I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me so long to get around to the TV-B-Gone kit. Mitch Altman came up with the design all the way back in 2004, but didn’t catch my attention until 2008 when Gizmodo infamously used one to switch off TVs throughout the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (see video).
It was a jerk move by Gizmodo, but I can’t help but love that it demonstrates how potent and disruptive DIY technology can be. None of the manufacturers saw this coming because the device itself wasn’t made by one of them — and never would have been. It was made by one of use, arguably as a tool to fight back against the growing encroachment of TVs into every area of our lives.
Another reason why this kit is important is because the vast majority of maker-targeted electronic kits out there can be simply summed up as “neat”. They blink some lights, spin some motors, or emulate a vintage video game. Fun stuff, and empowering in its own way, but ultimately a novelty.
The TV-B-Gone, for better or worse, is a powerful tool that can be wielded for mischief or rebellion. I can think of no other kit that nails the dark art of hardware hacking quite the same way. Perhaps if Samy Kamkar made a kit version of his combination lock Combo Breaker, you could sell these kits together as a teenage hacker anarchist starter pack.
I mention all this because as someone who came to Maker world the long way around (music instruments were my inroad), I remember a time when I was young and regarded most electronic projects with a “Why bother?”. For those who aren’t naturally inclined to explore and tinker with electronics just for the hell of it, the payoff of the TV-B-Gone makes for a great incentive to dive in.
I built my TV-B-Gone from the Super TV-B-Gone kit sold by Make:, though it’s a bit of a misnomer. My sense is that when this kit came out they used the word “super” as a way to communicate that it was using a newer version of the circuit (version 1.2) to differentiate it from the existing first-generation kits on the market.
Regardless, whether you buy the kit from Make: (they seem to be sold out) or from Adafruit, inside the box you’ll find the Adafruit-manufactured version 1.2 of the TV-B-Gone, along with all the components you’ll need, including the battery holder (batteries not included).
You won’t find printed instructions, though, so you’ll need to pull up the online documentation from either Make: or Adafruit. The instructions on either site will get the job done, but Adafruit’s are more thorough. That said, Make: has a nice video walkthrough worth watching.
Honestly, in some ways the instructions on both are overkill. This project has only 20 parts, and both sites basically walk you through part by part. This is certainly better than when a project is poorly documented, but many of these steps could be collapsed so that all the component types are addressed in one step (ie. solder the capacitors, solder the resistors) with details on which component values go where spelled out within the step. Point being, with some thoughtful editing, this could be a 7-step project instead of 15, which could ease some of the intimidation for beginners.
Still, with the instructions as-is, I had no problem assembling the project. If anything, I made more trouble for myself by trying to make tidy soldering joints on the backside of the board before I realized that the whole thing was going to be glued down to the battery pack anyway, hiding my efforts. What’s great about that, though, is that amateur solderers and first-timers won’t have to be confronted with the roughness of their work when the project is finished. All the ugly bits get hidden in the battery pack sandwich you make at the end.
What I wish I knew before I started
All the ingredients are here for a successful build, but here’s what I only know now in hindsight.
1. There are spaces on this board that look like they should have components, but intentionally don’t. Specifically, the spots labeled R2 and R3 are meant to be unused (at least in the US).
The reason why R2 is included in the design is unknown (to me, at least). The logic behind R3 is spelled out on the board itself, which explains that users are only meant to solder in the resistor if they want the board to access the european-only list of TV codes.
And while I understand the function of that optional resistor, I have to admit that it bugs me when I finish a kit like this and there are spots that look incomplete. It’s like a paint-by-numbers painting where some numbers are left unpainted. Call it a pet peeve, but I would have felt more satisfied at the end if these either weren’t there or had been handled perhaps with a DIP switch. I suspect it comes down to component cost, and ultimately I agree that it’s more important to make a kit like this financially accessible to beginners than to satisfy my PCB OCD, but still it sorta bugs me.
2. You really don’t need to solder in the ICSP headers. A significant portion of the real estate on this board is given to the In-Circuit Serial Program headers, which I’m embarrassed to admit I had no idea what that meant when I started in.
These pins allow you to directly reprogram the microcontroller chip using an additional AVR programmer. And though I love that this thing is hackable, almost every tutorial I’ve seen on tweaking the firmware on the TV B Gone says you’re better off just popping out the microcontroller and programming it directly. If I had to do it again, I’d probably save a step and skip the headers. That said, reference item #1 to see how I feel about naked component holes on my kit PCBs.
3. Bend over the big cap. It turns out that there’s a space next to the bigger capacitor (220uF) that allows it to lay flat against the board. Without thinking it over or referencing the photos, I soldered mine in straight up and down. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the device was going into an enclosure, but if it’s going in and out of your pocket as a raw circuit, bending that cap over gives it a lower profile and lessens the likelihood of it snapping off. Next time.
4. Bring the LEDs in against the board. Initially I was quite pleased with how I bent the legs of my IR LEDs so that they all lined up in a neat row. But I made the mistake of cantilevering them out half an inch. It took about a minute before one of them got bet to the side and I had to push it back in place. If I had to do it over, I’d bring the bottom of the LEDs right to the edge of the PCB to minimize their chances of being bent.
Taking it further
A number of Makers have adapted and arguably improved on the TV-B-Gone design and code. There’s the TV-B-Gone hat, and the hoodie. There are also a number of miniaturized TV-B-Gone designs on Instructables.
But more interesting perhaps, are the design and code adaptations from PorkRhombus, whose 2.11 firmware update (and suggested hardware hacks) apparently improve transmission time and battery life, as well as offer a push-to-transmit mode that will shut off the device as soon as you lift your finger off the button (the original design continues to transmit for around 2 minutes). The PorkRhombus firmware also reprioritizes the order of TV models so that the less-likely older TVs are lower on the list. You can read more about his update on the Adafruit TV-B-Gone forum and find the code for it on Sourceforge.
Personally, I think my time with the TV-B-Gone began and ended with the kit, but it’s nice to know I could take it up a notch when the Trump-era media apocalypse is upon us.
Any fan of DIY electronics should make this kit. This and the Useless Box are like the twin pillars of the Maker kit world. If you’re like me and you just turned your nose up at it for being too popular or prankster-y, get over it. For the $20 and 30 minutes it will cost you, you get a low-grade super power in return. There aren’t many projects you can say that about.
Time: 30 minutes
Cost: $18.95 (Check price on Amazon)
Payoff: A pocket-sized remote control that can turn off any TV from up to 150 feet away.
Skills learned: Soldering, component identification, component polarity, wiring battery packs, socketing an integrated circuit.
Tools needed: Soldering iron, solder, snips/flush cutters, wire strippers, 2 AA batteries.
After years of building and testing DIY project kits, these are my five favorite picks that will satisfy makers of every skill level. It’s just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the hundreds of DIY kits on the market, but these are the surefire hits (either for yourself or as a gift).
What makes a kit great? I look for kits that are well made, well documented, and include every part you’ll need. But most importantly, as makers, we live for that moment when the project is complete, the power switch is flipped, and all the work you put into the kit comes back at you as pure delight. If a kit doesn’t make me smile, it’s not on this list.
If you’ve already made a kit from this list, than you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, than this is going to be a real treat. Find a kit that looks like fun, buy it, and bookmark this page because you’ll probably be back for more.
Do you know of a kit that should be on this list? Let us know.
#1: Useless Box
Best Overall Maker Kit
$49 – Check Price On Amazon
Don’t let the name fool you. This project is one of the most practical and efficient devices I’ve seen for making people smile. You flip a switch, and a little mechanical lever pops out of the box to shut off the switch. The first time you experience one, you’ll probably flip the switch at least a dozen times.
Now, why does this get our top pick? First and foremost, it’s a project that delights 100% of the time. This kit is a staple of DIY electronics and nearly every maker I’ve met has some version of it on their shelf because there’s just something inexhaustibly satisfying and fun about flipping that switch.
This project also offers a nice introduction to a range of skills and components. You’ll learn the basics of soldering wire to a PCB (no components or schematics to confuse a beginner). Then there’s the enclosure, which on the Solarbotics version of the kit is made from laser-cut sheets of black acrylic that you’ll join together using Pettis joints, which are unique and oddly beautiful in their own right. A PDF of the assembly instructions can be found here.
#2: Solar Marble Machine
Solar-Powered Kinetic Sculpture
$45 – Check Price On Amazon
The solar-powered marble machine is a relatively new project that has quickly become a beloved maker kit. The finished device uses solar power to slowly crank a marble up to the top of a spiral ramp, where it descends and starts its journey over again.
There’s a lot to love about this kit. It’s a great example of how relatively easy it is to integrate solar power into a project. And because it’s solar, it has a sort of life of its own. You could leave it to do its thing all day and not worry a bit about feeding it a fresh set of batteries.
It’s also a wonderful showcase for the engineering potential of laser cut wood. The majority of the kit consists of five panels of wood with all of the gears, ramps, and structure precisely laser cut for easy removal. Most of the project involves simply glueing together this intuitive system of slot-and-tab wooden parts.
There is some basic soldering required to get the five components installed on a simple circuit board. Printed outlines on the circuit board make it a beginner-friendly task, similar to a paint-by-numbers.
Mischievous Maker Super Power
$24 – Check Price On Amazon
The TV-B-Gone is a small, handheld device that allows you to turn off any nearby TVs with the touch of a single button. The first time you test it out, you feel as though you’ve been given a sinister super power. The rest of the day is typically spent devising pranks and testing the patience of your friends.
Unlike the previous two kits, the TV-B-Gone is an electronics project through-and-through, and better for someone who has at least a few soldering projects under their belt. That said, it’s a great project for the kind of beginner who’s ready to step up from soldering a few wires and LEDs, and get their feet wet with transistors, capacitors, and integrated circuits.
This kit makes a particularly good project for a hard-to-motivate teen, because the allure of being able to piss-off adults by turning off their TVs is a powerful incentive for completing the project.
#4: Mini Strandbeest Kit
An engineer’s desktop pet
$15 – Check Price On Amazon
For a completely non-electronic kit that’s both fascinating and mechanically elegant, you can’t beat the Mini Strandbeest kit.
This is a working model of the beach-roaming PVC creatures made by Dutch artist/engineer Theo Jansen. If this is your first time learning about Theo and his Strandbeests, you’re in for a treat. If you need more convincing, watch this video of Adam Savage geeking out with Theo Jansen and one of his creations.
Be aware, though, that there are three variations of this kit that are easy to confuse. The original model (created by Japanese published Gakken) runs around $50 and comes with a beautiful Japanese magazine. This is the best quality model I’ve seen in terms of material quality, however, the instructions are in Japanese but a translation is available online. A second option, is to purchase the same-quality model (but with no magazine) directly form the author for around $35. The third, and least expensive option is to purchase the kit linked here on Amazon, which is functionally identical to the other kits and includes printed instructions in english, but the plastic quality is a little thinner.
All of the parts fit and snap together without glue, making it a tidy build. Once finished you’ll have your own miniature Strandbeest that can stroll across your desk with just a gust of breath. Like the Solar Marble Machine, the battery-free operation of the Gakken Mini Strandbeest gives it a pet-like quality.
Honestly, what also makes this a fun build is that it makes a great conversation starter. If you get a chance to introduce someone to Theo’s work, you sound all smart and artsy.
Adorable fun with a Raspberry Pi
$120 – Check Price on Adafruit
The Cupcade kit from Adafruit is an adorable miniature arcade cabinet that you can load up with hundreds of vintage video games. It’s not an easy or inexpensive kit, but it is painstakingly documented and well-supported by Adafruit. Plus, the promise of video games when you’re all finished is a great motivator.
This project also makes a great introduction to the Raspberry Pi single board-computer, which is the foundation of many of the most exciting maker projects of the past few years. You will need to purchase your Raspberry Pi (be sure to get the original Model B) in addition to the kit in order to complete the project, adding an extra expense and an extra step.
It’s worth the effort, though, as you’ll walk away with both a cute, functional arcade machine and an increased familiarity with the Raspberry Pi that will open the door to other projects.
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Boldport’s Tap Sensor project is a beautiful refresh of a project that first appeared in the premier issue of 1974’s Elektor magazine. The organic lines of the circuit board traces — a hallmark of Boldport’s design aesthetic — look right at home on this retro project, which is largely unchanged from the original ‘70s design.
The kit includes the bare board, a few stickers, a printed link to project information, and all of the electronic components you’ll need to complete the board. In order to functionally demonstrate the project you will also need three LEDs, a breadboard, some hookup wire, female-male header wires, and a 5v power supply. If you’ve completed Boldport’s Cordwood Puzzle project, you can also hook the Tap Sensor directly to it with some header wires and skip the breadboard and LEDs.
Because Boldport’s boards are so thoughtfully labeled on the underside with component outlines and reference numbers, the project basically revolves around correctly placing and soldering things, with bonus points for clean, tight work that can complement the beauty of the board.
Welcome to the lab. What I’m attempting here with Maker Project Lab is a space to rebuild, evaluate, and review other people’s projects (O.P.P.).
So, why review projects? Well, the short answer is that it’s something I’ve been trained to do, so I may as well do it. When I was a Projects Editor at Make: magazine, my job was to find great projects, rebuild them, fix errors, and make the instructions as clear and easily understood as possible before running it in the magazine. In a way that’s what I’ll continue to do here, though it remains to be seen how much I’ll be publishing project instructions or something closer to tips and annotations that point back to the original project.
The longer, more thoughtful answer is that I believe that the Maker community needs a place to reflect on their best work and possibly refine it. A place that sifts through and polishes up the best of what’s been done and sheds some pretty words on what makes it so good and why others should make it too.
I love the group of artists, engineers and tinkerers that make up the Maker movement. I have never known a more enthusiastic, motivated, intelligent and inspiring community of people. It may sound obvious, but Maker’s are extraordinarily good at making new things. Every day, I check the feed of new projects coming from places like Instructables, Make, and Hackaday, and it’s like standing under a waterfall.
But — and I believe this is true with any creative pursuit — the people who make a thing aren’t always in the best position to explain it. And instead of putting in the work required to explain it better, they do what they do best and move on to their next invention.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. No one expected Pablo Picasso to make a beautiful work of art, then write a book on how he made it, beginning with a foreward on why his art is important and how his style fits within the canon of great art. But somehow, we expect this of Makers, and it doesn’t always work.
So, for my part, I’m going to let Maker’s make, and use my skill set as an editor and wordsmith to select and highlight great projects, kits, and tools, and help them reach a wider audience. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel, sign up on the email list, and follow Maker Project Lab on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.