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Nuts & Volts Magazine (January 2004)

The New Electronics Experimenter

By Louis E. Frenzel    View In Digital Edition  


Electronics as a hobby is not going away as some have thought, it has just changed — BIG TIME!

What do you think of when you hear the term electronic hobbyist or experimenter? A guy in a grungy basement loaded with old discarded equipment and junk boxes, a cluttered work bench with dozens of unfinished projects and the air redolent of rosin smoke from the soldering iron? Or maybe you think more of the classic amateur radio operator in his ham shack with transceivers and a 50 foot tower bristling with obnoxious antennas that offend the neighbors. Or do you picture a personal computer hardware hacker who modifies, upgrades, and interfaces his PC with everything in sight.

I seem to see a person who likes to build electronic circuits and equipment. A bench with breadboarding socket, power supply, multimeter, function generator, oscilloscope and the usual parts boxes. This person probably even designs some circuits and equipment as well as builds from a kit. Electronics hobbyist like those just mentioned do still exist, but they are no longer the majority. There is a new electronics hobbyist out there now and they are different. Maybe you are one of them.

Not Your Father's Electronics

Continuing the clichés', we have come a long way, baby. Or, welcome to the 21st century. Whatever. I was going through a huge stack of old electronic hobbyist magazines recently as I was cleaning out my garage. What nostalgia! We used to build lots of simple one, two, or three transistor projects. Many of us built commercial kits. But then a funny thing happened. Integrated circuits came along. The microprocessor was developed then the personal computer. Those three things set the stage for what hobbyists would do in the future. The ICs, microprocessors, and the PC set into motion a whole sequence of events that would change the electronics hobby forever.

The big changes started with integrated circuits. Hobbyists really took to these in the early days because you could do amazing things with 555 timers, 741 op-amps, and 7400 series TTL. But with the introduction of the microprocessor in the mid-1970s, the big changes really started to occur. The demand for larger, faster, better, and cheaper microprocessors and memory stepped up the competition in the semiconductor business. The chip companies learned how to make smaller, faster circuits that allowed you to put much more circuitry on a chip. And the race was on to see who could make the largest chip. The smaller circuit features also made them faster. While all this brought us better microprocessors, memories, and larger faster PCs, it started making electronic hobbying more difficult. We stopped using so much TTL and CMOS logic and started making all our digital projects with an embedded controller. We essentially traded the soldering iron in for a programming language.

With the ability to make thousands, even millions of transistors and circuits on a single chip, the complexity of ICs grew exponentially. High volume kept the prices low and affordable even for hobbyists. But the complexity turned away many who were not professional engineers. The larger chips had different more challenging packaging, as well. Dual inline packages (DIPs) slowly went away in favor of a variety of surface mount and ball grid array packages. Not only did the chips get smaller but it was also far more difficult to experiment with and solder to a PC board. Have you ever worked with a surface mount IC only a few millimeters square? And have you ever tried to solder a 1,000 pin ball grid array (BGA) package to a board? Good luck.

On top of the packaging problem, circuits got faster. Low MHz digital clock rates quickly became hundreds of MHz and today, most of the newer digital ICs easily run at clock speeds of several GHz. Analog circuits, especially radio frequency (RF) circuits, also benefited with wider bandwidths and operating frequencies easily into the low GHz range. While high speeds and frequencies are surely welcomed by experimenters, as well as engineers, hobbyists couldn't afford the test equipment to stimulate and measure the outputs of such circuits. Gigahertz digital sampling scopes cost thousands of dollars. And what you really need in working with RF is a spectrum analyzer. A cheap one will set you back by some dollar value in the low five digits.

So what did we do? Many hobbyists simply followed the lead of the magazines and continued to build projects with decades old parts. Projects still feature the 2N3904 and 2N2222 bipolars of the 1970s while today, virtually all new designs use MOSFETs. Actually, over 90% of all transistors made are MOSFETs, and I'm not just making that up. Furthermore, hobbyists still use the ICs of yesteryear. The still popular 555 timer and 741 op-amp were actually born in the 1970s. Yet these are rarely used in new designs today. Neither is the popular 7400 series TTL digital logic ICs. These and their CMOS offshoots, have been relegated to the hobbyist as well. I know. These parts are still available, cheap, and easy to use. I'm not knocking them; I am just saying that there are many other better ways to do the same thing. Are hobbyists to lazy to learn and use them?

Today, virtually all digital equipment is made with an embedded controller and if that is not fast enough, a programmable logic device (PLD) like a GAL, PAL, or FPGA is used. Many digital circuits are custom designs called applications specific integrated circuits (ASIC, pronounced A sicks). These devices are available to hobbyists but instead, most prefer to keep using the older devices because they are cheap, simple, understandable, and manageable. But they certainly do not represent the latest technology. That is what has turned off many to the hobby — low tech. It's like continuing to try to build a crystal radio set when the real standard is some exotic microwave, DSP-based, software defined radio. That's what a modern cell phone is and most of us have one these days. Somehow crystal sets or even 555 LED flashers, 7-segment LEDs and 7400 counters bore us to death.

Just think of all the high tech stuff we own and take for granted. I mentioned cell phones, but we also own CD players, DVD players, flat panel LCD TV and PC screens, 2 to 3 GHz Pentiums in our laptops, digital cable TV, satellite TV, digital radio, cable modems, MP3 players, DSL lines, and on and on. TTL projects and CB radio aren't even on our radar screens anymore. Young people today simply take all super high tech stuff for granted. There is no thought of trying to build, much less design anything like these common devices. A quick look inside any modern electronic product today scares us to death. Lots of ICs plus a scattering of tiny surface mount discretes, all packaged into some super tiny housing on a multilayer PC board. No wonder hobbyists are giving up on building.

Another factor is our on-going need for instant gratification. Our attention span gets shorter thanks to TV, video games, PCs, and the Internet, and we all seem to want everything right now. No one wants to wait even a few microseconds any more. That is one of the factors that killed the kit business — one of the major sectors of the electronic hobbyist market. I worked for Heathkit for many years and saw that business gradually fade away in the 1980s and 1990s. People loved to build their own electronic equipment. It gave them personal satisfaction and they learned something along the way. But, the kits kept getting more complex and more expensive. It became cheaper to buy a wired and tested product as ICs got larger. Manufacturing methods improved, costs dropped, and competition from Asia killed most US electronic companies. And no one wanted to spend hours or even days or weeks building a kit when they could run over to the electronics store and buy one to use right now.

Another thing electronics hobbyists used to do is fix things. They repaired TV sets and stereos, radios, small appliances, and other things. Today, we do not repair electronics equipment. If it goes bad, we throw it away and get a new and better one for less money. Even if you could find someone to do the repair, what you would end up with is an old product that costs more to fix than it costs to buy a new one with the latest bells and whistles. Technology has done that for us. It actually costs more to have something repaired because of the very high labor expense. And even if you do want to repair things, you must pay big bucks for the esoteric test equipment needed to make the tests. Electronic repair is not an economically viable thing any more. Just buy new and better stuff for less money and enjoy.

So electronics as a hobby has really changed. Oh yes, you can still build crystal sets, 555 timer circuits, and TTL projects, but few are doing that any more. Technology has moved on. A few electronics hobbyists like I just described are still around but are fading fast. And a new type of hobbyist has emerged. Few have recognized this new electronics experimenter.

Electronics as a hobby hasn't gone away. If I had to classify it, I would say that it is not necessarily better or worse, it is just different.

The New Electronics Hobbyists

There are just as many if not more people interested in electronics today as ever before. But they don't make one tube radios or TTL digital dice. Most of them don't work at the component level. They think systems instead of circuits. They buy and use equipment. They interconnect the equipment, find new uses, and regularly modify or enhance it. For example, as amateur radio equipment got more complex, fewer and fewer hams did the home brew thing. They stopped building the receivers and transmitters and bought commercial transceivers. They became "appliance operators." They purchased and used commercial equipment but still built small manageable projects. Well that is how most electronics hobbyists do it today. Yes, the hobbyists are still out there, but they are just working at a different level.

Here is a summary of the new electronics hobbyists and experimenters today and what they do.

Audio

Audio is a huge hobby. Most people like music and electronics is the key to enjoying it. Hobbyists buy stereo systems mainly to listen to music and play around with speakers. A great deal of the audio hobbying is in digital music, downloading music from the Internet, burning your own CDs, creating files for your MP3 player, and so on. Electronic music is big with lots of folks owning electronic synthesizer keyboards, as well as the hardware and software for recording and manipulating music with a computer.

Shortwave Listening

There is still a good number of people that do this. Mostly they buy commercial receivers to listen to shortwave and broadcast bands or buy scanners to listen to local police, fire, etc. They experiment with antennas mostly but rarely build anything.

Ham Radio

Still one of the biggest electronic hobbies. Mostly hams buy their equipment and experiment with antennas and high power amplifiers. Many also build small projects that are designed to enhance or supplement commercial equipment. Lots of hams experiment with satellites, TV, microwaves, and the new digital transmission modes. There are some opportunities for circuit building but most hams still opt for commercial gear and work at the system level. The biggest exception are the QRP (low power) enthusiasts who do build receivers and transmitters because of their low cost and simplicity. Much of the hobby is in talking with others over the air.

Personal Radio

Those who are not hams but are interested in communications participate in citizens band radio or use the new family radio service (FRS).  Again, commercial equipment dominates but there is experimentation with antennas, especially the CB type. CB operators also emulate their ham counterparts by seeking long distance communications with others.

Radio-Controlled Models

Another radio hobby. Again, most of the equipment is commercial but most of it requires manual labor on the mechanical front to mount it. A great deal of effort goes into building the model whether it is a plane, boat, or car.

Autosound

Looking at the magazine stand recently I saw several magazines devoted to sound systems for cars and trucks. Any time you have several magazines addressing some segment, you can be sure there are many enthusiasts. The autosound field is  enormous. Lots of folks love to install killer sound systems in their cars and trucks. From 400 Watt amps and woofers to the 400 disc CD players, these systems are "cool." I just love it when I see a pickup with neon lights underneath and the doors pulsating in and out with the speakers. Add to this the new Sirius and XM satellite radios and you have lots of projects to work on. Save up ...

Microcontrollers

Modern electronics experimenters build projects from scratch using embedded controllers. These cheap, single chip computers can be programmed to do almost anything. Most of the work is in the programming. However, considerable effort must also go into building the interfaces and I/O to implement the application. This is one of the most fun and creative parts of electronics experimentation today. A huge part of this sector is programming. This may be the core of electronics experimentation today as there is just about nothing you can't make with an embedded controller.

Robotics

This is one of the hottest and growing segments of the hobby field. And because there are few commercial robot manufacturers serving this sector, most hobbyists build their own. A great deal of it is mechanical and the electronics is relatively simple. Motors and control circuits, embedded controllers, sensors and the like are still manageable by a hobbyist. The BattleBots of TV fame have created a hot new way to do electronics as a hobby.

Personal Computers

PCs have become appliances just like almost anything else. Yet you can customize them to your needs such as music, gaming, video editing, home networking, or just programming. Adding peripherals and add-in cards is where all the action is. Data acquisition, virtual instruments, video and still photography, and home control are major applications. The emphasis is still on the software, and learning to program in C or Visual BASIC is an excellent path for the experimenter.

Video and Cameras

This is a smaller segment but many like to play with camcorders and digital cameras. It is strictly an appliance hobby, but a creative one with definite system level action.

TV

Another appliance hobby and an expensive one. But there is lots to play with. Cable TV, satellite TV, high definition TV, flat screens, VCRs, DVD players and recorders, and personal video recorders (TiVo, etc.). A hobby that the whole family will benefit from.

The Gadgeteer

Have you ever seen so many electronic gadgets? There seems to be a fringe faction that loves these things. Perhaps these gadgets can serve as the introduction to a more involved electronics hobby effort. Just look at how many toys have electronics: animated dolls and animals, educational items, remote controlled cars and boats, and of course, the many games. Then there are the things like GPS receivers for navigation, wireless temperature sensors and weather stations, and electronic clocks and watches, and portable DVD and CD players. All of these gadgets have one thing in common: they contain an embedded controller that literally does everything. Most of these chips sell for less than $1.00. Once you learn to work with these devices, you can just about make anything electronic you want. It's a good place to start learning and enjoying the hobby.

Experimenting and Learning

There is a segment of the hobby that still likes to build projects from scratch or from kits. There are still a few kit companies out there but most of the kits are pretty simple. No more Heathkit TV sets, hi-fi's, or computers. And many still like to build simple projects with a few ICs or transistors. There is still a great fascination with crystal sets, believe it or not. There is major gratification associated with designing and/or building something yourself. I believe that a significant part of this segment of the hobby is self learning. A major part of all hobbies is learning more about the subject and becoming competent with it. Nothing beats hands-on experimentation for learning.

Home Networking and Control

People love to enhance their homes. I have seen many people start electronics as a hobby by adding useful and interesting electronic gadgets. Security systems are a good example of an electronic system-level hobby project. Then there are the remote control applications for ceiling fans, drapes, and lights. Home networking is getting bigger as more homes have two or more PCs. A wireless or wired network lets multiple computers share a high speed broadband Internet connection by DSL or cable modem, as well as a printer. This is one of the fastest growing hobby areas.

Some Interesting Info ...

I  have been reading electronics hobbyist magazines for more years than I care to admit. As a kid, I was reading Popular Electronics, Radio Electronics and Electronics World. I also read the ham radio magazines like QST, CQ and 73. In the late 1970s and 1980s, a whole slew of computer hobbyist magazines came along including Byte, Creative Computing, Kilobyte, Interface Age, and others. Electronics as a hobby probably peaked in the 70s and 80s. All the emphasis shifted to PCs.

Then the electronics magazines started going away one by one. Magazines like Hands-On Electronics, Elementary Electronics, and Modern Electronics silently disappeared. Then magazines merged and changed ownership. Popular Electronics was one of those that survived, for a while. Radio Electronics finally went away and Electronics Now came along and it too was phased out. Finally, in a last ditch effort to survive, Gernsback magazines came up with Poptronics. It went away in December, 2002. The only remaining purely electronics hobbyist magazine now is Nuts & Volts. The ham magazines like QST and CQ are still going, but Wayne Green's long running 73 magazine closed the doors. I also read Popular Communications and Circuit Cellar. The latter is more of a professional engineering magazine focusing on embedded controllers, but their projects are great for hobbyists. It has kept up with the times.

Magazines go away for two main reasons: they lose readers and/or advertisers. In the first case, readers lose interest if you don't cover what they want. And second, if you lose the readers, the advertisers have little reason to buy ads. Basically what happened is that the magazines did not keep up with the technology. As it changed and got more esoteric, they avoided a great deal of the new stuff and kept producing material they had been successful with in the past. The readers didn't buy it. As the old saying goes, "If you keep doing the same old thing, you will get the same old result." That is clearly what happened here.

Another thing also happened. The magazines got more focused. There are magazines for audio, autosound, shortwave listening, electronic music, PCs, ham radio, and so on. And most of these magazines are at the systems level and not the circuit level.

Is there still an electronics hobbyist/experimenter market? You bet. But it is significantly different from what it used to be.  NV


Now that you've read this, jump on over to our survey and let us know where your interests lie (keeping in mind the definitions above). Also, we'd love to hear your opinion on what the electronics hobby is all about today. Feel free to opine in the comments section here.

  • What's good or bad?
  • What's missing?
  • What do you enjoy?
  • Where is it headed?
  • Whatever you want to say about it!


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