Saturday, December 29, 2012


I recently picked up the chipKIT Max 32 and Basic I/O Shield.  My main interest was seeing whether we might possibly take advantage of the Arduino ecosystem.  There are literally hundreds of "shields" for Arduinos. The idea is that the board with the microcontroller has relatively few peripherals, and the experimenter can plug together a number of simple boards each with its own set of peripherals.

chipKIT Max32

chipKIT Max32
The Max32 has a PIC32MX795F512L which is quite an impressive part:
  • 80 MHz
  • 512K FLASH
  • 128K RAM
  • 16 Channel 10bit A/D
  • USB 2.0 OTG
  • 6 UART
  • 4 SPI
  • 5 I2C
  • 2 CAN
  • 10/100 Base T

The Max32 board also includes a USB to serial converter, 3 and 5 volt supplies, and 5 LEDs: 1 for power, 2 for USB send/receive and 2 connected to PIC digital I/O pins.  Power can be provided through the OTG USB connector, through the PICkit connector (not populated) or through a coaxial power connector.  Power provided through the connector can be regulated 5 volt or unregulated 9-15 volts.

83 PIC I/O pins are brought out to connectors on the board.

The Max32 connects to the PC via an OTG USB cable.  This has a standard Type A USB connector on the PC side, and a mini-USB on the Max32 side.  The mini-USB looks annoying similar to the ubiquitous micro-USB commonly used for cell phone chargers.  It is more or less standard for OTG USB, however, and is the cable used for the Beagle Board and PICkit, among others.

Basic I/O Shield

Basic I/O Shield
The Basic I/O Shield connects to the Max32 (or the smaller Uno32 or UC32 boards) through 4 connectors.

LED connected to OC1
The board includes 4 pushbuttons, 4 slide switches, 8 LEDs, a 32x128 pixel OLED display, a potentiometer, a temperature sensor and an EEPROM.  4 of the PIC32's output compare pins are brought to screw terminals on the board edge.  Another 4 screw terminals connect to those same OC pins through FETs.  A final two screw terminals connect to board ground and power for the four FETs.  A jumper allows for the Max32's power to connect to the FETs instead.

I2C connection
The EEPROM and temperature sensor are I2C devices.  The Basic I/O Shield's I2C connections don't line up with the Max 32's I2C connections, apparently because the Max32 matches the Arduino Mega format.  This means to use the temperature sensor or EEPROM the user must add two wires for the I2C connections.

Programming with MPIDE

 There exists an Arduino compatible programming environment, MPIDE, which can be used to program the PIC32 without the need for an external programmer.  The PIC32 comes preloaded with a bootloader which communicates over USB to MPIDE.

The environment is a clone of the Arduino environment, and most Arduino sketches run without modification.  MPIDE also includes a serial monitor, so serial data may be sent from the PIC and observed within MPIDE.

There are libraries for the various Basic I/O Shield peripherals in addition to the standard Arduino libraries, so using the temperature sensor, EEPROM or OLED display is a simple matter of making the appropriate library calls.  Of course, the switches, buttons, LEDs and potentiometer use the standard read/write digital or analog calls.

The compiler is quite slow, apparently because libraries are compiled on the fly.  Programming over the serial connection to the bootloader is also relatively slow, so development is relatively slow business.  In addition, there is no in-circuit debugging capability, although the readily available serial connection relieves this somewhat.

Although the environment uses normal Arduino calls, standard PIC references are available as well.  Of course, this would mean that the sketch would not be compatible with an Arduino.  But instead of
  digitalWrite( PIN_LED1, HIGH);
one could say
  _LATC1 = 1;
This doesn't seem like much of a difference either way, but consider setting several pins of a port to outputs:
  pinMode( 17, OUTPUT );
  pinMode( 38, OUTPUT );
  pinMode( 58, OUTPUT );
  pinMode( 59, OUTPUT );
  TRISA &= 0xfff0;
(the Arduino commands reference pin numbers on the board, rather than anything related to the port).

Programming with MPLAB-X

PICkit 3 and Max32
PICkit clearance
The Max32 includes pads for a PICkit connector.   This is a simple, 6 pin, 90 degree header.  When this is installed the normal MPLAB-X techniques may be used with the board. 

This is considerably faster and allows for debugging.  If the developer wishes to return to using MPIDE, the bootloader must be reprogrammed using the PICkit, a rather simple process. When using the PICkit, there is not enough clearance to use either the OTG USB port or the coaxial power connector, so the circuit must be powered by the PICkit.

Programming Comparison

 It isn't clear to this writer that programming with MPIDE is any easier than with MPLAB, however, the small size and lack of features of MPIDE make the process less intimidating.  This is emphasized by the small size of the boards and the simplicity of simply having the board connected to the PC with no power cables, no programmers, no external additions.

In MPIDE, the user provides two functions, setup() and loop().  The main() function is provided by the frameworks.  While this fits the overwhelming majority of applications, it is somewhat limiting in some situations.  Nonetheless, it does provide some structure for the new developer.

Although the documentation claims that the environment uses C, there are some C++ features.  Some libraries, for example, are provided as classes so the user must instantiate the class in order to use the library.   Most of the standard functions, tho, are C functions, so attempts to use other C++ features could result in unnecessary complication.

The IDE places the user projects, or "sketches",  in a "sketchbook".  The sketches are easily available from the menu, making it quite convenient when small number of projects are available.  Many examples are also available from the menu, so it is easy to find examples when the programmer doesn't remember how some function is used.

Hardware Compatibility

The shields connect together through standard, wire wrap 0.1" spacing sockets.  However, the power connector is offset slightly from the other connectors, making it inconvenient to use standard 0.1" protoboards.  There are shield protoboards available, but that adds significantly to the cost of experimentation.

The PIC32 is a 3.3 volt device.  Most Arduinos are 5 volts.  All of the PIC32 pins are 5 volt tolerant, but the outputs probably won't provide sufficient voltage for most Arduino peripherals.

Overall Impressions

The Max32 is a very nice development platform.  The PIC32MX795F512L is an amazingly competent part with stunning speed and huge memory.  Programming is virtually identical to the dsPIC/PIC24 families.  The Basic I/O shield provides a range of peripherals that allow for significant experimentation, and the FETs allow for connection to motors, relays or other high energy devices.

However, the 3.3 volt format limits access to many devices, especially most Arduino shields.  The graphics OLED is a very nice (if tiny) display to play with, but in a purpose-built circuit the experimenter will almost certainly prefer an LCD, and there is no facility to learn this peripheral.  The particular display chosen does not seem to be widely available so that option is probably closed to the developer as well.

The cost, however, is attractive.  Including the OTG USB cable both boards plus cable come in at under $90 at the current time.  Most of the benefit could probably be gotten with the Uno32, saving about $20.  The Uno has considerably less memory and fewer I/O pins (42 vs. 83).  The Uc32 provides an intermediate step, combining the smaller size and fewer I/O pins of the Uno with the large memory of the Max, for an intermediate price.

All in all, a fun development environment, and not a bad way to break into microcrocontrollers, providing the user recognizes the limitations.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Older LCDs

After the previous post on LCDs, I was reminded that it only covered current displays.  Getting from there to here was, in some ways, something of an adventure.

It is probably worth mentioning that when I say LCD, I am speaking of LCD Character Display Modules.  There are other types of LCD displays, both more and less elaborate, but for 90% of hobbyist projects we use LCD Character Display Modules.

My first exposure to these was an interesting board from B. G. Micro that contained an Optrex 20434 20 character by 4 line display, and a PIC that served as a serial to parallel converter.  This was also part of my introduction to PICs, and may well have served to get me interested.

This display from a standard parts house would have been quite expensive, probably in the $50 neighborhood, but B.G. Micro deals in surplus, pulls and other goodies, so although it was a little expensive with the board, it wasn't horrible.  If I recall, it was in the $25 neighborhood, about what a 16 character LCD would have cost at the time from the typical parts house.

The Optrex had some interesting quirks which probably turned out to be a good thing as it prevented me from being blindsided by later, less obvious, quirks.  You see, most LCDs at the time had 128 bytes of memory for the display.   Line 1 started at address 0, and line 2 at address 64 in that memory.  The Optrex was a little odd in that line 3 started at address 20, and line 4 at address 84.   If you went past the line length, line 1 wrapped to line 3, and line 2 to line 4.  Perhaps more curious, line 4 wrapped back to line 1.

For a long time I pretty much only bought LCDs from B.G. Micro.  They had a beautiful, backlit, 40x1 which made a perfect display for a Morse code decoder.  This was one of my first major PIC projects.  The original code was from IK3OIL, but he used a 16 character display, and he left out a number of Morse characters.  For a long time, improving that code provided many hours of PIC programming experience.

This display had another annoying feature that provided a memorable lesson in LCDs.  It was what was called a "low temperature" LCD.  What that really means was something of a nasty surprise.  You see, LCDs have a contrast pin on which you provide a low voltage, usually through a pot, to control the contrast.  On these "low temperature" LCDs, that voltage has to be negative.  Normally you don't have negative voltages laying around on PIC projects, so this required another supply.  Fortunately, the current demads aren't severe, so a simple charge pump can often do the trick.  Not insurmountable, but certainly annoying.

Back then it was critical that a display had a Hitachi HD44780 controller.  Any other controller and the code was likely to be a problem.  The controller was almost always visible on the back of the LCD, so at a hamfest you could usually tell what you were getting.  More recently, the controllers are potted, so you can't see what they are, but HD44780 clones have gotten a lot better so it is no longer an issue.

B. G. Micro had a cheap 16-character LCD they called a "Medical LCD" as it was pulled from some piece of medical equipment.  They had a plastic bezel in an odd shape that could not be removed without destroying the display (although it could be filed down to something sensible), and the connection was a very obnoxious cable with 0.05" spacing, making it very hard to work with.  But they were cheap.  At the time they were $3.  It is a lot easier to experiment with a three buck part than a fifteen buck part, so they became the display to use for quick experiments.  Although the physical aspects of this display were annoying, it turns out the display itself was quite nice.  B.G. still occasionally has this display, and the most recent price was fifty cents!

When the original PIC-EL came out, it had an 8 character display, quite a nice display if somewhat limited in size.  The display was not backlit - the green color is due to a green reflective background behind the display.

The original PIC Elmer lessons worked within the confines of this 8 character display.  Although a lot of applications require more characters, the limited 8 character display wasn't too much of a problem for lessons, and it did provide an excuse to demonstrate techniques like scrolling.

Quite soon after the introduction of the PIC-EL, the 8 character display was replaced with a 16 character display.  While a lot more flexible, this turned out to be something of a problem.

You see, the Hitachi HD44780 controller could not display a 16 character line.  To go beyond 8 characters required the addition of an HD44100.  This was fairly expensive, although the "cheap" medical LCD contained this addition.  To get around this, many early 16 character displays were actually two line 8 character displays, with the two lines side by side.  This required some programming gymnastics, and of course, code that worked on these displays would not work with a "proper" 16 character display.

Later PIC-ELs had a backlit, 2 line by 16 character display which AA0ZZ was able to get at very attractive quantity prices.  These are quite a bit nicer, and in fact, almost all current LCDs avoid a lot of the quirks of the older displays. Prices have dropped quite a bit as well.  Backlit LCDs, which used to start in the $20 neighorhood, can now be found for around $10, even from the major suppliers.  Cheaper houses like B.G., Sparkfun, etc. often have some very interesting displays for half that.  White or blue backlights, which can look a lot nicer than the traditional yellow-green are often inexpensive and take quite a bit less current than the older displays as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


For some time now I have had almost an obsession with LCD displays.  In the past, there was a wide range of displays with a wide range of prices, generally more characters being a little more expensive, backlit displays being very expensive.

The most common backlight was the sickly, yellow-green LED backlight, which not only looked bad, but tended to be a real current hog.  Electroluminescent backlights were available, but they tended to require unfortunate voltages; typically AC and somewhere in the 60 to 400 volt range, not generally what we have lying around on a microcontroller project.

More recently, white LED backlights which are far more efficient have become available.  And, they have become a lot less expensive.  It seems as if a white backlight is often available for close to the cost of a non-backlit display, and while a yellow-green backlight may take almost an amp, the white ones tend to be in the 20 mA neighborhood.

N8ERO picked up some Newhaven negative displays which show white letters on a blue background.  I had seen these before, or something similar, on some FDIM projects, and while they don't look as nice as their pictures, they do look a lot better than the ugly green.

LCDs exhibit two kinds of slow.  The processor on the LCD takes some time to do it's thing, so code either has to delay or read the LCD's busy signal.   Reading the busy signal is kind of a pain, so most hobbyist projects simply wait long enough.  The actual display itself is a chemical change, so compared to electronics, it is very slow.  A result of this is that there it rarely a real penalty for waiting far longer than necessary for the display's processor to do it's thing.

However, in experimenting with different displays, it appears that negative displays are slower, as are 3 volt displays.  In the case of the blue Newhaven display, part of this slowness results in some rather ugly brown artifacts when the display is changing.

I found a blue, positive Newhaven display that was very inexpensive, but 3 volts.  3 volts is pretty handy for PIC24, PIC32, or dsPIC33 projects, not so much for the more common 5 volt projects.  This display is quite small, something that is also sometimes nice.  LCDs tend to take a lot of the panel space, and depending on the project, having a 20x2 display in a small space is an advantage.  However, small also means that the connections to the part are different than most LCDs, and kind of a pain.

Well, with LEDs now available in umpteen colors, and plummeting in price, it couldn't be long before someone came up with a display with an RGB backlight.  I picked one up, the price, while a little high, wasn't crazy.    This display is, interestingly, a 3 to 5 volt display.  Unfortunately, the 3 volt part means it is slow, and the negative display, which looks a lot nicer, makes it even slower.  This is a pretty slick choice for projects that have a display that mostly isn't changing.

More recently, displays based on organic LEDs have become available.  OLEDs have the advantage of very nice contrast, high speed, and relatively low current compared to backlit displays.  This particular OLED display has both the traditional 4 or 8 bit parallel interface as well as a serial interface.  I have to say, I think this one is my favorite.  It is slightly thinner than the LCDs, and the display is extremely crisp.  And it doesn't exhibit any of the shadow artifacts that LCDs tend to show when they are changing.

The one downside is that it appears to require that you use the busy flag.  While this is annoying, especially when using the 4 bit interface, once the code is written and wrapped in a library, that detail becomes invisible.  It is a little more expensive than an LCD, but boy is it nice.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I2C Tinkering

A couple of posts ago I mentioned I2C.  I2C is a scheme for communicating with smart integrated circuits.  It is a bus arrangement where multiple devices are attached to a two wire bus, each device having a unique address.  This is very appealing in that it allows a lot of devices to be connected while using few pins.

Part of the incentive here is to have a fast digital to analog converter.  It seems inappropriate to talk about a microcontroller containing a DSP engine without using the DSP.  Yes, we could do DSP calculations and display the results on an LCD or transmit them to the PC, but really, you would like to take audio from the radio, process it, and send it out to a speaker or amplifier.

Both of the dsPICs under consideration have A/D converters that are plenty fast for our purposes, but microcontrollers tend to be light on D/A capabilities.  In most cases, however, there is a pulse width modulation output of sufficiently high frequency that it can easily be filtered to provide an analog voltage.  This is fine if you want a DC voltage, but after filtering you are left with quite a low frequency AC.  Probably not fast enough for our purposes.

Some years back I had done some unsuccessful experimentation with I2C, but this was done with 8 bit parts which are much harder to use.  So it was time to do some more I2C experimentation to see if we could get an A/D that we could use for audio output.

I2C Test Board
I acquired three I2C devices; an MCP23008 I/O expander, an MCP4726 12 bit DAC, and a MB85RC16V FRAM.  The DAC is obviously what we are interested in, but the I/O expander provides a very simple, easily visible, way to see that I2C is working, and the FRAM, while not especially useful for the 30F series of micros, could be quite handy with the 33F, 33E and PIC24 families.  In addition, the FRAM provided a third device to test I2C and more significantly, from another manufacturer (Fujitsu makes the FRAM, Microchip the other two devices).

I built up a board with a dsPIC30F4013 and the three devices for testing.  If the I2C communications works out to be straightforward enough, I could put it on the "dsPIC-EL" and the loss of debugging capability for just I2C experiments might not be too high a price. (see the November 8 post,

DAC on adapter board
The DAC was in an SOT-23 package, a mere 1.5 by 3 millimeters, which made soldering it to a FAR Circuits adapter board a bit of a challenge.  Worse, the adapter I had was for an SSOIC which has slightly wider pin spacing than an SOT-23, but close enough that it could be fudged.

After some initial struggles, I got the 23008 working and was able to use the same basic routines for the DAC with no drama.  The DAC was kind of interesting in that is is the simplest of the devices, but had the fattest datasheet.

The FRAM caused me some consternation.  The I/O expander can be tested merely by putting some LEDs on its outputs, and the DAC with a voltmeter.  But the only way to see that the FRAM was doing it's thing was with the debugger and initially, it wasn't.  Eventually I discovered that I had a cold solder joint on the FRAM, and once that was corrected, it behaved as expected.

I put all the tests in a git repository ( with a branch for each test.  After moving the I2C routines into a library, I made separate folders for libraries and include files.  I need to come up with some sort of convention for "local" libraries and includes; putting them into the xc folders risks loosing them on upgrades, but most other possibilities seem to have rather ugly paths.

So, on to more considerations.  After all this, it appears that the I2C DACs aren't going to be fast enough, either.  The MCP4726 can take I2C at up to 3.4 MHz, but it requires extra bits to go beyond 400 kHz, further slowing the device.

I've avoided SPI because of the extra pins, but it does look like an SPI DAC is going to be the answer.  Microchip's SPI DACs are cheap, and have a very compact protocol, and can take data at up to 20 MHz.  Whether we can actually pass 20 MHz data on an ugly, hand wired board is another question.  On the other hand, SD cards also take SPI, so that might lead to another interesting set of experiments.

So it looks as if the next move is to order some SPI DACs, probably MPC2822s or something similar.