Reverse-engineering old Finnish metro station displays

This project definitely was a patience tester. As the control system of the Helsinki metro was (and still is) under big renovation, [Konsta] could buy three old information displays for a very cheap price (5€ each). However, these displays came with no information whatsoever about the way to drive them, thus starting a long reverse-engineering journey.

[Konsta] started by taking one apart, discovering that each side of the display was composed of 10 daisy-chained LCD screens and some kind of control box. As you may have guessed, the key to reverse engineering the display was studying the contents of this box. It turned out that the control electronics were composed of an 8085 CPU, some RAM, a peripheral I/O chip, an UV-erasable EPROM chip (containing 32KB of program memory) and an EEPROM.

[Konsta] used an AVR to dump the memory contents of the two latter chips and it was at this part of the project that the Helsinki Hacklab joined in. Together, they reverse engineered the control PCB, studied the assembler code, sniffed the different on-board buses to fully understand how the display could be controlled.

We strongly recommend reading [Konsta]‘s writeup, especially knowing that he made this english page just for us!

Thermocouple vacuum gauge teardown

thermocouple-vacuum-guage

We don’t know how [Ben Krasnow] gets his hands on so much cool hardware. This time around is a bit of vintage tech: a thermocouple vacuum gauge.

The part seen above, and represented in the schematic, is the sensor side of things. This is interesting enough by itself. It has an air chamber with an electric heater element in it. When air is present it dissipates the heat, when under vacuum the heat builds and causes the thermocouple to generate some voltage on its connections.

Keep watching his presentation and things get a lot more interesting. The original unit used to measure the sensor is a throwback to the days when everything had sharp corners and if you were running with scissors you’d eventually teach yourself why that’s not such a good idea. The designers were rather cavalier with the presence of mains voltage, as it is barely separated from connections grounding the case itself.

Want to see some of the other cool equipment he’s got on hand? How about a CT scanner he built.

[Read more...]

Comparing USB to Ethernet converters: Apple vs. Knock-off

usb-ethernet-comparison

[Angus Gratton] recently cracked open a pair of USB to Ethernet converters to see what’s inside. One was an Apple branded device, the other a no-name from eBay. The former rings in at $30, with the latter just $4. This type of comparison is one of our favorites. It’s especially interesting with Apple products as they are known for solid hardware choices and the knock-offs are equally infamous for shoddy imitations.

From the outside both devices look about the same. The internal differences start right away with a whole-board metal shield on the Apple dongle and none on the off-brand. But the hardware inside is actually quite similar. There’s an RJ-45 jack on the left, followed by the Ethernet isolation chip next to it. From there we start to see differences. The off-brand had a blank chip where Apple’s ASIX AX88772ALF USB to Ethernet bridge controller is located. There is also a difference with the clock; Apple is using two crystals with the other using just one.

[via Reddit]

Non-resettable thermal fuse teardown

non-resettable-thermal-fuse

This component is a one-shot thermal fuse. When the body rises above the specified temperature the two leads stop conducting. They’re useful in applications like motors, where you want to make sure power is cut to an overheating piece of hardware before permanent damage happens. They’re pretty simple, but we still enjoyed taking a look inside thanks to [Fatkuh's] video.

The metal housing is lined with a ceramic insulator, which you can see sticking out one end in the shape of a cone. It surrounds a spring which connects to both leads and is under a bit of tension. The alloy making the connections has a low melting point — in this case it’s about 70 C — which will melt, allowing the spring to pull away and break the connection. In the clip after the break [Fatkuh] uses his soldering iron to heat the housing past the melting point, tripping the fuse. He then cracks the ceramic cone to show what’s inside.

The only problem with using a fuse like this one is you’ll need to solder in a new component if it’s ever tripped. For applications where you need a fuse that protects against over current (rather than heat) a resettable polyfuse is the way to go.

[Read more...]

Airport X-ray machine teardown

airport-xray-teardown

Who has an airport carry-on X-ray machine sitting in their garage? Apparently [Mike] does, and he’s sharing the fun by posting a video teardown series that really digs into the machine’s hardware and operating system.

At this point the series includes six lengthy segments. The first episode, which you’ll find embedded after the break, starts with an external overview of the hardware. [Mike] mentions that it’s not functional at that point. He guesses that this has to do either with security settings to enable the machine (it does produce x-ray after all) or corrupt memory in an EPROM chip. The password lockout is later confirmed when he looks at a code disassembly and finds strings requesting username and password to gain access to some of the menus. The second installment involves more disassembly to figure out the passwords and gain full access to the machine. By the fourth video he’s X-raying random items from around the shop and then some.

It’s a lot to watch, but it’s exciting to see how far he gets with the rare equipment.

[Read more...]

Cracking open a 24-port switch so you don’t have to

hp-procurve-ethernet-switch-teardown

[Kenneth Finnegan's] post about this 24-Port HP ProCurve 2824 Ethernet Switch teardown was a delight to read. He’s taking an introduction to networking class at California Polytechnic State University. One of their labs included virtual machines shooting thousands of new MAC addresses at the thing all at once. Despite it’s ability to switch data at a blazing fast rate, it’s ability to deal with that many new hardware identifiers was less than impressive. He wanted to find out why and it just so happened he had one of these in his parts bin at home (which he refers to as if it’s a high-powered RPG character).

The mainboard is divided into three major blocks: the power supply, the switching hardware, and the processor that makes this a manged switch. Although he covers all of these pieces (and the switching stuff is very interesting to learn about) it is the processor section that was causing the aforementioned slowdown. It’s a 266MHz PowerPC chip with a measly 64 MB of RAM. Of course this doesn’t need to be any more powerful since all traffic from previously ‘learned’ MAC addresses gets handled by the switching block and never touches the processor portion.

Don’t miss the end of his post where he discusses how the filtering caps, and semi-isolated ground planes help to tame the beast created from all of this high-speed switching.

GSM to Landline box has a creatively soldered cellphone inside

gsm-to-landline-box-teardown

We don’t blame the manufacturer of this GSM to Landline converter box for not designing the thing from the ground-up. After all, quantities of scale have made dumb-cellphones available for next to nothing. But you have to admit that it’s interesting to see a fully populated cellphone board creatively soldered into a consumer product. It would be commonplace if made in your basement rather than being sold in a store.

[Anton] was using the box to add his analog house phones to the cell network. The signal strength at home is pretty low and this box offers an external antenna for better reception. He cracked open the case expecting to see a GSM modem and was surprised to see the cellphone board. It includes a battery backup, and has been soldered directly to the cables which interface with the main PCB using some SIL connectors. Those solder joints were done by hand directly to the pins of the SIM card slot and as well as all of the other important connection points.