CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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REVIEW: Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit

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The games produced by Bally and Stern between the years of 1977 and 1984 were enormously popular with players when they first graced the arcades, and remain popular to this day. Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run by Bally and Stern, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is the second review in a continuing series where Credit Dot will examine some of the reproduction parts being manufactured, and how technological innovation is making Bally/Stern games look and play better than ever.

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If you are a collector of Bally /Stern games from the 80s, chances are you’ve encountered some displays with “bad glass”, wherein the digits or segments of the digits inside the glass tube no longer function properly. Perhaps a portion of the digit won’t fully light up. Perhaps it won’t light at all. Such issues could be attributed to bad components on the display’s circuit board, but if you are suffering from bad glass/out-gassing, you’ll know it. Short of finding replacement glass, it renders the entire display, including its accompanying circuit board, useless. More often than not, you’d need to track down a single working display, or just give in and replace the whole set with an LED aftermarket solution costing upwards of $200USD.

Collect enough Bally/Stern games and you’re bound to end up with a handful of non-functioning displays with burnt out glass. Now, thanks to Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, you can use these out-gassed displays to manufacture a set of fully functioning, lower-voltage LED displays. The Retrofit kit contains a new display circuit board and LED digits to replace the glass tube, and a variety of electrical components that need to be substituted for components on the original Bally/Stern circuit board. This kit is a DIY solution, and does require some skill at soldering and de-soldering circuit board components.

If you haven’t already figured it out, this isn’t a solution for everyone. First, you need to have a set of out-gassed donor displays on hand.  A novice collector probably won’t have an entire set kicking around, so there would be the extra expense (and bother) of finding and buying a set of dead displays to use in conjunction with the Retrofit kit. And second, you’re going to need the time, skill and proper tools to perform the conversion. Those looking for a plug and play solution need to look elsewhere. There are plenty of aftermarket plug and play options available (both Rottendog and XPin have 6- and 7-digit display sets available). For those looking to recycle their electronic waste and don’t mind getting their hands dirty performing the conversion, the Retrofit results in a great looking display at a price that can’t be beat.

The Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit was originally introduced about a year ago by Pinitech, LLC. The project was rolled out for beta testing in late-July 2016, followed by a general release a month or so later. Wayne Eggert is the proprietor of Pinitech, and the rise of his company as an aftermarket pinball solution brand is best described in his own words:

“Pinitech has been around since 2014. I started selling NVram using generic boards back in 2012, but began doing custom boards in 2013 for a more professional look. After learning the ropes some with PCB design, I moved on to creating some diagnostic tools I wanted for my own personal use. I funded the projects by selling extra boards that I had created. Through 2016, I’ve mostly just offered diagnostic tools and NVram, but I’m now branching out into other products like the Bally/Stern Retrofit Conversion Kits.”

Not only does Pinitech help the pinball community by offering products designed to keep our games running efficiently, Mr. Eggert is also a Pinside mainstay, posting as “acebathound”, and can frequently be found patrolling the tech help threads, offering solutions and suggestions to collectors with malfunctioning machines.

RETROFIT PRICING & OPTIONS

Pinitech offers three base display colours in both 6- and 7-digit Retrofit kits—blue, white and amber. The latter closely resembles the original colour of the Bally/Stern displays, while the white can be used in conjunction with about a dozen colour filter options to customize the display to your tastes. The pricing for one kit, for a standard game with four score displays and one credit display, as of July 2017, is as follows:

  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $89.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $94.95USD/set
  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $84.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $89.95USD/set
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE (includes 1 colour filter) – $94.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE (includes 1 colour filter) – $99.95USD/set
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The contents of a 7-Digit Retrofit LED Display Kit

For those games with an odd-number of displays, like Six Million Dollar Man with six score displays or Elektra with an extra bonus units display, Pinitech will sell individual display kits to supplement the above complete packages. As you can see from the pricing structure, using the existing display PCB from an out-gassed display, and building the kit on your own results in quite the savings compared to other options on the market.

Other display options check in at about twice the price. Rottendog offers 6- and 7-digit amber display sets, which come fully assembled and are plug and play, and are $199USD, while XPin’s sells their amber displays individually, also plug and play, and are $54.95USD each (that’s $274.75USD for an entire set). Wolffpac Technologies offers a similar DIY display kit, requiring no donor display, and will set you back $144.95USD for a 6-digit amber set that you will have to assemble yourself.

If you have a set of dead displays lying around, the Retrofit solution is a no-brainer. Not only is it the most affordable option on the market, you can customize the colour of the displays to suit your game without breaking the bank. A colour upgrade isn’t available for the Rottendog set.  You’ll pay $20USD more per display (or, $100 more per set) to get the XPin colour option, which ships with red, green and blue gels to add colour to the base white display.

BUILDING THE RETROFIT DISPLAY

The displays come with a set of detailed instructions–and it is my opinion, that even the most novice of PCB tinkerers won’t have a problem making the conversion. The first thing I did when setting into the conversion process is to remove pin #1 on the header pins of each individual displays. This step is so important, it is mentioned about a dozen times throughout the written instructions. Pin #1 sends high voltage to the display, which is no longer needed with the low voltage LED conversion. I didn’t chance cutting the pin off, I de-soldered the pin and pulled it out completely on the entire set of displays before I even began.

You have a couple of ways of replacing some of the PCB components for the conversion: removing them completely and installing the new component, or installing them in parallel, which will basically piggyback the new component onto the old component on the solder side of the board.  I would recommend the former of the two options, as it gives the project a much cleaner look overall and allows less margin for error.  I used a Hakko 808 desoldering tool (now being sold as the Hakko FR-300 Desoldering Tool) to completely remove old components from the board, and then soldered in the new with a temperature controlled soldering iron.  The de-soldering tool isn’t a must, but it nearly guarantees a clean pull of all the old solder, freeing up the old components and preventing the chance of pulling or breaking traces.  You’ll be removing more than sixty points of solder for just one display, so having a de-soldering tool in your toolbox is a sound $200USD investment if you don’t have one already.  In total, for each board, you are replacing 7 or 8 transistors, and four sets of 6, 7 or 8 resistors, depending on if the display is six- or seven-digits.  I was methodical in my approach, and removed one set of resistors from my board, and installed the new components before moving onto another set.  Otherwise, I thought it would get pretty confusing keeping track of a bunch of empty resistor holes and following the Pinitech cheat sheet of what goes where.  The placement of the resistors on the board is somewhat logical, but in some cases, like in any PCB board design, the component is placed where it fits to minimize space, and not where it should logically be placed.

To make things even more interesting, Bally and Stern had many revisions of the display board throughout the ten year run of their classic games, so depending on which version of display you have, the parts that need to be replaced will be in different positions on the board.  The community has accounted for this, and the Pinside thread dedicated to the Retrofit displays has identified the majority of the different board revisions, giving the DIY-er a visual cheat sheet to identify which components need to be replaced.

The points of contact for the old glass need to be removed from the component board completely, or need to be cut close to the old glass so the old metal tab connectors can be affixed to the new upright display board. To the new upright display board that will replace the glass, you’ll need to attach the LED digits, which have eight contact points per digit that need to be soldered.

Once the two boards are affixed together using the provided brackets, you can solder the metal tab connectors to the display board or use the new angle connectors provided if your original tabs were manged or missing.  The angle connectors provide a cleaner look overall, but it requires a bit more effort to install. To finish up, you’ll need to choose a way to jumper the 5V line to the high voltage line. Again there are a number of ways to do this, but each involves a jumper wire from one point of contact to another on the solder side of the display PCB. This step is the only time in the whole process that the conversion would appear to be “hackish”.  None of the points of contact are near each other, so the user will just have to pick one that they think looks the least invasive.

The instructions outline how to test the display on the bench using a 5V power supply, or, if you are feeling brave, and have triple checked your work, you can install it into your machine and watch the cool lights of the LED display its segmented numbers.  If for some reason segments don’t light, the guide will help you troubleshoot the problem.  I had two digits that refused to light on one display, which ended up being a couple of bad digit drivers.  Luckily, Pinitech has accounted for these bad components (they are ones that are not replaced in the conversion) and includes a small number of extra 2N5401 transistors as backup.

AN INTERVIEW WITH PINITECH

I was one of the beta testers for the Retrofit kit when it was first introduced, and since that time, I’ve known Mr. Eggert from Pinitech to be helpful and very personable when it came to his products and the hobby in general.  I thought I would give him a forum here to explain the nuances of the project in his own words.  The questions I posed to him appear in bold below:

Credit Dot: When did you first discover that the Retrofit kit would be something that could be successful in the market?

Wayne Eggert: “I created a Pinside thread to judge interest on the idea and decided that I’d use the thread to seal the fate of the project.  There was a reasonable amount of interest right off the bat, especially considering it was such a niche project.  The excitement in that thread was indication that at least a dozen or two of the conversion kits would sell.”

CD: How long did the research and development portion of the Retrofit project take?

WE: “R&D was most of the first quarter of 2016 and then another couple of months later in the year.  A couple of weeks alone were dedicated to figuring out how to do load testing and to get a baseline for what to expect for current usage with and without LED displays on Classic Bally/Stern machines.  A prototype was cooked up and the next major step was figuring out if there was a way to create an efficient conversion design. If that couldn’t happen, there was no reason to pursue the project further.”

CD: The circuit boards attached to the display glass on the original Bally/Stern displays came to market with many different designs over the years.  Was there difficulty accounting for all of the different configurations of boards out there?

WE: “Definitely.  Working within the parameters of the old boards made it a huge challenge–and part of that was due to quite a few different display revisions over the years.  Whatever I came up with had to work with all the revisions.  Not only that, but it had to allow people to mix-and-match displays of various revisions without any noticeable differences in brightness or functionality.  Many hours were spent gathering schematics and actual display boards for each revision, and many more looking at everything as a whole and creating a conversion circuit that would work for all of them.”

CD: What unique elements of the original Bally/Stern design allowed the conversion to be possible?

WE: “Since the old display driver circuits used many resistors and transistors, it made it easy to swap those components out for different values.  For instance, if I couldn’t swap transistors for mosfets, the 4543 would have been over-driven on its outputs.  Had the drivers been dedicated ICs unique to plasma displays, the conversion may not have been possible at all.

There were quite a few things along the way that could have derailed the project completely.  I could easily list over a dozen snags I hit in the design, but somehow for every one of those snags I was able to find a solution.  Even just the screw hole locations for the plasma glass display bracket on the component board couldn’t have worked out any better.  The new LED display panel had to sit at pretty much an exact location and I lucked out and found a right angle 90 degree threaded bracket that worked.  Too far forward and it would have caused the digits to hit the backglass, too far back and there would have been clearance issues with the digit drivers on 7-digit Bally displays.  It amazed me that the entire project went this way.  There was lots of nail-biting and thoughts of canceling the project, but in the end, a solution for everything materialized.  Maybe that happens when you REALLY want a solution, and you find a way get there!”

CD: The converted displays tap into the 5V power supply, bypassing the high voltage needed to power the original displays.  Do the converted Retrofit displays tax the 5V line in any manner significant enough to impede the machine’s performance?

WE: “I definitely didn’t want to create something that would cause a lot of extra load to be added to the 5v regulator.  If I couldn’t get the conversion displays to match the efficiency of a normal aftermarket LED display set, there was no sense in doing them.  I’m proud to say the conversion displays match or beat efficiency of most of the other LED displays on the market.  Not bad for old-school technology!”

CD: What advantages does the Retrofit kit offer over the other aftermarket display systems available on the market?

WE: “The single largest draw is price-point.  But I think the idea of using existing boards is also a major advantage.  Lots of people had old boards sitting around “for parts” that were collecting dust.  This is a way to turn them into something useful again, gain space, save money and create some great looking LED displays!  At the time, these conversion kits were also the only budget way of getting WHITE LED displays that could be used with color filters for unlimited color choices–at about one-third the cost of the other option on the market.

There are other advantages that people see once they assemble a set.  The displays look professional.  Everything lines up nicely and everything from the instructions, to the PCB design, to the circuits themselves, were looked at in detail and has professional polish.  I’ve been told by several people that the aesthetics are better than anything else on the market.  It’s cool hearing that, considering people are comparing these conversion kits to plug-and-play aftermarket displays.”

Many of the products on your site are available in DIY form, where the end user assembles the product themselves. Have you seen an increase in hobbyists wanting DIY kits?  As the hobby grows, are you seeing the skill set of the common hobbyist mature?

“I think the interest is growing in DIY kits.  It’ll never be on-par with plug-and-play, but having kits available like this with clear instructions that allow someone to assemble without frustration the first time helps grow the demand for DIY options.  When things are frustrating or unclear it becomes a major deterrent. These conversion kits are definitely on the more difficult end of DIY, but even so, I tried to make them as user-friendly as possible.

Pinball these days is an expensive hobby and DIY is a way to save a few bucks.  Pair that with the accomplishment you feel successfully building something.  It’s built into us, especially guys, I think–we like to build.  But the advantages are far greater: the skills learned in a Pinitech DIY project are transferable to other aspects of the hobby.  Improved soldering techniques, desoldering techniques, troubleshooting–it all helps create confidence and knowledge that could come in handy down the road.”

Your main pinball interest seems to lie in the early solid-state games of Bally and Stern.  The majority of your products at Pinitech cater to that era.  Does your interest in pinball span all eras of machines?  What are some of your favorite Bally/Stern titles?

“Funny you say that.  I often think about how anyone that is checking out products I sell, at least up until this point, is definitely going to think I’m only into Classic Bally/Stern machines.  I actually enjoy most games from the early 80’s to present day releases.  Anything with better sound and more complicated rule sets, than the very early solid state games, I enjoy.  I’m definitely a big fan of Data East, Williams System 11 & WPC.  I’ve done more with diagnostic tools for Bally/Stern because I started out with those machines early-on in the hobby.  They’ve always been more affordable, and there’s a lot of neat titles and artwork in that era of games.  They’re very approachable from an electronics standpoint, too.

Two of my current favorites for Bally titles are Xenon and Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man.  I think it’s mostly nostalgia that does it for me on Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man, but it helps it’s also a later Bally with more going on and better sound.  I’m itching to get LED displays installed in that machine.  It’s been sitting folded up for five years and I think it’ll look really cool with blue, red or yellow displays.  Or maybe a mix of all three colors!”

THE RETROFIT BOTTOM LINE

I’ve performed the conversion on two sets of displays with dead glass–a six-digit conversion for a Stern Stars and a seven-digit conversion for a Stern Star Gazer. If focused, and I kept to the task, I could have one display converted in about thirty minutes.  Overall, I am very happy with how the displays look in the games.  The numbers are nice and robust, and are crisp and bright without being blinding and looking out of place.  I went with blue displays for both Stars and Star Gazer–they were the most affordable, and fit the overall colour scheme of both titles.  The Stars came with four dead displays out of the five, while the Star Gazer came with no displays at all, but I was able to find someone to sell me a set of dead 7-digit displays for $20.  Would I convert a set of displays for the sake of converting to low-voltage LED if the displays worked properly?  Absolutely not, but it is a nice option to have when a set of displays with bad glass presents itself. The final product is robust and professional looking, especially considering it is a DIY project that uses original parts from the 1980s. This project is extremely affordable, compared to the other options on the market, and further, it feels good to take something that would otherwise be junk and put it back into service.

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FURTHER READING

Pinitech – Classic Bally/Stern Conversion LED Display Kit
Pinitech – Retrofit Photo Gallery
Pinside – RETROFIT Classic Bally/Stern DIY Plasma-to-LED Conversion Display Kits


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REVIEW: Pinball Electronics’ Bally/Stern LED Lamp Driver Board

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The games produced by Bally and Stern between the years of 1977 and 1984 were enormously popular with players when they first graced the arcades, and remain popular to this day.  Soaring prices of New-In-Box games and classic 90’s era Williams titles have driven collectors, who may not have enjoyed these games when they were first on route in arcades, to discover and enjoy them in their own game rooms.  Perhaps collectors are finding that the Value:Fun ratio is more balanced in a Bally/Stern game than it is in more contemporary offerings.  The continued popularity of the Bally/Stern subset of games also points towards the acceptance of a more “no frills”-type of pinball: no deep rule sets, no complicated mechanisms or toys, no ramps or multi-level playfields.  The games offer the player a wild dash to the finish, rather than the long exhausting marathon sometimes offered by the more modern pinball machine.  Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is a first review in a continuing series where Credit Dot will examine some of the reproduction parts being manufactured and how technological innovation is making Bally/Stern games look and play better than ever.

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I’ll state at the outset that I’m not a huge fan of LEDs in games made prior to 1986.  It’s an arbitrary date I’ve set for myself that coincides with Williams offering its first game powered by the System 11 operating system (High Speed in January of 1986).  For all Electromechanical and early Solid State games, I’m a firm believer that the warm glow of incandescent bulbs is the only way to go.  There’s no accounting for taste, however, and modifying a game in your collection to your personal tastes is half the fun of ownership.  As you may or may not know, Bally and Stern games between 1977 and 1984 cannot properly accommodate LED bulbs: the controlled inserts will offer a seizure inducing flicker if LEDs are added to a game without first making suitable modifications.  The LED bulbs draw so little current that the controlled lamps (any lamp that is turned on and off by the MPU) fail to “latch on”, resulting in the game attempting to turn on the lamp every fraction of a second until the signal is turned off.  Resistance must be added to the game in order for the LEDs to function properly, and allow the lamps to latch on.  There’s a few ways to go about doing this.

The first option is to solder a resistor to each MPU-controlled bulb socket.  It’s the cheapest way to go about the process, as a single resistor will only cost you $0.05, however, there’s a lot of soldering involved and it’s a pretty invasive process–having to permanently solder a 470 ohm resistor to each socket.  Another option is to buy an adapter kit from Siegecraft Electronics to add to your game.  The kit retails for $45.00USD, and can be found at the Siegecraft webstore or Pinball Life (both sites are out of stock at time of writing).  Essentially, the kit gives you three small circuit boards with resistors mounted on them that plug into your original lamp driver board in the backbox.  Instead of the resistors being mounted to the sockets themselves (as in our first example), multiple resistors are mounted onto the three daughter boards.

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The contents of a Siegecraft LED Adapter Kit.

The final option is to obtain an entirely new lamp driver board with the resistors incorporated in the design of the board itself.  Alltek Systems, makers of fine reproduction circuit board solutions for Bally/Stern games, have incorporated an “LED Flicker Free” feature into their lamp boards that will eliminate the LED flicker completely.  The Alltek board will set you back around $119.00USD.

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Alltek’s Ultimate LED/Lamp Driver Board

However, buying the entire board would be overkill for most people.   The original Bally/Stern lamp board is perhaps the easiest board in all of pinball to troubleshoot and repair.  The layout is straightforward and easy to follow from input signal to output signal, and there aren’t many wild card components to confuse those new to pinball repair.  Most times, it’s going to be a bad transistor component or connector issue that prevents a lamp from working properly.

I had a situation where I had acquired a classic Stern game that was completely missing the lamp board, so I was in the market for a board, whether or not I was going to put LEDs into it.  There are plenty of refurbished boards available for sale on Pinside, for around $50USD, from reputable sellers.  I was going to go this route, however, I found that Pinball Electronics (also known as NVram.weebly.com), a webstore maintained by Pinside user “barakandl”, had made available for purchase his own design of a Bally/Stern lamp driver board.  His board retails for $90USD (including shipping) and includes all the LED capabilities of the Alltek board for $30USD less than the more established brand.  Further to this, Pinball Electronics will sell the bare printed circuit board, with no components soldered to it, for a mere $15USD, and allow you to do the soldering work yourself.

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Pinball Electronics’ $90USD fully assembled LED Lamp Driver Board

I had the opportunity to speak to Andrew from Pinball Electronics about the newly offered lamp board and the reasons behind offering it as a DIY kit.  Andrew’s love of pinball is deeply rooted in Bally and Stern pinball games.  He explains:

“I learned electronics by fixing early Bally and Sterns. I think they are perfect game for a new person looking for their first pinball restoration project. There are lots of reproduction parts available and plenty of online documentation to reference.” 

If you are a Bally/Stern owner experiencing a problem with your game, and ask the pinball community for help on Pinside, there’s a good chance that Andrew’s online alter ego, “barakandl”, will be one of the first to respond, offering troubleshooting techniques or possible solutions.  When asked about the reasons for offering a DIY board as well as a completely assembled board, Andrew responded:

“I think the average skillset of pinball collectors is decreasing with more and more people getting into the hobby. Kits like these help people get their feet wet doing PCB repair. Collectors also love modding their games. Kits like these can be considered a ‘mod’, a project someone can assemble and install themselves, and feel good when the job is done.” 

With an influx of collectors and players entering the pinball hobby, perhaps there are a greater number of people diving into PCB repair feet first, without knowing the basics (or having a practical understanding of what they are doing).  Being able to assemble a relatively simple PCB from scratch not only helps beginners learn the basics of soldering, but it will help build confidence and comfort in working with PCBs when the next repair is needed.  For those with a more advanced skill set, it appears that building the board from scratch, and doing the tedious soldering yourself, will offer a lamp board solution that will be very friendly to your pocketbook.

The board design itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it does offer a couple of improvements over the original Bally and Stern designs.  Andrew explains:

“I placed the resistor footprints in a way that the end user has component options. Isolated resistors are in banks of eight, so you can use a DIP-16 resistor array, a Bourns 4116R, or standard discrete resistors. Also, resistors with a common bussed pin can employ a 9-pin bussed resistor network or, again, use discrete resistors.” 

Further, the footprints for the four 4514 chips have been designed to accommodate both the original DIP-24 4514 chips (marked as obsolete but still available), or the more readily available, and cheaper, SO-24 (small outline) 4514 chips.

I ordered the bare lamp board with a few other items from Pinball Electronics, so shipping ended up being free.  The rest of the materials I sourced from Great Plains Electronics.  I could have shopped around at Mouser or Digikey, but I find their sites a bit overwhelming, and further, GPE is a great friend to the pinball hobby so I throw my business their way whenever I can.  The following is my bill of materials for the lamp board:

GRAND TOTAL: $59.44

ALTERNATE COMPONENTS

The SO-24 4514 chips can replace the DIP-24 4514 chips and are available from Digikey for $1.16ea. https://www.digikey.com/products/en?keywords=1727-6338-1-ND%20

The 4116R resistor array can replace the 2K resistors and are available from GPE for $0.35ea. https://www.greatplainselectronics.com/proddetail.asp?prod=4116R-2-222

As you can tell from my bottom line total above, there is value in building the board yourself.  It checks in at nearly half the price of an Alltek lamp board, and is just a few dollars more than the kit offered by Siegecraft, while offering the same functionality and LED support as both options.  If you are willing to shop around for the alternate parts, you may be able to shave a few dollars more from my total above.  I opted to use discrete, individual resistors in my build, rather than using the resistor array packages. No difference in function in the end, just a few more points to solder.

Assembling the board is as straightforward as can be.  Pinball Electronics offers a bare bones data sheet as to where each component needs to be soldered. For those who are not adept at DIY board population, a temperature controlled solder station, like the Hakko FX888, with a fine tip isn’t completely necessary to complete the job here, but it will ensure a clean looking and fully functioning end product.  I had my board fully assembled and installed in my machine in about an hour and fifteen minutes.  The board worked “right out of the box”, as it were, as I had re-pinned all of my connectors as a preventative measure while restoring the game (I implore beginners, please take the time to learn how to use a Molex crimping tool and re-pin your connectors before trying to locate bad components on your boards–I don’t know how many times I’ve read “It ended up being a connector issue” in Bally/Stern repair threads).

To finish the installation, the board needs to be attached to the switched illumination bus (found at one of the controlled lamps sockets on the swing-out wooden back board).  All of the aftermarket replacement solutions discussed above need this modification for proper operation.  The Siegecraft kit needs each of the mini-boards to be connected to the bus, resulting in a three wire menagerie running to the backboard.  The Alltek and the Pinball Electronics boards have built-in terminals ready for the user to tap into.  In the case of the Pinball Electronics board I built, a four-terminal Molex plug can be used to attach the wire to the board, as four 0.1 male pins, in parallel, have been integrated into the design of the board.  This provides an overall cleaner look using parts correct to the period, and appearing less “hack”-like.

Some collectors like the having original boards in their machines for the purposes of keeping it “all original”.  I’m not one of those people.  With the number of reproduction parts available for the Bally/Stern games these days, keeping your game looking flawless AND “all original” is nearly impossible.  If the reproduction works, I’ll use it.  In eighteen short months, Pinball Electronics has offered a handful of reproduction boards such as a universal Bally/Stern MPU, the (n)ever-popular Bally/Stern rectifier board and, of course, this lamp driver.  It seems that Andrew is just getting started, as I asked what new projects were on the horizon:

“Ongoing current projects include the Bally -50 sound board and a Stern High Voltage DMD Power Supply.  And I have just begun working on a reproduction Stern SB-300 sound board. I plan on tackling anything that will make sense to assemble, and has a demand for aftermarket replacements in the community.”

The Pinball Electronics lamp board is a quality product at a fantastic price point given the other options available on the market.  If you want to add LEDs to your Bally/Stern game, the board offers a sleek look with the LED option built right in at a price point that can’t be beat.  If you don’t mind a little manual soldering labour and assemble it yourself, it offers a value that can’t be matched.

FURTHER READING:

Pinball Electronics
http://nvram.weebly.com/

Pinside – New Repro Bally/Stern Lamp Driver Board with LED Support
https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/new-repro-bally-stern-lamp-driver-board-with-led-support

Vid’s Review – Classic Bally/Stern LED Adapter Kit
https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/classic-ballystern-led-adapter-kit-review


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PEOPLE: Jeff Miller, the Pinball Pimp

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Jeff Miller appears to be living the pinball enthusiast’s dream. The Tampa-based graphic designer-by-day took a life-long passion for pinball and turned it into his own burgeoning restoration business. The self-proclaimed “Pinball Pimp” began turning tricks in 2005, by restoring his own Bally Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and hasn’t looked back—situating himself as one of the go-to pinball restoration artists in the south-east United States. Further, Mr. Miller has recently expanded his Pimping business (as it were): he now supplies the pinball community with high end cabinet stencils for hobbyists to complete their own restoration work in the comfort of their own workshops. The Pinball Pimp stencil store currently offers twenty complete sets of stencils across two different pinball manufacturers, with the promise of many more to come. Judging by the reception from the community, these stencils are of the highest quality, the easiest to use and the most complete versions available on the market. I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Mr. Miller concerning the manufacture of his line of stencils, the restoration business and what the future holds for the Pinball Pimp brand.

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Credit Dot: How long have you been a pinball enthusiast?

00-pimp06Jeff Miller: I have been playing pinball since I was 8 years old, dating back to 1974. I used to play the machines in front of the Danners 5 & 10 Store on Saturday mornings as a kid. I started all this as a hobby back in 2005 when I restored my first pin which was a Bally Captain Fantastic.

CD: What lead to you offering decal sets for other enthusiasts to use in their restoration projects?

JM: I have been designing vector art for over 25 years and stencils for the past 10 years. I knew for a fact that the other pinball stencils available to the public just did not have the quality of artwork and the exacting standards that I designed for my own use. I then decided to start designing my own stencils each time I restored a game and ended up with a nice collection over 10 years. After hearing the constant frustration people were having with the other stencil vendors and all the rave comments I received on my restored machines, I decided to start offering my own stencils to collectors and fellow restorers.

CD: What are some of the deciding factors when selecting a game to make stencils for? Do you take requests?

JM: I usually only put my design time into game titles that are considered more “A” list, or classic, titles people want to restore. It also depends on whether or not CPR or someone else has made a reproduction playfield for the game. I do take request and do custom stencils/work for people as long as they pay me for the design time.

CD: Can you walk us through the process of creating a new stencil set?

JM: The first step is to start with a cabinet which has nice artwork that you can get a good scan from. Taking off the stainless steel side rails and removing the entire coin door and shooter are even better so you can get scans all the way to the edges of the wood. The next step is to scan the actual cabinet, using a flatbed scanner. I scan the cabinet in sections, with some overlap on each scan, so I can weld it all back together in Photoshop as one full-size image. Once in Photoshop I may spend several hours just cleaning up edges of the artwork so I can get it good enough to make separation. The artwork is then converted from raster JPEG image to VECTOR line art which a plotter can cut. Once it’s converted to vector art, the fun begins! This is when I go into my vector program and spend between 8 to 20 hours cleaning up all the artwork based on the full-size JPEG image of the original art… smoothing curves, straightening lines, etc. Once I’m satisfied with the art and have made every tweak, I consider it a master stencil ready for cutting.

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The cleaned up colour separation of Bally Playboy side cabinet art on the left, the final pained product using the Pinball Pimp stencil on the right.

CD: How is a stencil set “cut”?

JM: Stencils are cut on an industry standard, low-tack vinyl paint mask using Roland plotters. The master line art file is sent from a computer to the plotter which then cuts the paint mask with a carbide tipped blade. Artwork is then “weeded” or peeled along with a pre-mask material applied on top so all art stays perfectly intact when applying to the cabinet.

CD: How do the Pinball Pimp stencils differ from those of the competitors?

JM: My stencils are designed from actual scans of the actual cabinet with zero distortion, rather than using photographs which can cause perspective issues, lost detail and sizing to be skewed or wrong. My artwork goes through an entire cleanup process to make the artwork for every single title nearly perfect. I also use a unique registration system which guarantees your 2 color stencils lineup perfectly every time.

CD: Your stencils are all approved under license. What is the approval process like?

JM: You have to have a quality product to begin with, otherwise it will have a tough time getting licensed. I had to go through Planetary Pinball to get my stencils licensed by them. To comply with the conditions of the license, I have to purchase holographic decals and each set has its own unique serial number. The serial number and holographic decal are affixed to a Certificate of Authenticity and sent out with every set of stencils I sell. The serial numbers are also recorded and archived.

CD: For those who have never used a stencil kit before, how difficult is the re-stenciling process? Any helpful hints?

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Detail of the side cabinet art of a Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, restored using a Pinball Pimp stencil set.

JM: The stenciling process is actually not that hard at all. I tried to make it as user-friendly as possible for anyone to use. It’s basically just like applying a large decal. With the instructions and the squeegee provided it should be a fairly simple task. It’s sort of like using lettering stencils and spray paint.

[Ed. Note: Each set contains multiple stencil sheets, representing the different colours used on the side cabinet, coin door area and the head. The backside of each stencil holds a mild adhesive, making the stencil sheets good for one-time use only. If for some reason, an enthusiast encounters a problem when using the stencils due to their own “user error”, Mr. Miller is able to cut a partial stencil set and sell only the necessary pieces of the kit rather than forcing the stencilor re-purchase the entire set. This just another perk of buying from the Pinball Pimp, and should bring comfort to novice pinball restorers and old hands alike. Everyone encounters an “oops” sometimes…!]

CD: What type of paint do you recommend using?

JM: The best EASY paint to use would be Rustoleum or Krylon out of the spray cans. You could also use a water-based paint but I would suggest putting a clear coat on after that for durability. I do not suggest using lacquer paint as it tends to soften the adhesive on the paint mask and may leave residue.

CD: What are some of your pro tips for a smooth cabinet in preparation for re-stenciling?

JM: The best way to get a beautifully smooth cabinet is to strip the entire cabinet down. The more you can take off the cabinet, the easier it will be once you get started sanding and filling. I either sand or chemically remove all we old paint from the cabinet down to the bare wood. I usually fill all of my nicks and scratches with Bondo and then sand smooth. I may repeat this process 2 to 3 times in order to get a cabinet baby smooth. Once this is done, I spray the base coat color on the cabinet, which may require 2 to 3 coats, which should result in a very smooth paint job. The smoother the surface the better the stencils will work.

[The following gallery is a selection of cabinet art restored using Pinball Pimp stencils.  An extensive gallery can be viewed by following this link.]

CD: For a typical cabinet, how long will cabinet re-stenciling take, giving curing time for the separate colors?

JM: Once your base coat is dry and you are ready to use your stencils it only takes a few minutes to apply the stencil. It actually takes longer to tape the cabinet up to avoid any over-spray. Depending on which paint you use, and dry times, I usually let the first color dry for a day or 2 before spraying the second color.

CD: Is the sky the limit for Pinball Pimp stencils? Do you foresee an exhaustive line of stencils across all pinball manufacturers?

JM: As long as there are guys out there who want to restore these old classic machines, I will keep trying to design as many classic titles as possible. I’m in the process now of getting the license from Gottlieb to start selling stencils for all of their classic titles as well. I would love to be the curator of all pinball stencils.

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An example of a serial number stamped directly onto the left side of a Bally cabinet. This one from a Nitro Ground Shaker, which resides at the Vintage Flipper World in Brighton, MI.

CD: An ethical question, of sorts. Late-1970s and early-1980s Bally games have the serial numbers stamped directly into the side of the wooden cabinet. Should a restorer fill and sand these numbers when preparing the cabinet for a re-stencil, effectively erasing the unique identification numbers, or should one leave the indentations as they came from the factory?

JM: I think this depends on the individual. When I do high-end restorations, nearly half of the parts are new reproductions anyway, so I usually fill in the stamped numbers. When the final machine is done, everything is beautifully smooth. I also add a pinball pimp certificate inside the machine with a serial number of 00001, since I basically rebuilt the entire machine from scratch. The way I look at it, it is basically born again.

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A Pinball Pimp “Restoration Certificate”, included on the inside of the cabinet of each game that is made whole again by Mr. Miller.

CD: Stencils are just one part of your “Pimp” business. What kind of restoration work do you undertake?

JM: I restore machines from the mid-70s all the way up to complete decal jobs of the newer WPC games. This all includes playfield swaps, playfield touch-ups, powder coating, chrome and nickel plating parts–the COMPLETE start to finish restore process!

CD: What are some of the most memorable, or most difficult, restorations you have ever tackled?

JM: The most memorable was the full restoration of my 1976 Bally Capt. Fantastic machine. This being an EM machine, I disassembled every hardware mechanism in the lower cabinet, rust dipped and polished, and installed all onto new wood which was painted to match the cabinet color. A very daunting task if you know how many parts are in a 4-player Bally EM. Mind boggling!

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Detail of a stunning Gottlieb Target Alpha, after receiving a full Pinball Pimp makeover.

CD: Do you rely on restoration projects brought to you by customers, or are you surfing Craigslist for broken-down restoration candidates to fix and flip?

JM: Back when I first started in 2005 used Craigslist to find all of my pinball machines to restore. Since the pinball “resurgence” has taken over, it becomes harder and harder to find decent machines and deals on Craigslist. At this point I have enough customers across the country to where most people just send me their machines to be restored.

CD: For solid state games, do you perform your own board work as well?

JM: I do some of my own solid-state work if it’s simple, but more difficult tasks I leave to a friend who is an electronics master. Some clients have me replace they are restored machine with all new boards if they are available.

CD: You also maintain a close relationship with Classic Playfield Reproductions. What work have you done for them over the years?

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Detail from Mr. Miller’s work on CPR’s Fireball backglass repro, available now.

JM: I’m not currently working on any projects for CPR at the moment since I have my hands full with my own businesses. I have designed four artwork packages for CPR in the past: the plastic sets for Williams Comet and Bally Bobby Orr’s Power Play, the speaker panel for Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Bally Fireball backglass which is one of CPR’s latest releases.

CD: Is this a full time job for you, or just a part-time hobby? Moreover, do you describe yourself as a businessman or an enthusiast?

JM: What started out as a hobby 10 years ago has basically turned into a full time, second business. I’m still a top level, graphic designer/artist and do freelance work for Samsung and other large companies, but still love the pinball business end of it most.

CD: You are based in Florida—how would you describe the present pinball collector scene in the Sunshine State?

JM: I am based in Tampa, Florida and have been here for 25 years. I’m originally from Columbus, Indiana. I think the collector scene in Florida is probably as good as it is in any other state. Although, I don’t think as many older classic games migrated to Florida—most are still up in the Midwest, in the Pennsylvania and Chicago areas. The migration of games to the California market hasn’t been replicated on this coast, for the most part.

CD: How did you come about the moniker “The Pinball Pimp”?

JM: Around the time I started restoring pinball machines, I remember watching the TV show “Pimp My Ride”. Being in design and marketing my entire life, I thought it was a catchy and easy name to remember. Since my restorations always involved being a little over-the-top with custom accents and exacting detail, I considered my restored machines as being “PIMPED”–hence the name: Pinball Pimp.

CD: What games are currently in the Pinball Pimp collection?

JM: My collection has changed a little over the last 10 years, working towards my ultimate lineup of games—including some buying and selling along the way, obviously. My modern collection contains a Williams Funhouse, Williams Fish Tales, Williams White Water, Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon, Williams No Fear, Williams Tales of the Arabian Nights and Stern AC/DC Luci. My classic collection includes a Bally Capt. Fantastic, Bally Eight Ball, Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, Bally Playboy, Bally Eight Ball Deluxe, Bally KISS and Bally Fathom.

CD: Any closing comments to enthusiasts who may not have the nerve to tackle a re-stenciling project?

JM: Re-stenciling a pinball cabinet is not that hard when using my stencils if the instructions are followed properly. It’s not a weekend warrior project that you’re going to get done in a few hours. The more time you put into the project the better the result. More importantly, it’s about having a passion wanting to restore your cabinet back to its full glory! I guarantee if you take your time and do it right your end result will be a beautiful cabinet that you will be proud of.

Further Reading:

Pinball Pimp Restoration, Sales & Service – Homepage
Pinball Pimp Cabinet Stencils – Homepage
Pinball Pimp – Pinblog
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Creature from the Black Lagoon Backbox Speaker Panel
Pinside – PINBALL PIMP – Bally STRIKES and SPARES – Museum Restoration
Pinside – For sale: PINBALL PIMP CABINET STENCILS – AVAILABLE NOW!
Pinside – Twisted Pins Stencils are Garbage
Tampa Bay Times – In Tampa, Two Pinball Wizards Work to Restore their Hobby, January 7, 2010


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 3: The Wrap-Up

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Part One, featuring BriteMods, can be found here.  Part Two, featuring Comet Pinball, can be found here.

I don’t think there is a clear cut, flat out winner in the Pop Bumper Showdown. Like Art from Comet Pinball is known to say: it all comes down to personal preference. Different games call for different lighting solutions. Pin*Bot will be keeping a set of Comet’s 6LED Crystal Fans installed, paired with a set of Dennis Nordman’s sparkly pop bumper “thingies” (see below). The Comet fan offers a more traditional feel–the upper bagatelle playfield that lies atop the Pin*Bot pop bumper nest calls for a less harsh lighting option than the SMD rings and discs provide. As far as non-traditional pop bumper options go, I would recommend either Comet’s Pop Bumper Rings or BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO. Both look fantastic installed, and both light the playfield beneath the pop bumpers (by way of bottom mounted SMD lights) which is a major selling point for both of these lighting options. The interactive flashing of the centre SMDs on the EVO is a nice touch, but in itself does not make the EVO a clear cut winner. The Comet rings just look darn cool and really pop, so much so that pinheads and non-pinheads alike have been marveling at the rings installed in my Mousin’ Around (its yellow pops are smack dab in the centre of the playfield and are now bright and bold thanks to the Comet touch). The Comet rings, however, may have a few points deducted because of installation issues (I had one short out on me, thanks to user error in test). The BriteCaps EVO lose points for the possibility of fit issues in areas with tight clearance, an issue I ran into on Pin*Bot during test. When all is said, the price really sets these options apart. If you want a great looking non-traditional lighting option at a great value, choose the Comet rings; if you want a total light experience with build quality akin to a Sherman tank and money is not a factor, go with the EVO. A clear cut winner is difficult to choose, given that, in the end, one man’s eye candy is another man’s eyesore.

All of the games that I used on test had pop bumpers with static lighting. Pin*Bot, Rollergames, Mousin’ Around and World Cup Soccer ’94 have pop lighting that is either on or off without the aid of computer controls. I attempted to test all of the available options in Funhouse, which has computer controlled lighting, and it was an utter failure. All of the options suffered from ghosting and leakage. The small amount of voltage present in the line which is burnt off by the incandescent without lighting the bulb is actually enough to fully light the lower voltage LED/SMDs. The newer technology doesn’t contain enough resistance to eat up that lingering voltage. In Funhouse, the SMD rings and discs were lit when they were not supposed to be, and even when one pop bumper was trying to behave normally, it still flickered and ghosted something awful. An LED OCD board would do the trick here, however, a two hundred dollar solution to a ten dollar problem isn’t something I’m willing to consider.  I’ll stick with incandescent bulbs in the Funhouse pops for the time being. This should serve as a word of warning to those wanting to mod games with computer-lit bumpers (it’s mostly Lawlor games, lets be honest).

Those Sparkly Thingies

00-pbwrap04The name itself is ridiculous: “Nordman’s Sparkly Pop Bumper Enhancement Thingy”, but it really does wonders in a pop bumper. I used them to bolster the look of Comet’s traditional LED choices in Part 2 of the review with fantastic results. It’ll come as no surprise from the name, that the little plastic disc was designed by famed pinball designer Dennis Nordman. The beauty of the design is in its simplicity. The plastic nests into the pop bumper body, and its sparkly design does a good job catching and reflecting light. Furthermore, it covers up the ugly guts of the pop bumper giving it a more clean look overall. The discs work great with a traditional 555 incandescent bulbs but really stand out when using a Comet bulb that directs light, such as the 6SMD Crystal Fan. It is a winning combination. The design is simple, and to be honest, can be easily replicated in your home workshop with a piece of Lexan and a roll of foil gift wrap. For those less inclined, the discs are available through Pinball Life for $2.95USD per “thingy” and are well worth the money…even though spending nearly ten bucks for a set of three pieces of plastic sounds kind of ridiculous!

Where’s CoinTaker?

Conspicuous by their absence in the Showdown were products from CoinTaker, but I’d like to give them some attention here in the wrap up. Their pop bumper-specific product is called the Afterburner, a disc-like lighting option akin to Comet’s disc. I was not able to do a full scale review of the Afterburner, as the products I bought for test, to be frank, blew up. I installed a red Afterburner in Pin*Bot as I did with the other lighting options, and when I gave the machine power, a loud pop was heard followed by smoke and that concerning smell of burnt plastic components. I feared the worst, obviously. Taking out the Afterburner, I noticed one of the components on the Afterburner was completely obliterated. I replaced the Afterburner with a Comet LED and (thankfully) there appeared to be no permanent damage to the game itself, however, the Afterburner was toast. I thought user error might have played a part, or even faulty wiring in my game, so I tried to install the remaining two Afterburners in both Rollergames and Elvira and the Party Monsters. However, the same meltdown results occurred to the Afterburner, which points to an error in the CoinTaker design, or a bad batch of components. I have emailed CoinTaker about the issue, but as of writing, I have received no response, explanation or replacement. I was informed that the red Afterburners used in the Pin*Bot test were a newer version of the product which boasted non-ghosting technology. I tested out an older version of the Afterburner in white, apparently without the non-ghosting technology, in my World Cup Soccer ’94, and it lit up just fine. I’m awaiting CoinTaker’s final word on why a set of their Afterburners went up in smoke in three different games of mine. The look of the Afterburner, once I got it lit in the WCS94, is very similar to that of Comet’s 11-SMD disc. Both products carry the same lighting pattern and come in a similar color palate, but the main difference is that Comet’s disc can have its brightness adjusted via an adjustment screw, whereas the CoinTaker Afterburner cannot. The price really sets the products apart: the Afterburner is $4.99USD for white but if you want colour you’ll have to pay $1.00 more (!) while the Comet disc is $4.95USD each across the board. The brightness adjustment feature and value give Comet the upper hand over the Afterburner.

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CoinTaker’s 4/1LED bulbs.

CoinTaker also carries a pop bumper light that I was not able to test, which contains four side SMDs and one on top. I was able to test the forerunner to that 4/1SMD, which is essentially the same lighting layout, except using LED technology. I tried to locate this product on the CoinTaker’s new website, but could not.  I did, however, find the product here on the old CoinTaker website. The 4 perimeter LEDs actually did a good job lighting up the pop bumpers without being too harsh on the eyes, allowing the bulb to be a viable alternative to anything sold by Comet.  Check the picture below where the two right pops contain the CoinTaker4/1LED in green and bathe the area in a nice green hue.  I cannot speak to the SMD version of the bulb, but both the SMD and the LED versions have a price comparable to that of Comet’s “Crystal Fan” option.

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Left pop bumper contains a warm white CoinTaker Afterburner, the right two contain a CoinTaker 4/1 LED.

As you can see, my attempt at reviewing CoinTaker products kind of fell flat and was an overall disappointing showing from a traditionally cutting-edge leader in the hobby. I don’t base that statement solely on the faulty products I received from the company, either. For a long time, CoinTaker was the only lighting game in town, their name synonymous with pinball lighting alternatives. CoinTaker LED kits used to be the gold standard in modding and was major selling feature for games that had them installed. However, with the emergence of Comet LED, BriteMods and other pinball lighting companies, it appears to me that CoinTaker has not stepped up their game to match or exceed the ingenuity, value and choice being offered in a cutthroat lighting market.

WINNERS!

To end on a positive note, the random winners of the BriteMods contest are Katie C. and Stephen L. Katie C will receive a set of BriteMods BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. Stephen L will get a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. The winners of the Comet Pinball contest are Josiah C. and Tony L. Both winners will receive a prize pack including some of Comet’s pop bumper lighting solutions as well as other Comet goodies. Thanks to the great people over at BriteMods and Comet Pinball for their generous donation of prizes! Thanks to all who emailed in—the response was overwhelming. I guess everyone loves free stuff!


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 2: Comet Pinball

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(Part one of this series can be found by following this link…)

It is no secret that Comet Pinball is a friend of Credit Dot. The Comet Pinball logo adorns the front page of this site as a partner for crying out loud! I’ve been buying from Art Rubin at Comet since he started the company a few years back. When talking about doing this series of articles on pop bumper lighting, Mr. Rubin, being the stand up, honest and right-down-the-middle-type guy he is, made it clear he wanted an honest and fair review of his products. And that’s what he’ll get. The Comet Pinball approach to pop bumper lighting follows the philosophy of the company as a whole: lighting comes down to personal tastes, and Comet offers a plethora of solutions to try and please those tastes. In Mr. Rubin’s own words:

“Personal preferences start with the player. It is not hard to learn what brightness and lighting effects please an individual. The joy of doing this, and the unique result, is as personal as decorating a Christmas tree. I would like to think that most people would enjoy tweaking the look of their game immensely [with different lighting solutions] and having a completely unique result!”

Thus, instead of offering just one pop bumper lighting choice, Comet Pinball offers many. I was able to get my hands on a few of Comet’s solutions to lighting the pops, and put them through the motions in a hands-on test.

Background:

Mr. Rubin has been providing the pinball community with LED solutions since September 2013 and is a very active member of the pinball community as a whole (he can be found posting quite frequently on Pinside as “OLDPINGUY”). For a more complete look at Comet, you can read the interview Credit Dot conducted with Mr. Rubin in October of 2014. As you wade through the Comet Pinball catalog, you are bound to notice Comet’s newest pop bumper lighting option comes in the form of a disc, and adds to an already robust lineup of bumper lighting options. This review format will differ from that of the BriteCaps EVO review that appeared last week, for organization sake. Five different Comet products were procured for test.

Traditional 555 Options:

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Traditional 555 Options from Comet (L to R): the 4+1SMD Tower, the 2SMD Faceted bulb and the 6LED Crystal Fan.

Some folks may not be satisfied with the look that an SMD insert gives to their bumpers, so Comet offers a few options with a traditional 555 wedge base. For purposes of testing, I was able to play with three selections: the 6 LED Crystal Fan, 4+1 SMD Tower and the 2 SMD Faceted Lens Supreme Brightness No Ghosting bulb. Knowing that Pin*Bot would be the Guinea pig, I colour-matched all the options available to red. These options, while giving a more traditional centre-lit look to the bumpers, really do pack some power. If you are on a budget, or simply rally against non-traditional forms of pop bumper lighting, there are some options here for you. For less than five bucks you can bring brightness back to your pops. Of the three options I tested, I would absolutely recommend the 6LED Crystal Fan. It has a look that can’t be beat, while not being too harsh on the eyes. Despite being the only LED in the bunch, the LED “crystals” are arranged in such a way that it appears as the brightest option and disperses the light in both an even and far reaching manner. The 2SMD bulb really didn’t stand out in testing. The faceted lens worked to even out the brightness of the traditionally harsh SMD, but the light had to fight through that lens AND the pop bumper cap, thus appearing a bit tired as well negatively focussing the light source to a single area. The 4+1 tower, frankly, didn’t fit within the confines of the Pin*Bot pop bumper. Having restored the Pin*Bot, I had switched the socket with the flat wire leads out for the more reliable socket with insulated leads. The insulated lead socket doesn’t sit flush with the bottom of the bumper base, thus taking away a few millimeters, which the 4+1 Tower absolutely needs to sit properly within the base. The accompanying photo shows that the Tower had to sit at a 45 degree angle in order for the cap to fit. I tried the tower in a different game that had a socket with insulated leads, and the tower did fit, but the top SMD is so close to the clear bumper cap, that it prevents the light from throwing in a meaningful manner. The 6LED Fan is the clear winner here.

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The top pop bumper contains the crooked 4+1SMD Tower, the middle contains the 6LED Fan and the bottom contains the 2SMD lamp.

Price: 2SMD Faceted Non-Ghosting bulb, $0.89USD each; 6 LED Crystal Fan, $1.39USD each; 4+1SMD Tower, $1.39USD each (bulk discounts available)

Colour Palate: Blue, Red, Green, Yellow, Purple, Natural White, Warm White across all options. 2SMD Faceted and 6LED Fan adds Pink and Orange to the palate.

Comet Rings:

00-compops16Following in the footsteps of BriteMods BriteCaps, Comet Pinball began to offer their own pop bumper rings with the value you’ve come to expect from the Comet brand. While the BriteCap shipped with its own pop bumper cap, the Comet ring came bare, needing to be used in conjunction with your existing cap. The BriteCap and Comet Ring both carry 20 colour SMDs on the top of the ring to light the perimeter of the cap, one SMD in the centre at the base, and ten SMDs on the bottom of the ring to illuminate the playfield. The original BriteCap and Comet Ring vary in three ways: the inclusion of the bumper cap (as stated above), colour selection, and price. The colour selection allows the consumer to choose the colour of the ten bottom SMDs, either natural white or matched with the colour of the SMDs on the top. The Comet Ring comes in at $7.95USD per unit compared to $14.95USD per unit for a BriteCap that will produce a similar, if not identical, look. It is no surprise that BriteMods has moved away from the BriteCap design given Comet’s price point that comes in at half the cost (and have since focused on promotion and production of the BriteCaps EVO line).

The 555 base is attached to the ring with two insulated wire leads.  It is a traditional LED base with the dinky wires that need to be bent and shaped to make a decent connection.  The construction of the ring is slight, but for good reason–when installed it gives a clean, dare I say “sharp”, look.  I really like the results the Comet Ring brought in test. I had red colour-matched rings with natural white bottom lights for the Pin*Bot test, and a set of yellow colour-matched rings with natural white bottoms to test on Mousin’ Around. Given that the BriteCaps EVO, reviewed last week, adds 5 millimeters of height to the bumpers, I believe the rings are a suitable option for those games where clearance would be an issue. The ring nests neatly inside the pop bumper cap adding no height to the pop bumper whatsoever. The light design, while static and non-traditional, is an eye-catcher, especially for those who are used to the traditional, centre-lit incandescent look.  I can remember seeing these in person on a game for the very first time, a Williams Diner, and I was completely taken by the pattern created on the bumper’s perimeter as well as the brightness it brought to the playfield from the bottom lights. The brightness control, adjusted with a Phillips-head screwdriver, works well to dial down the harshness for those with sensitivity to SMD lighting.  I tested the rings at their brightest, with great results.

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A set of Comet Rings installed in Mousin’ Around.

One caveat, and perhaps a major drawback of the rings, is important to mention. Seeing as the Comet rings ship as a stand-alone unit, with no pop bumper cap, it is important that you follow the instructions that Comet sends along with each ring order for successful installation. The rings can be very easily shorted on the metal ring and rod assembly of the bumper. If the ring is shorted, in some cases it will still light, but only at a fraction of its original capabilities. The rings absolutely need to be affixed to the inside of the cap before installation. I’m sure this was a problem for BriteMods, and that is why they ship their BriteCap with a pop bumper cap already attached. I’ll admit, one ring did short during test on Pin*Bot. I had used two dabs of hot glue to keep the rings in place, however it proved to be not enough on one of the caps I installed. I upped the points of glue contact to four for future applications, and have not had a problem since. I used hot glue so that the ring could be removed and replaced with other lighting solutions for testing purposes. It worked well and was fairly innocuous when used sparingly to the underside of the cap, but those that know Comet rings will be their permanent lighting solution may want to use a more permanent adhesive, making sure the selected product will not cloud the clear bumper cap (Krazy Glue or Gorilla Glue will most likely create that unwanted clouding effect, so be careful). Each Comet ring appears to be tested before it leaves company headquarters to make sure all rings are functioning properly upon shipment. There isn’t much that can be done to solve the shorting problem (short of shipping it pre-glued in a bumper cap), but it is completely preventable if consumers carefully follow the installation instructions.

Price: $7.95USD each.

Colour Options: Blue, Amber, Cyan, Green, Red, Purple, Yellow, Warm White, Natural White. Bottom lights come in either natural white, or matched to the colour of the top lights.

Comet Discs:

00-compops17To be clear, the term “disc” is a term I ‘ve coined for the article. Comet offers the product by the name of “11 SMD Pop Bumper Light” but for clarity sake, I’ll call it the Comet Disc as a way to distinguish it from the other options. This is the newest pop bumper lighting option from Comet, and appears to be a cousin of CoinTaker LED’s AfterBurner line of pop bumper lights. The Comet disc is available in either a 555 wedge or a 44/47 bayonet base, making this option versatile for older machines that had 44 incandescent bulbs in the pops. The disc’s small diameter also makes it a viable option for Bally/Williams “Jumper Bumpers”, as found on games like Elvira and the Party Monsters. The disc has an outer diameter of 1 1/2 inches giving it enough surface area for the hardware mounted on it, but small enough to work with older or non-traditional style pop caps.

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The Comet Disc fitting perfectly in a non-traditional bumper cap: the Bally Jumper Bumper.

The traditional base is affixed to the disc via insulated wires, much like the ring. The top of the disc features a large central SMD surrounded by six smaller SMDs available in a wide variety of colours, while the bottom has four natural white SMDs to light the pop bumper body. The discs do a good job of throwing light, looking akin to a disco ball when installed. I used colour-matched red discs in Pin*Bot for testing purposes. I’m not quite sold on the fact that the bottom SMDs “light up” the opaque pop bumper base with any real benefit. It is kind of a waste to have them on the bottom, expecially if your pop bumpers are tucked away in a back corner. I much prefer the bottom lighting on the Comet Rings that light up the playfield rather than the four bottom SMDs which end up being internal. The bottom SMDs may be a feature more beneficial for older games with stand-alone pop bumpers placed in plain view rather than nested under ramps or behind a maze of wireforms. Again, Comet has included a brightness dimmer with this product to reign in the harshness of the SMDs. I found the colour to be more rich when dimmed a bit, rather than leaving it at full brightness. The disc wins in terms of value, lighting your pop bumpers with an SMD flare for less than $15USD for a set of three. However, for an extra five bucks you can get yourself into a set of Comet rings that will really catch your eye.

Price: $4.95USD each.

Colour Options: Blue, Red, Green, Orange, Yellow, Purple, Cyan, Warm White, Natural White. Bottom colour is natural white across all colours, except natural white which comes with a natural white bottom colour.

Bottom Line:

Out of all of the options, I liked the look of the 6LED Fan lights in Pin*Bot the best, and will probably stick with them going forward after I’ve tested all the products in this series (bolster them with the Pinball Life-supplied “Nordman’s Sparkly Pop Bumper Enhancement Thingy” and it will really make them pop). The rings and the discs both took too much away from the plexi Bride playfield that sits atop the pops.  For me, a more traditional look (while taking advantage of modern technology) was necessary. Those looking to light their pops on a budget, I’d highly suggest the fan option from Comet.

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A 2SMD in the top pop bumper, a Comet Ring in the middle, and a Comet Disc in the bottom.

When it comes to a showdown of Ring against Disc, I’d have to choose the Comet Ring on looks alone. I’ve shown the photo of the rings installed on my Mousin’ Around to a few people in my local pinball community and they’ve given nothing but positive feedback. It’s a completely different look than traditional lighting options, and gives a splash of light onto the playfield from the ten bottom SMDs that you don’t get with the disc. If you can look past the fact that you’ll have to install the rings with the utmost of care, it is an option that offers a lot of value as compared to other upscale pop bumper lighting options on the market. The ring is a bit of a non-traditional choice, as it lights the perimeter of the pop bumper and leaves the middle somewhat bare (save for a single SMD at the base). The disc is the opposite, lighting the middle and leaving the perimeter unlit.  In the end, while costing less in the long run, I don’t think the look of the discs are for me.  The Comet Ring offers a “cleaner” overall look. I’d welcome a Comet Pinball product that takes the perimeter lighting of the Ring and the centre lighting of the Disc and fuses them into one lighting solution, much like BriteMods has done with their BriteCaps EVO line. If nothing else, Comet Pinball’s dedication to choice and value really shines through, offering a multitude of pop bumper lighting options to satisfy any pinball enthusiast’s desires at a price that won’t hurt your wallet.

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Credit Dot Pinball/Comet Pinball Contest!

Two Comet Pinball prize packages are up for grabs. The prizes were generously donated by Art from Comet Pinball. Two randomly selected winners will receive some of the products that were tested above, along with some other exclusive Comet Pinball wares. To enter, simply send an e-mail to creditdotpinball@gmail.com with the word “COMET” in the subject line. One entry for the Comet contest per email address please. If you entered the first BriteCaps EVO contest, please enter this contest, too! Two winners will be picked at random (using random.org). Contest closes June 30, 2015 and winners will be announced shortly thereafter. Open to residents of the US and Canada only…I’d love to open it up, I can’t afford to ship stuff overseas!


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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO

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Ah, the pop bumper. The ultimate ball randomizer. It was once the centerpiece of nearly every pinball table, but as technology changed and playfield layouts became more complex, the pop bumpers became somewhat of an intrusion, leftovers from a bygone era, and were tucked away in dark corners and hidden under elaborate ramps. Take Williams Demolition Man, for example. Not only was one pop bumper assembly completely removed from the layout, you’d be actually hard pressed to notice they exist at all, blocked from view by a series of ramps, wire forms and plastics. This is a far cry from the days when bumpers all but dominated the woodrail era games. Ask any pinball aficionado, though, and they’ll tell you that it ain’t a pinball machine unless there are pop bumpers on it! As the bumpers themselves moved to the periphery, it became obvious that the single light contained within the assembly itself wasn’t enough to draw attention to the unit. Faceted caps were employed in some instances, as in many modern Stern games, or covered up completely with molded plastics, as they were in Data East’s Simpsons and Williams’ White Water. However, for the most part, pinball companies old and new have resisted perfecting new lighting techniques for the pop bumper, and have stuck with the same old single bulb in a single socket.

The recent surge in enthusiasm for LED lighting has allowed aftermarket companies to offer up solutions for the tired looking, and somewhat forgotten, pop bumpers. Love them or hate them, LEDs are common place in today’s pinball landscape. So much, that every game that leaves Stern Pinball’s factory now comes with a full compliment of LEDs.  To move your old game into the 21st century, you could just remove the carbonized 555 incandescent that currently sits inside your pop bumper and replace it with one of countless LED designs on the market.  However, the minds at aftermarket lighting companies in the pinball landscape have dreamt up other designs that take lighting the pop bumper cap to the next level. In the next week or so, I’m going to try and wade through the sometimes confusing world of pop bumper lighting options, and weigh the pros and drawbacks of each solution. I’ve rounded up pop bumper lighting solutions from three of the biggest names in the hobby—Comet Pinball, CoinTaker and BriteMods—in an attempt to explore the different options out there. If you are a staunch supporter of incandescent bulbs, this series may not be for you. If you constantly strive to make your machine look its best, brightest and most colourful, I’ll try my best to help you make your pop bumpers really…um, pop.

Part 1: BriteMods BriteCaps EVO Series

When in doubt, start with the most expensive option, right? All kidding aside, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO pop bumper light has to be considered a front runner in the race to light your pops. It isn’t just a lightbulb, it’s an entire lighting solution. Available exclusively from go-to parts supplier Pinball Life, the BriteCaps EVO (which stands for Enhanced Visual Output) provides a visually pleasing experience while giving customers bang for their buck in extra features not available from the other aftermarket lighting companies. The BriteCaps EVO was born from BriteMods’ first foray into pop bumper lighting: the original BriteCap. The original design, which is still available from Pinball Life, was a unit consisting of 31-Surface Mounted Diode (SMD) lights mounted to both the top and bottom sides of a ring set inside a pop bumper cap. Since the unit came “pre-capped”, the end-user removed their old pop bumper cap and simply installed the new one with the BriteCap pre-installed in it. The BriteCap EVO takes the cap out of the equation and ups the LED count to an astounding 40 points of light: 24 SMDs on the topside available in a wide array of colours, 10 white SMDs on the bottom to illuminate the playfield, and 6 center SMDs that can be adjusted (via a switch) to always be on, or to react to the vibrations of the pop bumper. Your original pop bumper cap is used in the EVO application.

Background:

I had the opportunity to speak to Dan Rosen of BriteMods recently, and he was nice enough to fill us in on the company’s history and involvement in pop bumper modding:

“BiteMods has been around since 2013. I started designing and selling mods to folks on Pinside, but soon became overwhelmed by the response and needed a retail partner. Pinball Life was my immediate choice as partner, as they have a great reputation for quality products at fair prices, as well as exceptional service. I now sell exclusively through their web store. [Lighting pop bumpers] began with the original BriteCaps design and was simply an automotive accessory adapted for pinball. I wanted to design the ultimate pop bumper lighting from the ground up, and that’s what BriteCaps EVO represents.”

What You Get:

Each BriteCaps EVO unit comes individually boxed. Inside the box, you get the BriteCaps EVO itself, a set of installation instructions and two pop bumper screws that are longer than the traditional ones to account for the extra height the BriteCaps EVO adds to the bumper. The BriteCaps EVO is a single unit—it’s built like a tank—and has no wires or other external hangings. The unit has a brightness adjustment dial, that can be manipulated with a Phillips screwdriver to set the brightness to your liking. Pinball Life gives you the option of adding on pop bumper caps to your BriteCaps EVO order, but from what I can see, they are just standard Williams/Bally caps that are offered.

Price:

The BriteCaps EVO experience isn’t a cheap one. Each EVO unit will set you back $12.95USD. That puts a set of three at $38.85USD. It still comes in cheaper than its predecessor the original BriteCap, which retails for $14.95USD each for a standard cap, and $16.95USD for a jeweled cap.

Palate:

The BriteCaps EVO brand comes in red, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow, warm white and cool white. Note that this colour choice is for the 30 lights on the top of the EVO only, the bottom ten lights are white across all colour choices.

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Application & Installation:

The EVO will work in any Williams/Bally, Stern, Sega or Data East game that uses a standard pop bumper body. Standard, unfaceted, unjewelled caps seem to be suggested (and encouraged) by BriteMods and Pinball Life, as they are offered as an add-on to your EVO order. The unit itself is pretty much plug and play. With the machine off, remove the bumper cap and 555 bulb, choose your Flash React™ setting via the switch on the bottom of the unit, carefully insert the EVO into the bumper socket, and reattach the cap with the two screws provided.

Review:

I really like the construction of the EVO unit. The base that plugs into the socket has incredible substance. The most frustrating part of LEDing a game is dealing with those little wire connections on the plastic stem of the bulb assembly. They need to be wiggled, adjusted and bent in a very particular way so that a solid connection is made with the socket. Hoping that connection is sustained, and doesn’t mis-align during normal game play, is a worry as well. The EVO design completely eliminates all this fiddling around. The connection point plugs into the pop bumper socket with ease and gives a robust connection on the first attempt.

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Base connection points of the EVO versus the standard 555 LED/SMD bulb.

The side-fire positioning of the top SMDs make for a visually pleasing experience. The theory behind the side-fire mounting is that the light is directed outwards, rather than directly up toward the player. This achieves maximum light throw without burning the retinas of the player. I was able to colour match red EVOs to the red pop bumpers in both Williams Pin*Bot and Rollergames. I prefer the look of matching the colour of the EVO to the bumper cap, rather than letting the colour of the bumper cap do all the work with a white light beneath it. The latter gives a washed out feeling, while colour matching gives a much more full and rich result (as it does when colour matching an LED with a playfield insert).  The picture below of the EVOs installed in Pin*Bot may not illustrate this completely, but the middle bumper with red EVO emits a far truer red than the bottom bumper does with its warm white EVO. The BriteMods website suggests that the user may also consider replacing coloured bumper caps with clear ones, giving the chosen colour of EVO a clean palate to work with. I swapped in a clear cap momentarily for the test in Pin*Bot, but it was not a look I was fond of. The light was much too harsh on the eyes and less visually pleasing than colour matching with a red cap. Admittedly, my eyes have a hard time processing LED/SMD lighting, and when I wear my glasses to play, it just gets worse. I installed the red BriteCaps EVO with a red pop bumper cap on full brightness on both Pin*Bot and Rollergames, and never had an issue with the light being harsh or distracting (we can thank colour matching the cap with the SMD and the side-firing for that, I believe).

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Pin*Bot Application: Top bumper contains a standard 555 incandescent, middle bumper contains a red EVO with Flash React enabled, bottom bumper contains a warm white EVO with Flash React disabled.

The 10 bottom white SMDs do a great job of completely lighting up the pop bumper area. The results were stellar in Rollergames, a pinball machine notorious for leaving the rear half of the playfield ill-lit and hidden under black plastic coverings. The light cast by the bottom SMDs work to illuminate the once gloomy area and in doing so bring to life the art around it. It also worked to brighten up the playfield area beneath the mini-playfield on Pin*Bot, nicely catching the sheen of the freshly clear-coated playfield I had installed.

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Rollergames application: A set of red EVOs are installed. The photo captures how well the EVOs light up the surroundings, compared to the dim incandescent bulbs near the rollovers.

The six center SMD lights, armed with Flash React™ technology, are a neat little bonus you get with the BriteCaps EVO brand. Some may use this interactivity to help justify the expensive sticker price of the unit itself. On the bottom side of the EVO, there is a small toggle button. If left in its original position, it disables the trademarked feature and the six lights stay on with the other 24 top lights. If depressed, the lights will remain off until vibrations from the game (moreover, the pop bumpers) are detected, which will light the six center lights briefly. It makes for a neat light show when the ball gets bouncing around in the pop bumper nest. I would have liked to have seen more than just six of the thirty lights react to pop bumper hits, but I’m sure it walks a fine line—too many would have created unwanted strobe. I can’t help but think that there seems to be missed potential with the technology as it is employed here. However, Flash React™ is not a necessary feature that needed to be included, but makes for a nice interactive, customizable bonus and is a feature that may work to set EVO apart from its competitors.

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Flash React in action

One unavoidable downfall with the EVO is that it adds 5mm in height to your pop bumpers. The circumference of the EVO is just as big as the pop bumper cap itself, meaning the EVO will not nest inside the cap like an original BrightCap ring would have. It’s an unavoidable issue: the inner plastic lip of the pop bumper cap traditionally envelops the outer edge of the pop bumper body, however the EVO sits flush on top of the body, thus, the pop bumper cap may only rest flush on top of the EVO. A word of warning: be ready for frustrating clearance issues and making an endless amount of adjustments for any game with pop bumpers that have ramps, wireforms or mini playfields that rest on top of or near them. On test, Rollergames was able to handle the extra height of the EVO, however, Pin*Bot’s mini-playfield posed fit problems after EVO installation. I already had the thicker Classic Playfield Reproductions mini-playfield installed, and those extra 5mm really threw everything out of whack, even creating a ball hang-up on the mini-playfield where there was not one before. As stated above, each EVO is shipped with a set of longer pop bumper screws that take into account the extra height added, which is fantastic forethought, but short of grinding out that inner pop bumper lip with a Dremel, there is a high probability of fit issues in many modern games. BriteMods also warns of using the EVO in games where partially cut bumper caps are necessary (think Addams Family’s single sawed-off cap next to the side ramp).

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A warm white EVO installed in Pin*Bot

Bottom Line:

If you can justify spending the money, BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO provides an excellent lighting solution and a quality product that will make the pop bumpers, and their surroundings, stand out. The build quality of the unit is truly exceptional. The first product reviewed in the series looks to be a front-runner for top of the class. That said, the extra interactivity provided by the Flash React™ is a fun and unique attribute to have, but the result of six small lights reacting in time with the firing of pop bumpers may not be enough for some to consider the feature “value added”.  The extra height is a major downfall in an otherwise fantastic product. Fit issues will prevent me from keeping the EVO in my Pin*Bot, but the extra splash of light and colour they add to Rollergames makes for a welcome change to the dull 555 lighting.

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Check back for Part Two in the series, where CoinTaker’s AfterBurner pop bumper lighting solution is tested and reviewed.

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Credit Dot Pinball/BriteMods Contest!

Two BriteMods prize packages are up for grabs! The prizes were generously donated by Dan Rosen at BriteMods. The first randomly selected winner will receive a set of three BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons flipper buttons. The second randomly selected winner will receive a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. To enter, simply send an e-mail to creditdotpinball@gmail.com with the word “EVO” in the subject line. One entry per person please. Two winners will be picked at random (using random.org). Contest closes July 1st, 2015 and winners will be announced shortly thereafter. Open to residents of the US and Canada only…I’d love to open it up, I can’t afford to ship stuff overseas!