Understanding the APA102 “Superled”

A couple of weeks ago I reported about a new type of RGB-LED with integrated controller, the APA102. One of the interesting new features of this device is a two-wire SPI interface instead of the proprietary one-wire protocol of the more common WS2812. Many microcontrollers have hardware SPI functions, which allow easy control of these LEDs, as opposed to timing critical bit banging. But it turned out this was not the end of the story. As pointed out by Bernd in a comment, there is some discrepancy between the datasheet and the actual behavior of the devices when it comes to the “end frame”. Reason enough to subject the APA102 to more scrutiny.

The diagram below summarizes the APA102 protocol as found in the data sheet.

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Measuring the length of a WS2812 string

Recently, I encountered an interesting problem: How do you measure the length of a WS2812 programmable RGB-LED string electronically? That is, just using signals that are already there. This can be useful if you want a LED controller to adapt its pattern according to the string that is connected to it, or simply for diagnostic reasons.

WS2812 strings are usually controlled by using one serial output signal only. The LEDs are daisy chained and you simply push out data for all LEDs without any feedback. If there are fewer LEDs on the string, the data for the last LEDs is ignored.

An intuitive approach to counting the number of LEDs is to feed the output of the last LED of the string back into the microcontroller. According to the WS2812 protocol, the output of LED number n is low until data for n+1 LEDs has been pushed to the string. To count the number of LEDs, data is fed to the string until a rising transition is detected on the output. A relatively easy way to implement this is by using a pin change interrupt on the AVR, or a similar feature on other microcontrollers.

While this works nicely, it has the disadvantage of requiring another wire. Can we do it without introducing any additional connections? Continue reading