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Steve Charlesworth's Mint Tin AVR Programmer Project

Gareth Halfacree

Steve Charlesworth's mint tin AVR programmer

The Arduino is a great device for prototyping, but when you've got your build down-pat and are ready to produce a handful - whether you're farming PCB production out or doing it by hand - it's time to think about scaling down. The most common way to get an Arduino prototype production ready is to transfer your sketch to a bare AVR microcontroller - but actually programming said microcontroller can be something of a pain, typically involving rats' nests of wiring in a breadboard with your target chip annoyingly nestled dead centre.

Maker Steve Charlesworth's latest Instructable aims to help with that, by building a simple ZIF socket carrier board into a mint tin for portability. The Zero Insertion Force (ZIF) socket will be familiar to anyone who has used a commercial AVR, EPROM, or flash programmer: rather than shoving each chip into a solderless breadboard, a process which can result in bent legs, the chip is slotted gently home into generously-spaced contact points which are then squeezed against the legs using a small lever.

Compared to the traditional breadboard programming method, Steve's build is neater and easier to manage with less chance of damaging the AVR chips during repeated programming. It's also incredibly simple: the circuit, built onto a piece of prototyping board, has no active components and serves simply to connect a male programming header to the legs of the ZIF socket. That does mean, of course, that you'll still need a device to do the actual programming: either a dedicated programmer like the USBtiny ISP or the full-size Arduino you originally used to build the prototype.

The key element here is the ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) socket. You put that chip in there and push the lever down, and it grabs the legs nice and snug. You can do this a million times without getting the legs all twisted up, but you don't have to, because we're also going to have female headers you can plug jumpers into while you're prototyping - just like with the Arduino. This project doesn't require many parts - that's part of the beauty of it.

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