SDRAM Logic Analyzer Uses An AVR And A Dirty Trick

We often see “logic analyzer” projects which are little more than microcontrollers reading data as fast as they can, sending it to a PC, and then plotting the results. Depending on how fast the microcontroller is, these projects range from adequate to not very useful.

At first glance, [esot.eric’s] logic analyzer project has an AVR in it, so it ought to be on the low end of the scale. Then you look at the specs: 32 channels at 30 megasamples per second. How does that work with an AVR in it?

The answer lies in the selection of components. The analyzer uses a 128MB SDRAM DIMM (like an older PC might use for main memory). That makes sense; the Arduino can’t store much data internally. However, it isn’t the storage capacity that makes this choice critical. It seems [esot.eric] has a way to make the RAM “free run”.

The idea is to use the Arduino (or other host microcontroller) to set up the memory. Some of the memory’s output bits feedback to the address and data lines. Then the microcontroller steps aside and the SDRAM clocks samples into its memory by itself at the prevailing clock rate for the memory.

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Clocking (or Overclocking) an AVR

Some guys build hot rods in their garage. Some guys overclock their PCs to ridiculously high clock frequencies (ahem… we might occasionally be guilty of this). [Nerd Ralph] decided to push an ATTiny13a to over twice its rated frequency.

It didn’t seem very difficult. [Ralph] used a 44.2 MHz can oscillator and set the device to use an external clock. He tested with a bit-banged UART and it worked as long as he kept the supply voltage at 5V. He also talks about some other ways to hack out an external oscillator to get higher than stock frequencies.

We wouldn’t suggest depending on an overclock on an important or commercial project. There could be long term effects or subtle issues. Naturally, you can’t depend on every part working the same at an untested frequency, either. But we’d be really interested in hear how you would test this overclocked chip for adverse effects.

Now, if you are just doing this for sport, a little liquid nitrogen will push your Arduino to 65 MHz (see the video after the break). We’ve covered pushing a 20MHz AVR to 30MHz before, but that’s a little less ratio than [Ralph] achieved.

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Arduinos (and other AVRs) Write To Own Flash

In this post on the forums and this blog post, [Majek] announced that he had fooled the AVR microcontroller inside and Arduino into writing user data into its own flash memory during runtime. Wow!

[Majek] has pulled off a very neat hack here. Normally, an AVR microcontroller can’t write to its own flash memory except when it’s in bootloader mode, and you’re stuck using EEPROM when you want to save non-volatile data. But EEPROM is scarce, relative to flash.

Now, under normal circumstances, writing into the flash program memory can get you into trouble. Indeed, the AVR has protections to prevent code that’s not hosted in the bootloader memory block from writing to flash. But of course, the bootloader has to be able to program the chip, so there’s got to be a way in.

The trick is that [Majek] has carefully modified the Arduino’s Optiboot bootloader so that it exposes a flash-write (SPM) command at a known location, so that he can then use this function from outside the bootloader. The AVR doesn’t prevent the SPM from proceeding, because it’s being called from within the bootloader memory, and all is well.

The modified version of the Optiboot bootloader is available on [Majek]’s Github.  If you want to see how he did it, here are the diffs. A particularly nice touch is that this is all wrapped up in easy-to-write code with a working demo. So next time you’ve filled up the EEPROM, you can reach for this hack and log your data into flash program memory.

Thanks [Koepel] for the tip!

Embed With Elliot: Shifting Gears With AVR Microcontrollers

Most modern computers are able to dynamically adjust their operating frequency in order to save power when they’re not heavily used and provide instantaneous-seeming response when load increases. You might be surprised to hear that the lowly 8-bit AVR microcontrollers can also switch CPU-speed gears on the fly. In this edition of Embed with Elliot, we’ll dig into the AVR’s underappreciated CPU clock prescaler.

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Optimizing AVR LCD Libraries

A while ago, [Paul Stoffregen], the creator of the Teensy family of microcontrollers dug into the most popular Arduino library for driving TFT LCDs. The Teensy isn’t an Arduino – it’s much faster – but [Paul]’s library does everything more efficiently.

Even when using a standard Arduino, there are still speed and efficiency gains to be made when driving a TFT. [Xark] recently released his re-mix of the Adafruit GFX library and LCD drivers. It’s several times faster than the Adafruit library, so just in case you haven’t moved on the Teensy platform yet, this is the way to use one of these repurposed cell phone displays.

After reading about [Paul]’s experience with improving the TFT library for the Teensy, [Xark] grabbed an Arduino, an LCD, and an Open Workbench Logic Sniffer to see where the inefficiencies in the Adafruit library were. These displays are driven via SPI, where the clock signal goes low for every byte shifted out over the data line. With the Adafruit library, there was a lot of wasted time in between each clock signal, and with the right code the performance could be improved dramatically.

The writeup on how [Xark] improved the code for these displays is fantastic, and the results are impressive; he can fill a screen with pixels at about 13FPS, making games that don’t redraw too much of the screen at any one time a real possibility.

Review: uISP programmer for AVR

I got into AVR chips because they are easy to program, and that has become more and more true over the years with the ever-falling cost of programmers. But it’s pretty easy to make a mistake when burning the fuses on the chips and if you don’t have a proper programmer (my first programmer was a horrifyingly slow self-built DAPA cable) you’ll have a brick on your hands. This little board may be able to help in that situation. I gave the USB µISP a try this week. The half-stick-of-gum-sized board flashes firmware like a champ and includes a rescue pin for when you have clock source problems.

My full review is below. All technical information for the µISP can be found in the User’s guide. The board itself is now available to purchase in the Hackaday Store.

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Measuring Temperature On An AVR Without A Sensor

There are a few AVR microcontrollers with onboard temperature sensors. These temperature sensors are neither accurate nor precise, but they do work for a few use cases. [Thomas] came up with a little bit of code that runs on all AVR microcontrollers, and is at least as accurate as the sensors in the rare AVRs that have them.

Although not all AVRs have a temperature sensor, they do all have RC oscillators, and these RC oscillators are temperature sensitive. By combining the RC oscillator and watchdog timer, [Thomas]’ code can get a vague idea if it’s getting hotter or colder.

To prove his code works, [Thomas] took an ATtiny13A chip loaded up with a few bits of code and placed a heated coin on it. The chip was programmed to turn on an LED when it detected a rise in temperature, and predictably, the LED lit up. With a coin chilled in a bowl of ice water, another bit of code ran, flashing the LED.

While we’re sure it’s neither accurate nor precise, it does have its uses – overheating protection or a simple thermostat. You can check out a video of the code in action below.

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