM output, we need to turn it off
    // before doing a digital write.
    if (timer != NOT_ON_TIMER) turnOffPWM(timer);

    out = portOutputRegister(port);

    if (val == LOW) *out &= ~bit;
    else *out |= bit;
    }

  4. AO says:

    RE: Do you roll all of your own circuit boards, or use prefabbed modules whenever possible?

    For new projects, I definitely make use of prefab modules, breakout boards, etc., as it saves substantial prototyping time.

    However, as a project grows or is duplicated, it’s usually more economical to roll your own. Sometimes the amount of customization/modification required to make prefabbed stuff work for particular applications is a deterrent as well.

    I also agree that datasheet literacy is a must!

  5. Odin84gk says:

    I agree that pre-spun boards are the best when you are looking at a new project or trying to figure out how to do something. However, once I know what I want, I spin my own board.

    Nothing is more frustrating than getting a microcontroller and spending three hours trying to figure out the proper oscillator setting, fuse/config bits, and UART settings just to send a basic “Hello World” through hyper-terminal.

  6. rfenginerd says:

    Tinkering: making something work at least once
    Designing: making something that works most of the time under most conditions the product is to be designed for

    The difference is knowledge and understanding, cannot get either without being able to read and understand datasheets. Also being able to spec a product and following a design process is of course essential.

    Electronics has been in the makers realm since before vacuum tubes. Designing products not so much, as most makers (except for engineers who also tinker) don’t understand the complexities behind robust product design. Heck, most engineers don’t understand all of those, hence datasheets. Datasheets are the single comprehensive conduit from the product manufacturer’s engineers to the product user. Most products are NOT designed for the hobby market and thus exhibit behavior datasheets help understand.

    For example: few of the hobby kits I have tested would come close to having decent EMC performance. Interference from various Arduino hardware consistently reduces wifi and GPS performance in the rapid prototyping kits we provide. Thus, I am working to custom-build Arduino compatible HW so our wireless rapid prototyping solution can function under all required conditions. Design vs tinker.