September 25, 2012 AT 12:00 am

Open hardware for open hardware

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LinuxCon: Open hardware for open hardware @ [LWN.net].

Open hardware platforms like the Arduino have turned device development into a hobbyist enterprise in recent years, but the $20 price tag of a microcontroller board seems a lot less tantalizing when one adds in the costs of testing and debugging it. At LinuxCon 2012 in San Diego, David Anders addressed this issue and offered some guidance on finding and selecting tools for open hardware development, the majority of which are open hardware themselves.

Openness and tools
“Open hardware” can mean a variety of things, from expensive commercial products with published schematics and chip designs all the way down to one-off experiments and home-brewed devices built from cheap parts like the Arduino microcontroller board. What the various definitions have in common, however, is the sharing of information, which in turn lowers the barrier to entry for participants in the community. But despite the “maker” movement’s popularity of late, the tools problem that accompanies it is rarely discussed. Reality is that the hardware to build rapid-prototyping and one-off projects may be cheap and plentiful — but the tools required to test and debug that hardware is expensive, specialized, and proprietary.

For example, bench-top oscilloscopes start at $250 and can go up well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Logic analyzers start at around $1000. Even sticking with the low end, Anders said, buying a tool that costs ten or one hundred times the price of the device you are building takes some of the shine off of the process, particularly for someone who only needs to make hardware on infrequent occasions. Furthermore, the commercial versions of tools like the oscilloscope are designed for use by people like electrical engineers, and have a difficult learning curve.

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1 Comment

  1. Before spending the time and effort on complex diagnostic tools, one needs to know what each tool does, why one needs it, and how frequently.

    Starting out a few years ago, I spent ~$150 for a USB logic analyzer. This helped me debug a bad SNES controller when building a Fuzebox. At the time it wasn’t clear whether the problem was with the controller or the Fuzebox. I hadn’t used a logic analyzer since the late 80s in college but the process of relearning how to use the tool effectively made the expense worth it.

    It would have been pointless to spend any money on a logic analyzer if I didn’t already know what one was used for or how they work in general. As much as I hated them at the time, college electronics labs gave me hands-on experience with signal & pulse generators, oscilloscopes, logic probes & analyzers as well as painful lessons in debugging; cable connectors and 60Hz noise are your mortal enemies.

    I’m not sure how much one can learn from Google & YouTube. A $30 logic analyzer is better than none at all and it’s great that test equipment is more accessible; I have to wonder where new makers learn to use the tools now accessible to them.

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