Apple TV

The Apple TV is a media streaming device first introduced in 2007. It’s essentially a miniature Mac, running a special version of iOS optimised for playing music and video on a TV, and operated using a remote control. Although I personally have no need for such a device, I couldn’t resist when I found one for just €2.50 in a second-hand shop. It wasn’t that useful anyway since it was missing its remote control, not to mention the fact it was an old and unsupported third-generation model, sold between 2012 and 2015. But it presented a very good opportunity to tear down some modern Apple hardware and get an up-and-close look at their custom silicon.

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CMOS 555 Timers

Although the 555 timer is one of the most iconic chips ever made, and the original version is still sold in huge numbers, it actually makes little sense nowadays to use the classic chip anymore. That’s because an improved version has been around for a long time: the CMOS 555 timer. Most manufacturers that produced the original bipolar 555 timer also make a CMOS version, with typically the letter “C” somewhere in the full product name. Today we’ll have a look at a couple of these CMOS timers and see how they differ from the bipolar model.

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MEMS Oscillators

Most electronic systems that need an accurate clock, which is to say most microprocessor-based systems, use a quartz oscillator. You’ll typically see a metal package somewhere near your chip that contains a slice of quartz which resonates at a certain frequency thanks to the piezoelectric effect.

Quartz crystals are cheap and provide a very accurate clock frequency, but they take up quite a bit of space and are sensitive to shocks. To deal with those two problems, fully on-chip oscillator systems have been available since about 2010. These use micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology, which involves the manufacture of tiny moving structures on a chip. Their price is typically higher than that of a quartz crystal however, and their frequency stability and phase noise performance are often a bit worse. Today we’ll have a look at a few different MEMS oscillator chips and see what they look like inside.

First up is the Si501 by Silicon Labs. It’s an 8 MHz oscillator built using what Silicon Labs call CMEMS technology, which means that they integrate the MEMS bit on the same chip as the rest of their circuits. The package looks rather anonymous, with just a cryptic part number and no manufacturer’s logo. Silicon Labs have since sold their MEMS oscillator business to Skyworks, so future versions of this chip might have a different marking.

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Fake LME49710

I recently read a forum thread where someone showed how a set of LME49710s that he bought online didn’t function the way they should. Although the chips apparently contained an op amp, they were unable to amplify a 60 kHz square wave and output a triangle wave instead. This means that the op amps’ slew rate is too low: the LME49710 is specified to reach 20 V/us, but these chips only managed 0.5 V/us or so.

The thread’s author asked if anyone could help identify his chips, and I offered to examine them for him. A few days later I received the op amps in the post. They were clearly marked with the National Semiconductor logo and “49710” as a model number:

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π120u30 Digital Isolator

Digital isolators are a modern replacement for optocouplers: components that can bring a signal from one place to another without connecting those two places electrically. They’re essential parts in equipment that connects to a dangerous voltage on one end (mains power usually) and comes into close contact with something sensitive on the other (humans, usually). Since they’re safety-critical components, manufacturers show off all kinds of safety certificates and qualifications to convince their customers that their isolators won’t electrocute anyone by mistake.

Today we’ll look at one of the cheapest digital isolators out there: the π120u30, made by 2Pai semiconductor, which costs less than 20 cents in large quantities.

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TI DRV8876

Texas Instruments has a nice selection of motor driver ICs. Where in the old days you’d often have to make your own H-bridge out of discrete transistors, figure out how to drive their gates, and then generate the right signals to spin up, reverse, brake or coast your motor, nowadays you can get all these functions integrated into a single chip. Today we’ll look at the DRV8876, which is a rather small chip that can nevertheless dump up to 3.5 A into a motor’s windings.

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The 555 timer – part 2

Today we’ll look at a couple more versions of the 555 timer. Like the 741, this chip has been produced by many different manufacturers in the nearly five decades since its introduction by Signetics in 1972.

First up is RCA’s CA555. Packaged in an 8-pin DIP (which is what the “E” in “CA555CE” stands for), this is a “C” spec which can work at up to 16 V, unlike the CA555E that is spec’ed up to 18 V. I’m not sure what the actual difference between these two would be; I guess the chips were sorted after production, with parts that marginally failed some spec at 18 V being demoted to “C” versions.

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ST LIS3DH Accelerometer

The LIS3DH is an accelerometer, designed and manufactured by STMicroelectronics. Like most accelerometers today it is a MEMS device (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems), which means the sensing function is made from silicon and integrated into an IC process. Special etching techniques are used to create tiny moving parts that can bend in certain directions, along with sensors that can detect that movement.

MEMS accelerometers are used in many electronic devices: your phone that detects whether you’re holding it horizontally or vertically, your games console that can sense which way you’re moving the controller, or your car that can detect the speed and direction in which you’ve just crashed so it can properly deploy the airbag.

The LIS3DH is housed in a little LGA package that measures just 3 x 3 mm2. Oddly there’s no ST logo or marking on the package. The “ON5nn” production code could actually trick you into thinking this is an ONSemi part.

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The 741 op amp – part 4

After a bit of browsing on eBay I found several “new” versions of my favourite classic op amp, the 741. We’ve already seen about twelve different layouts so far, but today we’ll see that there are still more out there.

Starting with the oldest, we go back more than four decades to 1974. Texas Instruments at that point sold the SN72741, adapting the original Fairchild part number to their own nomenclature: SN stands for “Semiconductor Network”, meaning “integrated circuit”, while the numbers indicate the product series and temperature range (0 to 70 °C in this case; there was also an SN52741 with a wider temperature range).

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