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REVIEW: Pinitech’s UNO and TRADITIONAL LED Display Kits

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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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Two weeks ago, I reviewed the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit available from Pinitech that took your original, non-functioning Bally/Stern displays and converted them into fully functioning, LED equipped, low-voltage displays by removing old components and adding new new components to drive the 5 volt LED digits.  These kits, which require the end-user to provide donor boards and assemble the kits themselves, have been on the market for about a year and have taken countless out-gassed displays that were sitting on collectors’ shelves and put them back into operation at a fraction of the cost of a complete aftermarket plug-and-play display set.

I’m happy to share that Pinitech has again revolutionized the classic Bally/Stern display market by offering LED kits that do not require a donor set of displays to convert.  In addition to the revolutionary Retrofit kit, Pinitech has now launched two complete all-in-one display systems that can be sold to the end-user, in kit form, that look just as good, if not better, than any aftermarket display kit currently available: the TRADITIONAL 2-Board Full LED Display Kit and the UNO Single Board Full LED Display Kit.  Perhaps more importantly, like the Retrofit before them, their cost won’t break the bank.

THE PINITECH DISPLAY LINE-UP

I’ll begin by re-introducing the the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, but the full review can be found here.  Simply put, it requires a set of original donor boards.  If you have dead displays lying around and can handle removing components from the original board and adding new components that come with the kit, this is bar none the most economical, and perhaps best option for you.

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Now to introduce the new Pinitech releases.  The Traditional 2-Board Full LED Display Kit maintains the visual integrity of the original Bally/Stern display, giving the user a two board system—one onto which you will mount the electrical components, and one onto which you will mount the LED display digits.  The connection between the two boards is made by way of two male header pins on the display panel and two female header housings on the component board. This board uses the existing metal display bracket of your Bally/Stern game, and will slide in as an original display would.  Overall, it gives the same physical look as an original board, with all the benefits of a low voltage, high output display.

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The second new release is the Uno Single Board Full LED Display Kit. It takes all the components of the traditional two-board system, and arranges them onto a single upright board, display digits and all.  The display will then be affixed using the four mounting screws originally used to hold the metal display bracket to the backbox lamp board.  It will be “free floating” in the backboard cutout with the only points of contact being the aforementioned mounting screws.

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No matter what option you choose, assembly is required, unless you’ve pre-arranged with Pinitech to build it for you.  The two new kits open the level of entry to those with even a basic knowledge of soldering and board assembly.  The Retrofit required the user to de-solder components from original Bally/Stern boards.  Both the Traditional and UNO are a complete display system—no donor boards required, no components to remove, no chance of lifted traces.  With only simple soldering required, nearly anyone who can follow a set of written directions and has a temperature controlled soldering iron can obtain a great looking set of aftermarket LED displays using either Pinitech kit, and feel a sense of accomplishment when the task is complete.

PRICING AND OPTIONS

If the Retrofit kits were a steal at approximately $100USD per kit–the new Traditional and UNO kits are just as affordable considering it is an all-in-one solution.  The pricing matrix is as follows:

TRADITIONAL 2-BOARD KITS

  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $129.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $134.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $134.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $139.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE – $139.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE – $144.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
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The contents of a single Traditional seven-digit amber display kit.

UNO SINGLE BOARD KITS

  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $119.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $124.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $124.95USD
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $129.95USD
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE – $129.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE – $134.95USD (Includes one colour filter choice)
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The contents of a complete UNO six-digit white display kit with green filters.

Assuming you didn’t have a set of dead displays kicking around for a Retrofit conversion, you’d be looking at, at least, thirty or forty bucks to obtain a dead set to perform the Retrofit conversion upon.  If you have the dead displays on hand, and have the skill to de-solder parts and solder in new parts, the Retrofit may still be the way to go.  If you don’t have an outgassed set at the ready, the Traditional and UNO provide a great all-in-one kit that will cost less than any other option on the market today.  I discussed competitors’ pricing in the previous Retrofit article, but in a nutshell: Rottendog offers their amber plug-and-play display kits for $199USD, X-Pin offers their 6-digit amber display solution at $275USD, while Wolffpac Technologies offers an amber 6-digit DIY kit for $145USD.  It is interesting to note that Pinitech’s highest priced kit, the 7-digit TRADITIONAL in white with one colour filter option of your choice, is priced as much as the lowest-level kit from Wolffpac Technologies.

The amber kits are obviously the most economical of the Pinitech kits available, but to offer a white set with a free colour option at less than $150USD should be a real eye-opener.  With the Pinitech kits, your game can be customized with about a dozen different filter options, allowing you to colour match the displays to the overall scheme of your game, or go off of the prescribed colour chart and add a display that pops against the existing colour scheme of the game.  Gone are the days of picking between red, green or blue displays.  Pinitech offers magenta, yellow, purple and turquoise–which are just a few of the different options you can choose from to customize your game.

WHICH KIT WILL FIT YOUR NEEDS?

You can pretty much mix-and-match any of these display options and obtain a uniform look in your game, or collection of games as the case may be.  The obvious benefit to the Traditional and UNO display kits over the Retrofit was covered in the outset of the article: you don’t need donor boards and you don’t need to remove components. The kits contain everything you need to build yourself a complete display system for your game. This opens the door for more novice tinkerers to solder-and-go, without having to worry about lifted traces and the plethora of different board layouts that Bally and Stern used during the initial release of the games.

Time is also a factor here.  After building a few of the Traditional and UNO displays, I got my completion time down to about twenty minutes per individual display, versus the thirty-five it took to complete the Retrofit conversion.  Those extra fifteen minutes are accounted for in the Retrofit conversion by de-soldering components, and double-checking the placement of the new components, as the board layout on the original Bally/Stern PCBs is a bit confusing.  It seems those original boards went through more revisions than Carter had liver pills, so each original Bally/Stern display PCB will have components in different places.  The Traditional and UNO boards are designed with logic and elegance, similar components are arranged in a row, and there are far fewer points of solder in these builds than there are in a Retrofit conversion.

It should also be mentioned that the Traditional and UNO are true 5 volt driven displays by design, not a high voltage display converted for 5 volt operation like the Retrofit. There is no chance to send high voltage through the display at all as the male pin that supplies high voltage to the display has been designed out of these new display PCBs.  The Retrofit needed to have Pin 1 pulled to ensure high voltage was removed from the equation, and further, a rather unsightly jumper made from the high voltage line to the 5V line to bring power to the display.  If the conversion was done with care, it isn’t really a worry, but the threat is there until dealt with properly.  The Traditional and UNO have taken care of that threat through design.

There is an added benefit with the Traditional and UNO systems: brightness control. Pinitech proprietor Wayne Eggert factored a potentiometer into the design to subdue the display digits or blaze them bright, as the end user sees fit.  This is a valuable benefit, allowing the user to customize brightness to fit the overall look of the game, and becomes even more valuable when using the white digits to dial in the look of the digits through the filter choices.  Some of the darker colour filters like magenta or purple can require some added brightness to really make them pop.

One of the main benefits of the UNO system is that you can adjust the placement of the display left and right to center them in the backglass display window.  Before tightening down the screws when mounting the display, users can now play with the placement, adjusting as needed.

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An example of how the UNO will make use of the original bracket mounting holes

Many games from the Bally and Stern catalog suffered from misaligned displays, straight from the factory.  This was my experience with my Stern Catacomb.  The game came with aftermarket Rottendog displays installed, and the display shift was such that most of the last digit was completely obscured on the score displays, and the credit and ball count display difficult to read being blocked by the backglass art.  Using the UNO displays, I was able to make adjustments and slide the UNO over to the left so that all score numbers were visible.  This last number in the score was always a zero so it didn’t really matter much, but aesthetically, it was always bothersome.  The UNO corrected this completely.

Having the male connector pins on the same board as the display digits on the UNO is a difference traditionalists will need to get used to, but having physical displays shut inside of a backbox and behind a backglass should not turn too many stomachs as long as the displays perform as advertised (and they do).  As long as the male connector locking mechanism is positioned toward the bottom, away from the display digits, it will allow for a secure fit of the existing connector.  Having the locking tabs of the male connector facing upwards, as suggested in an early revision of the instructions make for a fit that is too snug for comfort, resulting in a bit of a struggle to get the connector to fit securely, and further, interferes with a few of the component through holes.  Having read a revision of the instructions released after my test build, I see that it has been changed to read that the locking tabs now be placed downwards to correct the issue.

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The UNO set installed in Catacomb, rear view.

Given the choice between the two new display options, I would give the advantage to the UNO.  The single board design results in a few less points of solder compared to the Traditional, without ever feeling as if the components are crammed onto the board or unmanageable when installing them.  The UNO is also the better value, saving you ten bucks across all options, no matter if your game is 6- or 7-digits, or which colour option you choose.  With functionality the same across both options, both looked and performed great in test, I’d go on the record as saying that the UNO is the clear choice.

The Traditional kit would be a great option for those that prefer to keep the original “90-degree” aesthetic of the original Bally/Stern board design.  It would also make sense to go the TRADITIONAL route if you were mixing and matching with Retrofit converted displays, as the physical look of the boards remains consistent across both options. Pinitech will sell individual display kits if you have a partial set of dead displays at your disposal, and want to fill in the blanks with Traiditional 2-board individual display kits.

AN INTERVIEW WITH PINITECH

As he did in my review of the Retrofit kit, Pinitech proprietor Wayne Eggert was nice enough to humour me with an interview about the creation and initial offering of the Traditional and UNO kits.  Over the past few years, I have corresponded with Mr. Eggert about many pinball related topics, and he’s always been well-reasoned and knowledgeable about many facets of this hobby, and moreover, has been very humble about the pinball inspired technology he creates.  It is plain to see from the following interview that he is proud to have brought the Traditional and UNO kits to market, providing collectors with a reasonably priced display solution that performs as well as advertised:

Credit Dot: When we last talked about the Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, you shared that the research and development process of taking an old display and removing/adding components to give it LED functionality took about four to five months to complete.  What was the timeline for R&D of the Traditional UNO kits? Were you ahead of the curve having the knowledge of the Retrofit project in your back pocket?

Wayne Eggert: The majority of the final full kit design occurred in June/July 2017. Really though, these have been in-development since 2011 to some degree when I was first experimenting with LED display circuits.  I had wanted to create my own displays for Bally/Stern games, but at the time, prototyping was going to cost a small fortune and it was looking like even in modest volume, a DIY kit couldn’t come in much cheaper than the less-expensive plug-and-play aftermarket displays.  Instead, the project was scaled-down in size and turned into a diagnostic tool in 2013 that I called a “Bench LED Display”.  Still having this desire to create a full display, in 2016 I created the RETROFIT kits.  They were a monumental step forward, offering collectors a cheap way to create a full-scale display without the risk of a component board that might change several times during prototyping since the component board was already a “fixed design”.  The challenges and experience that the Retrofit project offered, and all of the prior years of projects and R&D, are ultimately what helped fast-track the development of these full displays you now see in 2017. 

CD: Is there a concern of market confusion having three separate LED kits available for purchase at Pinitech?

WE: There was. That’s why I gave them all separate and unique names. The conversion kits are the “Pinitech RETROFIT” kits.  For full kits, the 2-board design is the “Pinitech TRADITIONAL” and the single-board is the “Pinitech UNO”.  I think between the names and descriptions on the product pages it should help avoid confusion.

CD: Having personally built and used each of the different kits, I can attest that the functionality and look from behind the backglass is identical across all kits.  What are some of the situations in which a collector would prefer one kit over the other?

WE: Some people will prefer the classic looking 2-board design no matter what, but some games will also require it. I have a Stern Black Beauty Shuffle Alley that has a ton of lamp surrounds next to the display brackets and even with heavy modification I don’t see the UNO design working there. That’s going to be more of an extreme case of clearance issues though. For many machines the UNO is going to work just fine and be the way to go with its lower cost, quicker assembly and ability to shift the displays left or right.

CD: The UNO and TRADITIONAL display kits are a bit more “builder-friendly”–you need not remove components from a donor board as you would with the Retrofit. Was one of the design considerations of the new kits to make the process more streamlined for the average collector?

WE: Yes. All new parts are included with the full kits, so anyone with basic soldering skills and equipment can easily assemble the displays.

CD: The Traditional and UNO kits have only been offered for about a month at this point–what is some of the feedback you’ve received from the early adopters of the  kits?

WE: I’ve heard many great comments.  Easy assembly.  They look great.  They function well.  Instructions are well done.  It’s a joy to be hearing these things because it means all the time spent refining them was worth it.

CD: The UNO itself is a streamlined and compact piece of technology—you essentially placed all the components that were originally on a traditional Bally/Stern PCB onto the surface area that was occupied by the traditional display glass.  How were you able to arrange all the components onto one simple board?

WE: Pure willpower I think. I was back-and-forth on doing a single PCB design or a 2-board design.  I couldn’t decide.  I knew there would be cost advantages to a single board, but I absolutely hated all the design concepts I had drawn.  It was too clunky and didn’t look like it belonged.  But I had this idea to shift the displays left or right and really liked that thought.  The single biggest turning point was deciding that I wasn’t going to pick just one style.  I was going to do BOTH–and they would look awesome when completed.  I just focused on that very positive thought and made it happen.  I absolutely love the single board design, it’s so slick looking that I’m even wanting to put it in games.  If you asked me a few months ago if I thought that would happen, I’d have had some serious doubts!

CD: Now that you’ve eliminated the need for a donor board, do you offer assembly services for the TRADITIONAL and UNO kits, for those who don’t have the time or skill to build them on their own?

WE: Yes, I’m offering fully assembled plug-and-play options on both of these displays.

CD: Having been a customer for over a year, I can attest that the packaging of your items has grown leaps and bounds, with the UNO and TRADITIONAL sets being shipped in an extremely neat, organized and professional manner. There is obviously “value added” in this sort of packaging?

WE: It makes it easier for the customers, as well as myself, to bag and box display sets individually.  I often imagine myself as the customer, opening up the box or reading through the instructions.  I put myself in my customer’s viewpoint and do what makes the most sense and avoids confusion.

CD: The digits you are using for these new kits are the same as the ones used in the Retrofit kits. Are you finding that collectors are appreciating the option of customizing their game using the white digits with the vast range of colour filters you have available?

WE: People like being able to customize their games, that’s been proven over and over.  Color displays in these Classic Bally/Stern games completely change the look of the games.  It updates them to something fresh & new.  Some people still have reservations on deviating from the standard plasma color, but once you convert one game to a different color and see how great it looks, it becomes addicting to try different colors in more games.  In short, the white digits have been a huge hit!

CD: You seem to have covered all the bases in the Bally/Stern display world, offering kits to convert original displays, and now, offering all-in-one kits. Is there anything left for you to tinker with in the Bally/Stern display realm?

WE: There’s a few things related to, but not directly involving, the display boards that I might work on at some point.  As for the displays themselves, I can’t be happier.  TWO display designs that each offer something uniquely different and live up to my own expectations of what a quality display should look and function like.  Now the fun part – shipping out the DIY kits or assembled displays and hearing feedback and excitement from people as they see, in person, how great the new displays make their games look. Customer feedback is truly one of the most rewarding parts of creating new products!

 

THE TRADITIONAL AND UNO BOTTOM LINE

To this point, I’ve built two Retrofit kits, one TRADITIONAL kit and about ten UNO kits, for myself and for others in my local community.  I can almost build these things in my sleep now.  Your mileage may vary depending on your skill set, but the learning curve isn’t steep.  Once you’re comfortable with Pinitech’s in-depth instructions and the board layout, assembly is a breeze.  The UNO seems pretty popular in my local community of classic Bally and Stern collectors, and it stands to be seen if my local community is a true representation of the pinball community as a whole.  I’ll gladly put my stamp of approval on the UNO kits.  The TRADITIONAL kits will work for people who prefer a more traditional look to their boards, or for games that can’t accommodate the mounting space the UNO requires (I believe this will be a problem that rarely occurs, however).  I can see these two new all-in-one kits muscling out their kin, the Retrofit, as the price difference between the two is negligible when paired off against the extra time, and skill, needed for the Retrofit conversion.  I’ve had experience with both Xpin and Rottendog displays in the past—the Pinitech displays look more native to the game, and their price just can’t be beat. I’m left to hope that Pinitech continues to innovate in the arena of aftermarket technology for classic Bally and Stern games, as well as beyond into other eras and manufacturers of classic solid state pinball machines.

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A completed set of the UNO display system

 

FURTHER READING

Pinitech – Pinitech Traditional Classic Bally/Stern LED Displays

Pinitech – Pinitech UNO (Single-PCB) Classic Bally/Stern LED Displays

Pinside – *NEW* DIY Kits or Assembled LED Displays for Classic Bally/Stern (Single PCB)

Credit Dot Pinball – REVIEW: Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit

Techdose – LED Pinball Display For Early Bally/Stern Games

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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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PEOPLE: Brett Davis from XPin

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For nearly five years, XPin has been the collector community’s choice for re-engineered replacement displays.  With a strict adherence to quality control and an eye for innovative design, Brett Davis has engineered a bevy of replacement parts for our beloved games.  With his newest innovation, 7Volution, he has also changed the way we play our games as well.  Credit Dot Pinball is pleased to present an interview Mr. Davis about his beginnings, innovations, business philosophies and new products.

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Credit Dot: How long has Xpin been in the pinball business?

Brett Davis: The XPin brand has been in existence since September of 2011, which is when the first distributors started to receive their product.  The actual http://www.xpinpinball.com website when live in January 2012.

CD: What were some of the first Xpin displays offered for sale?

BD: That’s a tough one.  Because of the product line, it only makes sense to offer all similar products at once, so it would be all of my Williams and Bally displays.  They were all released about the same time.  The Dot Matrix displays were released a little bit later.

CD: Is there a history between Xpin and Pinscore? There is some overlap in the products offered.

BD: There is some is some history between XPin and Pinscore.  I am the original designer of the Pinscore products.  When I chose to separate myself from Pinscore, the original Pinscore designs became the property of Marco Specialties because they owned the name Pinscore.  This forced me to re-engineer what I had done to make XPin.

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XPin’s XP-WMS10877 display kit, in blue, installed in the author’s Pin*Bot.

CD: What makes the XPin product a better choice for aftermarket displays as opposed to those of your competitors?

BD: There are a couple of reasons that XPin is a better choice for aftermarket replacements.  First, each product is a true re-engineering, or re-design of the original product.  I did a lot of research into the failings that occurred with the original designs.  I guess you can say it was a little forensic engineering.  I chose to avoid copying the original design because in doing so you just duplicate the problems that caused them to fail in the first place.  Second, technology today is so much more capable than it was 20-30 years ago.  The majority of failures that occur due to the circuit design can be eliminated with newer technology and different circuits.  Third, using modern manufacturing methods, reliability and cost can be controlled to make a quality product.  Obviously with exceptions to components and the circuit boards, all XPin products are manufactured here in the US.

CD: Can you share some of your best selling display kits at the moment?

BD: The XPin bestsellers are the Williams System 11 displays and the XP-DMD4096 (dot matrix) displays.

00-xpinint08CD: Can you tell me a little about your groundbreaking 7Volution display kit?

BD: Modern technology is what makes 7Volution possible.  Over the years people have hacked the game code, modified the MPU boards, added wires to the harness, all to make 7-digit scoring possible.  The problem is that once you choose to go down that mod path, it’s hard to go back.  Also, if you are not an experienced tech, making the mod is fairly daunting.  7Volution’s prime goal was to be a plug and play solution: no mods, no cut traces, no rom changes needed.  The heart of 7volution plugs into the MPU and watches the display data.  When it sees that the score boundary has been crossed, it jumps in and takes control and displays the new score…and then keeps track of it.  If it wasn’t for the processing power of new technology, 7Volution wouldn’t be possible.

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Pinside user bcrage88’s Paragon with 7Volution display kit installed. Vinyl filters were used to achieve the three colour effect.

CD: Where did the idea for integrating a seventh digit originate?

BD: 7Volution is an idea that came to me in 2008 or 2009 at the Northest Pinball show.  I took a Bally Six Million Dollar Man to the show with my (then) Pinscore display system in it.  A gentleman played the game and it was amazing the way he was playing.  While I was sitting there at my booth I saw this man roll the game 3 times!  Afterwards we talked about how all of these great classic Bally and Sterns would never keep the high scores if rolled.  This started me down the path…

CD: I find it really cool that Xpin customers can customize the look of their game by choosing the colour of their displays. Generally speaking, does one colour outsell the others?

BD: Surprisingly Orange is still the preferred color, at a rate of about two to one!

CD: I noticed a slight price difference between some of the colour choices, with blue being more expensive than the red and stock orange. Why is this?

BD: It is all about chemistry.  To manufacture blue or white, a different set of elements are required to get to those colors.  Elements for red, orange, and green are more readily available.  The elements used to create Blue and White generally cost two to three times more than the other colors, so they end up costing a few more dollars.

CD: Are all of your display products plug and play?

BD: Yes, everything is plug and play…with a caveat.  WPC games with dot matrix displays have an exception when it comes to the colors Blue and White.  There is an original design flaw in the dot matrix controllers.  Blue and White draw more current because the blue and white LED requires more current (it is that chemistry and element thing mentioned previously).  Realizing this I developed plug-in modules, my X-Bridge XP-WPC-HV and XP-WPC95-HV.  These boards compensate for the original board shortcomings.

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XPin’s versatile XP-WMS8345, that will replace the power supply in a staggering 51 different pinball games!

CD: Xpin is known for their replacement displays, but you carry a lot of other replacement boards as well. What is your best selling product in that area?

BD: The power supply arena is a big one.  My universal Williams power supply, XP-WMS8345, is my most popular.  It can be installed in every Williams Sys 3-11b that used either the Williams part number C-7999 or D-8345.  It also will work in all of the Data East games that used alpha numeric displays.  That is 51 different titles serviced by one board!

CD: What do you do to ensure your customers are receiving the best possible replacement parts for their games?

BD: Component selection is always a key in any redesign effort, along with an understanding as to what is expected by the end-user.  This of course is a major part of the product development, but the manufacturing of the product is just as important to maintain quality control.  Every product has a test fixture that is used–the fixture will test as much of the product as possible.
For example, the XPin dot matrix display has over 300 components on it.  Look at each individual trace on the board– if you laid them end to end, you would have about 300 feet of copper trace.  Over 2,000 holes are drilled into that board.  When you have that much happening, you do not skimp on testing.  Most boards go through at least 2 minutes of functional testing before they are released from production for packaging.  Every few months I do a random sample and put them on a test fixture for a couple of days.  There are a lot of great engineers capable of doing what I have done from the design side, but managing the production side is a whole different ball game, and if you have that down, you will end up with a great product.

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Pinside moderator gweempose’s Tron with a blue XPin DMD display installed. Absolutely stunning!

CD: When developing new products, be it a board or a display, what are some of the factors that are considered?

BD: Considerations for any product development come from my customers.  I give all suggestions consideration.  Some are actually quite doable, but then it comes down to how much will it cost to execute.  In turn, you also have to consider reasonable expectations for a retail price.  Also, when considering a new project, I look at how many games will it go into.  Take for example Williams’ Banzai Run.  That game’s display is completely unique.  It was never used in another game, but I still made it.  Why?  BR is a very collectable game.  I currently use the driver board in my XP-WMS10877 system.  I just needed the big board and connection mechanism.  I look at all of the designs this way.

CD: Are there any memorable design challenges that Xpin has overcome in updating PCB technology over the years?

BD: Each design has its own challenges.  I have three general requirements for each design:
1. Make it consume less power than the original design.  This is a very important requirement because these products oftentimes are going into old, tired machines where the electronics may not be up to original specs.
2. Make it plug ’n’ play.  Most of my customers tend not to be do-it-yourself hobbyists or knowledgeable about electronics.  They usually can disconnect a few cables, take out screws and then replace them all with a new board.  If they have to do much more than that then they will, more than likely, need to call a tech for help.
3. Make it as bullet-proof as I can.  More times than not, someone is replacing an original board with an XPin product because something caused the original board to fail.  If the time wasn’t taken to find the original failure, then the likelihood of continued failure is high, even after a board change.

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Pinside user Stretch7’s Alien Poker with Xpin’s XP-WMS8363 kit installed.

CD: What are some of the improvements that Xpin has made over the original designs by the big names in pinball?

BD: In the displays you see some of the best improvements.  Brightness control for display brightness, test buttons to illuminate all segments/dots.  Along with this is the low power aspect.  Lower power means less heat released by the older power supplies.

CD: How active is Xpin in the pinball community?

BD: I like to think I am very active.  I frequent Pinside quite often.  I sponsor tournaments when I can, such as the Retro Tournament at the Texas Pinball Festival.  They will actually have two classic Bally games that will be running my 7Volution Systems this year.  I am also scheduled to sit on the Pinball Developers Panel that will be at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show later this year.  All of it very exciting!

CD: In talking with customers, have you found that they are primarily buying new displays to replace inoperable ones or buying to just give their pinball a fresh look?

BD: Most of my customers make the choice because of a failure or an obvious pending failure.  Very few seem to be replacing the existing functional boards with my products just because it’s new.

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Pinside user PappyBoyington’s Stargazer looking phenomenal with XPin on board!

CD: Can you give the readers a preview as to some of the products Xpin will be releasing in the near future?

BD: Let’s see…I have begun work on the Williams Sys3-6 7volution system.  There is a lot of excitement there.  I am also working on Gottlieb and Zacaria display sets.  I have a few more items coming out but I waiting to announce those at Texas Pinball Festival.

CD: What are some thoughts about this new pinball “resurgence” we are all a part of? Do Xpin sales reflect the increased interest in the hobby?

BD: I think this is AWESOME!  I love talking to these innovators.  XPin is standing behind them 100%.  Spooky Pinball currently uses a green XPin for its America’s Most Haunted and I will be there for their next title, too.  I have also done preliminary work with other boutique pinball groups and I can only wish them well.  I have a lot to offer to them with my ability and manufacturing contacts so in the long run I hope to become a partner in their success.

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An XPin DMD display in green, appearing in an America’s Most Haunted near you!

CD: What games are currently in Xpin’s pinball lineup? What are some of your all-time favourite games?

BD: At the moment I only have 3 games: Mars God of War, Cyclone, and Silverball Mania.  I under some space constraints at the moment, but I have my own list of wants.  I just have to convince my wife of the “business need” to purchase them.

CD: Do you have any closing comments for readers in the pinball community?

BD: You will not find a greater bunch than this group.  I see this on the forums and when I meet them at the shows.  I am very privileged to be part of such a great hobby and be able to provide something back to this hobby.  Let’s keep on flipping!

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Mr. Davis can be reached at tech@xpinpinball.com, or you can visit XPin on the web.  Products can be ordered directly from the XPin website, or through one of XPin’s fine partners, such as K’s Arcade or Bay Area Amusements.  Look for Mr. Davis and XPin at this year’s Texas Pinball Festival March 27-29, 2015 and at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show June 5-7, 2015.