The only thing cooler than tiny alphanumeric LED displays? HUGE ultra-bright LED displays! The unassembled Alpha Clock Five DIY Kit is fully open-source and hackable, making it the perfect project for the maker who’s looking for a challenge. Available with either White or Red ultra-bright (but dimmable) LEDs.
Why We Love It
Made by the crazy, awesome folks at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, the Alpha Clock Five is a full-featured, beautiful, and extraordinarily easy-to-read desk clock. Arduino compatible with open-source hardware and open-source software, it’s designed to work equally well as a bedside alarm clock and as a computer-controlled alphanumeric data display device. We’re offering the Alpha Clock Five as an unassembled kit, the perfect project for those who have mastered the Getting Started kits and are looking for something a little bit more advanced.
To begin building the Alpha Clock Five, you’ll need some basic electronic soldering skill and some basic assembly tools: a soldering iron and solder, small wire clippers, and a medium-size (#1) Phillips-head screwdriver. The kit comes complete with all the materials you’ll need including plug-in power supply and a backup battery that will last approximately 7 years. The microcontroller comes pre-programmed with Alpha Clock Five firmware v2.0 and requires no additional programming. Assembly of the boards is pretty straightforward, too – it basically requires stuffing the components in the boards and soldering a lot of easy through-hole components.
Not only are clocks simple projects to undertake, but the makers at Evil Mad Scientist have produced clear, photo-heavy instructions to help you during your making mission. Building the kit takes between 1 and 3 hours depending on your soldering chops. Once completed, the Clock features five remarkably bright, remarkably huge 2.3" alphanumeric LED displays in ultra-bright red or white, and includes a Chronodot RTC module for precise quartz timing along with extra geek cred for having a TCXO-based RTC. The LEDs operate along an extremely wide brightness display. They can be dimmed pretty much all the way down for dark bedrooms, or all the way up to an impressively bright light for well-lit offices during the day. A built-in calendar also allows month and day display to be interleaved with time display.
Encased in a handsome laser-cut acrylic case that features subtle laser-engraved labels, the Alpha Clock Five’s transparent rear panel lets you visibly take pride in your maker handiwork, and gives easy access to the serial connector and reset button. Fully assembled, the Alpha Clock Five is 9.44" wide, 3.78" tall, and 2.80" deep. Its features include an alarm on-off indicator, six alarm tones to choose from, snooze functionality, and the choice between 12-hour (AM/PM) and 24-hour clock modes.
The Alpha Clock Five includes a “TTL serial port” that can be used for communication between your computer and the clock. This serial power can be used to sync the clock’s time to the time on your PC, to reprogram the clock through a modified version of the Arduino IDE, and to send serial data to display on the five-character LED display. To take advantage of this serial port, you’ll need to have an appropriate USB-TTL interface, such as the FTDI USB-TTL converter cable.
These big 18-segment alphanumeric LED displays are notoriously difficult to drive – there are 54 LED elements inside each LED character and the different segments take different amounts of current. Evil Mad Scientist Labs has made it easy to ‘daisy chain’ multiple Alpha Clock Five units together and drive five at a time, so that you can easily display huge amounts of information all in a neat package with classic alarm-clock styling. To connect multiple Alpha Clock Five units together for serial daisy chaining, use a 6-pin SIL F-F header cable between each neighboring pair.
The firmware is upgradeable and based on the ATmega644A microcontroller with 64kB of flash, so there’s plenty of room to grow. The hardware comes pre-flashed with Sanguino bootloader and can be re-programmed through Arduino IDE (with extensions).
Why We Love It
We love the Arduino-compatible Alpha Clock Five Kit because, like so many other kits from Evil Mad Scientist, it is 100% open-source – the code, the hardware designs, even the CAD files – everything is open. The Alpha Clock Five Kit is totally open-source and a fully hackable project. We’re trying to get more people to build stuff and to see themselves as full-on makers, and we love anyone else who is, too.
One of the neat little things that we’ve been impressed by is the ability to control the actual font displayed on the Alpha Clock Five’s LED panels, a welcome surprise from the big blocky numeral or letter displays we find on most clocks. There are 6 different font styles that you can use – some are easier on the eyes, some are cooler looking. It’s nice to have the leeway to adjust the data or time’s appearance based on mood or aesthetic preference.
Not only can you modify the font angle a little bit, but you can also get your inner typographer on and program your own font style – just keep the Comic Sans to a minimum please =) Offered at $145 for the red version and $170 for the white version, the Alpha Clock Five Kits aren’t inexpensive. That said, they’re also not cheaply made – the kits use very high quality components that are also reusable, so you can even it utilize the hardware as the base into another project. The LED panels, too, are very flexible so that you can pretty much get them to display whichever data you want with them.
For the more ambitious makers out there, you’re in for a real treat: why not turn the assembled Alpha Clock Five into an internet-enabled data display device? Using a cloud-connector hardware platform like the Electric Imp, you can very easily build complex functionality into this gorgeous device with just a little ingenuity. The Electric Imp allows you to push data to the Alpha Clock Five from the Internet – automate the process by leveraging existing online services like Zapier or IFTT (If This Then That).
The Alpha Clock Five Kit strikes the perfect balance between a challenging and feasible project: for those with some soldering experience to their name, this is a great way to grow their skills and confidence completing a project that’s no walk in the park, but doesn’t have too many moving pieces. Plus, because the device is open-source and can quickly become Internet-enabled, makers can decide the extent to which they wants to make things more or less complicated.