FTDI Screws Up, Backs Down

A few days ago we learned chip maker FTDI was doing some rather shady things with a new driver released on Windows Update. The new driver worked perfectly for real FTDI chips, but for counterfeit chips – and there are a lot of them – the USB PID was set to 0, rendering them inoperable with any computer. Now, a few days later, we know exactly what happened, and FTDI is backing down; the driver has been removed from Windows Update, and an updated driver will be released next week. A PC won’t be able to communicate with a counterfeit chip with the new driver, but at least it won’t soft-brick the chip.

Microsoft has since released a statement and rolled back two versions of the FTDI driver to prevent counterfeit chips from being bricked. The affected versions of the FTDI driver are 2.11.0 and 2.12.0, released on August 26, 2014. The latest version of the driver that does not have this chip bricking functionality is 2.10.0.0, released on January 27th. If you’re affected by the latest driver, rolling back the driver through the Device Manager to 2.10.0.0 will prevent counterfeit chips from being bricked. You might want to find a copy of the 2.10.0 driver; this will likely be the last version of the FTDI driver to work with counterfeit chips.

Thanks to the efforts of [marcan] over on the EEVblog forums, we know exactly how the earlier FTDI driver worked to brick counterfeit devices:

ftdi_evil

[marcan] disassembled the FTDI driver and found the source of the brick and some clever coding. The coding exploits  differences found in the silicon of counterfeit chips compared to the legit ones. In the small snippet of code decompiled by [marcan], the FTDI driver does nothing for legit chips, but writes 0 and value to make the EEPROM checksum match to counterfeit chips. It’s an extremely clever bit of code, but also clear evidence FTDI is intentionally bricking counterfeit devices.

A new FTDI driver, presumably one that will tell you a chip is fake without bricking it, will be released next week. While not an ideal outcome for everyone, at least the problem of drivers intentionally bricking devices is behind us.

Watch That Windows Update: FTDI Drivers Are Killing Fake Chips

The FTDI FT232 chip is found in thousands of electronic baubles, from Arduinos to test equipment, and more than a few bits of consumer electronics. It’s a simple chip, converting USB to a serial port, but very useful and probably one of the most cloned pieces of silicon on Earth. Thanks to a recent Windows update, all those fake FTDI chips are at risk of being bricked. This isn’t a case where fake FTDI chips won’t work if plugged into a machine running the newest FTDI driver; the latest driver bricks the fake chips, rendering them inoperable with any computer.

Reports of problems with FTDI chips surfaced early this month, with an explanation of the behavior showing up in an EEVblog forum thread. The new driver for these chips from FTDI, delivered through a recent Windows update, reprograms the USB PID to 0, something Windows, Linux, and OS X don’t like. This renders the chip inaccessible from any OS, effectively bricking any device that happens to have one of these fake FTDI serial chips.

Because the FTDI USB to UART chip is so incredibly common,  the market is flooded with clones and counterfeits. it’s very hard to tell the difference between the real and fake versions by looking at the package, but a look at the silicon reveals vast differences. The new driver for the FT232 exploits these differences, reprogramming it so it won’t work with existing drivers. It’s a bold strategy to cut down on silicon counterfeiters on the part of FTDI. A reasonable company would go after the manufacturers of fake chips, not the consumers who are most likely unaware they have a fake chip.

The workaround for this driver update is to download the FT232 config tool from the FTDI website on a WinXP or Linux box, change the PID of the fake chip, and never using the new driver on a modern Windows system. There will surely be an automated tool to fix these chips automatically, but until then, take a good look at what Windows Update is installing – it’s very hard to tell if your devices have a fake FTDI chip by just looking at them.

Introducing the F*Watch, a Fully Open Electronic Watch

As one of their colleagues was retiring, several CERN engineers got together after hours during 4 months to develop his gift: a fully open electronic watch. It is called the F*Watch and is packed with sensors: GPS, barometer, compass, accelerometer and light sensor. The microcontroller used is a 32-bit ARM Cortex-M3 SiLabs Giant Gecko which contains 128KB of RAM and 1MB of Flash. In the above picture you’ll notice a 1.28″ 128×128 pixels Sharp Memory LCD but the main board also contains a micro-USB connector for battery charging and connectivity, a micro-SD card slot, a buzzer and a vibration motor.

The watch is powered by a 500mA LiPo battery. All the tools that were used to build it are open source (FreeCAD, KiCad, GCC, openOCD, GDB) and our readers may make one by downloading all the source files located in their repository. After the break is embedded a video showing their adventure.

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Introducing USB Armory, a Flash Drive Sized Computer

[Andrea] tipped us about USB armory, a tiny embedded platform meant for security projects. It is based on the 800MHz ARM Cortex-A8 Freescale i.MX53 together with 512MB of DDR3 SDRAM, includes a microSD card slot, a 5-pin breakout header with GPIOs/UART, a customizable LED and is powered through USB.

This particular processor supports a few advanced security features such as secure boot and ARM TrustZone. The secure boot feature allow users to fuse verification keys that ensure only trusted firmware can be executed on the board, while the ARM TrustZone enforces domain separation between a “secure” and a “normal” world down to a memory and peripheral level. This enables many projects such as electronic wallets, authentication tokens and password managers.

The complete design is open hardware and all its files may be downloaded from the official GitHub repository. The target price for the final design of the first revision is around €100.

Writing a Message in Hypnotizing Style

If you’ve ever encountered a rapidly spinning split-flap displays at an airport terminal, it’s hard not to stop and marvel at them in action for a few extra seconds. Because of this same fascination, [M1k3y] began restoring an old one-hundred and twenty character sign, which he outlines the process of on his blog.

Finding documentation on this old relic turned out to be an impossibility; the producers of the model themselves didn’t even keep it off-hand any longer. In spite of that, [M1k3y] was able to determine the function of the small amount of circuitry driving the sign through process of elimination by studying the components. After nearly a year of poking at it, he happened across a video by the Trollhöhle Compute Club, demonstrating the successful use of the same display model. Luckily, they were kind enough to share their working source code. By reverse engineering the serial protocol in their example, he was able to write his own software to get the sign moving at last.

Once up and running, [M1k3y] learned that only eighty of the sign’s characters were still operable, but that is plenty to make a mesmerizing statement! Here is a video of the cycling letters in action:

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Art from Brainwaves, Antifreeze, and Ferrofluid

Moscow artist [Dmitry Morozov] makes phenomenal geek-art. (That’s not disrespect — rather the highest praise.) And with Solaris, he’s done it again.

The piece itself looks like something out of a sci-fi or horror movie. Organic black forms coalesce and fade away underneath a glowing pool of green fluid. (Is it antifreeze?) On deeper inspection, the blob is moving in correspondence with a spectator’s brain activity. Cool.

You should definitely check out the videos. We love to watch ferrofluid just on its own — watching it bubble up out of a pool of contrasting toxic-green ooze is icing on the cake. Our only wish is that the camera spent more time on the piece itself.

Two minutes into the first video we get a little peek behind the curtain, and of course it’s done with an Arduino, a couple of motors, and a large permanent magnet. Move the motor around with input from an Epoc brain-activity sensor and you’re done. As with all good art, though, the result is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.

[Dmitry’s] work has been covered many, many times already on Hackaday, but he keeps turning out the gems. We could watch this one for hours.

Apollo, the Everything Board

The best projects have a great story behind them, and the Apollo from Carbon Origins is no exception. A few years ago, the people at Carbon Origins were in school, working on a high power rocketry project.

Rocketry, of course, requires a ton of sensors in a very small and light package. The team built the precursor to Apollo, a board with a 9-axis IMU, GPS, temperature, pressure, humidity, light (UV and IR) sensors, WiFi, Bluetooth, SD card logging, a microphone, an OLED, and a trackball. This board understandably turned out to be really cool, and now it’s become the main focus of Carbon Origins.

There are more than a few ways to put together an ARM board with a bunch of sensors, and the Apollo is extremely well designed; all the LEDs are on PWM pins, as they should be, and there was a significant amount of time spent with thermal design. See that plated edge on the board? That’s for keeping the sensors cool.

The Apollo will eventually make its way to one of the crowdfunding sites, but we have no idea when that will happen. Carbon Origins is presenting at CES at the beginning of the year, so it’ll probably hit the Internet sometime around the beginning of next year. The retail price is expected to be somewhere around $200 – a little expensive, but not for what you’re getting.