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Hardware Hacking For Beginners

Psionic Fungus

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I'm looking to expand my horizons and have found a few good sites out there to get started with breadboarding and hardware hacks.

I'm a complete newbie though when it comes down to this.

Anybody want to share any links that would get a beginner hardware hacker started?

  • Introduction to Breadboarding
  • Reading Circuit Diagrams
  • Designing Circuits
  • Beginner Projects
  • Anything Else

Any and all links/tips/tricks/advice would be helpful. If there are a lot of responses I'll start editing this topic in order to keep all the links in order in case anybody else needs help getting started.

Thanks in advance, everybody!

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Oh, I've got links... all kinds of links. As well as opinions, and advice, and other comments.

I won't get all drawn out here, but here's a few resources I use to help me out.

Circuit Simulator

This is a seriously awesome thing. A nifty Java app that lets you build simple logic and RF circuits, and monitor their output. It also comes with a large number of pre designed circuits you can tweak. Great for working out specific values to get the desired response from timers, counters, ect. It also includes an import/export function so you can save your work for later use.

Power Calculator

Handles simple voltage/amperage/wattage calculations. Actually the whole website is full of electronics awesomeness.


A US based electronics hobby supplier. They have odd/unique parts to help in the rapid prototyping of anything small, portable, and fun that you might be able to dream up. Not a great source for 'common parts', but for hard to find things, or pre-made widgets to get you on your way, they're great. They also have a growing library of how-to and advice articles as well as a very active forum. They ship promptly, pack very well, and everything comes in really bright red cardboard boxes, which can double as storage boxes, or even project cases in a pinch.

Seeed Studio

Like SparkFun, but based out of China. They carry more exotic parts, and the prices are a little better on some things. But it's coming from China, so shipping is more, and it takes longer. They have an active message forum, but lack the library of how-to stuff.

Both Seeed Studio and SparkFun offer custom PCB (printed circuit board) services.

As for tips:

When bread boarding, try not to use wires longer than you need. Long wires are harder to trace, and all wire causes electrical loss. Not a big deal for simple projects, but things that require high voltage or capacitance accuracy can be rendered unusable if your wires are too long... and troubleshooting that can be a pain.

Obey voltage and amperage limits. Shoot for less than the rated limit to leave room to work in, and to keep from blowing out your parts because something got shorted out, or another part failed.

PTC Resistors (resettable fuses) are your friends. Learn what they are, and use them. You can get them for $1 or less a piece in small quantities, or much less in bulk. They will save your projects from short circuits, and incorrect amperage calculations.

1N4001 Rectifier Diodes are also your friends. There are other useful values, but this one is dirt cheap even in very small quantities, and are great for keeping your components safe if you should decide one day that hooking your power supply up backwards is a very good idea. (it isn't)

Generally speaking breadboards are made for 20 and 22 gauge wire. You can use smaller (24,26, even 28, and 30) but on heavily used boards those smaller wires won't stay in place well. Larger gauge wire, like 18, will work, but will stretch the contacts in the board and then smaller wires won't work, or worse will only work occasionally. Then you'll be troubleshooting your wiring work when it's a bad contact.

LEDs (generally) aren't as concerned about voltage as they are about amperage. All LEDs have max voltage and amperage ratings, but you can some times play fast and lose with the voltage using many different tricks. Going over the average amperage rating can quickly lead to thermal runaway, and kill not only your LED, but maybe other things in line with them. (that's where the PTCs can help out, too)

When it comes time to design a board to solder things up on. There's no reason you need to make a custom board for a simple one off project. Pre drilled protoboards with single and double wide pads on them are great for simple projects, and can be picked up anywhere you can find electronic components.

Learn to solder. I'll repeat that. LEARN TO SOLDER. There are a LOT of videos online on how to do it. Most are actually showing you the right way. Watch some. Practice on scrap wire. Do it often.

Use a good iron. Sure you can get a cheap iron for very little at Radio Shack, and for simple repairs it's o'kay (that's what I use) but if you're heating up your iron more than once a month or so do yourself the favor of getting a good iron with adjustable temp. Also, ALWAYS keep your tip clean. A dirty tip doesn't transfer heat well.

The fumes released from solder rosin (or resin if you prefer) is toxic. Work in a well vented area. If you need to get in close to the thing you're working on to see it clearly, wear a face mask. Cancer is bad, m'kay.

Datasheets are your friends. They can look daunting, and most are, but learning how to read, and understand them will not only save you time and money in designing your projects, but will be a large help if things don't work like you expect them to.

Oh, and one more link.

Mouser Electronics

When you're ready to get parts in bulk, or just need something hard to find. Their prices are very good, even for single items. Their website catalog system is The Awesome with a side of Dope Sauce. Shipping is extremely prompt. They offer a lot of shipping options, and their project/order management system is robust enough for business use, but simple enough to be useful to any hobbyist.

I don't know what kind of work you're looking to do, or what you already know. You can't go wrong, though, with taking old non working hardware apart, and tracing out the boards. Identify the parts, look them up, see what they do. Figure out why it was put together the way it was. Reverse engineering is a great way to learn, because you already know it works, you only have to figure out why.

If you have an specific questions, feel free to ask. I know enough that if I can't find the answer I can find a resource that you can use to get the answer.

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