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Sparkfun Clockit Review

Written By: Mel Lester Jr. - May• 24•15

While I have been writing embedded system software and firmware for decades, only recently has an interest in actually designing and building an entire electronic project emerged.  The catalyst for this sudden fascination with the hardware side of embedded systems is my dissatisfaction with off the shelf alarm clocks and my desire to one day in the future, create the Alarm Clock of My Dreams.

Since I have little experience with hands-on electronics, initial research has included sourcing, purchasing and building a variety of Do-It-Yourself clock kits. This Memorial Day Weekend, I assembled Sparkfun’s Clockit in about 3 hours from unpacking to completion.  Did I learn anything? Yes.  Would I recommend this kit to a beginner like myself?  Read on to find out.

Assembled Sparkfun Clockit

Assembled Sparkfun Clockit

  • UnBoxing

Located in Colorado, Sparkfun is a keystone in the Maker community for electronics enthusiasts. Selling a full spectrum of electronic components and kits, many designed and manufactured by Sparkfun, they have, in my opinion, the best Marketing in the electronic Do-It-Yourself space.  Even their distinctive red packaging is not only eye-catching, but practical and reusable.

Unboxing the Sparkfun Clockit

Unboxing the Sparkfun Clockit

Everything included in the Sparkfun Clockit is shown in the above picture, with the exception of the 5V Wall Wart, which just wouldn’t fit on top of the box with the rest of the components.  The 20 page Information and Operations manual is one of the best I have seen and includes some really useful tips on soldering, debugging and very clearly illustrated assembly instructions.  Take your time, follow the guidelines and you can’t go wrong.

In addition to the Manual, The Sparkfun Clockit product page includes links to the project schematic, Eagle CAD files for the printed circuit board, links to the Arduino compatible ATMega328 firmware source code, a link to a PDF of the Kit Information and Instruction Manual, as well as a link to the GitHub Repository that contains the latest Hardware and Firmware Source files just in case you really want to roll your own.

Yes, the Clockit Hardware and Firmware is released under various Open Source Licenses by Sparkfun and you are free to improve on the design or simply reproduce the project.  However at $29.95 retail, the Sparkfun Clockit includes all the components needed at a price that is about what you would expect to pay for fabricating a single copy of the PCB board.

  • Assembly

28 DIP socket soldered to PCB

28 DIP socket soldered to PCB

I took a kind of middle of the road approach to this kit.  The instructions call for soldering the ATMega328 Micro Processor Unit (MCU) directly to the PCB board.  This involves soldering each if the 28 pins of the MCU, which are only spaced 1/10 of an inch apart (2.54cm).  With my novice soldering skills, I was afraid of messing up and ruining the MPU, so I decided it was safer to solder a 28 pin DIP socket I had on hand to the PCB and inserting the MPU in the socket later.  This went well and worked as expected.

Eight Pin Headers

Eight Pin Headers for Display soldered in place.

The Four Digit, Seven Segment Display was also to be soldered directly to the PCB but I decided to use two eight pin headers instead and insert the display module later.  I temporarily placed the Display Module into the headers to keep the pins straight while I soldered the headers from the backside of the PCB.

flexible "extra hand"

a little help from a rubber band.

Even though I used a fixture to hold the PCB while soldering, occasionally, an “extra hand” was needed to keep everything in place.  In this case, I double wrapped a rubber band over the PCB to hold the headers and display in place while I soldered the end pins of the headers from the other side, being careful not to touch the rubber band with the hot soldering iron!

When all the soldering was done and the project was ready for final assembly, it turned out that adding these headers to the kit was probably unnecessary.

In fact, the display fits into the headers kind of loosely, resulting in the display’s pins not making good contact with the header’s sockets, which causes the display to occasionally glitch with missing segments.  If I were to do this over again, I would keep the MCU socket, but skip adding headers for the display.

  • Summary

Overall, this was a positive learning experience and the kit is well worth the $29.95 price.  Just having access to the Open Source firmware would have justified the cost even if I didn’t bother to build the kit.

Assembled Sparkfun Clockit

Assembled Sparkfun Clockit

When the kit was finished, I plugged it into the supplied wall wart and the Clockit came to life without a hitch or need for debugging.  As a basic alarm clock, it is well designed and while the operations are clearly explained in the manual, the user interface is intuitive to the extent that I was able to set the clock to the correct time with a few button pushes. The display is small, but bright and clear.

On the downside, the blue display may not be conducive to sleep, so the clock may be best suited for a desk or workspace display.  In any event, I highly recommend this kit to a novice builder or to someone interested in how a well designed Open Source Project goes together.

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