Hackaday Links: November 13, 2016

The Travelling Hackerbox is going International. I wrote a post on this earlier in the week, and I’m still looking for recipients for the box that are not in the United States. The sign-up form is right here, [the sign up form is now closed] and so far we have good coverage in Canada, Australia, NZ, Northern Europe, and a few in Africa. If you ever want to be part of the Travelling Hackerbox, this is your chance. I’m going to close the sign-up sheet next week. Sign up now.

Like the idea of a travelling hackerbox, but are too impatient? Adafruit now has a box subscription service. Every quarter, an AdaBox will arrive on your doorstep packed to the gills with electronic goodies.

The very recently released NES Classic edition is the 2016 version of the C64 DTV — it’s a Linux system, not as elegant, and there’s little hacking potential. If you want to increase the amount of storage, desolder the Flash chip (part no. S34ML04G200TFI000), and replace it with a larger chip. The NES Classic edition isn’t the coolest retro system coming out — Genesis is back, baby. Brazil has had a love affair with the Genesis/Mega Drive because of their bizarre import restrictions. Now, the manufacturer of the Brazilian Sega clones is releasing a Linux-ified clone. Does anyone know how to export electronics from Brazil?

The CFP deadline for the SoCal Linux Expo is fast approaching. You have until the 15th to get your talks in for SCALE.

Let’s talk about dissolvable 3D printer support material. One of the first materials able to be printed and removed by dissolving in water was PVA. Makerbot sold it for use in their dual extruder machines. PVA does dissolve, but it degrades at higher temperatures and kills nozzles. HIPS can be dissolved with limonene, but it’s really only for use in conjunction with ABS. This week, E3D released their Scaffold support material. It’s a PVA/Polyvinyl alcohol filament — ‘the stuff gel caps are made out of’ was the line we got when E3D previewed Scaffold at MRRF last March. It’s a support material that’s water dissolvable, compatible with most filaments, and is able to produce some amazing prints. It’s available now, but it is a bit pricey at £45 for half a kilo. Brexit is a good thing if you’re paid in dollars.

If you’re into chiptunes, you’ve heard about Little Sound DJ. LSDJ is a cart/ROM capable of toggling all the registers on the Game Boy sound chip, sequencing bleeps and bloops, and generally being awesome. The recently released Nanoloop Mono is not Game Boy software. It’s a few op-amps and a PIC micro pasted on a board that turns the Game Boy into a synth. You get a significantly more 80s sound with the Nanoloop Mono over LSDJ, audio input, and a step sequencer.

How Not To Build A CPU Hand Warmer

Winter is coming, along with mittens, cold hands, snow, and jackets. Now that we’re all carrying around lithium batteries in our pocket, wouldn’t it be a great idea to build an electronic hand warmer? That’s what [GreatScott!] thought. To build his electronic hand warmer, he turned to the most effective and efficient way to turn electricity into heat: a ten-year-old AMD CPU.

Building an electronic hand warmer is exceptionally simple. All you need is a resistive heating element (like a resistor), a means to limit current (like a resistor), and a power supply (like a USB power bank). Connect these things together and you have a hand warmer that is either zero percent or one hundred percent efficient. We haven’t figured that last part out yet.

Because more power and more retro is more betterer, [GreatScott] pulled an AMD Sempron out of an old computer. Finding and reading data sheets is for wimps, apparently, so [GreatScott] just poked some pins with a variable power supply until the CPU was drawing about 500mA at 5V.

The video continues with some Arduino-based temperature measurement, finding some new pins to plug the power leads into, and securing all the wires on this heating element with hot glue. For anyone in the comments ready to say, ‘not a hack’, we assure you, this qualifies.

With the naive method of building a CPU hand warmer out of the way, here’s the pros and cons of this project, and how it can be made better. First off, using an old AMD processor was a great idea. These things are firestarters, and even though this processor preceded the 100+ W TDP AMD CPUs, it should work well enough.

That said, this is not how you waste power in a CPU. Ideally, the processor should do some work, with more active gates resulting in higher power consumption. If this were an exceptionally old processor, a good, simple option would be freerunning the chip, or having the CPU count up through its address space. This can be done by tying address lines low or high, depending on the chip. That’ll waste a significant amount of power. Randomly poking pins hoping for the right power consumption is not the way to get the most heat out of this CPU.

Of course, the above paragraph is just theory. The eating is in the pudding, or some other disfigured colloquialism, so here’s a quad-core 386 coffee warmer. This project from [magnustron] uses four 80386 CPUs powered via USB to make a nice desktop hotplate for your cuppa. Of course being powered by USB means there’s only 500mA to go around, and the ΔT is comparable to [GreatScott]’s AMD and hot glue hand warmer. Thus we get to the crux of the issue: 5V and 500mA isn’t very hot. Until cheap USB-C power banks, with ten or twelve Watts flood in from China, the idea of a USB powered heater is a fool’s errand. It does make for some great AMD firestarter jokes, though, so we have to give [GreatScott] credit for that.

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MicroLisp With Matching Parens

Lisp is a supremely elegant programming language, but you won’t find it around much today. That’s a shame; in the 80s and 90s, all the cool kids were using Lisp machines, computers dedicated to the creation and interpretation of Lisp. While the AI renaissance of the 80s is dead, replaced with the machine learning fad of today, Lisp machines have gotten much smaller. Now, they’ll fit in your pocket, and they have parenthesis matching, to boot.

If this build looks familiar, you’re not wrong. A while back, we saw a similar pocket Lisp computer based around the ATMega328 microcontroller with 32k of Flash and 2k of RAM. That’s not a lot by any measure, and a much more suitable processor for an AVR-based pocket Lisp machine would be the big boys of the ATMega family.

The new and improved version of the Tiny Lisp Computer is built around the ATMega1284. If it’s capable enough to run a 3D printer, it should run Lisp very well. With more program space and more RAM come more features including matching parens when entering code, a serial monitor interface, and a program editor – basically a text editor on the chip.

Apart from the larger chip, the circuit remains relatively unchanged. The display is still an OLED that can be had for a few dollars from the usual online retailers, and the other bits of circuitry are still just a handful of resistors, caps, and wire. An off-the-shelf FTDI module (or whatever serial chip you desire) can be added to connect to a serial terminal, and support for a PS/2 keyboard rounds out the board.

Creating A PCB In Everything: Protel Autotrax

Protel Autotrax is a PCB design tool first released for DOS in the mid-80s. Consider this a look at the history of PCB design software. I’m not recommending anyone actually use Protel Autotrax —  better tools with better support exist. But it’s important to know where we came from to understand the EDA tools available now. I’m rolling up my sleeves (about 30 years worth of rolling) and building our standardized test PCB with the tool. Beyond this, I suggest viewing EEVblog #747, where [Dave] digs into one of his old project, Borland Pascal, and Protel Autotrax.

This is the continuation of a series of articles demonstrating how to Create A PCB In Everything. In this series, we take a standard reference circuit and PCB layout — a simple ATtiny85 board — and build it with different PCB design tools. We’ve already covered Eagle in this series. We learned Fritzing is a joke for PCB design, although it is quite good for making breadboard graphics of circuits. Each of these tutorials serves as a very quick introduction to a specific PCB design tool. Overall, this series provides for a comparison between different PCB design tools. Let’s dig into Protel Autotrax.

A short history of Protel, Altium, and Autotrax

The company we know as Altium today was, for the first fifteen years of its existence, known as Protel. Back in the day, PCB design on a computer required a dedicated workstation, a lot of hardware, light pens, and everything was extraordinarily expensive. Protel was a reaction to this and the first product, Autotrax, was a DOS-based program that brought PCB design to the PC. A freeware version of Autotrax is still available on the Altium website and can be run from inside a DOS virtual machine or DOSBox.

Interestingly, Protel Autotrax is not the only PCB design software named Autotrax. A company called DEX 2020 has also has a PCB design software called AutoTRAX. This is weird, confusing, and I can’t figure out how this doesn’t violate a trademark. If anyone has any insight to what the Protel / Altium legal department was doing a few decades ago, your wisdom is welcome in the comments.

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DIY Coprocessors For The Game Boy Color

Back in the olden days, when video games still came on cartridges, the engineers and programmers making these carts had a lot of options. One of the most inventive, brilliant, and interesting cartridges to come out of the 90s was Star Fox for the Super Nintendo. Star Fox featured a coprocessor chip, the Super FX, that was effectively a GPU used to draw polygons in the frame buffer. Without this, Star Fox wouldn’t be 3D, Yoshi’s Island wouldn’t be as cute, and there wouldn’t be an always-on processor in your computer with the potential to spy on everything you do.

gameboy-coprocessor-cartridgeThe Super FX chip, the Capcom-developed Cx4 coprocessor, and the Nintendo DSP all lived in a cartridge, but the technology to put a better computer in a cartridge never made it to Nintendo’s handheld devices. Cheap, powerful microcontrollers are everywhere now, and it’s not that hard to make a board with card edge connectors, leading [Anders] to build a Super FX for the Game Boy Color.

Game Boy cartridges are simple — just a memory controller and some memory is all you need. Drop in a microcontroller, and you have a Game Boy coprocessor. This cartridge features the MBC1 memory bank controller, 512kB of Flash, and 8KB SRAM. These are fairly standard parts, but there’s one last trick up the sleeve of this board: a KE04 from NXP, an ARM Cortex-M0+ microcontroller running at 48MHz . This microcontroller is, effectively, the GPU for the Game Boy.

This ARM-powered coprocessor is able to convert the framebuffer into tiles in just 2ms, giving the system plenty of time for image processing and rendering. Due to the limitations of the Game Boy, the best resolution offered by this coprocessor is either 160×96 or 128×128 pixels, short of the complete 160×144 pixel display in the Game Boy Color.

Even though [Anders] is still working on programming this thing to show off the power of his Game Boy coprocessor, he has a few demos to show off. The most impressive is a Wolfenstein-like clone. That’s extremely impressive and categorically impossible on a stock Game Boy Color.

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The Travelling Hackerbox Is Going International

Over the last year, Hackaday.io has seen an incredible project. It’s a migratory box of random electronic junk, better known as the Travelling Hackerbox. The idea behind this mobile electronic surplus store is simple: receive the box, take out some cool electronic gizmos, add some of your own, and send it on to the next person on the list. It is the purest expression of the hacker aesthetic, all contained in a cardboard box.

The previous travels of the Travelling Hackerbox
The previous travels of the (second) Traveling Hackerbox

Last week, the Travelling Hackerbox appeared at the Hackaday Superconference where it was torn asunder. Its silicon and plastic innards were spilled for a badge hacking competition. The body of the box is gone from this world but the spirit lives on. Parts were collected, pins straightened, the contents of anti-static bags condensed, and now it’s time for the Travelling Hackerbox to leave the nest. It’s going down to the post office, sending in its passport application, and it’s finally heading out into far-flung lands that are not the United States.

Over the last year, and despite some jerk in Georgia, the Traveling Hackerbox has racked up the miles. From Maine to Flordia, and from Alaska to Hawaii, the Hackerbox has distributed parts to dozens of labs and workstations. If you want to get an idea of the box, the last recipient, Carl Smith, put together a great summary and photo log of what he found in this magical box.

I’ve always promised the Hackerbox would go international after racking up 25,000 miles – the distance around Earth’s equator. Now, it’s finally time. This is happening, and I’m looking for volunteers to take care of the box.

How this is going to go down

Right now, the Travelling Hackerbox is sitting at the Hackaday Overlords office in Pasadena. The next trip will be to Canada, hopefully around Vancouver, where it will eventually make it to the Maritimes. From there, the box will travel to Europe (West to East, possibly ending in Russia). The box will then travel through Africa, ending South Africa, and head over the Indian Ocean to Australia. The rest of Oceania, Southeast Asia, India, and China will be next, possibly followed by South and Central America. With any luck, the Travelling Hackerbox will arrive back at home base by next year.

Of course, this all depends on how many members of the hackaday.io community would like to receive the box and where those people are located. If you want to receive the box, this is the sign-up form [the sign up form is now closed]. This form will be open for the next week, afterwards I will look at the responses, consider each of them, and plan this epic trip around the world.

The current state of the box

The Travelling Hackerbox was originally based on a US Postal Service flat rate box. Because flat rate boxes are for US destinations only, the physical manifestation of the box must change. At the very least, this gives me an opportunity to laminate a new box in packing tape and reinforce the edges of the cardboard.

The new body for the Travelling Hackerbox is a 12x12x3 inch (about five liters) cardboard box, lovingly protected and reinforced with stickytape. This does reduce the overall volume of the somewhat, which required the disposal of a few parts that weren’t really cool. I assure you, nothing of great value was lost, and I only removed the larger, bulkier components I remember seeing the last time I had it.

All the coming travels will be planned next week when I get a few submissions to the international sign-up form.

Orange Pi Releases Two Boards

A few years ago, someone figured out small, cheap ARM Linux boards are really, really useful, extremely popular, sell very well, blink LEDs, and are able to open the doors of engineering and computer science to everyone. There is one giant manufacturer of these cheap ARM Linux boards whose mere mention guarantees us a few thousand extra clicks on this article. There are other manufacturers of these boards, though, and there is no benevolent monopoly; the smaller manufacturers of these boards should bring new features and better specs to the ARM Linux board ecosystem. A drop of water in a tide that lifts all boats. Something like that.

This week, Orange Pi, not the largest manufacturer of these small ARM Linux boards, has released two new boards. The Orange Pi Zero is an inexpensive, quad-core ARM Cortex A7 Linux board with 256 MB or 512 MB of RAM. The Orange Pi PC 2 is the slightly pricier quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 board with 1 GB of RAM and a layout that can only be described as cattywampus. We all know where the inspiration for these boards came from. The price for these boards, less shipping, is $6.99 USD and $19.98 USD, respectively.

The Orange Pi Zero uses the Allwinner H2 SoC, and courageously does not use the standard 40-pin header of another very popular line of single board computers, although the 26-pin bank of pins is compatible with the first version of the board you’re thinking about. Also on board the Orange Pi Zero is WiFi provided by an XR819 chipset, Ethernet, a Mali400MP2 GPU, USB 2.0, a microSD card slot, and a pin header for headphones, mic, TV out, and two more USB ports.

The significantly more powerful Orange Pi PC 2 sports a quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 SoC coupled to 1 GB of RAM. USB OTG, a trio of USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, camera interface, and HDMI round out the rest of the board.

Both of Orange Pi’s recent offerings are Allwinner boards. This family of SoCs have famously terrible support in Linux, and the last Allwinner Cortex-A53, that we couldn’t really review, was terrible. Although the Orange Pi Zero and Orange Pi PC 2 are new boards and surely software is still being written, history indicates the patches written for this SoC will not be sent upstream, and these boards will be frozen in time.

If you’re looking for a cheap Linux board with a WiFi chipset that might work, The Orange Pi Zero is very interesting. The Orange Pi PC 2 does have slightly impressive specs for the price. When you buy a single board, though, you’re buying into a community dedicated to improving Linux support on the board. From what I’ve seen, that support probably won’t be coming but I will be happy to be proven wrong.