Fail of the Week: Dave Jones and the Case of the Terrible Tablet

Nothing spices up a quiet afternoon like the righteous indignance of an upset engineer, especially if that engineer is none other than [Dave Jones], on his EEVblog YouTube Channel. This week [Dave] has good reason to be upset. A viewer sent him what looked to be a nondescript 2010 era tablet from a company called Esinomed. From the outside it looked like a standard issue medical device. Opening up the back panel tells a completely different story though. This thing is quite possibly the worst hack job [Dave] (and we) have ever seen. This is obviously some kind of sales demo or trade show model. Even with that in mind, this thing is a fail.

wtf-solderThe tablet is based upon an off-the-shelf embedded PC motherboard and touchscreen controller. [Dave] took some offense at the hacked up USB connector on the touchscreen. We have to disagree with [Dave] a bit here, as the video seems to show that a standard mini-b connector wouldn’t have fit inside the tablet’s case. There’s no excuse for the USB cable shield draped over the bare touch controller board though. Things go downhill from there. The tablet’s power supply is best described as a bizarre mess. Rather than use a premade DC to DC converter, whoever built this spun their own switch mode power supply on a home etched board. The etching job looks good, but everything else, including the solder job, is beyond terrible. All the jumps and oddly placed components make it look like a random board from the junk bin was used to build this supply.

The story gets even worse with the batteries. The tablet has horribly hand soldered NiMH cells shoved here, there and everywhere. Most of the cells show split shrink wrap – a sure sign they have been overheated. It’s hard to tell from the video, but it appears as if a few cells have their top mounted vent holes covered with solder. That’s a great way to turn a simple rechargeable battery into a pipe bomb. Batteries can be safely hand soldered – Radio Controlled modelers did it for decades before LiPo cells took over.

We’ve all hacked projects together at the last minute; that’s one of the things we celebrate here on Hackaday. However, since this is a commercial medical device (with serial number 11 no less) we have to stamp this one as a fail.

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A Modern 386 Development Board

Some readers out there probably have nostalgic feelings for their first 386 based PC, the beeps and hisses of the modem, and the classic sound of a floppy drive’s stepper motor. Perhaps that turbo button that we could never quite figure out.

If you want the power of a 386 processor today, you’re in luck: [Pierre Surply] has developed a modern development board for the 80386SX CPU. This board is based on a 386 processor that comes in a LQFP package for “easy” soldering, and an Altera Cyclone IV FPGA.

To allow the CPU to run, the FPGA emulates the chipset you would usually find on a PC motherboard. The FPGA acts as both a bus controller and a memory controller for the CPU. On the board, there’s an SRAM chip and internal memory on the FPGA, which can be accessed through the 386’s bus access protocol.

The FPGA also provides debugging features. A supervisor application running on the FPGA gives debugging functionality via a FTDI USB to UART chip. This lets you control operation of the CPU from a PC for debugging purposes. The FPGA’s memory can be programmed through a JTAG interface.

The project is very well documented, and is a great read if you’re wondering how your old 386 actually worked. It can even be hand soldered, so the adventurous can grab the design files and give it a go. The francophones reading can also watch the talk in the video below.

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Ditch the iPad; Build a Commodore 64 Tablet

The classic Commodore 64 has had its share of modernizing in the OS department. From its roots starting up a basic prompt, to full high resolution GUI packages like GEOS, to today where [Jim_64] added a tablet like launcher complete with a touch screen interface.

The GUI itself takes advantage of the high resolution graphics of the C-64 that looks similar to iOS, Icons are selected via cursor keys or joystick (what? no light pen?) and launch the various functions they represent. To add to the tablet-like feel of the OS, an off the shelf 3m touch screen panel and its corresponding RS232 interface board were obtained from digikey.

With the panel securely attached to the monitor, XY data from the various finger pokes are sent via serial at a blazing 1200 bps where the program interprets the position. Using the available demo (download sideA and sideB) and off the shelf parts, this should be easy for anyone with a classic C-64 to set up in their own home and have some fun.

Join us after the break for a few demo videos!

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Physical Security for Desktop Computers

There’s a truism in the security circles that says physical security is security. It doesn’t matter how many bits you’ve encrypted your password with, which elliptic curve you’ve used in your algorithm, or if you use a fingerprint, retina scan, or face print for a second factor of authentication. If someone has physical access to a device, all these protections are just road bumps in the way of getting your data. Physical access to a machine means all that data is out in the open, and until now there’s nothing you could do to stop it.

This week at Black Hat Europe, Design-Shift introduced ORWL, a computer that provides the physical security to all the data sitting on your computer.

The first line of protection for the data stuffed into the ORWL is unique key fob radio. This electronic key fob is simply a means of authentication for the ORWL – without it, ORWL simply stays in its sleep mode. If the user walks away from the computer, the USB ports are shut down, and the HDMI output is disabled. While this isn’t a revolutionary feature – something like this can be installed on any computer – that’s not the biggest trick ORWL has up its sleeve.

ORWL2The big draw to the ORWL is a ‘honeycomb mesh’ that completely covers every square inch of circuit board. This honeycomb mesh is simply a bit of plastic that screws on to the ORWL PCB and connects dozens of electronic traces embedded in this board to a secure microcontroller. If these traces are broken – either through taking the honeycomb shell off or by breaking it wide open, the digital keys that unlock the computer are erased.

The ORWL specs are what you would expect from a bare-bones desktop computer: Intel Skylake mobile processors, Intel graphics, a choice of 4 or 8GB of RAM, 64 to 512GB SSD. WiFi, two USB C ports, and an HDMI port provide all the connections to the outside world.

While this isn’t a computer for everyone, and it may not even a very large deployment, it is an interesting challenge. Physical security rules over all, and it would be very interesting to see what sort of attack can be performed on the ORWL to extract all the data hidden away behind an electronic mesh. Short of breaking the digital key hidden on a key fob, the best attack might just be desoldering the chips for the SSD and transplanting them into a platform more amenable to reading them.

In any event, ORWL is an interesting device if only for being one of the few desktop computers to tackle the problem of physical security. As with any computer, if you have physical access to a device, you have access to all the data on the device; we just don’t know how to get the data off one of these tiny computers.

Video below.

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Stegosploit: Owned by a JPG

We’re primarily hardware hackers, but every once in a while we see a software hack that really tickles our fancy. One such hack is Stegosploit, by [Saumil Shah]. Stegosploit isn’t really an exploit, so much as it’s a means of delivering exploits to browsers by hiding them in pictures. Why? Because nobody expects a picture to contain executable code.

stegosploit_diagram[Saumil] starts off by packing the real exploit code into an image. He demonstrates that you can do this directly, by encoding characters of the code in the color values of the pixels. But that would look strange, so instead the code is delivered steganographically by spreading the bits of the characters that represent the code among the least-significant bits in either a JPG or PNG image.

OK, so the exploit code is hidden in the picture. Reading it out is actually simple: the HTML canvas element has a built-in getImageData() method that reads the (numeric) value of a given pixel. A little bit of JavaScript later, and you’ve reconstructed your code from the image. This is sneaky because there’s exploit code that’s now runnable in your browser, but your anti-virus software won’t see it because it wasn’t ever written out — it was in the image and reconstructed on the fly by innocuous-looking “normal” JavaScript.

232115_1366x1792_scrotAnd here’s the coup de grâce. By packing HTML and JavaScript into the header data of the image file, you can end up with a valid image (JPG or PNG) file that will nonetheless be interpreted as HTML by a browser. The simplest way to do this is send your file myPic.JPG from the webserver with a Content-Type: text/html HTTP header. Even though it’s a totally valid image file, with an image file extension, a browser will treat it as HTML, render the page and run the script it finds within.

The end result of this is a single image that the browser thinks is HTML with JavaScript inside it, which displays the image in question and at the same time unpacks the exploit code that’s hidden in the shadows of the image and runs that as well. You’re owned by a single image file! And everything looks normal.

We like this because it combines two sweet tricks in one hack: steganography to deliver the exploit code, and “polyglot” files that can be read two ways, depending on which application is doing the reading. A quick tag-search of Hackaday will dig up a lot on steganography here, but polyglot files are a relatively new hack.

[Ange Ablertini] is the undisputed master of packing one file type inside another, so if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of [Ange]’s style of “polyglot” file types, watch his talk on “Funky File Formats” (YouTube). You’ll never look at a ZIP file the same again.

Sweet hack, right? Who says the hardware guys get to have all the fun?

Winning the Console Wars – An In-Depth Architectural Study

From time to time, we at Hackaday like to publish a few engineering war stories – the tales of bravery and intrigue in getting a product to market, getting a product cancelled, and why one technology won out over another. Today’s war story is from the most brutal and savage conflicts of our time, the console wars.

The thing most people don’t realize about the console wars is that it was never really about the consoles at all. While the war was divided along the Genesis / Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo fronts, the battles were between games. Mortal Kombat was a bloody battle, but in the end, Sega won that one. The 3D graphics campaign was hard, and the Starfox offensive would be compared to the Desert Fox’s success at the Kasserine Pass. In either case, only Sega’s 32X and the British 7th Armoured Division entering Tunis would bring hostilities to an end.

In any event, these pitched battles are consigned to be interpreted and reinterpreted by historians evermore. I can only offer my war story of the console wars, and that means a deconstruction of the hardware.

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Slide Rules were the Original Personal Computers

Unless you are above a certain age, the only time you may have seen a slide rule (or a slip stick, as we sometimes called them) is in the movies. You might have missed it, but slide rules show up in Titanic, This Island Earth, and Apollo 13. If you are a fan of the original Star Trek, Mr. Spock was seen using Jeppesen CSG-1 and B-1 slide rules in several episodes. But there was a time that it was common to see an engineer with a stick hanging from his belt, instead of a calculator or a cell phone. A Pickett brand slide rule flew to the moon with the astronauts and a K&E made the atomic bomb possible.

Slide rules are a neat piece of math and history. They aren’t prone to destruction by EMP in the upcoming apocalypse (which may or may not include zombies). Like a lot of things in life, when it comes to slide rules bigger is definitely better, but before I tell you about the 5 foot slide rule in my collection, let’s talk about slide rules in general.
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