Encrypted USB Bootloader for AVRs

It probably doesn’t matter much for the hacker who sleeps with a bag of various microcontroller flash programmers under the pillow, but for an end-user to apply a firmware upgrade, convenience is king. These days that means using USB, and there are a few good AVR USB bootloaders out there.

But [Dmitry Grinberg] wanted more: the ability to encrypt the ROM images and verify that they haven’t been tampered with or otherwise messed up in transit. Combined with the USB requirement, that meant writing his own bootloader and PC-side tools. His bootloader will take unencrypted uploads if it doesn’t have a password, but if it’s compiled with a key, it will only accept (correctly) encrypted hex files.

Since the bootloader, including the USB firmware, is on the hefty side at 3.3 kB, [Dmitry] included hooks to re-use the bootloader’s USB code from within the target application. So if you were going to use V-USB in your program anyway, it doesn’t actually take up that much extra space. It’s a cute trick, but it ties the bootloader and user program together in a way that gives us the willies, without specifically knowing why. Perhaps we can debate this in the comments.

If you need an AVR USB bootloader, but you don’t need the encryption, we like Micronucleus. But if you need to deliver updates to users without them being able to modify (or screw up) the code in the middle, give [Dmitry]’s setup a try.

AVR vs PIC, Round 223: Fight!

Get ready to rumble! [Thierry] made the exact same Hello-World-esque project with two microcontrollers (that are now technically produced by the same firm!) to see how the experience went.

It’s not just an LED-blinker, though. He added in a light-detection function so that it only switches on at night. It uses the Forest Mims trick of reverse-biasing the LED and waiting for it to discharge its internal capacitance. The point is, however, that it gives the chip something to do instead of simply sleeping.

Although he’s an AVR user by habit, [Thierry] finds in favor of the PIC because it’s got a lower power draw both when idling and when awake and doing some computation. This is largely because the PIC has an onboard low-power oscillator that lets it limp along at 32 kHz, but also because the chip has a lower power consumption in general. In the end, it’s probably a 10% advantage to the PIC on power.

If you’re competent with one of the two chips, but not the other, his two versions of the same code would be a great way to start familiarizing yourself with the other. We really like his isDarkerThan() function which makes extensive use of sleep modes on both chips during the LED’s discharge period. And honestly, at this level the code for the two is more similar than different.

(Oh, and did you notice [Thierry]’s use of a paper clip as a coin-cell holder? It’s a hack!)

Surprisingly, we’ve managed to avoid taking a stray bullet from the crossfire that occasionally breaks out between the PIC and AVR fans. We have covered a “shootout” before, and PIC won that round too, although it was similarly close. Will the Microchip purchase of Atmel calm the flames? Let’s find out in the comment section. We have our popcorn ready!

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 Arduino.cc 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.