Crack Open a USB Car Charger to make it a Variable DC-DC Converter

[Boolean90] hacked a cheap USB car charger into a variable power supply. His proof of concept is to use this as a variable-speed motor controller. The best part is that nothing is being abused, the regulator inside is still running within manufacturer’s spec.

While we’ve seen similar hacks before, [Boolean90]s video is pretty cool and provides a nice insight into the components used in these cheap devices. Rather than a linear regulator, which would dissipate too much heat the device uses a common jelybean MC34063A (PDF) switching DC-DC converter which costs about 10 cents on eBay (about two dollars for twenty, shipped). Here it’s used to step the car batteries 12 volts down to 5, but can also be used in step-up and inverting configurations.

Like all switching buck converters the MC34063A uses a PWM (pulse width modulated) signal to drive an inductor and capacitor, which effectively form an LC filter. By controlling the pulse width, the output voltage can be regulated. [Afrotechmods] has a great tutorial on the basic principle. The regulation is controlled by feedback resistors. [Boolean90] simply added a variable resistor to allow the output voltage to be controlled.

Neat hack [Boolean90]! Continue reading “Crack Open a USB Car Charger to make it a Variable DC-DC Converter”

Insane 33 Port USB charger

Like it or not, Hackers gonna hack. And when your hackerspace has someone who looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, the builds can get a bit weird, like this Hack42 FestivalCharger.

The Hack42 hackerspace in Arnhem, The Netherlands had collected a large number of TP-Link 5V USB chargers – but all of them had the North American NEMA plug (flat, 2 pin) which wouldn’t fit the Schuko sockets prevalent in The Netherlands. [Simon “MacSimski” Claessen] decided to whip out his giant soldering iron and use it to solder two long pieces of welding filler metal rods to 33 of the chargers, effectively wiring them up in parallel. He did apply his obvious skill and experience to good use. For one, the diameter of the filler metal rods he used were just about the right size to fit in the Shucko Schuko socket. And the gap between the two turned out to be the right distance too, thus creating a sort of Schucko Schuko plug. All that was needed to power up all the chargers was to connect a socket extension to the FestivalCharger. The unit was built to allow crowds of festival-goers to charge their phones and battery-powered gadgets simultaneously. To make sure the visitors didn’t get electrocuted, he used a piece of PVC pipe to cover up the exposed pins and keep it all safe.

Thanks to Hack42 member [Dennis van Zuijlekom] for sending in this tip.

Remove Security Issues From Untrusted USB Connections

USB has become pretty “universal” nowadays, handling everything from high-speed data transfer to charging phones. There are even USB-powered lava lamps. This ubiquity doesn’t come without some costs, though. There have been many attacks on smartphones and computers which exploit the fact that USB is found pretty much everywhere, and if you want to avoid these attacks you can either give up using USB or do what [Jason] did and block the data lines on the USB port.

USB typically uses four wires: two for power and two for data. If you simply disconnect the data lines, though, the peripheral can’t negotiate with the host for more power and will limp along at 0.5 watts. However, [Jason] discovered that this negotiation takes place at a much lower data rate than normal data transfer, and was able to put a type of filter in between the host and the peripheral. The filter allows the low-frequency data transfer pass through but when a high-frequency data transfer occurs the filter blocks the communication.

[Jason] now has a device that can allow his peripherals to charge at the increased rate without having to worry about untrusted USB ports (at an airport or coffee shop, for example). This simple device could stop things like BadUSB from doing their dirty work, although whether or not it could stop something this nasty is still up in the air.

USB2Serial Adapter As An I/O Device

There was a time when computers had parallel ports. For the hacker types, this meant an eight bit data port, and nine additional pins which could be interfaced with the real world via the 25 pin connector. This is no longer the case, although USB does help with suitable hardware. [Jabi] was working on a project that required controlling one relay to switch a strip of LED’s. His solution was to use a USB to Serial Adapter as an I/O device (Spanish, translated here).

He wrote a short C program, SioFus (Simple Input Output from USB2SERIAL), that converts a simple USB to Serial Port Adapter into an I/O device with 4 inputs and 2 outputs. It’s simple and gets the job done. The code uses ioctl and allows DCD, DSR, CTS and RI to act as inputs while DTR and RTS act as outputs. These pins then likely control transistors that switch the relays. The SioFus code is available on github and there are a couple of to-do’s on [Jabi]’s list if you would like to chip in.

The video after the break supposedly shows the hack in action. Seems like some kind of photo booth which then spits out a QR code, possibly a URL to the picture (post in the comments if you figure out what it does).

If you are looking for a more dedicated hardware, check out the Tiny Bit Dingus – a microcontroller stuffed into a USB plug with a few controllable pins.

Continue reading “USB2Serial Adapter As An I/O Device”

Review: FriedCircuits USB Tester

Over the last decade or so, USB has somehow changed. It’s not just for connecting printers, keyboards, mice, and webcams any more. It’s not even just for stuff you would have plugged into a serial port. It’s a power outlet. If you want to charge your phone, plug it into a power outlet that can deliver up to 2.5 Watts. Unintended consequences, I guess. If you ever find yourself in 1995 again, go over to Intel and tell them to bump up the current limit.

Being a power outlet, having a device to measure current, voltage, power, and all the other intricacies of the what’s going on inside a USB cable would be neat. The USB Tester from Fried Circuits is that device.

DSC_0009The Fried Circuits USB tester isn’t so much a single device, but a small set of tools that allow you to probe everything going on inside a USB cable. In its simplest form, it’s just a board with a USB A connector at one end, a USB micro connector at the other, and breakouts for measuring current, voltage, the differential data signals, and that weird ID pin that’s useful if you’re working with USB chargers or OTG devices.

This breakout board also has two rows of five pins broken out. That’s for the USB Tester Backpack, which is really the heart of this device. This backpack features a microcontroller and a 128×64 resolution OLED display for current, voltage, and power monitoring, reading the voltage on the data lines, and graphing everything on the display. Everything you would ever want to know about a USB port – except for the actual bits being shoved through, of course – is right there on the display. Press the button on the side a few times, and whatever info you need will be presented in tall, very readable numbers.

The Entire Reason For Buying One

If you’re only going to use this to look at voltages, amps, and current flowing through a USB cable, you’re throwing your money away with this USB Tester. If simple, at-a-glance monitoring is what you need, you can hop on Amazon and get a USB current/voltage meter for $15. Even Adafruit has one for $7.50. If you only need to read the volts and amps for a USB device, your money is better spent elsewhere.

USBData
The Fried Circuits Java app.

The Fried Circuits USB tester does something none of these other USB meters can do. It can log all the data to a computer over USB.

In my initial review of the USB Tester for the Hackaday Store, the only ‘official’ option for recording data from the Tester to a computer was a Java app. The developer of the USB Tester, [Will], chose Java because of the ‘write once, run anywhere’ Sun and Oracle have been shoving down our throats for the last 20 years. In theory, Java was an excellent choice for a datalogging solution for the USB Tester.

In practice, however, it just didn’t work. By [Will]’s own admission, it was the first thing he’s ever done in Java, and I think he set some of the options in NetBeans wrong. I could not get the data logging app to run on my Windows 8 box, or my OS X box, or my Linux boxxen. The only way I could run this app was by digging out an old XP box. Apparently, [Will]’s copy of NetBeans was configured for Java 5 or something.

[Will] knew about this problem, and last month he officially teamed up with [Edouard Lafargue] of wizkers.io. This is a platform for scientific instruments that runs in a Chrome App. The choice of running instrumentation in a Chrome app may seem odd, but this is apparently the new hotness; you can program an Arduino in a Chrome app, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in this space.

You can try out the Chrome app right here, and with the USB Tester everything works as intended:

Wizkers
The Wizkers.io app.

The Wizkers.io app can do everything you would expect from a datalogging app. It will tell you the volts, amps, watts, mWh, and mAh of the device currently under test. There are pretty graphs, and everything can be downloaded to a computer for further analysis.

It might seem like cheating to review this device with a 3rd party app, but by [Will]’s own admission, there were problems with the Java-based logger, and the Chrome app works perfectly. There’s also the delicious irony that a Chrome app is more portable than one written in Java. I appreciate that.

Of course the USB Tester also outputs this data over a serial connection (in JSON format, too!). If you just want to connect this to a computer, solder up some wires to the TX and RX lines.

Conclusion

If you want a device that just tells you how many mA a USB device is sucking up, you don’t need this. You can buy something for less than $10 that will tell you that. If you’re developing some USB hardware, you’ll eventually want to characterize how much power your device is drawing and when it’s drawing that much power. This will require a data logging tool, and apart from cutting up a few USB cables and wiring it into an expensive power supply, you can’t do better than the Fried Circuits USB tester.

Reverse Engineering how a USB Switch Switches

[Daniel] found himself with a need to connect a single USB device to two Linux servers. After searching around, he managed to find an inexpensive USB switch designed to do just that. He noticed that the product description mentioned nothing about Linux support, but he figured it couldn’t be that hard to make it work.

[Daniel] started by plugging the device into a Windows PC for testing. Windows detected the device and installed an HID driver automatically.  The next step was to install the control software on the Windows system. This provided [Daniel] with a tray icon and a “switch” function. Clicking this button disconnected the HID device from the Windows PC and connected the actual USB device on the other side of the USB switch. The second computer would now have access to the HID device instead.

[Daniel] fired up a program called SnoopyPro. This software is used to inspect USB traffic. [Daniel] noticed that a single message repeated itself until he pressed the “switch” button. At that time, a final message was sent and the HID device disconnected.

Now it was time to get cracking on Linux. [Daniel] hooked up the switch to a Linux system and configured a udev rule to ensure that it always showed up as /dev/usbswitch. He then wrote a python script to write the captured data to the usbswitch device. It was that simple. The device switched over as expected. So much for having no Linux support!

Hackaday Prize Entry: BS Free USB

Take a look at some old electronics magazines, or even a few blog posts from 10 years ago, and you’ll notice something strange: parallel ports. Those big ‘ol DB25 were the way to get bits out of a computer and into a microcontroller. There was a reason for this: it was exceptionally easy to do.

Now, we have USB to deal with, and that means VIDs and PIDs, drivers, enumeration, and a whole bunch of cruft that makes blinking an LED a surprisingly complicated process. [Colin O’Flynn]’s project for the 2015 Hackaday Prize aims to fix that with BSU – BS Free USB.

Instead of USB to serial chips attached to another microcontroller, [Colin] is using a few microcontrollers with a built-in USB interfaces. These chips are loaded up with firmware and controlled with a simple API on the computer side. If you want to blink a pin, just add a library to your project and set the pin high. Want some SPI on your computer? That’s just setting a few pins as MOSI, MISO, and SCK and typing in a few bytes. It’s basically a $2 Bus Pirate that you can stick into any project.

If [Colin]’s name sounds familiar in the context of The Hackaday Prize, it’s because he won second place with the ChipWhisperer last year. While a tiny USB thing isn’t quite as cool as a tool to break embedded encryption, the BSU certainly seems more useful to millions of hardware tinkerers around the world.


The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by: