Monday, February 21, 2011

Arduino notebook: 16x2 LCD display (Part 1)

As I experiment with my Arduino kit, I find I want an easy, self-contained way to display information. The system provides one easy method in the Serial object with its print functions to send things to the computer through the USB port. This works well in development phase when the computer is attached to the board. However, I want to be able to run the kit detached from the computer and still get feedback. When there's limited data, I can use LEDs. They can be on or off to provide one bit of information. Additionally, they can be blinked in various patterns to communicate more than one bit of data. However, this is more abstract than I want. It doesn't strike me as easy, either to program or to use. I just want to read something directly without resorting to Morse Code to get the information.

I also don't want to spend much money.

So, with these three requirements in mind, I searched around. It seemed an LCD display was the way to go, as I found a couple different options. The first is to connect the LCD directly to the Arduino kit. At about $10, it is an inexpensive choice. It requires a number of wires and a moderate amount of programming to drive the display. Yes, this meets the cost and self-contained requirements, but isn't as easy as I would like. The second option is a kit with one of these LCDs and support circuitry to allow me to simply hook power, ground and a single data line to my Arduino. It uses the same Serial object to display information as the computer uses to receive data via USB. So, it satisfies the easy requirement much better, is more self-contained than the bare LCD, and at $25, still doesn't break the bank.

Upon further investigation, the support circuitry turns out to be an Arduino. I'm pretty sure this controller is sitting idle, spinning around doing nothing, most of the time. In addition to getting an LCD display, I believe this option in essence gives me a second Arduino that I might be able to reprogram to have additional features.

With all this going for it, I purchased this kit from

How to build a Sparkfun Serial Enabled LCD kit (LCD-10097)

Some assembly required

SparkFun Serial LCD kit - Step 1
(Click any of the pictures for a larger view.)

This is definitely a kit. It comes as seen above: a printed circuit board (PCB), some capacitors, a resistor, a crystal, a transistor, a potentiometer, a 28-pin chip, the LCD screen assembled on its own board and miscellaneous hardware. All this comes in a plastic bag in a box.

There were no instructions with the kit, nor could I find any online. To make up for this, the circuit board was well marked with silk screened values for the components and orientation marks for items that have to go in one way. Since I have put together many electronics kits over the years, I wasn't intimidated by this at all. If you are new to building kits, not having instructions might put you off a bit. However, don't let it. It's really pretty simple if you know how to solder. I'll outline what I did below to help you along.

As an overview, I basically installed the smallest components first and worked my way up to the larger ones.

SparkFun Serial LCD kit - Step 2
First, I installed the small, ceramic capacitors and the one resistor. There are two values for the capacitors. The capacitors labeled "220" go in the locations marked "22pF" on the PCB and "104" capacitors go in the locations marked "0.1uF". The resistor goes in the place marked for it. How these components are oriented on the board does not matter. Either lead can go in either hole.

SparkFun Serial LCD kit - Step 3
Next I added the transistor, crystal and electrolytic capacitor. The crystal can go in either way. The transistor and capacitor however need to be oriented correctly. For the transistor, make sure the flat side of the component matches the outline on the PCB. The capacitor has a light band with a minus sign in it running down one side. Make sure the lead next to this marking goes in the hole with the minus sign silk screened next to it on the PCB.

SparkFun Serial LCD kit - Step 4
Following this, I added the power/data connector and the potentiometer. These pretty much can only go in one way. Just match the components to the silk screen outlines on the PCB.

SparkFun Serial LCD kit - Step 5
After installing all the discrete components, I went to my local electronics store and picked up some DIP sockets. Generally, I don't like soldering IC chips onto boards directly. If I damage them with too much heat while soldering, or do something else stupid to cause them not to work, I don't want to go through the hassle of unsoldering all those connections to replace it. I've had to do that before and it's no fun.

The store didn't have any 28-pin DIP sockets in the narrow variety, but two 14-pin ones will sit nicely next to each other without any problems. On the PCB, note the silk screened outline. One end has a flat edge and the other end has a divot taken out. By convention, the edge with the divot marks the end where pin one goes. The sockets should also have one end that's flat with the other end notched. It's best to put them in with the same orientation as the silk screen. This makes things much less confusing. After the sockets are soldered in place, the chip can be inserted into it. The chip also has a notch in one end. Just line up all the notches and everything should be good.

SparkFun Serial LCD kit - Step 6
Finally, I did a good visual inspection of all my solder joints with a magnifying glass. The next step involves soldering the two boards together. Once this is done, it will be very hard to take them apart, so I wanted to be sure everything looked good.

There are three primary things to look for:
  1. Solder bridges. This is when solder spans two pads when it shouldn't. This is particularly easy to do on the pins for the IC sockets, but they can happen anywhere.
  2. Cold or missing solder joints. When working down a row of IC pins, it's easy to accidentally miss one. A cold joint is when one part of the joint, either the PCB pad or the component leg isn't hot enough to melt the solder but the other one is. Solder will flow onto one but not the other. Both cold joints and missing joints can cause intermittent or unreliable operation.
  3. Solder splatters. Sometimes solder will splatter or drop onto the board where it shouldn't be. Make sure there isn't any messy blobs anywhere. If you do find one, typically they'll just scratch off pretty easily.

After the visual inspection, I soldered the header to the LCD's PCB. Then I placed a small piece of cardboard between the two PCBs to function as a spacer. I placed the controller's PCB on the other side of the header's pins and made sure the two boards were parallel. I wrapped a bit of scrap wire around the assembly to hold them together while I soldered the two end pins. Once they were soldered, I took the wire off and finished soldering the rest of the pins to the controller board. When all the pins were done, I removed the cardboard and declared myself finished with the construction phase.

Batteries not included

Now that I had the physical assembly done, the next step was to hook it up to the Arduino. I went to the oracle of all things technical, Google. Unfortunately, with a moderate amount of searching, I didn't find any definitive instructions regarding what to do next. I found some forum postings that alluded to using the Serial object and some others that said to just hook it up, but didn't give any details.

I figured I probably couldn't hurt anything too badly with a bit of guess work. The connector for the LCD was clearly marked with 5V, Gnd and Rx, so I connected the red wire to the 5V pin, black wire to the Gnd pin and the Rx wire to the Tx pin on the Arduino. Typically in serial communication, transmit on one device goes to receive on the other. With the normal trepidation that I always have turning on a kit for the first time, I plugged in the USB cable.

The backlight came on and no smoke escaped. Well, that's a good first step. The SparkFun site points to some documentation on github, but it only talks about command sequences to control the LCD, it doesn't talk about how to talk to the LCD. It presupposes you know how to do that. I found a library that seemed to imply it worked with this kit, but didn't outright say it did. When I tried using some of the code from it, I got nothing. At this point I didn't know if it was a software problem or a hardware problem. I turned everything off, unconnected the LCD and took a magnifying glass to the kit. I looked at all the solder joints I could. Unfortunately, most were in the middle where I couldn't see. I examined all the legs on the chip going into the socket to make sure none of them got folded up underneath the package instead of going into the socket. They all looked good. I hooked everything back up and tried again. Nothing. I tried more searching online to see if I could find more information. Nothing. Arg. Frustrated, I set it aside for a week.

When I came back to it, I rechecked all the hardware I could with the magnifying glass. I plugged it in and tried writing to it. Same result as before. The backlight came on but I couldn't get it to display anything. Looking at the library code, it seemed a bit suspect, but even if it was wrong, I thought I should still see something. I searched more online but found no new information. One last time I decided to take a look at the kit before contacting customer support. And then it hit me. Pin one was in the wrong position. I couldn't believe it, I'd stupidly put the chip in backwards. I pulled the chip out and put it in the correct way. This time when I applied power, it showed a splash screen. Oh, much, much better.

I uploaded a program that I expected to put some data on the screen and it worked. Well, sort of. That code that looked suspect in the library I used didn't work properly. I suspect it was for some other serial controller with a different command set. I threw together some code based on the manufacturer's documentation on github and suddenly it worked properly. Woo, hoo!

Lessons learned

  1. If you build this kit, expect to see a splash screen on power up. This will tell you if the board works or not, independent of serial communication.
  2. Make sure to get some sockets for the chip. I'm sure glad I did. It would have been a nightmare if I'd accidentally soldered the chip in backwards and then had to desolder first the header and then the chip itself to correct the mistake.
  3. If I ever build another one, I will get a plug for the header. This would allow the two boards to plug together rather than be soldered together. A ribbon cable could also be placed between them for more flexibility with mounting.

That's about it for this write up. Next for this project is to figure out the best way to communicate with it. I need to look at the library to see if I was using it wrong or if it really is designed for a different unit. After that, I plan to investigate reprogramming the LCD's controller to investigate using it for additional processing tasks.


bigD said...

Hey Harley,
awesome job on this tutorial, this was a big help to me. Thanks so much for your time.

Harley Pebley said...

Dan, I'm glad you found it helpful. You're welcome.

kiranvarma-npeducations said...

great write up Harley! well explained, can you provide the schematics for this.

Harley Pebley said...

Thanks kiranvarma.

The schematics for the kit are on SparkFun's web site:


kiranvarma-npeducations said...

so sweet of you, thanks for giving fast reply and for the link. Any new projects on arduino?

Harley Pebley said...

Any new projects on arduino?

Yes. Will probably do a write-up soon.