Tech Reporter Hornswoggled!

Web Editor Philip Ross admits the one thing journalists most hate to admit—being played for a fool by a source.

3 min read

Generally, when a company boasts in a press release that it has been chosen to supply a part for some big project, I crumple it up and aim for the basket. It was different, though, when ST Microelectronics, a huge European chipmaker, boasted of having supplied not just any part, but an absolutely critical one, and not just for any project, but for the Wii—Nintendo's superhot game console.

ST told me that without its small, cheap, yet effective 3-dimensional motion sensor, the Wii would not have been practical. What made the story even more interesting was the underdog angle. ST had scored big, despite its rather late entry into quite a different game—the technology known as MEMS, short for micro-electro-mechanical systems. This is the art by which standard photolithographic techniques carve silicon into tiny intricate parts in real, live machines.

ST's chip was the core of the Wii, said Benedetto Vigna, head of the company's MEMS division, in an interview at IEEE Spectrum's New York offices. Asked how come his company alone had been able to supply a 3-D accelerometer with the right performance specifications, at the low, low price of US $3, Vigna said it was "just luck." Other firms experienced in 2-dimensional sensors hadn't sensed the market possibilities for the more complex 3-D kind, he said, and so ST had gotten the jump on them. When ST met up with Nintendo and learned that it was thinking along the same lines, the two companies, as Vigna put it, "got married."

Bigamously, it seems. A few days after my profile of Vigna went live on this site, Howard Wisniowski, a spokesman for Analog Devices Inc., of Norwood, Mass., called to tell me that it was ADI that had supplied the 3-dimensional accelerometer in the Wii's main controller. ST, he added, had merely provided the sensor in the secondary, "nunchuk" controller. It's secondary because most games now available don't even use it. Indeed, I'd played the baseball, tennis, and bowling games myself, all without having had recourse to the nunchuk.

No journalist likes to admit that he has been naïve. In my own defense, I will however note that company representatives do not normally visit one in one's office, eat one's take-out, and pull one's leg on so straightforward a matter as a contract to supply a part. At least, not when they know that their competitors will surely spot the resulting error and rush to expose it.

Indeed, the ADI spokesman was more than pleased to put me in touch with Richard Mannherz, ADI's marketing manager for micromachine products. Mannherz said he'd laughed at a sentence of mine that cited Vigna's success with the Wii as a big reason why ST put him in charge of its MEMS product division.

"Promoted?" he snorted. "Even though he lost the main socket?"

He was talking about the main controller, which he argued was a more desirable contract than that for the nunchuk because more games require it, and so more controllers are sold in the aftermarket. "I was in New York City at Christmas," Mannhertz said, "doing market research on the availability of the Wii, and I saw 'Toys R Us' had three bins, one for the traditional [pre-Wii] Nintendo controller, another for the main Wii controller, and another for the nunchuk. The classic controller was full, the one for nunchuk was half full, the one for the main controller was empty."

"Look, it was always unlikely that Nintendo would choose one company to do them both," he continued. "It had to do an effective job of managing supply risk." Sony learned that lesson the hard way before Christmas, when shortfalls in its Blu-ray diodes kept it from supplying enough PlayStation 3's to meet demand.

Michael Markowitz, a spokesman for ST Microelectronics admitted as much in an email: "The accelerometers in the remote and nunchuk are essentially interchangeable; like many manufacturers, Nintendo prefers to have multiple sources of supply as a sort of insurance policy against problems at any one source."

Now he tells me.

When I called him up, Markowitz told me that Vigna was traveling and unavailable for comment. So I put the question to him: if the two chips were interchangeable, then why had the ADI chip been chosen for use in the main controller? "We would argue that both companies came out very well," he replied.

Why had he and Vigna characterized the ST chip as the "core" of the Wii, essential to its success? "I would say our answers were not misleading; they were precisely accurate. If you didn't do external research to find out about Analog, it's not our job."

Okay, okay, so I screwed up: I trusted these guys, and they hornswoggled me. In the old days, my only response would have been to say, "fool me once, shame on you." Nowadays, I have more options. I can, for instance, write this blog.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.